Meet Sadiq Khan, the son of an immigrant bus driver who became London’s first Muslim mayor
Sadiq Khan’s rise from the son of an immigrant bus driver to the first Muslim mayor of an EU capital has been accomplished with skill and commitment, but also the toughest of skins.
Not only did the Labour candidate have to overturn eight years of rule in London by Britain’s governing centre-right Conservative Party, he also had to weather a vicious opposition campaign that accused him of having links to extremists and threw into doubt his professed moderate views.
Londoners have every reason to loathe terrorists after enduring decades of attacks by Irish republicans followed by intermittent violence and threats from Islamic extremists, including the July 2005 bombings that killed 52 people.
But enough voters ignored what Mr Khan called a “smear campaign” against him to choose the 45-year-old over the Conservatives’ Zac Goldsmith. The son of the late Sir James Goldsmith, an Anglo-French billionaire tycoon, financier and publisher, Zac Goldsmith, 41, has a starkly different background to Mr Khan.
The official results of the mayoral election were still to be announced late on Friday night UAE time, but the centre-left Labour Party had already claimed victory.
“Congratulations Sadiq Khan. Can’t wait to work with you to create a London that is fair for all!,” tweeted Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The new mayor, who is married with two children, was born in London to Pakistani parents who emigrated to the UK shortly before his birth. The fifth of eight children, Mr Khan in a local authority flat on a housing estate and earned money as a boy from a newspaper delivery round, weekend jobs and, during the school holidays, shifts on building sites. While his father drove buses, his mother worked as a seamstress.
Though Mr Khan was initially set on becoming a dentist, he followed a teacher’s suggestion that his argumentative character might better suit legal studies.
The teacher was right. Mr Khan went on to qualify as a solicitor and gain a reputation for his work in human rights litigation, acting for those from ethnic minorities in conflict with the police or in cases concerning unemployment and education.
Mr Khan served as a local councillor for more than a decade before winning a seat in parliament in 2005, representing the Tooting constituency in which he has lived his whole life.
There appears little about Mr Khan to worry the London electorate.
In a speech earlier this year, he said: “As mayor, I will be the British Muslim who takes the fight to the extremists, who gives our experts and emergency services the resources they need to keep us safe and who tackles the underlying conditions that allow extremism and radicalisation to take hold.”
And according to Mr Khan, extremists have attacked him for being too moderate.
“I have had death threats from extremists when I voted for same-sex marriage,” he said. “I had to discuss police protection with my young daughters, something that no parent should have to do.”
He has also distanced himself from recent allegations of anti-semitism within Labour’s ranks, urging Mr Corbyn, to “get a grip” on the crisis that has led to the suspension of former London mayor Ken Livingstone.
And yet Mr Goldsmith accused his rival of belonging to a political movement – Labour as led by Mr Corbyn – “that thinks terrorists are its friends”.
The prime minister, David Cameron, also reiterated the allegation in parliament, most recently on the eve of the mayoral election.
“He shared a platform with Sajil Shahid, the man who trained the ringleader of the 7/7 attacks and accused the US of bringing 9/11 on themselves,” Mr Cameron said, describing Mr Khan as a man “who has appeared again and again and again” in public with extremists.
The prime minister referred to nine occasions on which Mr Khan had shared platforms with Muslim cleric Suliman Gani, a man Mr Cameron said “supports IS”.
In fact, as left-leaning media but also some observers on the right pointed out, there is no evidence that Mr Gani supports ISIL. Meanwhile, he supported a Conservative standing against Mr Khan in parliamentary elections last year.
“For the avoidance of any doubt,” Mr Gani said on Twitter last month, “I state again that Islamic State is in no way compatible with my beliefs. I condemn IS wholeheartedly, and have done so repeatedly in public and in private since its inception.”
The clarification was not enough to silence Mr Khan’s critics, however.
Also on Wednesday, the right-wing Daily Mail newspaper reported that Mr Khan had issued a “grovelling apology” after remarks made in 2009 resurfaced in which he referred to moderate Muslims as “Uncle Toms”. The disparaging term is used against those seen as being subservient to white people.
Mr Khan, who was ‘minister for community cohesion’ at the time, was asked in an interview with Iran’s Press TV why the British government’s counter-extremism strategy focused on working with moderate Muslim groups.
“I wish we only spoke to people who agree with us,” he replied, as quoted by the Mail. “I can tell you that I’ve spent the last months in this job speaking to all sorts of people. Not just leaders, not just organisations but ordinary rank and file citizens of Muslim faith and that’s what good government is about, it’s about engaging with all stakeholders.
“You can’t just pick and choose who you speak to, you can’t just speak to Uncle Toms.”
Mr Khan now says he should not have used the term: “I regret using the phrase and I am sorry. The point I was trying to make was that I wanted to talk to anyone.”
So what can Londoners expect from a mayor whose election breaks a mould, underpinning Britian’s claims to be an inclusive society by demonstrating that people from ethnic minorities can reach the top in political office?
Mr Khan, whose manifesto described him as a “mayor of all Londoners”, makes no apology for dwelling on security and the need to be ready for attacks on the scale of Mumbai, Paris or Brussels.
He promises an immediate review of the emergency services’ ability to deal with a major terrorist incident, saying: “If gaps are identified, I will act to fill them.”
Tackling the city’s housing crisis, freezing transport prices, the pursuit of pro-business polices and action to restore safe levels of air quality are also among his priorities.
Conservative Boris Johnson, the man who Mr Khan replaces as mayor, is sometimes portrayed as an expensively educated buffoon. But even some of the critics unimpressed by Mr Johnson’s achievements and eloquence might grudgingly accept he gave London colour, bombast and a huge sense of pride.
It is a tough act for Mr Khan to follow as he sets about making the capital, in his own words, “a fairer and more tolerant city, open and accessible to all, and one in which all can live and prosper free from prejudice”.
Updated: May 6, 2016 04:00 AM