Sadiq Khan’s election as London mayor is a rejection of the politics of fear and Islamophobia, but let us not endorse his policies.
The election of Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim mayor of London, made headline news in the English-speaking world. It is no surprise that Khan’s electoral victory made news here in Australia, given our longstanding economic, political and cultural ties to the United Kingdom. It is not intended to go into all the intricacies of British politics in this article, however, the victory of an openly Muslim candidate for a major political position in the UK has elicited various reactions, and these responses are illustrative of the kind of politics that passes for policy debate in the English-speaking countries.
Khan’s victory in London, the economic and political capital of the United Kingdom, was a stern rebuff to the scurrilous and vitriolic campaign of smears and lies perpetuated by the Tory party opponent, Zac Goldsmith. The latter, a product of the wealthy financial elite of Britain, waged a campaign of Islamophobic smears and distortions, attempting to associate Khan with extremism, advocacy of violence, and Islamist political terrorism. As Padraig Reidy states in his article, published in the CommonDreams online magazine, the Goldsmith campaign attempted to turn the electoral contest into a racial and religious divide, invoking xenophobic fears of multiculturalism. As Reidy explains:
The Goldsmith campaign didn’t stop there. In an attempt to exploit sectarian divisions between London’s Asian communities, fliers were sent to families with Hindu- and Sikh-sounding names. Khan, of Pakistani origin, was no friend of India, they were told. He had not attended a rally to greet the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visited London. His party supported a “wealth tax” on family jewelry. Goldsmith, on the other hand, was always sure to celebrate Hindu festivals. (This proclamation of his love for the culture of India came unstuck in the days before the election, when video emerged of Goldsmith declaring his love for Bollywood films, but being unable to name a single Indian film or film star when asked).
It all culminated in a disastrous op-ed piece in the Mail On Sunday newspaper, where Goldsmith threw more accusations at Khan. The article was illustrated with an iconic image of a red bus that had been blown up by a suicide bomber in the 7/7 attack on the city. This felt a smear too far for many Londoners.
Goldsmith, following the best traditions of the Tory party, turned the electoral contest into a sectarian divide, not only invoking images of the July 7 bombings – and slyly linking Sadiq Khan with them – but also stirring up ethnic divisions, playing on the fears of the Hindu and Sikh communities of a politician with a Pakistani background.
Khan, in contrast, focused on the pressing policy issues confronting his city – housing, transport, the chaotic financial system – and promoted himself as the candidate for all Londoners, regardless of ethnic, racial or religious background. Khan was also cleverer than his opponent – anticipating the vitriolic attacks of his Conservative enemies, he turned the tables on Goldsmith, arguing that his background as a Muslim growing up in Britain gave him a unique insight into the experiences, problems and traumas of young British-Muslim people, finding their place in British society. Khan tapped into the multicultural diversity of London, and played that to his advantage. All the sly insinuations of Goldsmith’s campaign evaporated to nothing.
Khan’s victory is a direct repudiation of the politics of hatred and fear. Islamophobia is certainly not going to end completely with the installation of a Muslim mayor in a major European city. Let us not turn this into a Barack Obama moment – Obama’s electoral victory in the United States back in 2008 did not end racism, or usher in a post-racial America. Khan’s victory does not mean the end of the struggle. However, it is true to say that the underhanded and sleazy tactics of the Goldsmith campaign, seeking to stoke the fires of Islamophobic hated, backfired spectacularly. Khan scored an emphatic victory.
Speaking about Muslim mayors in European cities – this is nothing new or out of the ordinary. Professor Juan Cole, from the University of Michigan and expert commentator on Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs, points out that Europe has witnessed Muslim mayors for the last 1300 years. In an article published in Truthdig online magazine, Professor Cole elaborates that Europe was not always a Christian-majority continent. Indeed, for most of its inhabited history, Europe has seen pagan, secular, Islamic as well as Christian religions dominate various portions and countries within its range. As Cole explains in his essay:
Islam is a major European religion and is a nearly 1,300-year-old tradition there.
