Sadiq Khan’s victory in the May 5 London mayoral election marked another significant win: one over both racial and religious tensions that have beset the UK and other countries across Europe as they face fundamentalist violence and an influx of refugees.
The election of an ethnic Muslim mayor is not the first in Europe – Rotterdam appointed its current Moroccan-born mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb in 2008 – but it is a rarity. While it may not be a huge surprise in a city such as London, with its multicultural climate and large mix of ethnicities who have greater representation on both sides of the political divide than in many other major European cities, it is still significant in its highlighting of tolerance and rejection of rising anti-Islamic sentiments.
Nevertheless, Khan’s appointment has raised questions about religious conservatism and the difficulties of cultural integration. Indeed, his main rival for the post of mayor, Conservative Zac Goldsmith, based much of his campaign on suggesting links between Khan’s Muslim background and terrorism, a tactic that backfired in the end.
Now that Khan is ensconced in City Hall, he will have to tackle various challenges. Not least is treading the fine line between his own multiple identities, which he himself has stressed. He is at once British, of Pakistani descent and a Muslim, yet he has faced criticism from the Muslim community for his pro-Israeli policies and statements – even as his party, Labour, and its leader are accused of anti-Semitic leanings. As a Labour politician and a British Muslim, he will have to keep his more liberal credentials while still appealing to the social conservatism of the Islamic community and showing sympathy for the hostility some of them can endure in this current climate.
There is also the question of whether the new mayor will be able to deliver on his promises of greater social justice – most notably regarding housing shortages, social exclusion and the gender pay gap in the capital – with a Conservative government in power.
Sadiq Khan promised to be ‘a mayor for all Londoners’, which is a tall order, given the city’s size and diversity. But if he has the will, perhaps he will find the way.