Last Thursday, Londoners made history by electing their first Muslim mayor, Labour Member of Parliament Sadiq Khan, the son of Pakistani immigrants. This is an important moment for a country that is home to approximately 2.7 million Muslims, mostly of Pakistani descent. Khan’s own professed moderate Muslim faith holds the promise that he will be a stalwart against radicalism at a time when homegrown Islamist terrorism is a mounting problem in Europe.
There’s just one hitch. Despite being a moderate Muslim, Khan has a long history of appearing alongside radical Islamist clerics and thinkers. And he can’t really explain why.
A Long History of Hanging With Islamists
In 2004, he participated in a pro-Palestinian conference organized by Friends of Al-Aqsa, a group that previously published works by Holocaust denier Paul Eisen. He was joined by Daud Abdullah and Ibrahim Hewitt. Abdullah was part of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), which at the time boycotted Holocaust Memorial Day. Hewitt’s organization, Interpal, was added to the U.S. Treasury’s list of Specially Designated Global Terrorist organizations for its work funneling money to Hamas.
That same year, Khan also defended the influential cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, an Islamic scholar and prominent Muslim Brotherhood member who was labelled one of the “sheikhs of death” in a petition signed by 2,500 Muslim intellectuals to raise awareness of those who incite violence in the name of religion. Al-Qaradawi is, by any reasonable measure, an extremist. He supports Palestinian violence against Israel, and following the Iraqi insurgency in 2003 encouraged the “abduction and killing of Americans in Iraq [as] a [religious] obligation.” He has been barred entry to the United States (1999), the United Kingdom (2008), and France (2012).
While Khan was chair of the MCB’s legal affairs committee, the council defended Al-Qaradawi, calling him, “a voice of reason and understanding,” and claiming he was being smeared by “the Zionist lobby.” Khan himself said “there is consensus among Islamic scholars that Mr. Al-Qaradawi is not the extremist that he is painted as being.”
In 2006, Khan joined Azzam Tamimi, a Palestinian activist who supports Hamas and Hezbollah, at a rally against the Muhammad cartoons that were sparking violence across the globe. Khan has also taken part in several events organized by Stop Political Terror, a group that counted among its supporters Anwar al-Awlaki, the influential al-Qaeda cleric who was killed in 2011 by a U.S. drone strike.
To top it all off, just days before the election a video emerged, from 2009, showing Khan in an interview with an Iran-backed news agency calling moderate Muslims “Uncle Toms.” He made these comments when he was in charge of fighting extremism as minister for community cohesion.
If These Were Nazis, His Political Career Would Be Over
Khan’s response to criticism over his appearances alongside Islamists and his support for extremists has been inconsistent. On the one hand, he says he didn’t know they held radical views, and on the other that interacting with them was part of his job as a human rights lawyer (even though his name appeared on the program of the al-Aqsa event as simply a Labour candidate for Parliament).
Others claim on his behalf that he was performing important outreach to the Islamist community in Britain and beyond. Khan apologized for the “Uncle Tom” comment (seven years after the fact), calling it a “racial slur” that he regrets using.
In the best-case scenario, Khan has serious blind spots in his judgment about whom to associate with and what is the best venue for doing so. It’s one thing to engage Islamists by setting up meetings to challenge their ideas and ask for change and reform, or to interact with communities that have problems with Islamism by holding a symposium on moderate Islam that actively discourages violence and jihad. That would also be an ideal setting to share the stage with moderate clerics.
But participating in events that themselves have radical themes, with Islamists who promote violence, is quite another thing. It smacks of endorsement. If a U.S. politician spoke at a neo-Nazi rally, he would be eviscerated, and rightly so, even if he himself didn’t profess neo-Nazi beliefs. That’s because it would be legitimizing their heinous ideology and lending them respectability. As a Muslim, Khan should be aware of his responsibility as a role model to his fellow adherents in Britain and abroad and be conscious of the message it sends to them when he appears with Islamists.
The worst-case scenario is that, although he professes to be a moderate, he is sympathetic to the Islamist cause. It’s hard to believe that a man who grew up in a low-income Muslim neighborhood of London, earned a law degree, and has been active with the Muslim community over the past two decades would be wholly unfamiliar with so many radical clerics and activists. It’s understandable that a politician from time to time ends up sharing a stage with someone with whom he disagrees, but as Prime Minister David Cameron pointed out, to have appeared publicly with the radical cleric Sulaiman Ghani not once, but nine times, is a something else entirely. It shows either complete cluelessness, in which case his abilities as a leader come into question, or an openness to Islamism and extremism.
Islamism Enablers Seek to Quash Concerns
Not surprisingly, the U.K. press has responded with outrage over Khan’s conservative adversary, Zac Goldsmith, bringing up Khan’s Islamist associations, calling him Islamaphobic and accusing him of engaging in racist campaigning. Labour members of Parliament called Cameron a racist on the floor of Parliament for his remarks on the matter.
This is a typical progressive, as well as Islamist, strategy for delegitimizing concerns about Islamism. Rather than engage the problem and pervasiveness of Islamic extremism, they accuse anyone who expresses concerns about it of being an Islamaphobe. This kind of shaming normalizes associating with and even tacitly endorsing Islamists.
The idea is to create a narrative of prejudice against the first Muslim mayor of London so that everyone will forget all that business about radical clerics. They will focus instead on the ugliness of the attacks and ignore the legitimate concerns that have been raised. People are thus slowly lulled into accepting Islamism as reality. This is how the radical ideology creeps into the mainstream in the West.
At a time when homegrown terrorism in Europe is an increasing threat, there is a need for a Muslim role model who doesn’t suffer extremists. Not one who defends radical clerics, looks down on moderate Muslims, and makes lame excuses about participating in events sanctioned by Islamists and pro-Palestinian groups that support violent jihad.
The fact that Khan, although not an Islamist himself, doesn’t take his past appearances with Islamists more seriously is worrisome because it indicates either that he seriously underestimates the dangers of Islamism or, worse, that he is open to it. Either way, let’s hope his election as mayor marks a fresh start for his interactions with the Muslim community—for their sake.