London Mayor Sadiq Khan Defends Self in the New Yorker

Fourteen months ago, the election of Sadiq Khan, who is forty-six, to be the first Muslim mayor of a Western metropolis was seen as just another stride in London’s giant, unstopping swagger. The rise of a local boy, the son of a Pakistani bus driver, to govern the seat of a former empire was proof of the same unsentimental indifference toward race and religion, good money and bad, and a past that is gone that has enabled London to more or less detach itself from the reality of its circumstances—the capital of a once great nation in decline—and become a universe unto itself.

Seven weeks after Khan took office, however, Britain unexpectedly voted to leave the European Union. The decision revealed a chasm in the country and the way it perceives itself. London was on the losing side. By coincidence, a series of calamities followed. Between March and June of this year, London suffered three terrorist attacks and a fire in a high-rise that killed more than eighty people. Sirens filled the streets. The city felt ill-starred and unsure. There was a fractious general election, in which Theresa May’s Conservative Party barely hung on to power, and the slow, grimly momentous process of leaving the E.U. began. I spent time with Khan during London’s recent disastrous months and I asked him if he had thought that running the city would be this hard. “Nothing prepares you for this,” he said. “I didn’t campaign to be the mayor of London and go to funerals.”

On a gray, gusty morning in late June, Khan was in the main chamber of City Hall to take questions from the London Assembly, a quasi-legislative body that oversees his activities. Although London has had a form of self-government since the twelfth century, Khan is only its third directly elected mayor. (The first, Ken Livingstone, took office in 2000.) The newness of the role and the somewhat limited nature of its power is embodied in the form of City Hall, a modest, pebble-like structure on the South Bank of the Thames which both of Khan’s predecessors compared to a testicle. From the chamber, a large window looks across the river to the macho-finance architecture of the Square Mile and, a little to the east, the Tower of London, which has stood for martial authority and the city’s protection since the time of the Norman invasion.

Khan was a few minutes early for the session. A small man with a beaky nose and silver hair scraped left to right, he wandered to the back of the room and the public gallery there, which was about two-thirds full, to greet parties of students and schoolchildren who had come to watch. “You O.K.?” he asked each group. “Where you from?”

On camera and in interviews, Khan is an overprepared A student, cramming neat answers into the available space. In ordinary conversation, he punctures any formality with self-deprecation and a voice that is fast and London-inflected. He drops the “g” from words like “talking” and “walking.” Before he became mayor, Khan used to perform standup comedy, and laughs followed his progress through the gallery. “Are you a troublemaker?” Khan called out to a large woman in African dress who was taking his photograph. She doubled over in embarrassment. When Khan sat down at a desk, his feet did not quite touch the ground.

The first forty minutes of the meeting were taken up by statements from Khan, recounting London’s latest emergencies. The previous Wednesday, June 14th, Khan had been awoken by his staff at 2 a.m. Grenfell Tower, a public-housing block in West London that was home to some three hundred and fifty people, was on fire. Footage shot by firefighters, and later broadcast on the BBC, caught their astonishment as they confronted the scene: “Mate, how the fuck are we going to do that?” The fire rose from the tower’s fourth floor to the twenty-fourth in around fifteen minutes, apparently fed by the building’s cheap, flammable cladding. The temperature inside reached almost two thousand degrees. The final death toll in Grenfell Tower is still not known, but it was the worst fire in London since the Second World War.

The magnitude of the disaster was compounded by its political aspect. When I arrived, at around 10 a.m., the building protruded from the neighborhood like a dead tooth. Flames lapped out of the seventeenth floor. Families in their bedclothes sheltered under trees. “They want us out of the borough,” a girl in her late teens said. “It’s money, money, money.” Kensington and Chelsea, the local authority that owned the tower, is among the richest in the United Kingdom, and within hours the accident, which killed refugees, disabled people, and children, became an indictment of London’s stark inequality and of the austerity policies of May’s unpopular government.

Khan, who is a member of the Labour Party, spent part of each of the following five days at Grenfell Tower, meeting firefighters and police, whom he oversees; attending church services; and talking in the street with residents who were distraught and frustrated by the local government’s response. (The leaders of the Kensington and Chelsea council resigned.) The weather was hot, and Khan worked twenty-hour days. Because it was Ramadan, he was also abstaining from food and water until sunset, at around 9:15 p.m.