[Sitting elected Muslim mayors include Erion Veliaj of Tirana, Ahmed Aboutaleb of Rotterdam, and Shpend Ahmeti of Pristina. Muslim-majority Sarajevo elected Ivo Komšić, a Christian, in 2013.]
Going back into history, parts of Spain, and often quite a lot of it, were under Muslim rule 711 to 1492. So, for example, Abd al-Rahman I was proclaimed Emir of Cordoba in 756. We’re talking major Western European city here. In the 900s, Cordoba was the most populous city in the world.
The Arab Muslim emirate of Sicily lasted from 831 to 1072. For example, Jafar al-Kalbi (983–985) was emir of Sicily, and therefore mayor of Palermo, the capital.
The Ottoman Turkish empire, having conquered vast swathes of the Balkans, and all the way up to Budapest in Hungary, appointed Muslim mayors for the major European cities under its control. Let us not forget that Istanbul – Constantinople – is a major European city with 14 million residents, and a Muslim mayor.
Let us sound out a note of caution – Khan’s victory, while welcome, should not be used to draw a false finish line in the struggle for economic and social equality. Khan belongs to the Blairite wing of the Labour party, a more rightward faction inside the party at odds with current Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, Khan went out of his way – twice – to attack Corbyn, his own party leader, both during the campaign and in the immediate hours after he assumed office in London mayoralty. Khan publicly and clearly distanced himself from the more left-wing, Labour policies of Corbyn. Khan is a strong supporter of big business, and went to great lengths to reassure the financial elite that they had nothing to worry about in the wake of his electoral success.
Khan announced himself as a pro-business candidate, in a city that is the financial and political hub of the English ruling class oligarchy. He openly declared his intention to be the most pro-business mayor London has ever seen – something remarkable given that the previous mayor, Boris Johnson, was an out-and-out conservative who reinforced the privileges and wealth of the financial aristocracy. His record on British imperialism speaks for itself, having voted against the establishment of any inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq War, a war enabled among others by his political hero, Tony Blair. Khan has supported the development of Trident, the British nuclear weapons programme, and opposes Britain’s withdrawal from NATO. He is a strong and calculating supporter of British imperialism.
Khan did announce his intention to fix the ongoing housing crisis in London. How? By bringing together an alliance of housing associations, local authorities and real estate developers. That is all very well and good, but that does ignore one major problem – successive British governments, both Labour and Conservative, have done their utmost to open up London to real estate development, expanding the application of private housing, closing down and pushing out social and public housing projects. As Danny Dorling describes in an article for The Guardian newspaper:
The housing situation in the UK is so bleak that the key reason increasing numbers of people are becoming homeless is that they are unable to pay extortionate private sector rents. In February 2016, the Financial Times described the help-to-buy scheme as “help to cry”, naming it “one of the most perversely named government policies ever”. Squatting is on the rise again despite being outlawed in 2012: when people’s only choice is criminalised, the legitimacy of the law itself is discredited.
The new London mayor can start to redress these problems by first confronting the tired, and recycled old myth that London’s housing problem is caused by mass immigration – a widespread slander that obscures the real reason for the housing crisis; the housing laws of the country that make it possible for extortionate private sector rents to be charged, the demolition of public housing by the government, and the absence of rental caps. The new mayor has to make a decision – to side with residents or with the developers. As activist Duncan Thomas wrote in an article published in the Socialist Worker magazine:
The London we live is not the same London that is inhabited by billionaires; Khan cannot be the mayor of both. Any attempt to serve these two cities will sooner or later have to deal with its contradictions–and at that point, it will become very much about “choosing sides.”
The attack on public housing as part of a generalised assault on the working conditions and living conditions of the British working population. The cutbacks to health care, education and transport are undermining the quality of life for millions of working people. Let us heed the warning of Harry Leslie Smith, a 91-year-old RAF veteran who, in 2014, wrote a powerful article about what life was like for working people like him prior to the establishment of the National Health Service (NHS). His article is entitled “Hunger, filth, fear and death”: remembering life before the NHS. Decisions that originate in the philosophy of austerity cutbacks and neoliberalism, result in the destruction of social services, and adversely impact the lives of ordinary people. Khan has to make a serious choice – to govern for the ultra-wealthy one percent, or for the rest of us.