The Hoopla Over Historic Election of Muslim London Mayor Sadiq Khan Obscures His Hawkish and Neoliberal Track Record

An atmosphere of euphoria descended on the enlightened world as soon as it became clear that Sadiq Khan, the son of Pakistani migrant, would be the next mayor of London. Political observers from around the globe, including Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, celebrated the fact that a man with both a Pakistani and Muslim identity was elected to lead the metropolis of London, an economic and cultural hub of the West.


Not everyone was happy, however. On social media, many right-wing extremists and self-appointed defenders of Western Christian civilization blustered about the "fall of London,” echoing the openly Islamophobic campaign run by Khan’s Conservative opponent, Zac Goldsmith, and the British Prime Minister David Cameron. Some racists have even become convinced that the elections were manipulated by the "multicultural dictatorship of the European Union" which supposedly supports a "Sharia state."

The prevalence of extremist rhetoric in the wake of Shah’s victory made it clear that Islamophobia is a severe problem, and one that is encouraged at the highest levels of British government. Watching the freakout filled many progressives with a sense of schadenfreude, as the election of a widely popular Muslim candidate forced Islamophobes to face up to their worst nightmares.

The focus on Khan’s personal identity as the Pakistani son of immigrants, and his persecution for it, became a top story of the British local elections. On one side, reactionary extremists pointed to his identity as a reason to oppose him, while on the other, many seemed to welcome him as a kind of Obama-esque figure who could help erase the country’s ugly stain of racism and colonialism.

As with Obama, who was hailed as the transcendent embodiment of change and even portrayed as a kind of spiritual savior, the significance of Khan’s cultural background has obscured a political record that is utterly uninspiring.

Welcoming millionaires and billionaires

Khan ran deliberately to the right of the pro-union leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, celebrating the millionaires who are turning London into a castle for oligarchs and pledging to be a champion for big business. ‘I welcome the fact that we have got 140-plus billionaires in London; that’s a good thing,” Khan told the Spectator. “I welcome the fact that there are more than 400,000 millionaires; that’s a good thing.”

Unlike Corbyn, who led the opposition to the invasion of Iraq and has vocally supported the human rights of Palestinians, Khan’s political decisions in recent years clearly represent a hawkish foreign policy tendency not unlike that of former Labour chief and onetime British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In 2006, Khan was among the British lawmakers who voted against a judicial investigation of the Iraq war, which was illegally orchestrated by George W. Bush and Tony Blair and claimed the lives of more than a million Iraqis. In 2007, Khan repeated his stance by once again voting against an independent inquiry of the war. 

In 2011, Sadiq Khan once again made his attitude toward Western aggression in the Middle East clear, supporting a no-fly zone with the involvement of the British military in Libya. Today, the results of the disastrous intervention are clear: Libya is considered a failed state, controlled by hundreds of different militias including the Islamic State.

Khan expressed similar views in 2014, when he supported British military involvement in the fight against ISIL, a move opposed by Corbyn but backed by the Blairite elements of Labour. In 2015, however, Khan voted two times against a military intervention in Syria.  

Fueling Anti-Muslim Politics

While weathering the slings and arrows of anti-Muslim bigotry on the campaign trail, Khan gave rhetorical fuel to the campaign to ban Muslim women from covering their hair in public places. Last April, the mayoral candidate stated that there is "a question to be asked" about why some Muslim women in the capital wear hijabs or niqabs. Khan said:

"When I was younger you didn't see people in hijabs and niqabs, not even in Pakistan when I visited my family. In London we got on. People dressed the same. What you see now are people born and raised here who are choosing to wear the jilbab or niqab."

The niqab, which covers women’s faces, is still a rare appearance on European streets. Arguments in favor of banning it are mainly exploited by right-wing parties as a means of hyping the threat of Muslim immigration to liberal Western society. European countries like France have banned the niqab and many European Union member states are discussing similar laws. 

Conflating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism

One of Sadiq Khan's most awkward positions is his stance toward Israel, which became clear during the last weeks. After Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was forced to suspend some of his party's members following a witch hunt over charges of antisemitism, Khan attacked Corbyn for acting "too late." After his victory, Khan's criticism became even harsher, as he accused Corbyn of failing to call out antisemitism in the Labour Party. He even suggested that Corbyn’s support for the Palestinian cause gave the impression that “Labour is anti-Jewish.”

At the height of the local elections, several Labour members were suspended after right-wing bloggers trawling social media dredged up objectionable statements. In most cases, it was unclear whether members expressed antisemitic or simply anti-Zionist views; one of the most high-profile accusers was exposed as a pro-Israel hoaxster. As allegations of an antisemitism problem faded away, Khan announced his plans to travel to Tel Aviv to display his solidarity with the state of Israel. Khan has also made it clear that he opposes the grassroots BDS campaign to pressure Israel into abiding by international law through boycotts, divestment campaigns and sanctions.

The Obama moment

There was a time when it would have been hard to imagine that an African American would occupy the Oval Office or that a man of Pakistani origin would lead the city at the center of the former British Empire.

The cultural triumphs of Barack Obama and Sadiq Khan deserve celebration, especially as repudiations of racist conservatives. But it must not be forgotten that the policies of empire do not change with the simple replacement of personnel. Like Obama, Khan seems to represent the colorful, liberal-friendly repackaging of a system of oppression that is as old as colonialism but far more sophisticated in its current phase.

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