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London's First Muslim Mayor Faces Challenges Amid Anti-Immigrant Sentiment

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise in parts of Europe, but London voters were having none of it last month when they elected a new mayor. They went for human rights lawyer named Sadiq Khan, the son of a Pakistani bus driver. NPR's Peter Kenyon went to working-class South London for this look at London's first Muslim mayor.

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PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Two young boxers come together under the watchful eye of a trainer at the Earlsfield Amateur Boxing Club on a recent Sunday morning. Sadiq Khan trained at this all volunteer gym run by his brother Sid. Sid Khan points to a wall full of photos of famous alumni, including one of Britain's best known heavyweight champs Frank Bruno.

Any advice for your brother now that he's in the mayor's office? Different kind of boxing, huh?

SID KHAN: Completely different (laughter).

KENYON: In the race to replace Mayor Boris Johnson, male, pale and rich, as some of his detractors put it, London voters could have continued in roughly the same vein with the conservative party's Zac Goldsmith, the Eton-educated son of a billionaire.

Instead, they went for Labour Party MP Sadiq Khan, with his public education, hard-working immigrant parents and long familiarity with the streets of South London. It's training that some think will stand him in good stead in the rough-and-tumble of British politics.

Around here, Khan's religion isn't an issue, but it was during the campaign. Here's Prime Minister David Cameron in Parliament attacking Khan for associating with the Muslim cleric Cameron wrongly identified as a supporter of the Islamic State. Cameron refers to Khan by the area he represents in Parliament, a place called Tooting.

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DAVID CAMERON: The honorable member for Tooting has appeared on a platform with him nine times. This man supports IS.

KENYON: The prime minister later apologized to the cleric, and the attack backfired. Soon after Khan was elected mayor, Cameron joined him at a campaign event about the upcoming EU referendum, calling Khan a proud Muslim, a proud Brit and a proud Londoner.

Khan neither hides nor emphasizes his religion. He regularly attends mosque, but he's also supported same-sex marriage, a vote that earned him death threats. What he'd rather talk about, however, is the cost of housing, the state of London's public transit system, and narrowing been the vast gap between London's haves and have-nots.

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SADIQ KHAN: City Hall might have been a few stops up the Northern line, but to a young Londoner like me, it seemed a million miles away. I owe London everything. I look into the future. Our burning ambition must be to ensure that all Londoners have the same opportunities.

KENYON: The rest of the world may be focusing on the fact that London's new mayor is a Muslim, but here in Tooting, South London, there's mainly local pride and not just among Muslims.

DARREN JONES: Yeah, he's climbing the ladder all the way to the top, isn't he, yeah?

KENYON: Forty-eight-year-old bus driver Darren Jones says the new mayor's Islamic faith isn't that big of a deal.

JONES: Not for me, it's not, no, no. I don't think so. I mean, you get the people anti-this and anti-that, but no, it doesn't bother me.

KENYON: The number 44 bus winds through South London from Victoria Station to Tooting. That's the route Sadiq Khan's father drove for 25 years. Riding on top of the bright red double-decker, Amal Warsame adjusts her headscarf and applauds London's willingness to accept a Muslim mayor. She does think his religion is important.

AMAL WARSAME: Yeah because having someone who not only represents the city but also represents our religion is very important because it shows that, like, not all Muslims are, like, bad people or whatever, do you know? So yeah, I think it's a really good thing.

KENYON: The burden of representing an entire religion may be unavoidable for a mayor coming to grips with a Metropolis facing expanding needs and shrinking budgets. On the other hand, Sadiq Khan is also seen as proof that London's reputation as one of the world's most successfully diverse cities is more than just a talking point. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.