I am sitting across from the mayor of London in his corner office in City Hall, which looks out over the River Thames and the Tower of London, on a surprisingly sunny January morning.
Khan is an ardent Americanophile. He enjoys taking vacations with his family to New York and is a close follower of U.S. politics. A picture of Hillary Clinton with his two teenage daughters sits on his desk while a large black-and-white photo of Muhammad Ali, presented to Khan by the mayor of Louisville, hangs on the wall behind him. There is also a bulletin board, tucked to the side, covered in dozens of thank-you cards sent by his U.S. well-wishers from across the pond.
Unexpectedly, the 47-year-old Khan, a former human rights lawyer who was born and raised in south London, has become one of the leaders of the anti-Trump #resistance. From more than 3,000 miles away, the mayor of London has repeatedly denounced the bouffant-haired occupant of the Oval Office in Washington, D.C. for his bigotry and ignorance.
The contrast between the two men could not be starker: the son of an immigrant bus driver versus the son of a millionaire property developer; the brown-skinned Muslim versus the white nationalist Islamophobe; the progressive Khan, who launched the #LondonIsOpen campaign, versus the conservative Trump, who wants to build a wall. While the president of the United States is known for ranting and raving, whether in person or online, the mayor of London is preternaturally calm and always coherent. “Never off message, always to the point,” to quote from a newspaper profile of him.
The feud between the two of them began the week after Khan became the first Muslim to be elected mayor of a Western capital city in May 2016. The new London mayor rejected Trump’s suggestion that he could be an exception to the latter’s proposed Muslim travel ban, saying: “This isn’t just about me — it’s about my friends, my family, and everyone who comes from a background similar to mine, anywhere in the world.”
Khan also referred to the then-GOP presidential candidate’s view of Islam as “ignorant,” prompting the thin-skinned Trump to respond by challenging the mayor to an IQ test.
“I think they’re very rude statements and frankly, tell him I will remember those statements,” an angry Trump told interviewer Piers Morgan.
And remember them he did. In the summer of 2017, in the wake of a brutal terrorist attack on London Bridge, now-President Trump reignited his row with the London mayor, taking to Twitter to lambast Khan’s supposedly complacent response to the bloodshed:
At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is "no reason to be alarmed!"
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2017
It was, of course, a complete and utter distortion of the mayor’s words — Khan had told Londoners that there was “no reason to be alarmed” by the “increased police presence” on the streets of the capital. His spokesperson, however, told reporters that the mayor had “more important things to do than respond to Donald Trump’s ill-informed tweet.”
So the president’s next move? To double down on his attack and dub Khan’s response to his smear “pathetic”:
Pathetic excuse by London Mayor Sadiq Khan who had to think fast on his "no reason to be alarmed" statement. MSM is working hard to sell it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2017
It was a bizarre episode — the president of the United States attacking the mayor of the capital city of a close ally, in the wake of a terrorist attack, rather than offering condolences or solidarity.
Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, said similar things as Khan — about “business as usual,” staying strong, not being divided — after a suicide bomber killed 23 people in his city a month earlier, in May 2017. Why, I wonder aloud, as I sit across from Khan in his office, didn’t Trump attack Burnham? Does Khan believe he was subjected to online abuse from the president — and also from the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr. — because he is brown and Muslim, while Burnham is neither?
“That would be for Donald Trump to answer,” says the mayor of London. There’s a pause. And then a half-smile. “It’s the Mrs. Merton question: What has Donald Trump got against this Labour politician of Asian origin and Islamic faith?”
The attack on London Bridge was one of four terrorist attacks to hit the U.K. capital last year, killing 14 people between them. Three of the four attacks were carried out by Muslim extremists, and the mayor of London has spent much of the past 12 months attending funerals and memorial services not only for the victims of those horrific attacks, but also of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire, which took the lives of 71 Londoners.
How hard a year for him was 2017? “Really hard,” he replies, before telling me that he is an “eternal optimist” and explaining how “you judge individual city by how they respond to challenges … and I’m really proud of the way we responded.”
What does he think is behind the recent surge of Islamic State-inspired terror attacks in the U.K. and, especially, in the capital?
“Firstly, when you look at what’s happening around the world, a large number of global cities have faced terrorism or thwarted terrorist attacks: Paris, Berlin, New York, other parts of the world, not just London,” he says. “What you’re now seeing is a shift in the activities of so-called ISIS/Daesh-inspired acts of terrorism. A variety of reasons given by the experts. One is that as things are changing on the ground in Syria and Iraq, the actions of those who are there are changing.”
Then, he adds, there is the “ease with which someone can be radicalized, brainwashed, groomed, in their bedroom, through the internet.” Plus, the “crude nature of some of these attacks” means “the opportunity is there for someone who wants to cause havoc and commit acts of terror.”
In 2006, the year after the 7/7 London bombings, which killed 52 people in the capital, Khan, who was then a backbench member of parliament for the Labour Party, signed his name to an open letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair, which stated that U.K. foreign policy, especially in relation to Iraq and Israel, risked “putting civilians at increased risk both in the U.K. and abroad” and provided “ammunition to extremists.”