Five nights after the fire, Khan was woken again, this time shortly after midnight, because someone had driven a rental van into a group of Muslim worshippers returning from late-night prayers in Finsbury Park, in North London. One man was killed, and eleven others were injured. The attack was part of a surge in anti-Muslim hate crime after London’s two previous terrorist incidents, which had involved Islamic extremists driving vehicles into crowds. While Khan delivered his statements to the assembly, ten schoolgirls in blue summer dresses and straw hats filed into the gallery. It was painful to watch them listen to the details of each new horror, each fresh social failing in their city. Khan did his best to counter the mood. “I know Londoners will remain strong and united,” he said. “I know we will come through this.” But he sounded exhausted.

A great deal of Khan’s power as a politician comes from the hopeful possibilities that he symbolizes. There were times this summer in London when the fact of his election seemed like one of the city’s only graces. “The almost one good thing that people consistently can feel is that they don’t have to believe the worst inevitability on all sides,” Harriet Harman, a former deputy leader of the Labour Party, told me. “Because actually London elected a Muslim mayor, elected Sadiq.” Opponents and skeptics, however, view Khan as an opportunist, vicious at times, who thinks only in terms of his own advancement. “Yeah, it’s a great symbol,” Andrew Boff, a senior Conservative member of the London Assembly, told me, referring to Khan’s election. “I don’t get the sense there is a profound vision.” Khan’s political career before he became mayor was marked as much by shrewd positioning as by meaningful achievement. “He doesn’t like the difficult questions,” Boff said. “It’s as if he is thinking, If I answer this question, it might damage me in the future.”

Even people sympathetic to Khan often admit that they underestimated him in the past, and have been forced to adjust their view since he became mayor. “Metaphorically—definitely not literally—he seemed to grow several inches,” a former senior Labour official told me. Khan and his advisers, meanwhile, enjoy his image as an underdog, a realist, and a competitor. (Khan is one of seven brothers, all of whom learned to box.) “His politics come from his experience,” a former aide said. “None of it is in that sense ideological or idealistic.” Khan’s visibility as mayor of London, and his sure-footedness, have led to his being frequently talked about as a future Labour leader, and Britain’s first Muslim Prime Minister. “He is absolutely stardust now,” Harman said. “He knows that, and he respects that.”

Polls show Khan to be the most popular politician in the country, and the 1.3 million votes cast for him as mayor give him the third-largest mandate of any politician in Europe. But, in 2017, it is still a long road to persuade large, fearful Western populations to trust their way of life and their security to a leader who is a devout Muslim. Britain’s right-wing press and anti-immigrant lobby are ready should Khan stumble. “They will turn on him,” one of his old law clients told me. “They will turn on him.”

And then there is wounded London. The capital has always occupied a morbidly distracting role in British life. In the United States, a city equivalent to London would have a population of forty-three million people and an economy the size of Texas’s and California’s combined. For centuries, London has been an unlovable, pushy place, full of questionable characters and strong appetites that have forced the country around it to change, sometimes against its will. In the eighteen-twenties, the rural campaigner William Cobbett described London as “the Great Wen,” a growing boil on the body of the nation. “People would follow, they must follow,” Cobbett mourned, “the million of money.”

It is Khan’s lot to have emerged as a national figure just as London is more vulnerable, and more at odds with the rest of Britain, than at any other point in its recent history. Despite the tragedies of the summer, the capital’s fundamental challenge is its future outside the European Union. Brexit poses an existential threat to the city’s wealth and its identity; one in nine Londoners is from elsewhere in the E.U. In City Hall that morning, the final two questions put to Khan were about the impact of the national government’s current hard-line approach to leaving the E.U., which will cost the capital billions and jeopardize its status as a global bazaar. The Mayor was terse and pessimistic. “If you think we will continue to be able to be as prosperous and successful,” he told the assembly, “think again.”

