Sadiq Khan, London’s recently elected mayor, is eager to build trans-Atlantic urban partnerships. An energetic fan of great cities around the world, Khan has expressed admiration for such stateside peers as New York’s Bill de Blasio and Houston’s Annise Parker. He’s also impressed his American counterparts. The U.S. Conference of Mayors is so enthusiastic about the 45-year-old former minister of transport that the group invited him to give a keynote address at its annual conference this summer.
In a normal year, the winner of the London mayor’s race would have gone unnoticed by the vast majority of Americans. But Khan, who ran under the Labour Party banner, has just become the first Muslim mayor of London, and he has also plunged headlong into a war of words with Donald Trump, deftly setting up the presumptive Republican nominee for his first major international embarrassment.
During his campaign to take up the mantle as leader of the free world, the new Republican standard-bearer of American Islamophobia has spewed out xenophobic bile in all directions, most notably calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” the creation of a database of all Muslims living in the U.S., and the surveillance of mosques.
In opting to take on the New Yorker, Khan was in one sense merely continuing the battle he fought in his own mayoral race. His Conservative Party opponent, Zac Goldsmith, son of a British billionaire, tried to tie him to radical Muslim extremists in Britain, using what Khan said were moves “straight out of the Donald Trump playbook.” The conservative’s message held little appeal, however, in one of the most cosmopolitan and diverse cities on the planet. Khan won the mayoral race with 57 percent of the vote to Goldsmith’s 43 percent.
What helped propel the son of Pakistani immigrants to victory was his focus on the pocketbook issues, such as mass transit and workforce housing—issues that were the prime concerns of Londoners who also live in one of the world’s most expensive metropolitan areas. Khan understands that the quality of urban life is closely tied to the reach and the performance of its public transportation system: His father was a bus driver, and the new mayor took a bus to work on his first day on the job. Khan’s signature public transit proposal involves a four-year freeze on bus and subway fares, although exactly how this lines up with expansion projects and cuts elsewhere in the transit system remains fuzzy. Housing in London is astronomically expensive, and Khan has served up a number of plans, including offering homes for rent at one-third of average local wages.
But it wasn’t his zeal for new transit and housing ideas, or his interest in de Blasio’s workforce training programs or Parker’s renewable energy ideas, that raised Khan’s U.S. profile. It was his stand against Trumpian tokenism. In another one of his careless attempts at misdirection, Trump noted that Khan’s election means that “there will always be exceptions” to his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Khan fired back, saying that he wasn’t interested this type of exceptionalism. “This isn’t just about me," Khan said. "It’s about my friends, my family, and everyone who comes from a background similar to mine, anywhere in the world." He pledged to visit the U.S. before the January inauguration.
During a visit with Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, Khan let fly another round of Trump critiques. “It’s possible to be Western and Muslim and to be friends with a mayor of Paris as well,” he said during a photo op with Hidalgo.
That Trump’s attempt to carve out an “exception” for Khan fell so flat should come as no surprise, given Trump’s penchant for tone-deaf ploys like his Cinco de Mayo “I love Hispanics” boast. Trump’s ability to stir the pot of ethnic, racial, and religious hatreds is part of his appeal, but Khan’s victory provides a welcome counter-narrative. “We've sent a strong message that the politics of fear are not welcome in London,” Khan proclaimed after the historic election. If Sadiq Kahn takes up the invitation to address American mayors in Indianapolis in July, affordable housing and mass transit may take a backseat to the lessons learned from a hard-fought victory, in a contest that bears disturbing similarities to the U.S. presidential race.