With Khan's win, is the UK ridding itself of bigotry?

New London mayor Sadiq Khan. Leon Neal / AFP
New London mayor Sadiq Khan. Leon Neal / AFP

Last week London achieved a milestone. Against the backdrop of rising concerns about community cohesion in Europe, it was quite something when the capital of England elected a Muslim mayor. But is this really a victory over bigotry or is it too soon to tell?

Before Sadiq Khan’s success, he was subject to a widespread campaign to link him to extremists by significant members of the Conservative party leadership. Following Mr Khan’s victory, senior Conservatives had to roll back these comments.

In the weeks before the vote Michael Fallon, the UK defence secretary, raised questions about the safety of London if Mr Khan was elected. After the vote, Mr Fallon had to confirm that London was, indeed, safe with Mr Khan at the helm.

Does Mr Khan’s victory mean that bigotry is something we ought not to be worried about any more in British politics? He did win, after all.

But that isn’t the whole story. The whole story is that a rather large proportion of the London electorate still voted against Mr Khan.

Even though it was clear that questions were being asked of Mr Khan that would never have been asked of any non-Muslim candidate. Eventually, there were reversals and a walking back of the smears. David Cameron had to apologise for accusing an imam who had shared a platform with Mr Khan of supporting ISIL. But it is likely there would have been none of that had Mr Khan lost the election.

Beyond the part of the electorate that voted Conservative, there was another chunk that went for the British First party, a far more right-wing alternative, which received a very small minority of votes.

But not an insignificantly small one, and their candidate, Paul Golding, showed utter disrespect for British democracy during Mr Khan’s acceptance speech, as well as for Mr Khan personally, by turning his back on the new mayor.

Inadvertently, Mr Fallon himself pointed out part of the problem during an interview with the BBC when he said questions were “asked about the platforms that [Mr Khan] shared with various extremists, and those questions were asked during the election not just by us but by the media too on your own programmes”.

The rather troubling discourse that the Conservatives used in a bid to install one of their own party members as London mayor was not just idle chatter, it was a narrative that much of the British media indulged in. That in itself ought to be cause for concern.

The campaign against Mr Khan was effective – thankfully, it just wasn’t effective enough. The real test is not going to be about his victory, but how this is going to work out throughout his term.

Over the coming years, how are Londoners going to respond to any inevitable errors, mistakes or even wrongs that Mr Khan commits?

Will he be criticised and critiqued simply as a politician or will it be according to a different standard, where his commitment to his religion is raised as an issue? The jury is still out on that one and the next few years will be telling.

But there is also something very clear about the election of Mr Khan as mayor.

A number of glass ceilings have been broken through. Mr Khan was from a far less privileged background than his opponent and yet he won.

He was from a minority religion and an ethnic minority and yet he still won. That sends a message that is meaningful.

When Mr Khan was sworn in as a member of the Queen’s Privy Council in 2009, he had to bring his own Quran for the ceremony. The Privy Council didn’t have one that he could use.

But the next Muslim member of the Privy Council won’t need to bring his own Quran – because Mr Khan left his copy.

As young Britons of minority ethnic groups or the Islamic faith wonder about their own potential to become mayor of one of the world’s most famous capitals, they will be able to mark with confidence that even if it is difficult, it’s not impossible that they succeed. Because Mr Khan did it already.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and a non-resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer

Published: May 12, 2016 04:00 AM

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