Khan is a student of American politics, and in describing the role of religion in his public identity he often paraphrases John F. Kennedy: he is not a Muslim mayor; he is a mayor who happens to be Muslim. He allays your concerns before they have a chance to form. Khan characterizes himself as a feminist. He is the first mayor to walk in the city’s gay-pride march. But he is also conscious that he has an obligation to talk about and demystify Islam. “There is a way I define myself,” Khan told me, “and there is a way that others have defined me.”

He will quote passages from the Quran and the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, when discussing terrorism. When I asked him how to say his name (Urdu speakers pronounce it “Saadik”; English speakers tend to say “Sadeek”), Khan spelled out his name in Arabic—“sawd alif daal kaaf”—and explained that it means “truthful.” In 2009, when he was sworn in as a member of the Privy Council, an ancient body of senior politicians, Khan brought his own Quran to Buckingham Palace and left it there, because the palace did not have a copy. Sometimes it is as if he were leading a one-man religious-education exercise. “Many people in positions of power and influence, they have not broken bread with a Muslim,” Khan said. “Part of it is reassuring them: The sky is not going to fall in. You are in safe hands. All the stuff that you worry about, I worry about as well. All the dreams you have got, I have got as well.”

As mayor, Khan has made some of his religious practices into political acts. During Ramadan, which began this year in late May, Khan often broke his fast—taking the evening meal known as Iftar—at interfaith events. One evening, I joined him for Iftar at the house of the Catholic Archbishop of London, behind Westminster Cathedral. There were about a hundred people in a grand upstairs room decorated with Latin mottoes and a portrait of the Pope. Among them were boys from Ernest Bevin College, a state school in South London, which Khan attended. In 1985, when Khan was fourteen, the school appointed Britain’s first Muslim head teacher, Syed (Naz) Bokhari, who was a mentor to Khan until his death, in 2011. At the Iftar, Khan was introduced by Bokhari’s son, Harris.

Because Britain has no senior Muslim authority, Khan often finds himself in the role by default. The other guests of honor at the Iftar were London’s cardinal, Vincent Nichols, and the country’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis. Khan was in a relaxed mood; he is never quite genial. When he spoke, he told a few safe jokes and quoted the twelfth-century Islamic scholar Ibn al Jawzi: “I have not seen a flaw in people as great as the flaw of the able not reaching their potential.” Khan continued, “As a city, and as a society, improving how we mix together is one of the biggest challenges we face if we want to reach our full potential.”

At 9:19 p.m., Khan broke his fast with a date and a glass of water. There was food ready, but a small group of the most observant Muslims went downstairs to say the Maghrib, the sunset prayer. Khan went, too, and in a ground-floor office lined with Catholic journals and maps of the English coastline the women covered their heads and the men found the direction of Mecca. In the second row of worshippers, his silver head standing out against the black hair of the boys around him, the Mayor of London put his forehead against the floor.

In retirement, Khan’s father, Amanullah, became a muezzin at the Balham Mosque, in Tooting, the scrappy, polyglot South London neighborhood where the Mayor grew up and still lives. (Khan’s wife, Saadiya, is a lawyer; they have two daughters.) Both of Khan’s parents were from middle-class Muslim families who left India during Partition. In Pakistan, Amanullah’s father was a civil servant; Khan’s maternal grandfather managed a cotton mill. Amanullah studied engineering and served in the Pakistani Air Force before emigrating first to Australia and then to London, where he arrived in the early sixties. He calculated that he could earn more as a bus driver than he could starting out at an engineering firm, and he ended up driving a bus for twenty-five years.

In 1967, Amanullah’s wife, Sehrun, and their three children came to join him. When Sadiq Aman Khan was born, in 1970, the family lived on the Henry Prince Estate, a housing project in Earlsfield, a mile or so northwest of Tooting. “It wasn’t ‘Oliver Twist,’ ” he told me. “But it was tough.” Soon, there were four more brothers, and the family of ten squeezed into a three-bedroom apartment. (Khan shared a bunk bed until he was twenty-four, the year he got married.) “All eight of us grew up watching my mum and dad working all the hours God sends,” Khan said. “That was the ethic.”

