Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
In all the ways that matter, Sadiq Khan’s battle to prove a Muslim has every right to oversee the U.K. capital is already won.
London elected its first Muslim mayor earlier this month, and to the honest surprise of many Londoners, the rest of the world seems pretty taken aback.
Following a landslide victory for the Labour Party’s Sadiq Khan on May 5, global media have come across as somewhat stunned that this son of Pakistani immigrants is now leading the E.U.’s largest city. As the news filtered outside the U.K., media in Germany, Italy, and Spain all splashed the new mayor’s Muslim background first and foremost, while the French media so fixated on it that it ended up producing think pieces pondering exactly why.
Some of the usual negative tropes have been trotted out already. Italian comedian-cum-politician Beppe Grillo has wondered witlessly when Khan would blow himself up outside Westminster.
But above all, most of the attention has focused on Donald Trump.
You might think a new London mayor would have more obvious choices of sparring partner than a U.S. presidential candidate. Khan has nonetheless been dragged into a war of words with Trump, thanks to the latter’s promised temporary “ban” on Muslims entering the United States. Trump had earlier this month suggested that Khan might prove an “exception” to the ban, but London’s mayor strongly rejected the idea in comments reported by the Guardian.
“The point I made about Donald Trump making me the exception was that there is nothing exceptional about me. What about my friends and family, what about business people who want to go and do business in America and happen to be Muslim? What about young people who want to be students in America and happen to be Muslim? What about people who want to go on holiday to America and visit Disneyland? The views of Donald Trump and his advisers on Islam are ignorant."
Trump himself hit back the same day, accusing Khan of being “rude” and “nasty” and suggesting he needed an I.Q. test. Khan then took the spat one stage further, albeit in softer terms, by inviting Trump to visit his family to discover a more positive view of ordinary Muslims. Khan may in fact be visiting the U.S. soon, so the spat looks set to run a little while more.
Domestically, all this may in fact be doing London’s mayor a favor. While the implicit racism in the campaign against Khan by his Conservative opponent proved that the U.K. is no stranger to Trump-style views, the Republican hopeful remains singularly unpopular over here. When Prime Minister David Cameron expressed “respect” for Trump recently—even while defending a previous attack on his proposed Muslim ban—he was promptly accused of looking weak.
Khan’s grandstanding on the issue also goes down well because, thanks to a brilliantly run, highly tactical campaign, the mayor’s battle to prove a Muslim has every right to oversee the U.K. capital is already won. It’s won so totally, in fact, that the global interest in Khan’s heritage has actually taken many in the U.K. by surprise.
In this country, coverage has focused more on local issues. Londoners are asking whether Khan’s close relations with private developers will compromise his promises to solve the city’s housing crisis, or to what extent he, as his party’s current success story, supports the embattled but still popular Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. To non-Muslim Londoners who don’t fear being ostracized by the U.S., the war of words with Trump could arguably be seen as a distraction from the issues that would make a real difference to the city.
There’s nonetheless an important criticism lodged in the hoopla. Muslims across the West have been under pressure to integrate with the societies around them, to engage with people from different backgrounds and adapt to their customs. As a LGBT-rights supporting former human rights lawyer, Khan is one of many who have done just that. To subject Khan and people like him to a blanket entry ban for supposed security reasons thus comes across as beyond ludicrous. It also suggests that the promises of inclusion offered to western Muslims who strove to integrate were actually hollow, meaningless.