As the first Muslim mayor of a western capital, Khan says he’s got too much to prove and improve to be sidetracked by the adversity that’s beset his 16-month tenure. His four-year term started just weeks before the surprise vote for Brexit, which Khan and most Londoners opposed. That was followed by a series of terrorist attacks, the city’s deadliest fire since World War II and multiple personal put-downs from President Donald Trump.
“Don’t think because we’ve voted to leave the EU we’re going to stop being open-minded and outward-looking,” Khan said in a Sept. 11 interview at the London offices of BGC Partners, a New York-based brokerage that was holding a charity event inspired by the victims of the 9/11 strikes on the U.S. “Frankfurt, Paris, Rome, Dublin — they’ve each got some wonderful things, but they’re not the complete package. We’re the complete package.”
Since winning his post, the “proud Muslim” has received threats from both white supremacists and Islamist extremists. But going from riding the subway solo to round-the-clock protection from a police force he oversees hasn’t stopped Khan, 46, from talking about Islam, which he said is being unfairly maligned by Trump. The president, whom he’s called “ignorant,” is fueling extremists’ claims that Islam and the West are incompatible, he said.
“The West doesn’t hate us — I am the West,” said Khan, who donated his Quran to Buckingham Palace after being sworn in as an adviser there in 2009.
The fifth of eight children, Khan joined the Labour Party at 15 and didn’t move out of his family’s council flat in south London until he got married at 24. By then, he’d learned to box, as did all six of his brothers, partly to discourage the racist comments that were common in the neighborhood.
Such attitudes haven’t disappeared. The campaign of his mayoral opponent, Conservative Zac Goldsmith, the son of a billionaire, referred to Khan’s candidacy as a “dangerous experiment.” That’s the kind of comment that Khan says inspires him to work harder to achieve his main aim, which is to improve the lives of London’s 8.8 million inhabitants, almost a million of whom are citizens of other European countries.
He said his path to City Hall, via law school, human-rights advocacy and parliament, is proof that inter-faith integration can be a net positive everywhere. Last year, he was invited to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game in New York, where the Mets gave him a No. 44 jersey in honor of his father’s bus route.
Khan’s critics, including in his own party, have accused him of being a malleable populist, but he’s also earned bipartisan praise. Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, who’s locked horns with the mayor in the press, nevertheless defended him in June after a mocking tweet by Trump, saying London’s mayor was doing an “excellent job.”
Supporters of hard-left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn have vilified Khan since he backed a leadership challenge last year and made a speech at the party’s annual conference arguing that winning is more important than ideological purity. Touted as a future leader, he was only handed a last-minute place on the speaker roster for this year’s event, which starts Sunday, after weeks of behind-the-scenes wrangling by moderate party members.
While Khan’s political skills have been applauded, his aptitude for economics is still being tested. Brexit, which is scheduled to happen in March 2019, is threatening London’s financial industry, the lifeblood of the economy, and Khan has so far been denied a seat at May’s negotiating table.
Many companies are waiting for clarity on the terms of the divorce before deciding whether to relocate thousands of high-paying jobs. And with inflation outstripping wage growth, the lack of affordable housing has become a major concern. Khan has been aggressive on the issue, demanding the government cede control of property-sales taxes to fund more apartments.
Khan said that unlike his flamboyant predecessor, Boris Johnson, who’s now foreign secretary, he’s committed to making sure every pound is used wisely. He scrapped Johnson’s plan for a garden-topped bridge across the Thames, calling it an ill-conceived boondoggle that cost taxpayers 40 million pounds ($54 million).
A senior police officer who’s worked under both men said Khan is more professional, efficient and results-driven. Nick Spencer, research director at Theos, a think tank that studies religion and politics, said Khan has set a precedent that some Britons deemed “impossible” — a practicing Muslim is serving in high office in a democratically accountable way.
“He’s filled that gap with assurance, confidence, without playing on it,” Spencer said. “I suspect that makes it more possible for others to follow.”