The election on 5 May 2016 of Sadiq Khan as the new Mayor of London should not come as a surprise. From the moment the ‘BackZac’ campaign linked Sadiq to alleged extremists, inferring that he ‘repeatedly legitimised those with extremist views‘, Zac Goldsmith’s divisive and desperate campaign took a risky gamble, pinning its hopes on negative dog-whistle tactics, reliant on presumed base prejudice and fear of Londoners.
However, this smear campaign must be viewed through a specific lens, one that is shaped by international events and domestic counter-terrorism policy.
First, it was essentially an extension of the fearmongering politics that has become increasingly prevalent to garner support across Europe. Identity politics has become the modus operandi of many political entities in Europe in order to downplay their opponents and secure the votes of those who are frustrated by the problems of migration, security and multi-culturalism.
Second, the campaign was one of many inevitable aftershocks of a highly problematic and malignant counter-terrorism policy that is ‘Prevent’. The vague description of ‘extremism’ as anything that is contrary to British values in the Government’s latest Counter-Extremism Strategy has fed into the pre-existing environment of suspicion and xenophobia, which permeates all levels of social strata. The fact that Zac Goldsmith, David Cameron and other senior Conservatives were comfortably able to label a Member of Parliament as such, is illustrative of the space created by the counter-extremism narrative to denounce those perceived to be associated with ‘extremists’, regardless of how remotely.
In this context, we should realise that the dog-whistle tactics employed by Goldsmith and supported by senior Tories, is not something out of the ordinary but a mix between political rhetoric and the standards adopted by the Government in demarcating the definitions of extremism and radicalisation. It serves to aggrandise the ‘Us vs. Them’ narrative and create an environment reeking of suspicion and omnipresent animosity.
Unfortunately, the work of the Conservatives is not the only force in British society that has created a toxic atmosphere; Sadiq’s election has not convinced a segment of the British Muslim population who are undergoing a process of greater democratic engagement and political maturation.
Sadiq has made it explicit that he is not representative of Muslims,
“I want to make clear, I’m not a ‘Muslim leader’ or a ‘Muslim spokesperson’. I’m the Mayor of London. I speak for London, which includes Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and those of no organised faith.”
Having visited Hindu temples, synagogues and almost every other place of worship, Sadiq simply did what any competent politician running for London’s highest office would have, which is to show that every religion is welcome in the most multicultural society in Europe.
Other than the dangers of making takfir (excommunication) on fellow Muslims, we need to understand that inconsequential and petty arguments touching on the religiosity of Sadiq Khan bare no relation to his potential benefit to the British Muslim community. By doing so, we fall into the same trap as the Conservatives of creating an antagonistic ‘Us vs. Them’ narrative, and risk increasing fragmentation within the Muslim community and a sense of othering.
The Prevent and Counter-Extremism Strategies have already fostered this scenario because, although their rationale is to combat extremism, it fails to actually tackle the issue effectively with an evidence-based approach. Unfortunately, the consequences of these policies give us all the more reason to come together as a community, set aside our differences and tackle them first hand, or else we risk regression.
We need to understand that Sadiq did not become an MP, nor Mayor of London, to show the world he is a good Muslim. It is through the symbolic force of a proud Muslim becoming Mayor that his ascension should be viewed. It is our mission to help ourselves and realise that if anything, this symbolism serves as the grounds for British Muslims to more confidently and hopefully take part in the political system which decides the fate of all Britons, including Muslims.
Nevertheless, there are two prevailing dogmatic impediments that deter Muslims from greater political participation. A small minority believe that it is not religiously allowed to participate in such a political system. However, the majority feel that voting does not make a difference.
But how else are we supposed to help our standing in society, if we do not participate to the fullest extent possible? It is exactly because our counter-terrorism policy creates a sense of alienation and suspicion, even if it be mostly in perceptions rather than reality, that Muslims need to maximise participation in all public spheres.
Of course, those who oppose greater Muslim political and public participation will allege ‘entryism’, but we need to understand that there is little substance to such scaremongering and discriminatory tactics and decent British common-sense will overcome such hurdles.
Overall, we should look positively at the election of Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London because his symbolism proves that it is possible for aspiring Muslims to attain positions of leadership and influence for the betterment of all, regardless of religion or race. The repercussions of Britain’s counter-terrorism and extremism strategies undermine the very values they purport to defend and weaken prospects for integration.
It is for this reason, Muslims must stop dilly-dallying on superficial discussions and respond appropriately in a measured, intellectual and logical manner to the toxic environment as Sadiq did, or else we will exacerbate the ‘Us vs. Them’ narrative the Conservatives seek to promote. The time has never been riper for British Muslims to showcase their worth and utility to their nation and fellow Britons, no matter what their colour or belief.