“What has Donald Trump got against this Labour politician of Asian origin and Islamic faith?”
More than a decade later, does he still believe foreign policy grievances play a major role in inciting and provoking terrorist attacks at home? Blaming U.K. foreign policy for terror attacks in the U.K. has always been a bit of a taboo for centrist politicians — not just in the U.K., but in the United States too — so it isn’t perhaps surprising that, as mayor, Khan now takes a more cautious line. He points out to me how the 7/7 bombers left behind videos in which “the words they were saying were quite clearly linked with foreign policy,” whereas “the sources of motivations for [the 2017 attackers] can’t yet be properly identified because there are ongoing investigations.”
Khan calls the ISIS-inspired attackers who brought death and destruction to his city “nihilists” who believe in a “clash of civilizations” between the Western and Muslim-majority countries. “I don’t accept that it’s as simplistic as to say that if we change our foreign policy, it will lead to bad guys going away.”
But isn’t it equally simplistic to assume that anger over Western military interventions in the Middle East and beyond play no role in the radicalization process? The mayor argues that the various factors contributing to radicalization are “complex” and that “it’s not simply foreign policy because it could be argued that one of the criticisms from some of these radicalizers [is] that nobody is intervening in Syria, which is very different from the view of Iraq.”
Trump, of course, has his own “simplistic” approach to the problem of political violence perpetrated by groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda: He dismisses it all as “radical Islamic terrorism.” How does Khan feel when he hears Islam being blamed for acts of terror and barbarism?
The mayor, who is a proud and practicing Muslim, tells me that we cannot escape the “statistical fact” that a significant number of the acts of terror committed around the world are committed by Muslims who are “using Islam, or using their interpretation of Islam, to justify those acts.”
He continues: “That’s not to say that Islam is responsible, but their interpretation of Islam is used as a motivation. I’m not saying that you and I are responsible because we’re Muslims or you and I should apologize for what’s going on. I do think, though, we can be more effective in explaining … what true Islam is.”
The mayor also believes that more effort and energy needs to be put into countering the divisive narrative of Al Qaeda and ISIS recruiters in the West — and, once again, he isn’t afraid to take a knock at the president of the United States in the process.
“We are in danger of amplifying the narrative that Daesh/so-called ISIS have about a ‘clash of civilizations,’ ‘the West hates us,’ by some of the language that Donald Trump has used. He is, if you like, repeating what so-called ISIS/Daesh are saying: ‘The West and Islam are irreconcilable.’ ‘You can’t be a proud American and a proud Muslim.’”
Got that? The president of the United States talks like ISIS, according to the mayor of London. I guess the feud is still on. Reminding me that Trump wanted to “ban all Muslims from coming to America,” Khan adds: “People forget that was how he campaigned. His campaign was very different to the [executive] order.”
During that presidential campaign, I interviewed former CIA Chief Michael Hayden and asked him whether candidate Trump was behaving like a “recruiting sergeant” for violent extremist groups such as ISIS. Hayden agreed that he was. Does Khan believe the same? While he avoids using the phrase himself, the mayor does seem to concur that Trump is a recruiting sergeant for ISIS.
“One of the things that so-called ISIS/Daesh want is for an increase of Islamophobic attacks; they want a backlash against proud Muslims, proud Westerners,” he says. “They want Muslims to be the victims of Islamophobic attacks so they start believing the false narrative that ‘the West hates us’ and ‘it’s not possible to be a law-abiding Muslim and a law-abiding Brit or American.’”
Trump’s rhetoric, he repeats, is “very similar to the rhetoric used by so-called ISIS/Daesh.”
In November, the president retweeted a series of messages and videos from Jayda Fransen, deputy leader of the far-right Britain First party who has been convicted of hate crimes against Muslims. Neo-Nazi terrorist Thomas Mair, the murderer of Labour MP Jo Cox, repeatedly shouted “Britain First” as he shot and stabbed the MP in the summer of 2016.
For Khan, a former Labour MP, this is where it becomes very personal. “The president of the USA has retweeted a tweet from the deputy leader of Britain First, whose name was prayed in aid by the man who murdered my friend Jo Cox,” he says, leaning forward in his chair. “The president of the USA is amplifying that message of hate, intolerance, and division.”
Is it only a message of “hate, intolerance, and division,” I ask, or is it a racist message as well? Does Khan believe Trump is a racist?
“One of the reasons I spoke out against [Trump’s] retweets was that he was amplifying a message of division and hatred, and he should be condemned for that.”
“One of the reasons I spoke out against his retweets was that he was amplifying a message of division and hatred, and he should be condemned for that. I was disappointed that notwithstanding his retweets, the invitation for a state visit — not an ordinary visit, not a working relationship visit, a state visit where the red carpet is rolled out — still stands from the prime minister.” The invite, he adds, “beggars belief.”
Should he not have a state visit because he is a racist, though?
