London’s new Muslim mayor speaks of tolerant city

Sunday 08/05/2016
Sadiq Khan, the new mayor of London and his wife Saadiya arrive to cast their votes for the London mayoral elections at a polling station in south London, on May 5th.

Having spent more than half my 71 years in London and worked there, I can only express gratitude and hope that a city, which has developed from one of the most important in Europe to one of the most important in the world, has elected the son of a Muslim immigrant bus driver as its new mayor.
Sadiq Khan, a Labour member of parliament and human rights lawyer who voted in favour of gay marriage, was elected despite a Conservative campaign insistently linking him with anti-Semitism and Islamist radicals. That sug­gests that the recent tradition of negative attacks, imported from the United States and perfected by the Conservative party’s chief strategist Lynton Crosby, no longer works.
The British people remain, for the most part, level-headed and largely immune to the harsh identity politics that seems to be engulfing Europe. Conservative candi­date, Zac Goldsmith, is of Jewish descent, but electors paid little attention to the religious backgrounds of the two candidates, concentrating instead on political platforms and capacity to lead.
It must be said that the multi-millionaire Conservative candidate never gave the impression he really wanted the job. Goldsmith, a member of parliament for the borough of Richmond on Thames, one of the capital’s most attractive residential suburbs, has impecca­ble green credentials and favours Brexit, in line with the convictions of his father Sir James Goldsmith whose private lifestyle matched his exotic financial deals.
His languor stood in sharp con­trast with the relentless backslap­ping of his opponent. He seems to have been chosen because he was “a good egg”, which made him a rather reluctant vessel for the at times below-the-belt message crafted by his handlers at Conserv­ative Central Office.
When Conservative leaflets claiming Khan would impose a wealth tax on family jewellery were targeted at Indian families, their authors seemed to assume such people hold substantial amounts of jewellery. Were they harking back to a kind of colonial era policy of dividing the Asian community between Hindus and Muslims? Patronising people who hail from the Indian subcontinent is not necessarily the best way of gaining their vote.
Other Conservative party mem­bers used words like “radical” and “dangerous” to describe the Labour candidate, terms that are easily associated with terror and extremism. They also attempted to smear him with the accusation of anti-Semitism by throwing at him a contentious remark made by former mayor of London Ken Livingstone, that Adolf Hitler sup­ported Zionism.
The darker flaws of Goldsmith’s campaign are unattractive. They jar with London’s daily reality where identity politics, where it exists, is discreet.
During Boris Johnson’s eight-year tenure as mayor, London witnessed an unprecedented build­ing boom, a great improvement in public transport and no cuts in police. It remains, despite the terrorist threat that weighs heavily over Europe, a safe city.
The outgoing mayor championed a network of cycle superhighways that has led to bikes starting to outnumber cars on some central London roads in the morning rush hour.
But a major black spot on John­son’s record is that, as housing prices have soared, affordable housing has become more scarce. Neither candidate addressed that problem, which can only be rem­edied if new affordable housing is put up on the city’s green belt.
Goldsmith’s old-fashioned conservatism and Khan’s leftish instincts led both men to mistrust open markets and change, things that London and any modern city thrive on. Neither candidate wants a third runway at Heathrow Air­port, which is essential.
The challenges of overseeing a $23 billion budget are great and, while neither candidate was a stellar performer in his party in the run-up to the mayoral contest, both are young — Goldsmith is 41 and Khan 45, which means that the new mayor is well tuned in to what is a young and thrusting city.
Will he grow in the job to become a great mayor? Only time will tell but this election, by blurring lines between political left and right, is symbolic of a new form of politics.
At a time when the threat of terrorism fuelled by events in the Middle East and social exclusion in Europe hangs over Europe, many of whose politicians unashamedly stoke a blanket fear of Islam, the election of a Muslim of Pakistani descent to run London is hugely symbolic — in itself it argues for dialogue among religions and cultures that are very diverse and often caught up in the vicious gripe of daily politics and harsh interna­tional relations.
Reconciling Muslims with mod­ern life is unlikely to happen in Saudi Arabia or in the wastelands of Syria; encouraging Europeans to look upon those who practice Islam as people they can live with rather than bomb or fear is unlikely to happen in Budapest or Warsaw. It could get a head start in London.