London mayoral hopeful Sadiq Khan has spoken for the first time about his discomfort representing “unsavoury individuals” as a human rights lawyer, but launched a passionate fightback against “desperate” attempts to link him to extremism, writes Jack Mendel.

The Labour candidate’s comments came in a wide-ranging interview with Jewish News, in which he said his personal experience of hate crime gave him an insight into the threats facing London’s Jewish community. He said Jewish Londoners suffer “more than most at the hands of the extremists”.

Khan, who is battling Tory Zac Goldsmith to replace Boris Johnson as London’s mayor, vowed to “be the British Muslim who takes the fight to the extremists”.

The Daily Mail this week revealed footage of the Tooting MP speaking at an event in 2008 at which “the black flag of jihad” was brandished, while the Evening Standard published a double-page spread on his former brother-in-law’s links to an extremist organisation – something he said shows “how desperate my opponents are”.

Khan, who has extensively reached out to London’s Jewish community, told Jewish News that some of the views of those he represented as a lawyer made him feel “deeply uncomfortable”. As a solicitor Khan represented Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has called Jews “bloodsuckers” and referred to Judaism as “a gutter religion”. 

Khan also acted as a legal adviser for the Muslim Council of Britain during a Home Affairs Select Committee meeting in 2004, when he called into questions quotes attributed to Yusuf al-Qaradawi – who supports Hamas suicide bombings, and was banned from future visits from the UK. At the committee meeting he said: “Quotes attributed to this man may or may not be true.”

He told Jewish News: “I have never hidden the fact that I was a human rights lawyer. Unfortunately, that means that I had to speak on behalf of some unsavoury individuals. Some of their views made me feel deeply uncomfortable, but it was my job.” He added: “Even the worst people deserve a legal defence.”

Khan praised the work of the Community Security Trust during a visit to learn more about its work yesterday. He told Jewish News: “I know Jewish Londoners suffer more than most at the hands of the extremists and I will be the British Muslim who takes the fight to the extremists.”

The rise of anti-Semitism was “deeply distressing and upsetting,” he said, adding: “I’ve been the victim of racism. I understand some of the things that the Jewish community is going through.” 

On tackling extremism, the would-be City Hall boss said it was important “not to allow people to come to our country who will send messages of hatred,” while on campus, he said he would work “to stop preachers of hate going”.

And addressing his party’s relationship with the Jewish community, he added: “I accept that the Labour Party in the last two elections is not the natural place where Londoners of the Jewish faith have placed their vote. So that’s why it’s really important for me to spend time understanding the issues, talking and listening to the Jewish community.”