Khan dodges the question again. “He should not have a state visit because there are too many things that he believes that we disagree with.”
Would he accept, though, that Trump’s beliefs are racist, and not just divisive?
“The president of the United States shouldn’t be retweeting a tweet from Britain First,” Khan replies. “This president of United States — bearing in mind all the things that he says that we disagree with — shouldn’t be having a state visit to the U.K. I think the prime minister should rescind that state visit [invitation].”
I persist. Would he call Trump a racist or not?
There is a pause. “I am not sure I would call him a racist, but I would call him out for some of the tweets he has retweeted.”
I switch tack: If Trump were to accept the invitation and visit London, would the elected mayor of the city — not just as a Muslim, but as a liberal, a democrat, and a self-professed feminist — join the protests against him?
After pointing out that he attended the Women’s March in London last January, Khan tells me that he “would have to wait and see what form the visit takes and what it entails.”
But he’s not ruling out taking to the street himself, in protest against a presidential visit?
“My previous view,” explains Khan, “is that I would like to educate him on what it means to be a pluralist.” Now, however: “The question is whether his views will change. We’ll have to wait and see.”
He continues: “One of the great things about this city and the values we have and share with our American cousins is the right to protest. Of course there will be protests, and we will make sure they’re peaceful protests.”
He wouldn’t tell people not to protest the president of the United States, would he? In the interests of diplomatic decorum or maintaining the so-called special relationship between the U.K. and the U.S.?
“No, no, no,” he says. “I encourage people to be active citizens.”
Shortly after my interview, Trump announced on Twitter that he had decided to cancel his planned “working visit” to London next month, to open the new U.S embassy building, but the British government then subsequently confirmed that “an invitation for a state visit has been extended and accepted.”
The president of the United States, of course, is far from the biggest challenge or threat that the mayor of London faces. Top of the list is Brexit — the decision to quit the European Union, which Khan continues to vocally oppose and which now threatens London’s status as the financial capital of Europe.
Many have argued that the Brexit referendum result in the U.K. and the Trump election victory in the U.S. were driven by similar forces: economic grievance, racial and cultural resentment, a backlash against immigration and globalization. So how do center-left politicians such as the mayor of London respond to such challenges? To our current age of extremes? Is there a better, grander narrative on offer from progressives and liberals?
Khan, ever the optimist and the pragmatist, recognizes the scale of the political challenge but isn’t willing to acknowledge that all is lost. “There has been a rise of narrow, nationalist, populist movements across the Western world which has led to political success: Brexit, Donald Trump, Austria, other parts of the world” he concedes, before adding: “But there were also some examples where progressives have won: whether it’s [Justin] Trudeau in Canada [or] [Emmanuel] Macron in France.”
He continues: “My view is this this: We have got to recognize that lots of people are not benefitting from the forces of globalization. We have got to recognize that lots of people have genuine grievances, based upon inability to get decent health care, inability to [get] affordable housing, inability to get their sons and daughters, nephews and nieces into decent schools.”
Recognizing these grievances is one thing; addressing them quite another. “I suspect that those parts of the country that voted to leave the EU aren’t going to get the benefits they thought they were going to get when they decided to vote to leave the EU and they were sold a pup,” he says. “That’s why this thing where we try and give the impression that we have a magic solution to people’s problems by playing on their fears doesn’t work.”
Whether you’re in “the Rust Belt in America, whether you’re in these northeast, northwest, towns in England who voted to leave the EU, I am not sure if those voters have realized yet [that] they were sold a pup.”
He continues: “That’s why the job of those of us who are progressives is to take the time to explain, firstly to accept there is a problem, don’t pretend there isn’t a problem, and then to try and address [it].”
Citing former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Khan says the role of a good politician is to be a “teacher and educator.” He points to his fellow mayors across the West — “from [Anne] Hidalgo to Bill de Blasio to [Eric] Garcetti in LA” — who are making a public and passionate case for a progressive and open politics. “We’re doing that in London as well.”
Garcetti is widely believed to be considering a presidential run. The polls suggest Khan is one of the most popular politicians in the country, so does he harbor his own ambitions for the prime minister’s job? He has said in the past that he ran for mayor because he was a Londoner who loved his city — but isn’t he also a Briton who loves his country? Wouldn’t he also want to be PM at some stage, too?
He laughs. “No, why would I give up the job I love and am making a difference with …”
I interrupt him: Can’t he be prime minister once he’s done being mayor?
“No, I’m enjoying being the mayor,” he responds. “I think we’ve still got a huge amount of work to do.”
So is he saying the mayoral job is the last political job of his career?
Khan doesn’t take the bait. “For me, being a mayor is a destination job, not a stepping stone.”
It’s a nice line but the reality is that Khan — partly thanks to his inspiring backstory, partly thanks to his rousing feud with Trump — is now a figure of global significance. Trump’s attacks won’t silence this mayor; in fact, they boost his popularity and influence both at home and abroad. Whether as mayor of London or from another position he doesn’t want to admit is on his horizon, Sadiq Khan isn’t planning to back down anytime soon.