Boris Johnson has a reputation for making unacceptable remarks about minorities, most recently when comments from 2006 were unearthed where he described Islam as putting the Muslim world “centuries behind” the West, and that it “inherently inhibits the path to progress and freedom.”
But his tune - and the tune of Britain and Europe - may be changing. A survey by the Office of National Statistics recently found that immigration is no longer the public’s top concern. One hopes that this is leading to a corresponding drop in the racism and xenophobia that sometimes tinges discussions about the subject.
And in the recent leadership hustings that confirmed him as Britain’s next prime minister, Johnson was positive about Islamic civilisation's contribution to the world, even quoting the 14th century Tunisian historian, Ibn Khaldun. He went so far as to express his support for British multiculturalism, including references to his Turkish ancestry in the form of his great grandfather, Ali Kemal.
Just as Britain welcomed Kemal with “generosity” and “openness” in 1912, there is hope that it will continue to be a safe haven for those at a racial or economic disadvantage in 2019 and beyond.
This change of tone and priorities is encouraging, particularly when racism and hate crimes have reached all-time highs in the UK, and Johnson as the new prime minister will need to lead Britain out of what is a social and cultural crisis.
For me, this isn’t just theory: many people I know have first-hand experience of hate crimes. Family members have told me they fear standing on platform edges at train stations for fear of being pushed. Their hijab, in their words, “makes them visible” and in the current climate leads to so-called “Train Track Anxiety.” And it’s not just Muslim communities: friends of mine from a range of backgrounds have been told to “go home.” These are challenges I have seen, through my charity work with Who is Hussain, people of many different heritages face.
I am privileged to have heritage from all over the world, including Africa and the Indian subcontinent, and living in a country where this becomes normalised is not an option.
The UK sorely needs a unifying leader who can be a prime minister for all Brits. No stranger to controversy or even accusations of racism, Johnson will have his work cut out if he is going to create inclusion for all his citizens in the face of the treacherous, racist undercurrents which have become a feature of daily life and political discourse.
It seems that Britain - regardless of the end result of Brexit - has the capacity to rediscover its tolerance. To achieve this, there will have to be a new definition of advancement; one that is based not on superiority but egalitarianism, not exclusivity but inclusivity.
Rather than being an invention of the West in the late 20th century, this inclusivity is the norm. The Silk Road - the region connecting Southern Europe, the Arabian Peninsula and Asia, and the route that led some of my ancestors from India to East Africa - has been as diverse as an airport lounge for centuries.
These cultures were not merely “accommodating” one another. Of their own volition, traders, businesspeople and officials chose to trade, travel and mingle. The confluence of this exchange was profitable - economically and culturally - for all involved.
This is what is lacking from some pro-immigration, pro-tolerance voices. Driven by humanitarian values or liberal ideology - positions I myself subscribe to - those commentators fail to appreciate that there are larger economic arguments for immigration that will appeal to a broader audience.
It was these economic arguments that allowed New Labour in the UK and the Democrats in the US to create a sustained environment of inclusion in the 1990s.
Today, some of those most eloquently rebutting Donald Trump’s tirade against Democratic congresswomen of colour use similar logic. Rather than merely expressing outrage, they refer to the number of Dow Jones executives and thought leaders whose country of birth is not the United States.
These are practical arguments that - even if they are based on less lofty ideals than the alternatives - will enable leaders of the right such as Boris Johnson to “sell” social diversity to their base.
This side of the Atlantic, the sustained swing to the right - not only in Britain, but in traditionally centre-left (or even far left) states such as Sweden, Germany and Greece - will only be reversed if we can provide better arguments against isolationism.
Every civilisation and culture goes through natural peaks and troughs - both economic and social - as it traverses through history. It is only by working to each other’s strengths that we can revitalise developed democracies and withstand the threats of the 21st century.
To get everyone on board with this, we need broad arguments, arguments like: “When population increases, the available labour again increases. In turn, luxury increases in correspondence with the increasing profit.” These are not the words of a 20th century conservative economist, but those of the 14th century Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun.
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