Sadiq Khan is London’s first Muslim mayor. So what?

Sunday 15/05/2016
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan (R) speaking with Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo

So Sadiq Khan has been elected London’s first Muslim mayor. The news was widely reported across the Arabic and Islamic world as a landmark moment — a victory for tolerance and multi­culturalism. People described this as some sort of glass-ceiling-shattering event. As both a Londoner and a Muslim, my response to the election of London’s first Muslim mayor is simple: So what?

I voted for Khan but, as with the vast majority of the 1.3 million Londoners who voted for him, this had nothing to do with him being a Muslim. Local issues dominate London mayoral elections: the price of a ticket on the tube, crime, council tax and housing.

I voted for Khan for his policies, not because of his skin colour or heritage or which direction he faces when he prays. Most Londoners could not care less about that.

London is one of the most multicultural cities in the world; it even has its own dialect — Multicultural London English. According to the 2011 census, more than 300 different languages are spoken across London and there are some 50 non-indigenous communities with a population of more than 10,000 in the British capital.

To put it another way, being a Londoner has nothing to do with where you come from or what God you worship. The same goes for being London’s mayor.

The issue of religion only reared its ugly head in the London mayoral race after Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith sought to portray his Labour rival as a “radical” Muslim. This was a move made out of desperation, after it became clear from polling that Khan had amassed a healthy lead, and was a campaign shift that reached the highest echelons of the Conservative party machine.

Suddenly, questions were being asked about Khan’s career as a human rights solicitor, as well as his sharing platforms with alleged Islamic extremists. In parliament, British Prime Minister David Cameron accused Khan of sharing a stage with a supporter of the Islamic State (ISIS) — a claim he had to retract and apologise for.

It turns out that Imam Sulaiman Ghani does not support ISIS but rather the vague concept of an Islamic state (something that many Muslims support). More than this, Ghani had been a Conservative supporter, had previously met Goldsmith and attended numerous Conservative party functions.

The Conservative’s London mayoral campaign is a perfect example of “dog-whistle politics” in which coded language is used to raise specific issues or appeal to certain voters. In this case, anyone worried about Islamic extremism, which in a post-ISIS world, is everybody.

Khan, though, is patently not an extremist of any bent. It was absurd for the Tories to try to suggest he is. Khan is a modern secular Muslim who voted for gay marriage, who called for his own party to tackle anti-Semitism in its ranks and has pledged to lead a trade delegation to Tel Aviv.

This toxic and divisive campaign was doomed to failure. This kind of negative campaigning simply cannot succeed in multicultural London. It is also dangerous, raising the spectre of division at a time when unity is needed more than ever. Many in the Conservative party have called for an urgent inquiry into the Goldsmith campaign due to allegations of Islamophobia and fears of how this could affect the party’s fortunes among British Muslims.

In a world where presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has been successfully campaigning on the idea of banning Muslims from entering the United States (although he has now graciously offered to make an exception for the new London mayor and has backtracked a bit on his original statement), British politicians must refuse to pursue the same opportunistic policies. If there is a Trump effect in US politics, then perhaps Khan’s election as mayor can be viewed as the anti-Trump effect.

In the grand scheme of things, Khan’s election as London’s first Muslim mayor is less important than the failure of the poisonous campaign led by his opponent. If Khan is too radical to hold office in Britain, then no Muslim can. Hopefully Khan’s election draws a line in the sand and he can now move on and focus on the job as London’s mayor and not London’s Muslim mayor.