Sehrun did piecework sewing—making dresses for fifty pence an item—late into the night. Amanullah died in 2005, and the downward mobility, the toil, of his parents’ immigrant experience is a mark that has never left Khan. He sees his opportunities in the negation of theirs. On a visit to New York last year, the Mets gave Khan a No. 44 jersey, in honor of his father’s bus route.

At school, Khan was a good student who imposed himself in disputes that were not his. “He certainly was very forward,” Rodney Dove, one of his sports coaches, said. “He would take up issues that even I would feel, That is nothing to do with you, Sadiq.” Ernest Bevin was a big, teeming place, with white boys from prosperous middle-class families and a growing number of students from newer Afro-Caribbean and South Asian communities. “Children either had to be macho or very charismatic to survive in that atmosphere,” Vernella Fuller, who was Khan’s tutor for five years, said. “And he was very charismatic.”

After classes, Khan went to a madrassa, for instruction in Islam. He would cross the road to avoid skinheads in bomber jackets, members of the National Front, a far-right organization that had a strong presence in Tooting and Earlsfield. People shouted “Paki!” at his father on the bus. “There is a very good reason why all my brothers joined the boxing club,” Khan said. “In our area, on our estate, there were certain things you couldn’t say and get away with. So, if somebody called you the P-word, that means there is a fight. That’s it. We’re having a fight. You couldn’t allow that to be tolerated.”

Khan describes his political awakening as a processing of the injustices that he saw in his daily life: his brothers’ friends being stopped and searched by the police; the Wandsworth bus garage, where his father worked, threatened with closure; his teachers on picket lines. Britain in the eighties was experiencing the fullest—and most painful—extent of Margaret Thatcher’s reforms, aimed at liberalizing and deregulating the country’s postwar industrial economy. The Conservatives were in power. Unemployment was high. Public services were chaotic and underfunded. “Something was happening,” Khan told me. “You’d see it on the TV regularly—jobs being lost, the miners’ strike.” No one else in his family was politically active. Khan’s father took the Daily Telegraph, a conservative newspaper. At fifteen, Khan joined the Labour Party; on Saturday mornings, he would hand out leaflets on Tooting High Street.

Khan studied law at the North London Polytechnic and then joined Christian Fisher, a small, distinguished firm dedicated to civil-rights work. Louise Christian had campaigned on behalf of the victims of the Marchioness boat crash, in which fifty-one people drowned in the Thames, in 1989, and Michael Fisher frequently represented suspected I.R.A. members. Khan worked on discrimination cases, often involving employment issues and police misconduct. In 1996, when he was twenty-five, Khan won what was then a record payout of two hundred and twenty thousand pounds from the Metropolitan Police for the wrongful arrest and assault of a Chinese hairdresser. The following year, he was made partner.

In the late nineties, Khan began to represent black and Asian police officers, who were themselves suffering discrimination—often in the form of trumped-up corruption investigations. He wore stubble, to make himself look older, and his clients took an almost paternal pride in their bullish young advocate. “I could have gone to hundreds of solicitors,” Ali Dizaei told me. Dizaei is a former commander in the Metropolitan Police, originally from Iran, who was acquitted in 2003 after the most expensive investigation of a single officer in the history of Scotland Yard. “He believed, you know. And that makes a lot of difference to a person of color who wants to take on an organization.”

Khan’s colleagues were taken aback by his drive and his capacity for work. “It mystified all of us,” Matthew Ryder, a barrister who worked regularly with Khan, told me. “It was endless, endless. The guy didn’t sleep.” It was the early days of e-mail, and Khan’s clients would hear his computer pinging constantly in the background in his messy office, near the British Museum. When another young lawyer at Christian Fisher, Matt Foot, became a father, Khan advised him to buy a BabyBjörn carrier, so that he could keep his hands free for work.

There was something else about Khan that made him stand out. In the eighties and nineties, many of the leading civil-rights lawyers in London came from radical left-wing backgrounds. Foot was from a family of campaigning journalists and politicians, and Christian, who hired Khan, was a candidate for the Socialist Alliance Party in the 2001 general election. Khan never shared their ideological bent. “There is a slight duality about Sadiq,” Foot said, choosing his words carefully. “I think his strong Labour working-class roots are a big part of what he is. I think he has also been very efficient.”

