Scotland’s Muslim community, like the rest of the country, is divided over independence referendum

As Scotland heads towards its landmark constitutional referendum, Scottish Muslims seem to be as divided as the rest of the nation on which way to vote.
The SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond during a visit to Glasgow Central Mosque. Andrew Milligan / PA / Jun 2014
The SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond during a visit to Glasgow Central Mosque. Andrew Milligan / PA / Jun 2014

The radical anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP) swept all before it during last month’s European election in Britain, even winning a seat in Scotland. But for the nation’s ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) government in the Scottish Parliament, which had campaigned to freeze UKIP out of Scotland, that was one seat too many.

Yet, with just over three months until Scots go to the polls to decide their nation’s future, the likes of the pro-independence SNP, and its leader and Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond, have other concerns on their mind today. The referendum on Scottish independence, scheduled for September 18, is the biggest challenge to the 307-year-old union between Scotland and England in modern times – and June 3 saw the former British Labour Party prime minister Gordon Brown outline his plan to work with other pro-union parties ahead of the referendum to produce a deal on more powers for the Scottish Parliament, in a bid to persuade voters to reject independence at the ballot box.

Among those to whom the Scots-born Brown (and the SNP) are hoping to appeal are Scotland’s 77,000 Muslims, who in a country of just 5.2 million make up but a fraction of Scotland’s total population. The referendum campaign has seen the pro-union group Better Together take on their pro-independence rivals, Yes Scotland, in a contest that has proved to be one of the fiercest in Scotland’s political history – and one in which Scotland’s Muslims have been taking an active part.

Backed by the UK government and the SNP Scottish government respectively, Better Together and Yes Scotland have been vying for the hearts and minds of the Scottish people in a bruising political clash that has seen the latter movement gain ground on their pro-union adversaries – with current polling suggesting that the referendum could go down to the wire. Two Scottish Muslims of Pakistani descent – Anas Sarwar, the deputy leader of the pro-union Scottish Labour Party, and Humza Yousaf, the Scottish government’s external affairs and international development minister – have been among those leading the charge for their respective campaigns. Yet, as one analyst explains, there are no hard facts as to which way Scotland’s Muslim community will vote come September.

“We know about general voting patterns among the Muslim community not just in Scotland, but across the UK, that they usually vote for the Labour Party,” says Dr Timothy Peace, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Edinburgh who specialises in research into British Muslims and political participation. “Despite the fact that the SNP has made significant inroads into that electorate in recent years, does that really tell us anything?

“Just because you voted SNP in the last Scottish Parliament election in 2011, that might have simply been because you agreed with their policies – but not necessarily because you’re going to vote for independence, even though [the controversies] over the Iraq War did cause a lot of people in Scotland to vote SNP.

“Likewise, some strong loyal Labour voters may think: ‘I’m actually for independence.’ So, it’s difficult to say which way they’re going to vote – and that’s linked to the fact they’re not a homogeneous voting block, and I would expect in the Muslim community there would be the same kind of divisions and differences as in any other part of the community.”

As a member of Scots Asians For Yes, Aamer Anwar says his own route to independence advocate was, like many other Yes backers in Scotland’s Muslim community, a gradual one.

“I was a born and bred unionist, I believed in the British state,” says the high-profile Glaswegian lawyer, who is of Pakistani heritage. “But [what changed my views] was austerity: when you look at how Scotland has the equivalent amount of oil resources as the state of Kuwait, yet you only have to look around at the poverty to see that those who have benefited have been the Westminster Treasury. And, all that seems to be getting offered by [London] since the 2008 financial crisis has been more austerity, more austerity, more austerity. I think it’s reached a situation for the Muslim and Asian community in Scotland – and the wider community – where those with children and families are thinking: ‘What is their future going to be like?’ For me, I want something better for them, and that’s in an independent Scotland.”

Anwar says that he harbours no illusions that independence will be a panacea for all the nation’s ills, such as Glasgow’s decidedly patchy health record. But, he contends that many within Scotland’s Muslim community have also been moved to back a Yes vote because of Britain’s foreign policy – most notably “the role that we played in Iraq, the role that we played in Afghanistan, the War on Terror and the treatment of the Muslim community in Britain, who are seen as the enemy within when the reality is that 99.9 per cent of them are law-abiding, hard-working and pay their taxes.

“The attitude of the people of Scotland has been significantly different – and I think that in an independent Scotland we’d want to differentiate ourselves from British foreign policy,” he adds.

Yet, not all within Scotland’s Muslim community share Anwar’s convictions. Sogand Azimi is a 19-year-old student and Scottish Labour Party activist at Glasgow Caledonian University who maintains that Scotland is better off within the union.

“My commitment to the Labour Party, coming from an ethnic minority background, is from my belief in it being the party of equality, fighting for equal rights, not just for ethnic minorities but for all minorities,” says Azimi, who was born in Tehran before moving to Scotland in 2002. “I got involved in the Better Together campaign through the Labour Party – but even if I wasn’t involved in the Labour Party I’d still be voting No in September because I feel a strong sense of unity with everyone in England; we aren’t different to them and we are economically better off within the UK.”

For Azimi, her pro-union convictions are of a very personal nature – and she would be loath to lose a British identity she gained just seven years ago.

“I see myself as having Iranian-British nationality – but I pride myself on being a citizen of Britain,” says the politics, history and economics undergraduate, who believes that while Britain’s involvement in the war in Iraq was a “huge mistake”, it shouldn’t on its own compel Scottish Muslims to end three centuries of union.

“Coming from Iran and knowing what it is like to have an Iranian passport – I know how so many doors are closed. I know what it’s like not to be a British citizen and now I know what it is like to be a British citizen: I know all the advantages, I know that I don’t need a visa to travel to so many countries in the world.”

A poll earlier this year by Scotland’s leading Asian radio station, Awaz FM, found that nearly two-thirds of listeners were in favour of independence – though it was far from scientific. In truth, say analysts, it is easy to see why both independence and the union appeal to Scotland’s Muslim community. The brand of nationalism espoused by the SNP is widely seen as one of Europe’s most progressive – hailed by many for its pro-immigration, pro-European and pro-ethnic minority credentials. On the other hand, the UK has, for its proponents, been a 300-plus-year success story where British Muslims have thrived.

Yet, as referendum day moves ever closer, and tensions between both camps reach boiling point, the likes of Azimi hope that whatever the result, any differences can be put aside for the good of Scotland itself.

“It’s not a nice debate to be involved in – there’s a lot of hate on both sides,” says Azimi. “But, after the referendum, I’m hoping that whatever happens, we will find a way to move forward and be friends again, because there is definitely a divide in Scotland right now. Moving away from the nastiness of this debate is my biggest hope.”

Alasdair Soussi is a freelance journalist, covering the Middle East and Scottish politics.

Published: June 5, 2014 04:00 AM


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