Why Zac Goldsmith’s “extremism” attacks on Sadiq Khan were wrong

Bagehot in The Economist:

There is a broader point here. Politicians are human and thus possess hinterlands, blind spots and inconsistencies. By definition they have an overdeveloped appetite for approval that prompts them to feign sympathy, delve into parts of society where they would not otherwise venture and humour certain audiences when they ought to avoid or upbraid them. How many Conservative or Labour candidates, confronted on the doorstep by an elderly voter ranting about “the coloureds”, would call him what he is—a racist—to his face? Moreover, no politician can exist in a hermetically sealed vacuum. Britons broadly accept that in their rulers. Some politicians have wealthy backgrounds that might inhibit their understanding of material insecurity, or religious backgrounds that make them intolerant of alternative lifestyles. Many are closer than is politic—or at least reflective of the median voter’s experiences—to bankers, strikers, bible-bashers, imams, die-hard environmentalists or other representatives of esoteric social segments.

Yet as a rule we tolerate, indeed often welcome, such florae in Britain’s civic life because their tendrils extend deep into its society. Mr Goldsmith, who has links to plenty of people unsuited to setting the agenda in City Hall, exemplifies this. His father was a hardline Eurosceptic accused of being corporate raider. His former brother-in-law, Imran Khan, has all sorts of links to Islamism through his political career in Pakistan. The magazine Mr Goldsmith edited, the Ecologist, carries articles opposing economic growth, cheering on activists who break the law and looking approvingly on third-world insurrectionists. Such connections are among the factors cited when journalists describe him, approvingly, as an “independent minded” MP.

None of this compares directly to Mr Khan’s links to Muslim radicals. But while that subject is more troubling than, say, ecological extremism, should it be treated so differently? I venture (as I did in a column in January) that the very problems of British Islam make it all the more pressing to draw its representatives into the country’s politics. Can Britain combat the self-exclusion of some of its Muslims, the anti-Semitism that infects their politics and the radicalisation of the most naive among them without prominent Muslims in public life who have first-hand experience of these problems and their causes? Can the establishment support a new generation of moderates—including the liberal, telegenic imams to whose rise Jonathan Arkush, the president of the Jewish Board of Deputies, drew my attention only last week—while dismissing Mr Khan?

It is hard to imagine a successful, liberal Muslim politician who, as she advanced from her neighbourhood to the national stage, never crossed paths with the sort of reactionary that so dominated Mr Goldsmith’s criticisms of Mr Khan. And who, given British politicians’ inclination to indulge their audiences, publicly challenged every last Islamic conservative that she encountered. Which poses the question: if London’s new mayor is the “wrong” sort of Muslim to hold a major public office, what does the “right” one look like?

 

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