Zac Goldsmith should distance himself from the racist smear-by-association of Sadiq Khan
In the past week there has been a slew of stories attempting to link Labour's London mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan to Islamic extremists.
The strength of these "links" has been flimsy at best and almost non-existent at worst. The stories, which appeared in multiple newspapers within days of each other, seek to associate Khan with the views of other people he has either briefly met, been loosely related to, or in one case merely seen in the distance.
The Evening Standard were the first to attempt to make a link between Khan and extremists. Under the headline: "Exposed: Sadiq Khan's family links to extremist organisation," the Standard created an entire story based on the views and actions of a man who one of Khan's sisters used to be married to.
Now the idea that Khan is responsible not only for the views of his siblings, but also for the views of their former partners is obviously ludicrous. But as Khan's spokesperson points out at the very end of the article, Khan has not even seen his former brother-in-law for ten years. So quite why Khan carries any responsibility for things this man said or did twenty years ago is difficult to understand. Nevertheless the Standard devoted an entire two pages to their story.
Double-page spread in tonight's Standard on someone who used to be married to one of Sadiq Khan's sisters. pic.twitter.com/wP52NcDPc9
— Adam Bienkov (@AdamBienkov) February 12, 2016
This article was followed by a long string of other stories in rival papers which also attempted to link Khan to Islamic extremists, either through the cases he fought as a human rights lawyer, or through the events he attended as chairman of Liberty.
Most of these stories were fairly predictable and indeed had been expected by Khan's campaign for months. However, there was one story which was so flimsy it deserves special attention.
Earlier this week the Daily Mail published an "exclusive" story which attempted to paint Khan as an extremist based on his attendance at the Global Peace and Unity (GPU) conference in London. Now there are legitimate reasons to question Khan's attendance at this conference. The organisers have invited people with questionable and bigoted views to speak in the past, and there's a case to be made that Khan should have refused to appear.
Indeed the Mail quotes Conservative MP Steve Brine as saying: "When it comes to his fitness to be London mayor, people can draw their own conclusions."
And indeed they can. But if Khan is to be judged as an "extremist" merely for attending the GPU conference, then so must many other senior politicians. In fact, here's a message of support sent to the GPU conference organisers by another very senior London politician back in 2013.
"I am delighted to send a message of support to the organisers and attendees at the Global Peace & Unity Event," the politician begins.
"This hugely significant event in London does much to promote global cohesion across all communities; it increases understanding and encourages dialogue throughout the Muslim community and beyond… My best wishes once again and I hope this event is a huge success."
So who is this shady figure willing to support such a questionable event? Jeremy Corbyn? John McDonnell? No, it's the current Conservative London mayor Boris Johnson.
So is Boris an extremist too? Well apparently not. Because while Boris merely wrote a message of support for the GPU, others like Khan addressed the conference floor. And it is this fact which the Mail use to attack Khan.
But rather than concentrate on anything Khan actually said at the podium, the paper instead concentrates on the actions of people watching him in the crowd.
According to the Mail members of the audience were seen waving flags which are "often associated with the Taliban".
"The footage shows the flag flying openly during the MP's speech, without complaint from any other member of the audience, the organisers, or Mr Khan himself," the paper adds.
But if Khan is to be labeled an extremist because of the actions of one person in a huge arena, then surely other politicians who addressed the conference must be similarly labelled.
In fact other footage from the GPU's YouTube channel shows the then attorney general Dominic Grieve addressing the conference.
As the camera cuts away to somebody waving another flag which appears very similar to the one (in the Mail's words) "often associated with the Taliban," Grieve tells the crowd that: "This global peace and unity event provides an excellent opportunity to further the growth of interfaith tolerance, help create better understanding of Islam and its ethical foundations and for non-Muslims."
So is Dominic Grieve to be labelled an extremist as well?
Other attendees shown in clips online included the then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Lord Charlie Falconer and Labour MP Stephen Timms. Other former speakers listed on the GPU's website include several senior police officers in the Metropolitan Police.
Yet while not a single one of these figures is attacked, or even mentioned by the Mail in their piece, Khan is for some reason singled out and condemned for his appearance at the conference.
So what is it about Khan that merits such attention? Is it his views? This can hardly be the case given that Khan has been a vocal opponent of religious extremism for years. Could it be his prominence? Again this seems highly unlikely given that more senior politicians such as Boris have been given a pass? Surely the only viable explanation is that he's a senior Labour politician who happens to be Muslim.
Indeed taken together there is something very worrying about the series of stories that have appeared in the press over the past week. By attempting to paint Khan as an extremist through highly flimsy links and associations, the press have inflamed the ugliest fears and spite of those who are opposed to any Muslim politician being elected.
Some dogs hear the whistle clearer than others. pic.twitter.com/JLPY7tNR0D
— Adam Bienkov (@AdamBienkov) February 14, 2016
Of course the press can do what they like and sources close to Khan say he has deliberately not gone on the attack against any of the papers printing these stories over the past week. Unlike his predecessor Ken Livingstone, who often made the mistake of giving negative press stories about himself far greater publicity through repeated complaints and denunciations, Khan's team are merely letting these attacks run their course.
But it does raise concerns about who exactly is behind these stories. While no spokesperson for Zac Goldsmith has publicly commented on them, his campaign have highlighted them through their "Sadiq Watch" website. It also seems a remarkable coincidence that so many different papers could have suddenly all unearthed such similar stories at exactly the same time.
London is generally a very tolerant city. Yet polling last year showed that a significant percentage of the population do still harbour prejudiced views toward Muslims. This is a worrying fact and it's one that all politicians in this campaign should be wary of inflaming.
Last month Khan's campaign accused the Tories of a "racist dog-whistle" by labelling Sadiq as "radical and divisive" in Tory campaign literature. Goldsmith and his supporters have denied this and insisted that he would never be associated with any attempt to inflame Islamophobic feelings towards Khan. Hopefully that's true. But as more and more attempts to smear Khan as an extremist emerge, it's increasingly hard to believe that the Tories didn't know what they were doing by labelling Khan in this way.
There are many legitimate criticisms that Goldsmith and the Tories can make of Khan, none of which have to do with his religion.
Goldsmith should now concentrate on those and publicly distance himself from any further attempt to label Khan an "extremist" or any further attempt to whip up prejudice against somebody who could soon become London's first Muslim mayor.