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London's Muslims will be the losers in the mayoral election

Goldsmith has turned the vote into a referendum on race and religion, and Khan is playing along

Elections have the tendency of bringing to life the doldrums of Westminster.

The political participants, their supporters and pundits have a knack for galvanising the nation's attention with bare-knuckle debates, which often transcend politics to become provocative personal attacks. Phrases such as punching bag, chameleon, dog whistle and Punch and Judy are bandied about.

The election period provides not only a glimpse into the candidate’s personal character and political leaning, but more crucially can be treated as a barometer for testing the issues of concern at the heart of the nation.

These issues are in part engineered by the political spin-doctors who expertly manipulate public opinion, while searching for and identifying the concerns that provide the greatest public sway – inevitably the issues that create the most public fear. 

In effect, what politicians say during the electioneering phase provides more than their party manifesto. It is the closest convergence we achieve between Westminster politics and the nation's sentiments.

This can be witnessed in the London mayoral elections, which have descended into racial and religious slurs, similar to the debacle that haunted the 1964 Smethwick by-election. There, the Conservative Party candidate ran the campaign with a slogan: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.”

This is not a provocative analogy, nor does it aim to marginalise the racism of 1960s Britain. While the racists openly displayed their abhorrent views in those days, what is transpiring today is that the Conservative Party as represented by both mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith and Prime Minister David Cameron is employing extremism and terrorism to attack opponents.

It is not the opponent in question, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, and his association with so-called extremists that appear to be the main issue here. (Khan stands accused of repeatedly sharing platforms with radical preachers, including one who allegedly supports the Islamic State group.) 

What they are advocating is far more sinister - suspicion of Khan on the very basis that he is a Muslim and therefore cannot be trusted. In effect, it is Khan’s Muslimness that is being propounded as problematic.

Conservative Party members have also shared platforms with numerous Muslims whom they have subsequently accused of being extremists.

However, those party members' lack of "Muslimness" is what vindicates them – they are not to be mistrusted as a result.

Suleman Gani, the man singled out by David Cameron during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons as a so-called extremist, has shared a platform with Conservative MPs in the past. 

Why then, is Khan’s sharing a platform with Gani so problematic for them and why does this allow Conservatives to accuse Khan of being an extremist sympathiser? The tactics used by the Conservatives are clearly intended to sow seeds of disunity and mistrust, with the discord being sown along racist and Islamophobic lines.

Khan on the other hand has, depending on your point of view, descended or capitulated and has not challenged or defended himself against the accusations. Instead, he has chosen to intensify the attacks on those his Conservative Party rivals have classified as suspects. 

For example, when Khan was attacked for sharing a platform with UK advocacy group Cage, which works with communities impacted by counter-extremism policies, his response was an even more vociferous attack on Cage than the Conservatives had issued. According to The Times, Khan said that he “despised Cage radicals”.

He has also further distanced himself from the majority Muslim aspirations of justice for Palestinians and danced to the tune of xenophobic disquiet, questioning Muslim women’s right to wear the hijab and niqab.

Chameleon politics is always on the surface during elections, and Khan is no exception. While making bold statements against Muslim practices in the mainstream, he quietly seeks to appease Muslims in fringe media, advocating the right of Muslim women to dress how they like. 

Ultimately, this battle is being fought in the media, and journalists are playing a key part.  

In this vein, the Evening Standard accused Khan of sharing a platform with me. My guilt is having published an article in 2001 by Paul Eisen, a Jewish individual who was accused of being a Holocaust denier in 2007, years after the piece went to print.

I am therefore guilty of failing to have the foresight of knowing what people are likely to say years after I meet them.

The second issue regards my involvement with Raed Salah, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who on his visit to the UK in 2012 was detained by the authorities. However, he successfully won his appeal against the UK government, with a judge ruling that the decision to detain him appeared “entirely unnecessary” and granting his appeal “on all grounds”. 

What this London mayoral election indicates is a re-emergence of old-fashioned racism - not of the mid-20th century Britain, but of the 19th century British Empire and its legacy.

In the evil bygone era of British rule, people in the Americas and the Caribbean had to satisfy the "one-drop" rule.

This rule racially categorised people by saying that anyone with even one drop of African blood would be classified as a Negro. While the hideous method was eventually put to rest, the London mayoral election debate has kindled a new test of purity that demands people be "pure" from Muslim contamination. 

Goldsmith and Khan are claiming and counter-claiming to be free from Muslim contamination, and they are introducing a new test against Muslim political agency.

While Goldsmith is attempting to smear Khan, through his Muslimness and his suspected association with Muslims, Khan is reciprocating by distancing himself and condemning the Muslims he is accused of being associated with.

Either way, whoever wins the London mayoral election, the capital’s Muslims will end up losing out.

- Ismail Patel, is the chair of the Friends of Al-Aqsa organisation. He can be found tweeting from @IsmailAdamPatel. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo Credit: Conservative Party candidate Zac Goldsmith (L) and Labour candidate Sadiq Khan take part in a Mayoral debate in central London (AFP)