Meet the two Muslim candidates running to be mayor of London


Sadiq Khan and Syed Kamall have similar life stories. Both are London-born second-generation immigrants; Khan’s parents are from Pakistan and Kamall’s are from Guyana. Both are sons of bus drivers. And both are talented politicians, rising through the ranks of the Labor and Conservative parties, respectively.

Now, Khan and Kamall are running to be Mayor of London, hoping to make history as the first Muslim mayor of the city.

They’re facing off in competitive races for their respective party nominations, which will be decided this month. Voters are selecting candidates in online primaries, with the general election to be held next May. Incumbent Mayor Boris Johnson, a Conservative, is not running for re-election.

As European politics are shaken by a rising fear of Islamic extremism and the recent wave of refugees from the Middle East, the election of a Muslim mayor would be a remarkable blow against Islamophobia.

If elected, Khan or Kamall would immediately become one of the most prominent Muslim politicians in Western Europe. They’d also give voice to the rising Muslim population in London, which was 12.4% of the city in the 2011 national census.

Khan, 44, a former minister of transport, represents the southern London constituency of Tooting (yes, that’s it’s real name) in Parliament. Khan worked as a human rights lawyer, representing victims of employment discrimination and cases against the police, before going into politics.

“What sort of message would it send if Londoners had the confidence, tolerance, and respect to vote for someone of a different faith?” Khan told the Guardian. “I’m a Londoner first and foremost, but it would show the haters in Iraq and the haters in Syria what sort of country we are.”

He said that there’s been a notable improvement in Islamophobia in the city since the 2005 subway and bus bombings in the city. Now, nobody “gives you funny looks because they think you’re a terrorist or a friend of a terrorist,” he told the Guardian.

In his campaign, Khan has focused on the shortage of affordable housing in the city, advocating for more housing requirements for new development. He has also sharply criticized Prime Minister David Cameron for not letting in more refugees. “It’s about humanity, morality, and basic decency,” he wrote in the Mirror last week.

Polls show him second in the Labor race, which ends this week, although he’s been catching up with frontrunner Tessa Jowell, a former member of Parliament, who is seen as more centrist.

Kamall, 48, worked as a consultant and systems analyst before running for office. In the European Parliament in Brussels, he leads the European Conservatives and Reformists, the third-largest group in the body. He is leading negotiations between the British and EU governments, and says he would vote in favor of Britain leaving the union if it’s put up to a referendum.

Kamall has argued that refugees coming to Europe with real concerns for their safety should be taken in, but migrants coming for economic reasons need to follow immigration procedures. “Europe does not need a new Iron Curtain,” he said in a speech at the European parliament.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published after the Charlie Hebdo shooting, Kamall discussed the “identity crisis” that many young European Muslims face. “There is no contradiction between being Muslim and being British or European,” he wrote, urging British imams to give sermons in English, not in their native languages.

Kamall is also behind in the Conservative primary polls, trailing MP and former journalist Zac Goldsmith.

You could argue that the “First Muslim Mayor of London” isn’t quite as impressive as it sounds because there have only been two mayors of London so far—the job was only created in 2000.

It’s still a big deal, however, to have two prominent Muslims running. “The very fact that they are standing for the position of mayor—regardless of the outcome—is remarkable and sending a positive message of tolerance and inclusion,” Sara Silvestri, a senior lecturer in religion and international politics at City University London, said in an email.

A poll last month found that almost a third of Londoners say they would be “uncomfortable” with a Muslim mayor. Khan decried the poll, with his campaign manager saying it was “setting Londoners against each other.”

Last week, a volunteer for Jowell, one of Khan’s opponents, was caught telling voters that Khan’s religion made him a “liability.” Jowell quickly apologized and sacked the volunteer.

But for the most part, Khan and Kamall’s faith has not seemed to play a major issue in the race so far. “They are quite keen to be seen to represent the wider, cosmopolitan population of London,” Silvestri said.

London would be by far the biggest and most important Western European city with a Muslim mayor. Rotterdam, the third largest city in the Netherlands, has a Muslim, Moroccan-born mayor.

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.

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