Khan’s politics were more results-driven than many of his colleagues’ were. With Ryder, who is half Jamaican and also had a humble London upbringing, Khan was one of the few nonwhite lawyers in his field. In court, the men were sometimes mistaken for their clients. “You are trying to do stuff for people who are your friends, your neighbors, your community,” Khan told me. “That is the law I chose to do.” Ryder, who now works for Khan at City Hall, explained that their backgrounds helped them to see their cases in functional rather than abstract terms. “It was political in terms of vindicating rights,” Ryder said. “It wasn’t political in terms of having a larger agenda.”

Khan cut a similarly pragmatic figure in local politics. In 1994, he became a councillor in Tooting. Tooting is part of the borough of Wandsworth (London has thirty-three boroughs, each with its own elected council), which was heavily dominated by the Conservatives. Nationally, however, Labour was on the brink of power. After almost two decades in opposition, the Party had rebranded itself under Tony Blair, enthusiastically embracing the free market, tough policies on crime, and the reform of Britain’s public services. Like most newly elected candidates, Khan was part of the modernizing wing of the Party. “He was a complete Blairite,” Tony Belton, who led the Labour opposition group in Wandsworth, told me.

On the council, Khan was a controlled, lawyerly presence. “He doesn’t emote much about his politics,” Belton said. “I don’t think too many people would warm to him, exactly.” Khan doesn’t drink, so he didn’t spend time in the pub with the other councillors. He would come to meetings, and then go. When we spoke, Belton did not find it easy to square his memory of the reserved young councillor with the mayor that he sees now. “It seems to me . . . ,” he said, and hesitated. “It seems to me he must have much more of a strategic grasp than I worked out.”

On April 1, 2002, a young Islamist from Essex named Maajid Nawaz was arrested in a rental apartment in Alexandria, on the northern coast of Egypt. Nawaz, a twenty-two-year-old student, was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a political organization that campaigns for a global caliphate. Hizb ut-Tahrir was allowed to operate in the U.K. but was forbidden under Egyptian law. Nawaz had flown into the country on September 10, 2001, joining several other activists. Now, in the early months of the American war on terror, the government of Hosni Mubarak was rounding up suspected extremists. Nawaz was captured and driven across the desert to Cairo, where he was held in the Tora prison.

In England, his family and friends tried to find him a lawyer. At the time, an even more radical offshoot of Hizb ut-Tahrir, called Al-Muhajiroun, was operating; it was later banned in the U.K. A pro-bono legal adviser to members of Al-Muhajiroun, Makbool Javaid, was married to Sadiq Khan’s sister, Farhat. (Javaid and Farhat later divorced.) “Word spread through the grapevine,” Nawaz told me of Khan. “They must have heard that he takes on cases such as these.” Khan flew to Cairo a few months later to meet Nawaz in prison. After 9/11, Britain under Blair had become an active partner in U.S.-led efforts to monitor and break up Islamist movements around the world, and Nawaz was struck by Khan’s intensity. “He was stirred up and riled up,” Nawaz said. “He prays, he fasts. So it could have been him next. There was more to it than just ‘I care about human rights.’ It’s ‘This is my family. This is my community.’ ” Khan went back to Egypt for the trial, but to no avail: Nawaz was convicted of belonging to an unlicensed organization and sentenced to five years in prison.

The war on terror created work for civil-rights firms in London, and especially for their Muslim lawyers. London has one of the most diverse Islamic communities on earth. During the second half of the twentieth century, refugees, exiles, and radicals from across the Muslim world ended up living on quiet Victorian streets in Wood Green, Tottenham, and Walthamstow. Khan was in demand. By the early aughts, he was the chair of the legal-affairs committee for the Muslim Council of Britain, the largest representative body in the country. One of his clients, Feroz Abbasi, was imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay.

