Muslims, money and UK elections
In France furious anti-Muslim sentiment now infuses public discussion across the whole political spectrum. Even attempts to understand terrorist violence are being denounced by left and right alike.
If attitudes have not hardened to quite this extent in the UK, it is perhaps only because there has not been a recent terrorist strike on British soil. They are already unsympathetic enough. As elsewhere, alarm about the migrant crisis and concerns about terrorism, border controls and national security are blurring into a single, hyper-inflammatory issue. The composite issue in question is looming large in the campaign to elect a new mayor of London that takes place, along with local elections, on May 5. It may loom larger still in the run-up to the historic referendum on UK membership of the European Union, which takes place on June 23.
Against this background, the fact that the front-runner for the London mayoralty, the former Labour government minister Sadiq Khan, is a Muslim, has assumed a special importance. The remarkable thing is that Khan has maintained a steady opinion poll lead, despite strenuous efforts by his chief opponent, the Conservative Party candidate, Zac Goldsmith, to smear him as a friend of extremists.
A savvy street-fighter, Khan has gone to great lengths to underline that he is extreme — extreme in the cause of the safety of the people of London. Mindful of his PR vulnerabilities, he has missed no opportunity to proclaim his determination to establish the closest possible relationship with the police and security services. Yet if Goldsmith has an apparent advantage over him when it comes to “security,” there is another respect in which Khan has what may prove a decisive advantage over his rival. For whereas Goldsmith is the son of a billionaire, Khan is the son of a bus driver, and in a time of austerity, with rough sleepers proliferating on the streets of London, his modest origins appear to be doing his campaign no harm whatsoever.
Zac Goldsmith’s wealth had the potential to be toxic even before the eruption into the news of the Panama Papers, the flood of data exposing the tax avoidance schemes of vast numbers of politicians and public figures, including the leader of Goldsmith’s own party, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron. Damaging to his government and the Conservative party, as well as to the campaign to keep the UK in the European Union that he is leading, Cameron’s initial reluctance to divulge his family’s past offshore financial arrangements is also damaging to Goldsmith’s bid to become London mayor.
The refrain of David Cameron and his colleague George Osborne as they have sought public backing for stringent retrenchment measures is that ‘we are all in this together’. It is a refrain that, in the face of ever-starker inequalities, is widely regarded as an insult to the public’s intelligence. It could be said that young Muslims, among whom unemployment is endemic, have particular reason to be skeptical about Conservative talk of togetherness. Indeed, if truth be known, the tearing apart of the wider social fabric is not least among the welter of factors making for radicalization. Yet this is an issue few wish to go near. Least of all is it addressed by the academic “experts” on “radicalization” with Muslim backgrounds who have become increasingly prominent in the British media. Loath to challenge the status quo, they seldom discuss larger ills: Socioeconomic divisions of staggering scale, the absence among the young of faith in the future.
Should he prevail in next month’s election, Sadiq Khan may prove neither willing nor able to press for a bigger, more candid debate about the UK Muslim community. Nevertheless, for him to become the first Muslim mayor of a major western capital would be a development of incalculable symbolic significance. For Muslims in London and beyond, much is riding on his success.
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