London — As Britain engages in fierce debates centered on national identity, it is also confronting challenges to traditional norms of political discourse, with issues of race and religion surfacing more overtly and provocatively.
The looming referendum on whether to leave the European Union, the place of Muslims in British society at a time when Islamic terrorists have carried out attacks in Europe, the broader question of the island nation’s openness to immigration and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict all have recently provoked heated commentary about discrimination and tolerance.
Like most European countries, many of which are facing growing populist movements on the far right, Britain has always grappled with a strain of racial and religious bias. But the political calendar and global events have combined to push the topic to center stage.
President Obama, during his three-day visit here that ended on Sunday, was the focus of an extraordinary squabble that centered on his Kenyan father and attitudes toward British imperialism.
Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor of London and leader of the campaign against British membership in the European Union, responded to Mr. Obama’s robust call for Britain to stay in the bloc with an opinion piece centering around Mr. Obama’s removal of a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office.
Mr. Johnson suggested that Mr. Obama might have been motivated by “the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British Empire, of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.”
That comment provoked furious claims that Mr. Johnson, often mentioned as a potential successor to Prime Minister David Cameron, was making a smear based on Mr. Obama’s race in order to undermine his arguments in favor of Britain remaining in the bloc.
Britain’s foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, told the Telegraph icily about Mr. Johnson: “People who aspire to hold offices of great responsibility do have to show that even under pressure they retain their cool and they don’t step over any red lines.”
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Mr. Obama neatly parried the thrust without responding in kind, saying that he thought even Britons would understand that he might find it “appropriate” to have a bust of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. instead.
But the dispute touched deeper chords here about whether Britain can better control its borders and defend itself from terrorism from within or outside the European Union.
Many of those who favor a British exit, or “Brexit,” argue that only outside the European Union can Britain truly control its borders and limit immigration. But behind the anxiety about immigration is not only fear of losing jobs to foreigners, but of potential terrorist acts carried out by Muslim extremists with European Union citizenship who have gone to Syria to embrace jihad and then have returned to Europe and its freedom of travel.
That freedom is limited by Britain’s refusal to join the Schengen passport-free zone, meaning that all foreigners who wish to enter Britain can be checked. But it is also true that one or more of the men responsible for the November terrorist attacks in Paris, reportedly including the apparent ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, were able to come to Britain the previous summer without difficulty.
All of those anxieties have surfaced in what has become a nasty campaign to succeed Mr. Johnson as mayor of London. In both the exit debate and the mayoral race, it is the side that is thought to be losing that has ratcheted up the rhetoric, at times verging on racism and Islamophobia, that has upset many Britons.
The Labour Party candidate for mayor, Sadiq Khan, has been attacked by his Conservative opponent, Zac Goldsmith, for previous appearances alongside Islamic extremists — criticism repeated by Mr. Cameron in Parliament.
The contrast between Mr. Khan, 45, and Mr. Goldsmith, 41, is stark. Mr. Khan, the son of Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, was raised with seven siblings in a public housing unit with three bedrooms. His father drove a London bus, and his mother was a seamstress.
Mr. Goldsmith lived in an 18th-century mansion; attended Eton (where he was thrown out for smoking cannabis); and inherited a fortune from his billionaire father, the tycoon Sir James Goldsmith.
Were Mr. Khan to succeed in the May 5 election, he would be the first Muslim to lead the city that dominates Britain’s economic, cultural and political life, and where nearly one in eight residents is Muslim.
But his past as a human rights lawyer and activist has been highlighted by Mr. Goldsmith, who describes Mr. Khan as a “threat to London,” accusing him of “appalling judgment.” Mr. Goldsmith has suggested that by speaking on the same platform as those with radical views or who had been accused of supporting terrorists, Mr. Khan gave tacit support to extremism.
In response, Mr. Khan has defended his commitment to human rights. He claims that Mr. Goldsmith wants to divide communities and accuses him of targeting voters, especially Indian voters, along ethnic lines during a “desperate, negative campaign” intended to inflame anxiety about Muslims.
Mr. Cameron recently joined the argument, telling Parliament that Mr. Khan had appeared publicly nine times with Suliman Gani, an imam who Mr. Cameron claimed “supports I.S.,” referring to the Islamic State.
Mr. Khan has acknowledged contacts with Mr. Gani, a constituent. But Mr. Khan said that his support for plans to legalize same-sex marriage prompted Mr. Gani to campaign against him, and that Mr. Khan helped remove Mr. Gani as an imam.
Mr. Gani called the allegation a “smear on my good name” and described the Islamic State as a “terrorist and inhumane organization.” He also released a photograph of himself alongside Mr. Goldsmith.
In an interview, Mr. Khan acknowledged that the accusations may have done him damage. “If I have given the impression, somehow, by being a human rights lawyer that somehow I have similar views to people I abhor, that would be something that I would regret,” he said.
Part of the background to the Khan debate is not about Islam at all but elements of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. The party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been criticized for not doing enough to stamp out anti-Semitic views in the party.
The difficulty is defining the line between anti-Semitism and principled support for Palestine, opposition to Israeli settlements in occupied territory and “anti-Zionism.”
Mr. Corbyn, who has been a fierce critic of Israel, has spoken out against anti-Semitism in the party, but critics say he has not taken tough enough action to expel those who evince it.
The same issue has come up again recently with the election of Malia Bouattia, 28, as the first black Muslim woman to lead the National Union of Students.
For her supporters, her election is a victory for diversity and radical politics. But Jewish students’ groups are alarmed, citing her criticism of the influence of “Zionist-led media,” her description of her Birmingham University as “something of a Zionist outpost” because of its active Jewish organizations and her talk at a meeting that was advertised with a poster featuring Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah.
Within a few hours of her victory, students at Cambridge called for a referendum on whether their union should quit the national body, describing her election as “a horrifying message to Jewish students.”
Ms. Bouattia has denied any anti-Semitism and has offered to meet with her critics.