London is not a conservative city. For the past eight years, the Tories managed to hold on to London’s mayoralty in spite of ideological headwinds, thanks to Boris Johnson’s (alleged) charisma. But in 2016, Conservative standard-bearer Zac Goldsmith didn’t quite offer that same posh charm. So his party decided to emphasize a different non-ideological advantage he had over his opponent: the fact that Goldsmith is not a Muslim.
The son of a Pakistani bus driver, Labour’s Sadiq Khan shares a skin tone and religious background with some of the people who have recently perpetrated mass-casualty terror attacks in continental Europe. He also once worked as a human-rights lawyer, a vocation that occasionally put him in the position of defending controversial individuals, including the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan.
Goldsmith tried to milk these facts for all they were worth, which, as it happens, turned out to be very little.
The primary smear involved Khan’s alleged ties to South London cleric Suliman Gani, whom David Cameron has accused of supporting the Islamic State. When The Guardian asked the administration to corroborate that claim, a spokesperson told the paper, “There is evidence of this individual making this remark,” but also said that they could not provide that evidence themselves.
Nonetheless, Gani is by all accounts an extremist cleric who opposes homosexuality and believes that women should be subservient to men. The Tories claimed that Khan shared a platform with Gani on nine separate occasions. Considering the fact that Gani was a prominent cleric within the constituency that Khan represented in parliament, that figure doesn’t seem especially scandalous. In fact, Khan’s campaign eventually discovered that Goldsmith himself had once invited Gani to a campaign event, and that the Conservative MP for Battersea appeared alongside Gani at least five times. Although, in Goldsmith’s defense, when he invited Gani to appear at an event with him, he made a point of being a white, non-Muslim while doing so.
“Sadiq engaged with [Gani] as a local MP would engage with any religious figure,” Khan’s campaign spokesperson told The Guardian. “They had a big falling out over Gani’s attitude to same-sex marriage. Sadiq was involved in having Gani removed from the local mosque because of his clearly radical views.”
Gani left the Tooting Islamic Centre in 2013.
Anyhow, Goldsmith failed to convince Londoners that Khan is an ISIS sympathizer (he had better luck with the editors of the Drudge Report). Instead, the dog-whistle attacks seem to have backfired, spurring a significant increase in voter turnout and a landslide victory Thursday for London’s first Muslim mayor, on a night when the Labour Party underperformed expectations in other regions. Khan initially took 45 percent of the vote to Goldsmith’s 36, and is projected to finish with 57 percent, once the second preferences of the Greens and Liberal Democrats are counted.
In the wake of Thursday’s vote, many Conservative leaders have condemned the Goldsmith campaign’s tactics. “I’m concerned that the campaign we’ve run is going to leave a negative legacy which we in London are going to have to clear up long after the the people who ran Zac Goldsmith’s campaign have gone on their way,” outgoing Conservative deputy mayor Roger Evans told BuzzFeed News.
One-eighth of London’s population is Muslim, and 35 percent of its residents are foreign born. Only 45 percent of the city is classified as “white British.”
Former Conservative Party candidate Shazia Awan told the Daily Beast that “David Cameron’s and Zac Goldsmith’s vile racially charged rhetoric” forced her to cast the first Labour vote of her life.
Some Conservative commentators echoed those sentiments, with Daily Mail columnist Peter Oborne calling for “three cheers for Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim London mayor,” and describing his election as a victory for “decency.”
New York mayor Bill de Blasio offered Khan his congratulations on Friday.