London’s mayor — who happens to be Muslim

Sam Knight writes: Even people sympathetic to [Sadiq] Khan often admit that they underestimated him in the past, and have been forced to adjust their view since he became mayor. “Metaphorically—definitely not literally—he seemed to grow several inches,” a former senior Labour official told me. Khan and his advisers, meanwhile, enjoy his image as an underdog, a realist, and a competitor. (Khan is one of seven brothers, all of whom learned to box.) “His politics come from his experience,” a former aide said. “None of it is in that sense ideological or idealistic.” Khan’s visibility as mayor of London, and his sure-footedness, have led to his being frequently talked about as a future Labour leader, and Britain’s first Muslim Prime Minister. “He is absolutely stardust now,” Harman said. “He knows that, and he respects that.”

Polls show Khan to be the most popular politician in the country, and the 1.3 million votes cast for him as mayor give him the third-largest mandate of any politician in Europe. But, in 2017, it is still a long road to persuade large, fearful Western populations to trust their way of life and their security to a leader who is a devout Muslim. Britain’s right-wing press and anti-immigrant lobby are ready should Khan stumble. “They will turn on him,” one of his old law clients told me. “They will turn on him.”

And then there is wounded London. The capital has always occupied a morbidly distracting role in British life. In the United States, a city equivalent to London would have a population of forty-three million people and an economy the size of Texas’s and California’s combined. For centuries, London has been an unlovable, pushy place, full of questionable characters and strong appetites that have forced the country around it to change, sometimes against its will. In the eighteen-twenties, the rural campaigner William Cobbett described London as “the Great Wen,” a growing boil on the body of the nation. “People would follow, they must follow,” Cobbett mourned, “the million of money.”

It is Khan’s lot to have emerged as a national figure just as London is more vulnerable, and more at odds with the rest of Britain, than at any other point in its recent history. Despite the tragedies of the summer, the capital’s fundamental challenge is its future outside the European Union. Brexit poses an existential threat to the city’s wealth and its identity; one in nine Londoners is from elsewhere in the E.U. In City Hall that morning, the final two questions put to Khan were about the impact of the national government’s current hard-line approach to leaving the E.U., which will cost the capital billions and jeopardize its status as a global bazaar. The Mayor was terse and pessimistic. “If you think we will continue to be able to be as prosperous and successful,” he told the assembly, “think again.”

Khan is a student of American politics, and in describing the role of religion in his public identity he often paraphrases John F. Kennedy: he is not a Muslim mayor; he is a mayor who happens to be Muslim. He allays your concerns before they have a chance to form. Khan characterizes himself as a feminist. He is the first mayor to walk in the city’s gay-pride march. But he is also conscious that he has an obligation to talk about and demystify Islam. “There is a way I define myself,” Khan told me, “and there is a way that others have defined me.”

He will quote passages from the Quran and the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, when discussing terrorism. When I asked him how to say his name (Urdu speakers pronounce it “Saadik”; English speakers tend to say “Sadeek”), Khan spelled out his name in Arabic—“sawd alif daal kaaf”—and explained that it means “truthful.” In 2009, when he was sworn in as a member of the Privy Council, an ancient body of senior politicians, Khan brought his own Quran to Buckingham Palace and left it there, because the palace did not have a copy. Sometimes it is as if he were leading a one-man religious-education exercise. “Many people in positions of power and influence, they have not broken bread with a Muslim,” Khan said. “Part of it is reassuring them: The sky is not going to fall in. You are in safe hands. All the stuff that you worry about, I worry about as well. All the dreams you have got, I have got as well.”

As mayor, Khan has made some of his religious practices into political acts. During Ramadan, which began this year in late May, Khan often broke his fast—taking the evening meal known as Iftar—at interfaith events. One evening, I joined him for Iftar at the house of the Catholic Archbishop of London, behind Westminster Cathedral. There were about a hundred people in a grand upstairs room decorated with Latin mottoes and a portrait of the Pope. Among them were boys from Ernest Bevin College, a state school in South London, which Khan attended. In 1985, when Khan was fourteen, the school appointed Britain’s first Muslim head teacher, Syed (Naz) Bokhari, who was a mentor to Khan until his death, in 2011. At the Iftar, Khan was introduced by Bokhari’s son, Harris.

Because Britain has no senior Muslim authority, Khan often finds himself in the role by default. The other guests of honor at the Iftar were London’s cardinal, Vincent Nichols, and the country’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis. Khan was in a relaxed mood; he is never quite genial. When he spoke, he told a few safe jokes and quoted the twelfth-century Islamic scholar Ibn al Jawzi: “I have not seen a flaw in people as great as the flaw of the able not reaching their potential.” Khan continued, “As a city, and as a society, improving how we mix together is one of the biggest challenges we face if we want to reach our full potential.”

At 9:19 p.m., Khan broke his fast with a date and a glass of water. There was food ready, but a small group of the most observant Muslims went downstairs to say the Maghrib, the sunset prayer. Khan went, too, and in a ground-floor office lined with Catholic journals and maps of the English coastline the women covered their heads and the men found the direction of Mecca. In the second row of worshippers, his silver head standing out against the black hair of the boys around him, the Mayor of London put his forehead against the floor.

In retirement, Khan’s father, Amanullah, became a muezzin at the Balham Mosque, in Tooting, the scrappy, polyglot South London neighborhood where the Mayor grew up and still lives. (Khan’s wife, Saadiya, is a lawyer; they have two daughters.) Both of Khan’s parents were from middle-class Muslim families who left India during Partition. In Pakistan, Amanullah’s father was a civil servant; Khan’s maternal grandfather managed a cotton mill. Amanullah studied engineering and served in the Pakistani Air Force before emigrating first to Australia and then to London, where he arrived in the early sixties. He calculated that he could earn more as a bus driver than he could starting out at an engineering firm, and he ended up driving a bus for twenty-five years.

In 1967, Amanullah’s wife, Sehrun, and their three children came to join him. When Sadiq Aman Khan was born, in 1970, the family lived on the Henry Prince Estate, a housing project in Earlsfield, a mile or so northwest of Tooting. “It wasn’t ‘Oliver Twist,’ ” he told me. “But it was tough.” Soon, there were four more brothers, and the family of ten squeezed into a three-bedroom apartment. (Khan shared a bunk bed until he was twenty-four, the year he got married.) “All eight of us grew up watching my mum and dad working all the hours God sends,” Khan said. “That was the ethic.”

Sehrun did piecework sewing—making dresses for fifty pence an item—late into the night. Amanullah died in 2005, and the downward mobility, the toil, of his parents’ immigrant experience is a mark that has never left Khan. He sees his opportunities in the negation of theirs. [Continue reading…]

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