“…I'm so proud that London has today chosen hope over fear and unity over division.” Those were the words spoken by London’s newly appointed mayor – Sadiq Khan – the city’s first Muslim elected to the position. Mashaal Gauhar reports from London.
In the face of hardening attitudes against Islam in the West, anxieties over immigration, heightened security fears and increasing xenophobic rhetoric across Europe, Sadiq Khan’s decisive electoral win as London’s first Muslim mayor represents a landmark political milestone.
Khan triumphed over his Conservative opponent, Zac Goldsmith, with the second largest margin since the mayoralty was established in 2000. Netting over 1.3 million votes, he won the biggest personal mandate of any politician in UK history bringing the Labour party back into power in London, succeeding the flamboyant Conservative mayor Boris Johnson.
The Conservative Party’s ill-advised strategy of accusing Khan of sharing a platform with extremists – a charge repeated by Prime Minister David Cameron – proved to be a fatal political misstep, rallying support for Khan and alienating those who would have otherwise endorsed his Conservative counterpart’s campaign for a greener, more eco-friendly capital.
An ardent ecological campaigner and the son of late billionaire Sir James Goldsmith, Zac Goldsmith was popularly viewed as a fresh new face in the Conservative party with ambitious plans to transform London into the world’s greenest capital city – a vision which won wide applause.
However, these grand ambitions were obscured by the racist rhetoric employed by the Conservatives, repulsing people who in spite of prevailing anxieties over extremism and terrorism, rejected reductive stereotypes and the discriminatory labeling of individuals on the basis of race and faith.
Perhaps an otherwise positive Conservative campaign found itself hijacked by entrenched attitudes of prejudice when Goldsmith accused Khan of being a “radical” and giving “oxygen” to extremists.
This sounded the death knell for an otherwise strong Tory candidate who seemingly threw away his unassailable advantages that power, privilege and wealth invariably brings.
This is what makes this electoral victory stand out: that in an increasingly febrile political environment, people refused to blindly swallow the politics of fear. Instead, voters were disillusioned by what was viewed as a blatantly racist attack. Rather than taking on his detractors, Khan astutely chose to focus on core issues such as the cost of housing and transport.
A bus driver’s son who grew up on a council estate to become a human rights lawyer, a formidable member of the Labour party and then mayor of a major capital city, Khan embodies the spirit of a dynamic and richly diverse London. His inspirational story of rising to the top, facing challenges and achieving success through sheer hard work and determination struck a chord with people perhaps tired of the preponderance of establishment wealth and privilege dominating the political landscape.
With growing fears over terrorism and security in the wake of the deadly Paris attacks, Khan did not shy away from addressing concerns and offering solutions, describing himself as “the British Muslim who will take the fight to the extremists.”
In a speech to Parliament he spoke of the “special role” Muslims can play in countering terrorism “not because we are more responsible than others, as some have wrongly claimed, but because we can be more effective at tackling extremism than anyone else,” he asserted. He also laid emphasis on promoting greater integration through creating a “common life.”
His victory contrasts sharply with an ascendant Donald Trump in the United States and the rise of right wing demagogues across Europe. Celebrated author and journalist Roger Cohen observes, “Khan’s election is important because it gives the lie to the facile trope that Europe is being taken over by jihadi Islamists. It underscores the fact that terrorist acts hide a million quiet success stories among European Muslim communities.”
Crucially, his win undermines the positions of fanatics across the board from Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen to the agenda-driven Islamic extremists whose hate-filled invectives only lead to further polarisation, acrimony and ultimately violence.
In the wake of London’s unprecedented election result, Republican presidential candidate Trump conceded that Khan would be deemed as a special exception to his call for a blanket ban on Muslims entering the United States. Moderating his earlier stance, he remarked on Khan’s decisive win, “I think [his election] is a very good thing, and I hope he does a very good job … If he does a good job and frankly if he does a great job, that would be a terrific thing.”
However, Khan remains critical of Trump’s proposal to introduce a “complete shutdown” on Muslims coming to the United States. “Donald Trump and those around him think that Western liberal values are incompatible with mainstream Islam. London has proved him wrong,” he argued. “I think what we’ve shown — and I hope it’s a lesson that Hillary and others in American take on board, hope does trump fear, forgive the pun,” stated Khan.
This view is echoed by political journalist Mehdi Hasan who notes how multifaceted identities such as Khan’s have found an affinity in global metropolises like London, “Mr. Khan’s resounding victory was a stinging rebuke to the peddlers of prejudice. Here is a Muslim who prays and fasts and has gone on the hajj to Mecca. But he sees no contradiction in being a card-carrying liberal, too...He has pledged to serve as a “feminist mayor” of London and made his first public appearance after the election at a Holocaust memorial service.”
Given the religious and racial tensions simmering in several European countries, Khan’s triumph in a pre-eminent Western capital serves as a lesson to societies struggling to integrate minority communities. As writer and political editor of the New Statesman George Eaton observes, “By electing Khan, one of the world’s pre-eminent cities has repudiated the “clash of civilisations” thesis. His victory is a retort both to conservative nationalists who insist that Muslims cannot integrate and to Islamist extremists who insist that they should not.”
This historic election result illustrates the power of words, the damaging impact of hate speech and that a discriminatory narrative must never be deemed acceptable. As renowned columnist Gary Younge states, “Words have consequences, and micro-aggressions matter. Often they are emblematic of broader issues; often they have an exclusory effect.”
Though Trump’s deeply divisive and toxic campaign has gained a disturbing level of traction in the United States, Khan’s comprehensive win represents a triumph for unity, tolerance and hope in an otherwise ominous political climate. As Khan so eloquently stated, “Fear does not make us safer, it only makes us weaker and the politics of fear is simply not welcome in our city.”