As Sadiq Khan was announced as the mayor of London last Friday, a rapture of applause surrounded city hall. The Labour candidate – and the favourite to win the capital’s election- had done more than win by a comfortable margin against his Conservative opponent Zac Goldsmith; he had secured the biggest political mandate of any British politician in recent history. In city hall, under the backdrop of London’s brightly lit Tower Bridge, the new mayor proclaimed:
“London has today chosen hope over fear and unity over division”.
It may have been intended as a message of unity in Europe’s most diverse capital, but it’s also a sentence that will undoubtedly set the stage for the premiership of London’s first Muslim mayor.
South of City Hall is Tooting, where Khan has been an MP since 2005. It’s one of the capital’s most ethnically and religiously diverse districts, and home of one of the largest number of Muslim Londoners in the capital. As news that Khan, arguably Britain’s most high profile Muslim politician, had secured the mayorship Friday afternoon, little of the atmosphere that had gripped city hall was evident among Tooting’s residents. Along the bustling high street, only a handful of shops displayed posters in support of Khan, while barely any election campaign material was evident among the district’s terraced houses.
“Obviously we’ve known [Khan] for years as our MP,” one long-time resident told me. “But to a lot of us, he’s just your bog standard career politician...from the outset he made that clear.”
Others I spoke to echoed similar statements, though they admitted voting for him. Ellie-Jane, another Tooting resident in her fourties, who reluctantly voted for Khan told me:
“I didn’t vote for him because of his religion or race, or his party – he seemed like a safe pair of hands when it came down to voting...but I wouldn’t be able to tell you any of his policies off the top of my head. I suppose he just seemed more competent than the other candidates”.
If Khan had set out to market himself as a “safe” pair of hands, undoubtedly the campaign against him attempted to undermine it. Zac Goldsmith’s campaign may have featured milkrounds and photo-ops in high vis jackets, but it will largely be known for enacting “project fear”. Much of that came through spurious assertions of Khan allegedly being “linked” to Islamic extremists, questioning his religious beliefs, and controversially attempting to turn Hindus and Sikhs against him. It was a tactic that largely backfired, but also highlighted the alienation and ‘otherisation’ long felt by a large number of Muslim Londoners.
“I do think having a Muslim mayor of London is a good thing,”
says Salim* after Friday prayers at Balham mosque. It’s the first time the 35 year-old has voted.
“Islamophobia is a huge problem in this country, and even though I don’t agree with everything [Khan] has done, I do think he’ll take those issues- the ones that ordinary Muslims face everyday- seriously.”
Other Muslim residents expressed similar sentiments. 21-year-old Khadijah, who has one of Khan’s leaflets plastered on her living room window said:
“Of all the candidates, he offered the most hope to me. I didn’t vote for him on the basis that he was a Muslim – I think whatever his faith is between him and Allah– but he came across as sincere, and actually wanting to make London a better place to live in.”
Khadijah may have decided on her vote based on Khan’s policies, but she does admit that the Conservative campaign’s attacks on him had a significant influence too.
“I’m not a political person,” she says. “I don’t know the ins and outs of politics, but what I did see from [Goldsmith] were the same tactics used to attack Muslims in the UK generally...the [Conservatives] basically tried to make him look like a terrorist by inventing lies and spreading rumours! They were ridiculous, and it just proved how out of touch they were in London.”
It’s a feeling shared by many Muslims across the country – particularly at a time when, according to data from the anti-hate monitoring group Tell Mama, the number of attacks on Muslims in Britain is significantly increasing. Coupled with the rise of Donald Trump in the US and far-right groups in Europe, and you’ve arrived at one of the most hostile moments in history for Muslims living in the West. For some Muslims who voted last week, what they saw through Khan’s campaign was the resilience to anti-Muslim abuse they regularly face in their lives.
Speaking to the Guardian, Shuja Shafi, general secretary of the Muslim Council Of Britain, which represents over 500 major Islamic organisations in the UK referred to Khan as a
“figure of unity for all Londoners” who “demonstrated remarkable dignity in the face of hatred and suspicion about his religious background.”
“Smear-by-association has become all too common for Muslims and Muslim organisations. It is a cancer blighting sections of our political and media class, and has infected the solemn business of government” he added.
Yet, this sense of optimism isn’t shared by all of London’s Muslims. Weeks before the election, it wasn’t just the Conservatives who were on the offensive on Khan, but also a number of Muslims who felt that Khan had used his Islamic identity to further his ambitions. Hassan Choudhury, a 26 year-old computer sales consultant living in South London, told me that he and his friends had chosen to support the controversial former Bradford West MP, George Galloway, despite initially supporting Khan.
“He doesn’t stand up for the issues that actually affect Muslims,” Choudhury says. “If you look at how he’s backtracked on the Israel-Palestine issue, refused to support Naz Shah (the incumbent Bradford West MP, suspended from the Labour party due to anti-semitism allegatons)...it’s very clear he isn’t going to do much for Muslims in London.”
The accusations became more frequent in the fortnight leading up to the election, enhanced particularly by the Labour party’s announcement it would launch an inquiry into antisemitism within its own ranks. Another man outside Tooting Islamic centre, who didn’t want to be named, told me that the episode had shown Khan’s
“frank disregard for Muslims even in his own party”.
It wasn’t just on Israel and Palestine that Khan might have lost Muslim supporters either. Some Muslim voters I spoke to (all of whom didn’t want to be named) had mentioned feeling “betrayed and let down” by Khan’s support of same-sex marriage while he was an MP. Others claimed that he failed to defend prominent Muslim figureheads, including Suliman Gani, when they had been accused of being extremists.
“The Tories went too far with the racist dog-whistle politics, but Khan did the same,”
says Raza Nadim, the head of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, an advocacy group for Muslims in Britain.
“He distanced himself from Muslims, and I didn’t see much evidence he was going to mosques. I think he was desperate to prove he was a good, and 'moderate Muslim'.”
Nadim suggests that Khan may have isolated other Muslims in the process.
“He basically played the ‘i’m a moderate Muslim unlike the other wackos in the community’ Card’”.
Though Nadim is unsure whether Khan will be positive for Muslims living in the capital, he suggests the priority should be on improving life in London, rather than
“making other political statements, or clashing with [Labour leader] Jeremy Corbyn”.
Khan’s election into city hall is undoubtedly a historic moment for London, but it also comes at a crucial time for Britain’s Muslim communities as they continue to endure public scrutiny. The capital’s first Muslim mayor may want to make uniting Londoners his legacy, but one hopes he’ll also be able to build the bridges needed to make that dream possible.