Overcoming a racist campaign: what next for London's Khan?

Overcoming a racist campaign: what next for London's Khan?
Comment: After his resounding victory, Sadiq Khan must be careful not to open democratic space for the politics of division that he transcended during this recent campaign, writes Farhad Mirza.
6 min read
10 May, 2016
The Muslim community is no stranger to subtle forms of racism masquerading as criticism [Getty]

Labour MP Sadiq Khan has been elected Mayor of London, despite the Islamophobic campaign of his opponent, the Conservative millionaire, Zac Goldsmith.

Son of a Pakistani immigrant bus driver, and raised in a council house, Khan is now one of the most powerful Muslims to hold elected office in Europe, and his seemingly rags-to-riches stories has warmed many a heart.

Needless to say, he has made headlines all around the world. Millions of people are rejoicing and celebrating what Khan has termed as "the triumph of hope over fear", but once the dust settles, it becomes important to reflect upon the campaign trail and ask ourselves: Where do we go from here?

By rejecting Goldsmith's racist smear campaign, a majority of Londoners have made the decent choice, but it's too soon to tell if the decent choice will turn out to be a good choice, and if the bigger man will prove to be the better man.

Khan will now have to prove that he can keep London together. He will also have to fulfill his promise of providing affordable housing and transport, cleaning up the city air and managing his pro-business stance whilst working with the second-preference Green Party to work out sustainable environmental policies.

With 1.3 million votes, Khan has a solid mandate. However, the 43 percent who voted for Goldsmith, endorsing or at least tolerating the opportunistic racism deployed by his campaign organisers, cannot simply be ignored.

There is still a lot to be understood about Goldsmith's campaign, and the question of race in British politics.

To say that Goldsmith led a smear campaign would be too generous an understatement. It was obvious that accusations of anti-Semitism and terrorist-sympathising against the Labour Party were an organised and coordinated effort, designed to meet certain political ends.

No doubt, Naz Shah's Facebook post - dug up from 2014, before she was an MP - about the relocation of Israel to the US was in bad taste (even if it was picked up from Norman Finkelstein's blog, who posted it in jest, not as a serious policy recommendation).

Poor-taste criticism of the violent dispossession suffered by the Palestinian people is one thing, the charge of anti-Semitism quite another

We should expect better judgment from a member of parliament. To say that it happened prior to her involvement in British politics, and during a time when Israel was bombing Gaza and "emotions were running high" is a weak defence. Emotions are always running high in politics, but we expect politicians to temper their emotions with historical sensitivity and political diplomacy. However, we can not expect politicians to not have past lives.

Poor-taste criticism of the violent dispossession suffered by the Palestinian people is one thing, the charge of anti-Semitism quite another. There is, of course, nuance to that argument which must be understood, respected and communicated through open dialogue.

The Muslim community is no stranger to subtle forms of racism masquerading as valid criticisms of extremist organisations. We cannot deny the Jewish community the right to voice similar concerns.

But the sound and fury of the Conservative election tactics has signified one thing: Some communities in Britain matter a lot more than others. The exaggerations and media frenzy the Conservatives managed to get away with proves that British politics is not imbued with casual anti-Semitism - in fact it responds quite appropriately to it.

Labour has condemned such ideas, expelled suspects and opened up an inquiry. The British public is ready to understand the complexity of the Jewish experience, show sensitivity towards it and challenge the perception that Zionism is a "Jewish" phenomenon.

It does, however, seem to have given a free pass to casual Islamophobes who associate radical, political Islam with ordinary Muslim people and their faith.

Only a few weeks ago, the prime minister used his parliamentary privilege to defame a Muslim cleric, Suleman Gani, falsely accusing him of supporting the Islamic State group. He then accused Sadiq Khan of sharing a platform with such made-up extremists.

When President Obama visited Britain to convince the British public to vote against Brexit, Boris Johnson - then London mayor - reiterated horrible comments made by UKIP's Nigel Farage, claiming Obama did not have Britain's best interests at heart because of his Kenyan ancestry.

Zac Goldsmith made "a passionate plea" in the right-wing tabloid Daily Mail, begging Londoners not to give the city away to those who "sympathise with terrorists". The article also used the widely recognisable photo of a bombed double-decker bus from the 7/7 bombings.

We have seen very little condemnation of such conflated ideas; no expulsions, and certainly no inquiries in the Conservative Party.

To use an issue as serious as racism for something as cynical and manipulative as a pre-election power grab trivialises the plight of those Jews and Muslims who experience real racism on a day-to-day basis.

In demeaning the seriousness of the issue, the Conservative Party and the ratings-hungry tabloids have objectified the real horrors faced by minorities, pitting them against one another - and that, in itself, is an exploitative form of racism that needs to be snubbed out from Britain's political history at once and for all.

By highlighting common ground between communities in London, Khan could open a dialogue that is much-needed across the rest of the UK.

Resolution through dialogue is a long and arduous process that can derail from time to time. It requires a continuity of faith and commitment, and a stable platform. The job of any decent politician is to bring people into the fold of active democratic participation. Khan has already ignited rumours about a possible leadership bid, challenging the landslide mandate given to the rank-outsider, Jeremy Corbyn.

These elections have pointed towards a growing support for anti-establishment forces

If Khan decides to support the realpolitik vision of the Blairite faction that operates on a completely different logic to the desires and needs of ordinary Labour supporters, he could alienate huge numbers of grass-roots supporters who chose Jeremy Corbyn to take the party in a new direction.

Such political regression must be avoided at all costs, lest Britain's democracy surrenders itself to what Tariq Ali calls "the extreme centre", in which all parties offer the same thing, differing only in aesthetics.

These elections have pointed towards a growing support for anti-establishment forces. By belittling Jeremy Corbyn, Khan could yet trigger an implosion within the Labour Party. This, in turn, could play into the hands of divisive anti-establishment forces such as UKIP, opening up more space for identity politics within Britain's political infrastructure.

Given what has been happening in the European Right, and on the other side of the pond in the US, this is a possibility that Khan cannot, and must not ignore.

Farhad Mirza is a freelance journalist, writer and researcher. He writes for various publications about social justice, migration and urban culture. Follow him on Twitter: @FarhadMirza01

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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