Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The wrath of Khan

For the first time in history London has elected a Muslim mayor in the shape of Labour Party politician Sadiq Khan, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Sadiq Khan is on time, and he is also a man who is ahead of his time. Khan’s triumph in the recent mayoral elections in London is a stitch in time. After all, it was just a question of time before a Muslim emerged as the mayor of London, even in this day and age when Islamophobia is the order of the day in much of the rest of Europe.

The United States has long had African-American mayors, even if there has been a degree of tokenism in this. Wilson Goode, for instance, served as mayor of Philadelphia from 1984 to 1992, an intensely volatile time for the city, and matters reached boiling pint when Goode’s tenure was marred in 1985 by a bloody showdown with the Africa Move group founded by John Africa, born Vincent Leaphart, and the city police.

Goode sided with the police against his own people, whom he dismissed as “deadbeat vagabonds.” The incident cast a chill over the concept of a mayor of colour as a saviour of sorts in the US. Although this episode seems scandalous today, particularly in Europe, it is nevertheless worth remembering.

I myself remember the 1981 Brixton riots in London, when l was shocked by the brutality of the police. But I have now lived to see a man of colour, and a Muslim to boot, being mayor of London, proving that the city has come a long way since the 1981 riots.

However, there were also the 2015 London riots, when police officers in riot gear clashed with protesters in the aftermath of the Conservative Party election victory. In August 2011, thousands of people rioted in several London boroughs ignited by the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black British man from London.

In many respects, the Khan revolution can now enhance the struggle against Islamophobia. An MP since 2005, Khan has worked as a solicitor specialising in human rights, and today he is under intense pressure from British Conservatives and adherents of neo-liberalism who insist that Europe’s creaking welfare states will have to be radically rethought.

During his legal career, Khan acted in actions against the police, in employment and discrimination law, on judicial reviews, and on inquests and criminal cases. In February 2000, he represented a group of Kurdish actors who had been arrested by the police during a rehearsal of British playwright Harold Pinter’s play Mountain Language, securing £150,000 in damages for the group for wrongful arrest.

If one wants to understand why Londoners voted for Khan, it is worth thinking about how contemporary Britain has evolved. Khan succeeded Conservative Party mayor Boris Johnson and he has long championed the poor, the alienated and the underdog. He also has an unrivalled passion in London.

He is the first Muslim mayor of a major European capital, and he has been given a large personal mandate in British electoral history. He has made a sterling effort to create a new London, a London that belongs to everyone. He has sought to bring together the motley racial, religious and ethnic mix of London, a cosmopolitan city that is largely the result of the British Empire of yesteryear. 

Conservative Zac Goldsmith was his opponent in the election, and Khan and Goldsmith stand at the opposite ends of the British political spectrum. Khan and Goldsmith are diametrically opposed ideologically.

Khan’s origins lie in the Indian subcontinent, where the British Raj, from 1858 to 1947 the ruler of the subcontinent, destroyed it as a hub of industry and commerce. The cotton industry of India was taken to Manchester, and fortune smiled upon Britain as opposed to India.

The British governor-general, or viceroy, once held sway over the vast subcontinent, but today the mayor of the capital of Britain is a descendant of the dispossessed Indians or Pakistanis. Khan is an embodiment of that legacy. The British colonialists were agents of commerce and empire, but Khan is a man of the people and the multicultural masses of contemporary London.

Most important of all is the hope that Khan embodies. He now heads the city where he was brought up. His grandparents migrated from India to Pakistan following the partition of the British Raj in 1947. His father later moved to Britain, where he worked as a bus driver.

“I was surrounded by my mum and dad working all the time, so as soon as I could get a job, I got a job. I got a paper round, a Saturday job, some summers I laboured on a building site,” Khan has said of his early life in London.

It is sometimes argued that after 1857 the British colonial government in India strengthened and expanded its infrastructure via the court system, legal procedures and statutes. It may thus be ironic that the new mayor of London, of Indian descent, has chosen the legal profession to buttress his political career.

When it became clear that Khan was on course for victory, it became equally clear that his victory would bolster Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn talked up Labour’s performance, and it appears that Khan’s victory is a glimpse of what may now happen to London and Britain in the years to come.

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