Believing in London Mayor Sadiq Khan: The Dawn

Britain's newly elected mayor Sadiq Khan speaks to supporters as he arrives for his first day at work at City Hall in London, Britain.
Britain's newly elected mayor Sadiq Khan speaks to supporters as he arrives for his first day at work at City Hall in London, Britain. PHOTO: REUTERS

For some Muslim Londoners, Sadiq Khan made too many compromises.

By Owen Bennett-Jones

The Dawn/Asia News Network

"My name is Sadiq Khan and I am the mayor of London!"

In a deliberate act of symbolism, Khan made his first speech as mayor in a cathedral, Southwark, so redolent of Englishness that it even has the 1607 grave of William Shakespeare's brother Edmund.

And Khan's choice of words was also significant. You could not imagine his defeated rival, the multimillionaire Zac Goldsmith, using the same formulation.

Khan was expressing the very opposite of entitlement: he was saying he was surprised that someone with his background could ever have landed such a job.

And now he has it, the pundits are chewing over what his win will mean. Does it help the embattled Jeremy Corbyn or, given that Khan has distanced himself from the Labour leader, does it harm him? Does it help the campaign for Britain to stay in the EU (Khan wants to stay in, Goldsmith wants to leave) or does it make no difference? Will the new mayor keep his campaign promises or will economic realities force him to break his pledges?

For London's liberals - whatever their background - the vote was a statement of tolerance in an age of fear and distrust. But behind that general feeling more subtle nuances are at play.

The campaign centred on identity politics. The key issues were not so much the candidates' policies but, rather, who they were. It was a contest between the scion of a glamorous political family and the son of a bus driver. And with Khan having shared platforms with Muslim extremists in the past, Goldsmith was able to use the attack line: 'so, tell us, what sort of Muslim are you?'

For some Muslim Londoners, Khan made too many compromises.

For some Muslim Londoners, he made too many compromises in answering that question. They were especially disappointed by his comments on women's veils.

"When I was younger you didn't see people in hijabs and niqabs, not even in Pakistan," he said. "In London we got on. People dressed the same. What you see now are people born and raised here who are choosing to wear the hijab or niqab. There is a question to be asked about what is going on in those homes."

But for most Muslims in London, there is pride in a high-profile politician who more accurately represents British Islam than the extremist preachers who often find their way onto the media.

That positivity is tempered by a feeling that the campaign should have been about the issues that actually concern people who live in the city - transport and housing, for example - rather than Khan's attitudes to his faith. There was, after all, no discussion about how Goldsmith's religious beliefs might affect his politics. And some wonder if that's how it is going to be during his term in office too. They worry that questions about Islam will be raised time and again and that Khan won't be in a position to defend Muslims.

As one British Muslim activist put it: "Khan will always have to prove he is more white than the white Englishman in his habits and ways … He can be used to push anti-Muslim policies as we can't complain that he is anti-Muslim as he is a Muslim himself."

Such views reflect, in part, the lengths Khan went to in reaching out to the London mainstream. He unambiguously abandoned some political positions generally associated with traditional British Islam not only stating his support for gay marriage but also opening his campaign in a pub.

George Galloway, who was also running to be mayor, crashed out of sight with just 1pc of the vote. When the Iraq war was ongoing, or at least fresh in the memory, Gallo­way's fiery rhetoric att­racted so much support in constituencies with large numbers of Muslim voters that he was twice elected to parliament. But when a Muslim emerged as the frontrunner in the race for mayor, Galloway's support base slipped away. Galloway is now considering standing for parliament again - this time in the South London Tooting seat that Khan will vacate now he is mayor.

There is one final irony worth pondering. Many of London's liberals, especially in the elite, make no secret of their hostility to religion particularly when it surfaces in public life. But, for some reason, they are more willing to accept religious belief in minority communities.

Some say that reveals a hidden prejudice that sees non-white communities as somehow backward and unable to shake off religious practice. Others put it down to post-imperial guilt and a reluctance to criticise people who are the descendants of former colonial subjects. Whatever the reason, it is probably true that an active churchgoing Christian candidate would have put off some of the liberal voters who were quite happy to support the Muslim Khan.

* The writer is a British journalist and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm.