By the standards of any political culture on earth, the Labour party’s candidate for Mayor of London is exceptionally progressive. His credentials on gay rights cannot be faulted, from gay marriage to proactively banning discrimination against gay people by corporate bodies. He is the former chair of the nation’s leading civil liberties organisation. He backs a woman’s right to abortion, has stood up for transgender rights, is proud his country has abolished the death penalty and is a local champion fighting to save pubs in his community. The candidate is also a Muslim in a city where 31 per cent of its citizens polled in 2015 said they’d be "uncomfortable" with a Muslim mayor.
On 5 May, Europe’s leading city will have the choice of choosing a Muslim to represent its 8.6 million people. In any normal election, the private religion of the candidates would not be a talking point. Yet, this isn’t an ordinary election. For Labour’s candidate for London mayor, Sadiq Khan, is caught in an argument on extremism that tests the liberal credentials of the city he wishes to represent. This debate is being framed by Sadiq’s opponent as a choice on how we tackle extremism. If that is the question, then only one candidate is truly placed to answer.
The central charge against Sadiq Khan being deployed in this election is that he has shared a platform with extremists. This charge is not necessarily being made by his opponent Conservative Zac Goldsmith, but certainly is by those in his wider party. As Nick Cohen writes in The Observer:
"Goldsmith or, rather, his 'people', referred me to a speech by Michael Fallon. The Conservative defence secretary did indeed say that Khan could not be mayor of London because he had a long record of “speaking alongside extremists”. They pointed me to a piece I had missed in the Sunday Times. It showed how Khan had shared a platform with an Islamist called Suliman Gani, who had all the usual prejudices against women (they should be 'subservient to men') and gay sex (it is 'unnatural')."
Those slinging mud at Khan underpin their arguments by pointing to a number of events he attended prior to becoming the Labour candidate for Mayor. It is true that Sadiq Khan attended the extreme Global Peace and Unity conference in 2008, as noted by the Evening Standard, he claims in his role as a government minister. Yet, five years later as more became known about the extremism of some of the speakers, this is what Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson said about the conference: “I am delighted to send a message of support to the organisers and attendees at the Global Peace & Unity Event”, adding the event, “increases understanding and encourages dialogue throughout the Muslim community and beyond”.
"The charge that Sadiq Khan is too close to extremists fails one crucial test: extremists do not support him"
Another charge, this time made by the Prime Minister at his weekly questions, is that Sadiq Khan shared a platform with the imam of his local mosque Suliman Gani on nine occasions.
Arguably it is not unusual for the local MP to meet with the imam of a mosque in the course of his constituency duties. It is hard to see the same questions being raised of an MP who attended a service at a virulently homophobic Christian vicar’s church. Nor did other Conservatives find Suliman Gani beyond the pale. Local Conservative MP and Minister Jane Ellison also shared a platform with Gani and the Tory candidate for Khan’s own parliamentary seat of Tooting, Dan Watkins, also (according to Gani) took support from his followers. Indeed, as the Prime Minister denounced Gani, the imam tweeted a photograph of himself with Zac Goldsmith.
It is also odd for the Conservatives, of all people, to be arguing for the no-platform politics advocated by the NUS left. No-platforming extremists may make us feel better, but it isn’t the platform that counts, it is what you do with it. Never challenging extremist views is a nonsense, extreme opinions often falter under scrutiny or from a challenge. Nick Griffin’s car crash Question Time interview did more to corrode British fascism than a hundred Anti Nazi League protests.
Fundamentally, the charge that Sadiq Khan is too close to extremists fails one crucial test: extremists do not support him. His stubborn refusal to pay lip-service to immoderate positions has cost him votes in Tooting and led him to face death threats to his office staff and his family (in particular over his vote for gay marriage). His vote on gay marriage led one imam in Bradford to issue a fatwa declaring he was an ‘apostate’, while Islamist organisation Hizb-ut Tahrir argued:
"Some people hold up these [Muslim] MPs as examples for young Muslims to follow. Yet nothing could be further from the truth."
Nor are the city’s Islamist groups rallying behind Sadiq’s campaign, and Sadiq Khan is not reaching out to them. There is no special treatment for the Islamic Forum Europe, nor any place on the campaign for the Cordoba Foundation. What is apparent is Khan has worked hard to speak some uncomfortable truths to those who deny that political extremism is a problem. Khan told an audience in Westminster that “Extremism isn’t a theoretical risk,” adding, “Most British Muslims have come across someone with extremist views at some point.”
"To defeat the extremists we simply must do more to stop radicalisation in Britain," said Khan. "It doesn’t just affect us in these awful moments of violence and terror. It is a cancer eating at the heart of our society — all the time. And if we’re honest — not enough has been done to root it out. And in this week of all weeks, that makes me angry. Angry because for too long we have buried our heads in the sand.”
London faces an imminent and real threat from jihadism. For too long, politicians from across the political spectrum – including the current Mayor Boris Johnson – have failed to confront the extremists in our midst, or give young British Muslims a compelling vision of their place in this great city. So London’s choice to elect a moderate, progressive centre-left Muslim on a programme that explicitly confronts the ideas that feed extremist ideology would give two fingers to Islamists. Khan’s victory would not embolden extremism, it would weaken it.
So the question for those who want to take on the extremists is this: if not Sadiq Khan, then tell me, when will you vote for a Muslim candidate?