Khan, the first Muslim MP to be elected in London, set out his case for why it would be helpful for the capital to have a Muslim mayor just days after the terrorist attack on British tourists in Tunisia and ahead of the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 bombings next week.
The former cabinet minister is the only Muslim running to be the Labour candidate. Syed Kamall, an MEP and potential Conservative candidate, is also a Muslim.
Khan, the son of a bus driver from Pakistan, said the extremist bombers who killed 52 people on 7/7 were against British values and the British way of life, so electing a Muslim mayor would send a “phenomenal message and would say something about our confidence as a city”.
“If Londoners decided to do that, the message it would send to the rest of the world would be quite awesome,” he told the Guardian. “The reality is that we are a beacon in all sorts of ways. I think it’s just worth thinking about the impact it could have. It shows the confidence of Londoners – that we don’t simply tolerate but respect each other.
“The idea that the mayor of London could be son of an immigrant, son of a bus driver, ethnic minority – and by the way, of Islamic faith – would speak volumes, particularly when you bear in mind 10 years ago these four men wanted to destroy our way of life.
“What sort of message would it send if Londoners had the confidence, tolerance and respect to vote for someone of a different faith [from most of them]? I’m a Londoner first and foremost, but it would show the haters in Iraq and the haters in Syria what sort of country we are: a beacon. And I think the reality is sometimes you need cool, calm voices, which is what I’d hope to provide.”
Khan said he did not want to criticise either David Cameron, or Theresa May, the home secretary, over their response to the terror attack in Tunisia or their policy on tackling Islamic extremism, because he believed their intentions were good.
But he said politicians did need to be careful about their rhetoric – a concern highlighted in much stronger terms by former Conservative cabinet minister Sayeeda Warsi, who warned that Cameron was in danger of alienating moderate Muslims.
Khan did, however, recall his frustration with the reaction of Tony Blair to the 7/7 terror attacks, when the then-prime minister called in the newly elected MP and the three other Muslim Labour members of the House of Commons.
“One of my criticisms of Tony Blair was when he called the four MPs of Islamic faith into No 10 and sat us round the table and said – to Mohammad Sarwar, Khalid Mahmood, Shahid Malik and myself – it was our responsibility,” Khan said.
“I said: ‘No, it’s not. Why have you called us in? I don’t blame you for the Ku Klux Klan. Why are you blaming me for the four bombers on 7/7?’ Which is why, after he called us in, and there were lots of cameras outside waiting to speak to us, my three colleagues spoke to the cameras and I walked away. This is a problem that is a mainstream problem for us all.”
Khan said he thought there had been progress in attitudes since 7/7 and he was proud of the sense of solidarity between Muslims and non-Muslims after the attack 10 years ago. Londoners in particular “got it” that there was no need for Muslims to apologise or say “not in my name”, he added.
The MP said everyone in London now had a friend or colleague who was a Muslim, had a better understanding about fasting during Ramadan and nobody in the city “gives you funny looks because they think you’re a terrorist or a friend of a terrorist”.
Speaking about how the UK responds to the Tunisian terror attack that killed 30 Britons, Khan said the short-term concern must be the victims and their families, while the longer-term response should be maintaining good relations between the police and Muslim communities, and greater precautions against online grooming by religious extremists.
“Bearing in mind the anniversary of 7/7, 10 years on, we still have a case where a 17-year-old Yorkshireman is going to Iraq and blowing himself up, mums with children are going to Syria because they think it’s the land of milk and honey. We still have got huge problems here,” he said.
The Tooting MP said that as a parent of two teenage daughters he understood the home secretary’s aims when she said she wanted parents to report grooming by extremists to police.
“If, God forbid, I saw my nephews or nieces or children being groomed, I would report it to the authorities. I want action to be taken against those on the other side of the net and with the ISP [internet service provider] maybe. We need to make sure communities have the confidence to come forward. It is a challenge for the police to be approachable and are seen to treat people well,” he said.
Khan said his biggest concern was grooming taking place in the “ungoverned spaces – the bedroom, internet, front room” rather than in mosques and schools, where more could be done to address it openly.
“That’s where we’ve got to give young people resilience, so if there’s a charismatic criminal with a perverse ideology trying to groom them, they can say: ‘Hang on, I know that’s not Islam, I know that’s not the way to get to heaven.’
“Just like if you’re the parent of young children not to take sweets from strangers, you teach young children not to be taken in by flattery in a chatroom.”
Khan also warned that the response to the latest terrorist atrocities should not be the passage of draconian new surveillance laws, just like the attempt to introduce 90-day pre-trial detention was the wrong answer from Blair to 7/7.
“Legislation passed in haste is often bad,” he said. “One or two Tory backbenchers raised the issue today, saying clearly we need to be snooping on everyone’s data. That would be a mistake. History tells us that.”