So two weeks on from the general election and I know we’re all pretty sick of politics, not to mention politicians, but I couldn’t let this week pass without a quick nod to Mohammed Afzal Khan MEP who was invested as Manchester’s first Asian (and youngest) Lord Mayor 10 years ago.
Manchester folk might also know Afzal Khan as the long-serving councillor for the Cheetham ward or currently as MEP for the North West. The focus of his political career has always been promoting diversity, cohesion and multiculturalism, no surprise perhaps for someone who came to Britain from Jhelum in Pakistan at the age of 12 and is now the model of a fully integrated British Muslim:
I think a role like that [politician] is also equally important to give two million Muslims an example that yes, you can be part and parcel of this, and you can be a British Muslim, and you can take part in the society at all levels.
We have an oral history interview with Councillor Khan (as he was then known) in the Exploring Our Roots collection. The interview was carried out in 2003, two years before he became Mayor, and it is interesting to read his reflections on his still fledgling political career and what inspired him to become a councillor:
I see Britain as a role model for the world. You’ve got so many different cultures living in Cheetham Hill and Manchester, which is a multicultural society. To see how we can all get on with one another, to see how rich our lives can be from one another. How all that can be made to work in a positive manner is a challenge, and that’s what inspired me.
He’s quite a visionary, and in more than one place refers to Cheetham Hill as a model multicultural society that the rest of the country, indeed the world, can learn from. Didn’t Ann Adeyemi say a similar thing of Cheetham Hill in the 1950s?
What emerges from his interview is a slightly convoluted journey from leaving school with no qualifications and working in a cotton mill, through evening education classes to a physics degree from UMIST, joining the police, then studying law and becoming a solicitor, with teaching, community work, butchery and driving buses somewhere in the middle. All whilst raising three children alongside his wife, a Manchester-based dentist. But all of these experiences demonstrably shaped the values and ambitions he took into politics.
These values were put to the test a matter of weeks into his term as Lord Mayor, with the July bombings in London. As a high profile Muslim and civic leader all sections of the community turned to him for leadership at this time, as he told the Guardian:
We organised for all the mosque imams to come and sign the book of condolence at the town hall. That was an important message. I spoke to a packed Albert Square before the two minutes silence when many faith leaders stood together. With our experience of the IRA bomb, we know that terrorists, wherever they are, do not belong to any faith or community.
But more generally he cites his Muslim faith as the thing that has most significantly shaped his life and his career:
The other thing that motivates me from my faith is another saying of the prophet, he says, “He whose two days are the same is in a state of loss.” In a sense it gives me the idea that we must constantly try to improve ourselves and try to make things better – it’s a constant learning curve.
Afzal Kahn’s oral history can be read in our library. You can read more about the current work of Afzal Khan MEP on his website.