Vote counting is under way in London where Britain's capital could be getting its first Muslim mayor as Sadiq Khan, a 45-year-old former government minister and son of Pakistani immigrants, appears headed for victory in what British Muslims see as a turning point. It could be several hours before results are known.
Whether Khan wins or loses, British Muslims see his reaching the status of front-runner in the race as a sign of their growing political clout in the former seat of one of the world’s great empires.
“When we came first, there wasn’t a mosque. We used to pray in a house, in the basement of a house,” Mohammed Lalmiah, a retired restaurant owner, told VOA after voting Thursday. Lalmiah was born a British subject in the colony that is now Pakistan before coming here 55 years ago, and he sees an ironic twist. Now, he said, he thanks God for the proliferation of mosques all over Great Britain. The British government puts their number at around 1,850.
Lalmiah said he hopes having Khan as mayor will make it easier to obtain building permits for more mosques and other institutions that serve the Muslim population.
“This is a great opportunity for the Muslim people,” he said. “I’m grateful to be in England. You can get every opportunity here.”
‘Beginning of a new era’
At a nearby polling station, there was a similar sense of accomplishment and progress among Muslim voters.
“It’s a very important day not only for me, but (all) British Muslims as well.” “We want to see him win. It’s a historic day, definitely,” a voter who identified himself as a Muslim, told VOA. “We can see it’s the beginning of a new era.”
A photo shows the East London Mosque, one of Europe's largest, in London, May 5, 2016 (L. Ramirez/VOA). According to the British government, there are now some 1,850 mosques operating throughout the country.
Khan, representing the Labor party, is the son of a bus driver and a seamstress. In a field of 12 candidates, he was in a tight and often bitter race against the other front-runner, Conservative Zac Goldsmith, who is Jewish and the son of a billionaire tycoon.
The race was overshadowed by allegations that Khan sympathized with Sulaiman Ghani, an imam who British leaders, including Prime Minister David Cameron, have described as an Islamic extremist.
Khan countered the allegations by pointing to his record on fighting extremism, one that includes helping oust Ghani from a London mosque because of the imam’s radical views. Khan’s supporters have accused Goldsmith of trying to raise tensions in London, where some remain sensitive due to recurring threats of terrorism and the memory of the 2005 suicide attacks by Islamic extremists that killed 52 people.
The Mayor of London position was created only 16 years ago, but is highly influential. The outgoing mayor, popular Conservative Boris Johnson, is seen as a likely contender for prime minister.
Some uneasy about prospect
In recent years, the number of Muslim members of parliament has also grown.
In this city whose population is now one-eighth Muslim, the growth of Muslims’ influence in government is cause for skepticism among some.
“The fact that he’s a Muslim doesn’t bother me,” a 31-year-old manager of a modeling agency told VOA when asked about Khan’s political success.
But her trepidation is evident.
“I don’t have a problem with having mosques and people having their own thing. I just don’t like being dictated to,” she said. "At our schools, some of them are no longer allowed to celebrate Christmas and Easter and I think that’s wrong for children. I think everyone should be allowed to have their own beliefs and adhere to their own religious celebrations whether you’re religious or not,” she said. “I don’t think everyone should be told they have to change to accommodate. Everybody has to be accepting.”
Most London voters polled ahead of Thursday’s elections cited housing and transport as the main issues. But analysts say underlying concerns about immigration and demographic change could play out in the poll, which may indicate the outcome of a June 23 referendum on whether Britain should remain in the European Union.
Proponents of a British exit, or Brexit, cite immigration and the belief that Britain has lost control of its borders as top concerns.