In 2003, counterterrorism police arrested Babar Ahmad, a childhood acquaintance of Khan’s, in Tooting. Khan was the first person to come to the house after the raid, Ahmad told me, “as a councillor, as a lawyer, and a community figure.” Ahmad had fought in the Bosnian war, and was accused of raising money online for the Taliban. He was released after a week. But nine months later, in August, 2004, he was detained again, under the U.K.’s new fast-track extradition treaty with the U.S., and his case became the subject of a national campaign against the agreement. Days after Ahmad’s second arrest, there was a meeting in Tooting, where Khan was the main speaker. “ ‘I know Babar, we play football together,’ ” Saghir Hussain, another civil-rights lawyer, recalled him saying. “ ‘He is not as good as me, but we are going to fight these cases.’ ”

Khan was also running for Parliament. Tooting was a safe Labour seat, and in early 2004 Khan was among more than a hundred candidates to replace the outgoing M.P., Tom Cox, in the next election. His main rival, Stuart King, another young Blairite councillor, had trade-union support and more local endorsements. King also thought he had more free time to campaign: Khan had a young family and a hectic law practice. “Where is he going to find the time to do it?” King asked. But Khan made a list of every Labour member in the constituency that would select the candidate—around seven hundred people—and spoke to them individually. “We were tracking: Who have I spoken to? Who do I have to go back to? Who do I need to firm up?” an aide who worked on the campaign told me. “He was just out all the time.”

Khan won the selection easily. He left the law, and in May, 2005, he was one of three hundred and fifty-five Labour M.P.s elected in Tony Blair’s third victory as Prime Minister. Four were Muslim. The war in Iraq was desperately unpopular in Britain’s Islamic communities; there had also been major riots in the North of England in the summer of 2001, in towns deeply divided between their white and Asian populations. The government was anxious to find liberal, mainstream Muslims who could speak up for its positions. “We needed someone who could feature on the BBC,” Mike O’Brien, a Foreign Office minister, told me. O’Brien suggested to Khan that he might focus on issues affecting British Muslims when he arrived in Westminster, but Khan balked. “He said, ‘No. That is not how I want to be seen,’ ” O’Brien recalled. “I just wanted to be a mainstream M.P.,” Khan told me.

Nine weeks after Khan entered the House of Commons, four British Muslims blew themselves up in subways and on a bus during rush hour in London, killing fifty-two people and injuring seven hundred others. The attacks, on July 7, 2005, remain the country’s worst terrorist incident, and raised traumatic questions about how ostensibly well-integrated young Muslim men—the leader of the bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, worked in a primary school—could become suicide bombers. “They were Sadiqs,” one Labour peer told me.

“On the seventh of July, things changed,” Khan said. He watched as academics, the government, and Muslim community leaders struggled to analyze what had happened. “You can’t vacate the field when you are a member of that faith, and you think in a non-arrogant way you know more than them,” he said. Khan went to see Harman, who had also been a civil-rights lawyer and was now a senior figure in the Party. Harman had been one of a handful of female Labour M.P.s when she was first elected, in 1982, and she told Khan that initially she hadn’t wanted to work on women’s issues. “ ‘You have got no choice,’ ” Khan remembered her saying. “ ‘Because, if you don’t, who will? And the others that will aren’t as good as you.’ ”

In Parliament, Khan maintained an independent streak. In November, 2005, he voted against Draconian antiterrorism legislation, helping to bring about Blair’s first defeat in the House of Commons as Prime Minister. But Khan was also prepared to be a team player. He met with Blair and took part in Home Office initiatives aimed at engaging with British Muslims after the July 7th attacks. Some of Khan’s former colleagues watched these gestures with dismay. Matt Foot caught a glimpse of Khan on the news, lining up with other Muslim activists to shake Blair’s hand at a Labour Party Conference. “I remember shouting at the telly,” Foot said. “What a disgrace.” Saghir Hussain, who had worked with Khan on the Babar Ahmad campaign, sensed that now he wasn’t pushing the issue hard enough in Westminster. When Nawaz was released from prison, he heard that Khan could no longer be trusted. His departure from Christian Khan, as the firm had become, had been acrimonious, and ended with a dispute over money. “I remember Louise Christian saying, ‘We think he has sold out,’ ” Nawaz recalled. (Christian declined to be interviewed for this article.)

