Brendan O’Neill

Sadiq Khan, please stop playing the Muslim card

Sadiq Khan, please stop playing the Muslim card
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Sadiq Khan, I’m sure you and your supporters think you’re being super right-on when you say that it would send a ‘phenomenal message’ to the world if Londoners were to elect their first-ever Muslim mayor in May. But actually you’re playing an incredibly dangerous game. You’re Islamifying what ought to be a straight political contest. You’re turning the vote over who should run London into a test of Londoners’ tolerance of Islam. You’re asking voters to prove they aren’t prejudiced, when all they should be doing is expressing a political preference. Stop it.

The Khan camp has been playing the Muslim card from the get-go. Last year, Khan talked up the ‘phenomenal’ symbolism of London having a Muslim mayor. It would show that Londoners have ‘the confidence, tolerance and respect to vote for someone of a different faith,' he said. I thought politics was about voting for someone who had the same outlook as you? Now it seems to be about voting for someone who is different to you, to show you aren’t bigoted. And if London doesn’t plumb for Khan? Will that prove the city is unconfident, intolerant, disrespectful?

In recent weeks Khan’s cheerleaders have upped the Muslim ante. Mehdi Hasan writes of the ‘huge symbolism’ of a Muslim win and how it would strike a blow against ‘Islamophobes’. A mass vote for Khan would show that Muslims are ‘allowed to succeed in public life,' he says. So if you aren’t planning to vote for Khan, what is wrong with you? Don’t you think Muslims should be allowed to succeed in public life? Islamophobe.

The Guardian has talked up the ‘Muslim factor’ of Khan’s campaign. The New Statesman is excited about the ‘symbolic potency’ of Khan’s candidacy. Ken Livingstone was on TV yesterday going on about the powerful, symbolic message London would send to the world if it chose to install a Muslim mayor. So much symbolism, so little substance.

They use the ‘Muslim factor’ to try to deflect criticism too. If someone calls Khan a ‘radical’, they must be Islamophobic. If someone refers to him as ‘the Muslim’, as one of Zac Goldsmith’s canvassers allegedly did, they must be Islamophobic. Support Khan, and you prove you’re tolerant and that London is good; criticise Khan and perhaps you are anti-Muslim, and perhaps London is not as tolerant as we thought. This is so dangerous.

There is of course a disturbing irony to the fury over that Goldsmith canvasser who in December allegedly referred to Khan as ‘the Muslim’ during a doorstep chat. The Khan camp itself presents Khan as ‘the Muslim’, implicitly inviting us to vote for him for symbolic reasons. Yet when someone else refers to him as ‘the Muslim’, they fume. I’m sorry, but if you make religious identity a part of your candidacy, and, even worse, claim that a vote for this identity would transform London and its global standing, you can’t be surprised when others cite your identity negatively. It’s in the game, it’s fair play. Ugh.

As it happens, I quite like Khan. I’m seriously considering voting for him. I was on Any Questions with him once and he was a gent, and he said some good and interesting things. (I could never vote for Goldsmith, because of his miserabilist eco-nonsense and his mad claims about child abuse.) But the more the Khan camp Islamifies the election, the more I’m put off. I don’t want to be part of a symbolic gesture. Politics should be about ideas, vision, not gestures and spin.

The last thing London needs is the scourge of identity politics. Please stop injecting communalism and religio-ethnic considerations into the mayoral contest. If you’re voting for Khan because he’s a Muslim, you’re no better than those who refuse to vote for him because he’s a Muslim — you’re all judging a candidate by his personal identity rather than by his political vision. I want a visionary mayor, one who does things rather than symbolises things. Is that you, Sadiq? Then you need to do more to prove it. You must prove yourself to London, not the other way round.