The triumph of Sadiq Khan in the election for London Mayor over Zac Goldsmith is being celebrated as a show of London (and Britain’s) diversity and tolerance. It’s a rags-to-riches story worthy of Britain’s Got Talent - the son of a bus driver, a council house kid, entering into a political world of money and corruption, ultimately beating the opposition in a truly public show of people power. This is a dialogue the British public fall in love with time and time again.
Yet, there is a deeper discourse when the lens is widened and you look at the international reaction to Khan’s historic win.
The negative smear campaign run by Zac Goldsmith (with the backing of several senior Conservatives) has been publically shamed by most involved in the political and social sphere. It was an ugly, personal attack that deserves to go down in history as a lesson in how not to win an election. Pluralism is the way forward for the UK in a movement against the right-wing current now washing through Europe. While media coverage in the UK concentrates on Khan’s victory in the face of Goldsmith’s racism, much of the international press focuses on Khan’s personal history.
The commentary across Europe centres on Khan’s identity as a British Muslim and the power that comes both politically and symbolically with the role of the Mayor of London. London is still seen as a city of power - when London is strong, Britain is strong. When asked to name the various Mayors of Britain I would be surprised if the average voter could name more than their own Mayor and that of London, mainly because they just don’t appear in the news unless they’ve done something stupid. The Mayor of London though holds the metaphorical key to our capital, he matters to our national identity. It is therefore unsurprising that the European media have chosen to lead their headlines with a religious and ethnic focus. In a Europe where there is growing discomfort towards immigrants of Islamic faith and Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, Khan’s election to this powerful role is remarkable.
Looking further afield once again, Khan’s win is of even greater importance to those in the Middle East and Asia. Not only is his win a sign of renewed cultural acceptance, it is emblematic of what other immigrants from similar backgrounds hope to achieve in their move to the West. Sadiq Khan is a British Muslim. When you immigrate to the UK you receive free health care, educational opportunities, a new national identity and equality. Middle Eastern commentators are all too aware that this is not the case in many other countries. The other day, Alghad Daily Newspaper tweeted this cartoon by Naser Jafari. The text roughly translates as "the future Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, if his father was a bus driver who emigrated to the Arab world, being asked for his license, passport and residency permit."
For many, Europe is the new “American Dream”. You become part of the society, you integrate, as evidenced by Khan’s victory. Importantly you are allowed a nationality, an identity. This is an important discourse to consider when discussing the relevance of Khan’s win in the Middle East. He is representative of the ultimate end goal of many immigrants and their families - to be truly accepted within their new communities. All too often the media commentary provided on immigration is about the backlash from countries receiving immigrants - unemployment rates, illegal immigration statistics, housing crises. The media and the government try to dehumanise the situation into a game of numbers, instead of accepting that the political decisions to either accept or reject people as citizens have a huge impact on the lives of those individual human beings.
Sadiq Khan’s win may be important to Britain’s sense of its changing identity, but it holds an even greater significance to those following in his footsteps. As Khan himself said, London gives “the opportunities not just to survive, but to thrive” and his election is proof that London has chosen “hope over fear, unity over division”.