In early 2007, Khan became a parliamentary aide to Jack Straw, who, as Foreign Secretary, had overseen the invasion of Iraq. The following year, Khan helped push through the House of Commons antiterrorism legislation that would have enabled police to detain suspects for up to six weeks without charging them. (The provision was ultimately defeated in the House of Lords.) For many civil-rights campaigners, Khan’s work on the bill was proof that his personal ambition had overcome any previous scruples. “That is a shocking thing. It really is,” Foot said. “I think he gets a pass from a lot of white people, the well-intentioned ones,” Hussain said. “They want diversity, do you know what I mean? So he can play them, but he can’t play people who know him, and know him well.”

As a junior M.P., Khan acquired a reputation as a skilled and discreet go-between in the House of Commons. “He is in essence a moderate, sensible guy,” O’Brien said. But he had to contend with the same prejudices that affected other British Muslims. In February, 2008, a former police officer admitted to the Sunday Times that Khan had been secretly recorded on visits to see Babar Ahmad in prison in 2005 and 2006. Although visitors to terrorism suspects were routinely bugged by the security services, since the sixties a convention known as the Wilson Doctrine had forbidden eavesdropping on M.P.s.

An inquiry laid the blame for the surveillance on an administrative oversight, but many believed that Khan was a victim of racial profiling. “I am absolutely certain that the fact that he had a Pakistani name meant that they made immediate assumptions,” Straw said. Ahmad, who eventually served two years in solitary confinement in a supermax prison in Connecticut, found the episode almost comic. “Look at this guy,” he told me. “He has been a Labour Party member all his life. He has been a councillor. He is an M.P. But that is not enough to take the finger of suspicion away. It was funny. People were, like, Poor Sadiq—after all this time, it hasn’t got him anywhere.”

But Khan wasn’t always a victim. After Nawaz was released from prison in Egypt, he renounced political Islam and returned to the U.K. to set up a counter-extremism think tank called Quilliam. During an interview with Iranian TV, in 2009, Khan, who was by then a junior minister, referred to the group and other moderate Muslims as “Uncle Toms,” a phrase that he later said he regretted using. Part of Khan’s skill as a politician is having the right idiom for whomever he is speaking to at any given moment. Nawaz, who is now a radio talk-show host in London, observed that Khan has never apologized to him personally, despite the many times they have spoken. “It’s inescapable that Saadik-known-as-Sadeek has used his Muslim identity to advance his political career,” he told me. “Back then, he was clever enough to know where to get the clients from. Now he is clever enough to know where to get the votes from.”

In 2010, Khan was in danger of losing his seat in Parliament. After thirteen years in power, Labour was in retreat across the country. O’Brien recalled seeing Khan at a drinks party in Downing Street, where he talked about returning to practice law. In the general election, the Conservatives targeted Khan with a high-profile campaign in Tooting. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, put up an antiwar South Asian candidate named Nasser Butt, who had the potential to split the Labour vote in the constituency.

“I became an immediate threat to Sadiq’s Muslim-vote bank,” Butt told me. However, Butt belonged to an Islamic sect, the Ahmadiyya, that holds theological beliefs different from those of mainstream Sunni Islam, the predominant branch in the U.K. During the campaign, Liberal Democrat posters were torn down and Butt suffered anti-Ahmadi abuse. At an election event at the Tooting Islamic Centre, the Conservative candidate, Mark Clarke, who is mixed race, had to be locked in a room for his own protection, after being mistaken for Butt; Butt was advised to stay away altogether. Although he blamed activists from the center, which is attached to the Balham Mosque, for the discrimination during the election, Butt was convinced that Khan was also involved. “He was part of it,” he said. “I was quite sure he was directing it.”

Khan has always denied any wrongdoing. But on May 3, 2010, two days before the election, Butt sent his son to secretly record a meeting at the Islamic center. Butt gave me a copy of the recording. On it, a speaker identified as Harris Bokhari, the son of Khan’s old head teacher and mentor, addresses the room. “The majority of Muslims in this area are voting Lib Dem, because they think Nasser Butt is a Muslim,” Bokhari says. “You need to go into the community and take these posters down.” One man at the meeting asks Bokhari how to fill in his ballot papers. “All you need to do is just look for Sadiq Khan, Labour Party, and just tick it,” he says. “Whatever else you vote is up to you.” Bokhari told me that he does not remember the meeting. Khan held his seat by less than three thousand votes.

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Source: The New Yorker