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Why London's Muslim mayor needs the same security as the king

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan speaks to the media during a visit to the Francis Crick Institute in London to announce a new London Growth Plan to boost economic growth on April 3.
Jordan Pettitt
PA Images via Getty Images
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan speaks to the media during a visit to the Francis Crick Institute in London to announce a new London Growth Plan to boost economic growth on April 3.

LONDON — As London's mayor, Sadiq Khan is one of the most well-known faces in British politics. But he says he often wonders if the job is worth it.

Threats to his safety mean that, since 2017, he has received round-the-clock police protection, which he has described as on par with the security given to King Charles III and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. This is unprecedented for a municipal official.

Khan is the first Muslim to serve in that office. And there are reports that he has received violent threats from both far-right as well as Islamist extremists.

"I never want to play the victim card. But it's about the next generation of people aspiring to be politicians," Khan, 53, told NPR in an interview last month at an event marking the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

A member of the opposition Labour Party, he was first elected mayor in 2016 and is running for a third term this May.

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack in Israel, things have only gotten worse. Islamophobic incidents in the United Kingdom are up by 335%, according to Tell MAMA, a charity that monitors anti-Muslim hate and abuse in the country. Antisemitic incidents have spiked too, according to the Community Security Trust, which helps to protect the country's Jewish community.

Both Prime Minister Sunak, of the Conservative Party, and Labour leader Keir Starmer have found themselves embroiled in arguments over prejudice and racism in their respective parties.

In February, the then-deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, Lee Anderson, said on British television he believed "Islamists" had "got control" of the London mayor. Anderson was suspended from the party because of his comments, which many found Islamophobic. Khan received death threats as a result.

"Why would you, as somebody who is of Islamic faith, want to be a politician, knowing what politicians of our background go through?" Khan tells NPR. "If you're a parent, why would you encourage your children to become politicians?"

The U.K. has made progress — but risks backsliding, he says

For the first time, the United Kingdom has no white men leading its four main governments. Sunak, who was born in England to African-born parents of Indian descent, is the first British prime minister of color. The leader of Scotland,Humza Yousaf, is a Muslim of Pakistani descent. Zambian-born Welsh leader Vaughan Gething is Europe's first Black head of government. Northern Ireland is led by two women.

Khan says diversity at the top of British politics is proof that the U.K. has made progress on tackling racism and discrimination against minorities.

"When my father first came to this country in the 1960s, there were signs on guest houses and public buildings, saying 'no Blacks, no Irish, no dogs.' By 'Blacks,' they meant anybody who was a person of color," Khan says. "Within one generation, one of his children became the mayor of London."

But he warns against being complacent, amid rising racism fanned by the campaign to leave the European Union, which led to the 2016 Brexit vote.

"I'm afraid you're seeing a rise of stuff that we thought had gone forever," he says. "The frustration I used to have, if you spoke to me five or 10 years ago, was the lack of urgency over progress. The concern I have now is we could go backwards."

Muslims including London Mayor Sadiq Khan pray as they gather in Trafalgar Square for an open iftar event on April 20, 2023, in London.
/ Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Muslims including London Mayor Sadiq Khan pray as they gather in Trafalgar Square for an open iftar event on April 20, 2023, in London.

Lawmakers worry about risks to their lives

British Muslim politicians have reported a surge in abuse and death threats they have received since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza in October.

Lawmakers' safety in the U.K. is a serious concern, especially after two murders in recent years. Labour politician Jo Cox was killed in 2016 by a white supremacist. Five years later, a Conservative lawmaker, David Amess, was stabbed to death while meeting with voters in eastern England. Amess' killer was inspired by Islamic State propaganda.

Khan says the previous killings should serve as a warning to political leaders about divisive rhetoric.

"We've got to be cognizant about some people being radicalized because 'mainstream,' responsible politicians are saying things you would only historically see in the periphery," he says.

Khan calls the U.K. government's new extremism definition "divisive"

Amid pro-Palestinian demonstrations, the U.K. government recently revised its definition of "extremism." It says its new definition applies to groups promoting an ideology of "violence, hatred or intolerance."

But this has drawn criticism from lawmakers and faith leaders, including the archbishops of Canterbury and York. Critics say it unfairly targets Muslims and could mean a loss of government funding for some of the country's biggest Muslim charities.

Khan calls it an "example of a perceived double standard."

"My nervousness is that the government is using this as an opportunity for a culture war," he says.

What a second Trump presidency could mean

Khan says he's not just concerned about the language used by British politicians. He says former President Donald Trump's 2016 election coincidedwith a significant increase in the "hatred, Islamophobia and racism" directed at Khan on social media.

Khan was elected mayor in May 2016 — six months before Trump was elected president. The two exchanged barbs on social media, and Khan famously allowed a "Trump baby blimp" to fly over London during a 2018 presidential visit.

The London mayor says he's worried what might happen if Trump is reelected.

"I'm speaking as a Londoner. We are scared. Minorities are scared. Muslims are scared," Khan says. "Because we saw the ripple effects when Trump was president."

"Just like you can have ripples of hope, you can have ripples of fear," he says.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Fatima Al-Kassab