Scottish Muslims could swing independence vote

Yvonne Ridley

When I moved to Scotland more than two years ago friends thought I was having a midlife crisis, writes Yvonne Ridley. How could I leave London and all that it has to offer, they asked.

The truth is I’d had a gutful of Westminster politics, the futility of chasing what was described as the “Muslim block vote” and the sectarianism it often brought.

A brief foray into the duplicitous, back-stabbing world of patriachal East London politics last year reinforced that view and prompted me to quit English politics for good.

Just a hint of a different political landscape where the people could actually break free from the predictability of London rule was enough of a lure for me to want to quit my Soho pad for a new home north of the Borders.

The prospect of the Yes Vote winning the Independence Referendum was remote but where there is a glimmer of hope there is a waking dream, as Aristotle once remarked.

That dream is now turning in to a nightmare for Prime Minister David Cameron’s “No Camp” because the gap between polarised Scots is narrowing by the day.

And so September 18 could see the birth of a new country as the Yes Campaign gains in momentum. Every single vote will count and so not one stone is being left unturned as politicians of all manner try to convert people in to their way of thinking.

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Muslim swing vote

The truth is it’s too close to call now and there is a real buzz in the air as voters in Scotland forensically examine the pros and cons of independence … a number of them are schoolchildren who will get the taste of taking part in the democratic process since the age of voting has been dropped to 16 just for the Referendum.

So it is not inconceivable that the battle for independence could be determined from an unlikely source … the small Muslim community which has made the Northern third of the British Isles home. They represent just under two percent of the Scottish population but since the referendum will no doubt go to the wire there are those who believe Scotland’s Muslims could swing the balance of power.

The Scottish vote is neck and neck
The Scottish vote is neck and neck

In truth any minority in Scotland could, but let’s focus on the Muslims living here. Many will find the prospect of ramming the final nail in to the coffin of the British Empire irresistable and make no mistake, this is not a pipe dream. You see until now the media has largely ignored the real elephant in the living room which is Trident.

The British Government is running scared and no amount of threatening Scots over the pound or membership of the European Union will disguise their very real fear and that is Britain’s position in the global power game.

A vote in favour of independence would certainly mean an end to nuclear weapons in Scotland and there are those who are already speculating the cost of moving Britain’s nuclear submarine base south of the border would be so prohibitive, it could signal the end to the UK’s international influence as a nuclear power.

Nuclear weapons

The naval base of Faslane, situated just 25 miles from the west of Glasgow, is home to Britain’s strategic nuclear deterrent … a group of nuclear submarines armed with Trident missiles. The end of Empire and possibly even a seat at the G8 and the UN Security Council could be sacrificed on the altar of independence so it is easy to see why the majority of the political parties in Westminster have formed an unholy alliance using “better together” slogans while smiling unconvincingly at each other across the table.

Just a few weeks ago former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned that anymore downsizing of the UK military brought about by government cuts could damage Britain’s “strategic partnership” with America. So you can imagine how the US would view the loss of the UK’s nuclear capabilities.

“With the fairly substantial reductions in defence spending in Great Britain, what we’re finding is that it won’t have full spectrum capabilities and the ability to be a full partner as they have been in the past,” Mr Gates told the BBC last month.

While Washington might be able to dictate to London on certain political issues, finger-wagging by the Super Power at the Scots will not work as events in 2010 proved when Kenny MacAskill, Scotland’s Justice Secretary, refused to go to the United States to give evidence on his decision to free the convicted Lockerbie bomber.

Senators on the US Foreign Relations Committee summoned MacAskill and Dr Andrew Fraser, the prison health director in Scotland, to appear before a specially convened committee meeting to investigate claims that BP may have tried to influence MacAskill’s decision to free Libyan Abdelbasset al-Megrahi in August 2009.

Anyone watching the weekly combative Prime Minister’s Question Time in Westminster will wonder why Labour is supporting Tory PM David Cameron since relations seem toxic. The truth is apart from a few diehard socialist strongholds in the North of England and Wales, a Scottish victory would signal the end of any Labour Government taking overall power in the House of Commons ever again. So as you can see, the stakes are very high.

Opinion polls

A recent poll by Scotland’s leading Asian radio station Awaz FM revealed that nearly two-thirds of listeners are in favour of independence while 32% wvoted against the idea.

The result comes as grass-roots campaigning on the issue is being stepped across the Asian community, with both the Yes and No camps planning to put their case through street stalls, leafleting and a presence at multicultural festivals.
Next month I will be taking part in a debate on independence aimed mainly at young Muslims, which will include a mock referendum vote, at the University of Strathclyde.

Scottish Muslim minister Humza Yousaf with Alex Salmond
Scottish Muslim minister Humza Yousaf with Alex Salmond

The event on March 9 is being organised by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), with the panel of speakers including Scottish Labour deputy leader Anas Sarwar and the SNP’s external affairs minister Humza Yousaf. Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, an advisory board member for Yes Scotland and a representative for the group Scots Asians For Yes reckons the independence vote will help engage women – particularly older members of the community – in politics.

“What we term as ‘Aunty-jis’ are engaging in the referendum, they are interested in what it means for them, their families and their future and they think it matters,” she said. “We are now third, fourth-generation Asian – we don’t consider ourselves Asians living in Scotland, we consider ourselves Scottish Asians,” she told The Scottish Herald newspaper recently.

The same article also revealed that many Muslim voters who traditionally supported Labour had switched to the SNP as a protest against war in Iraq.

Muslim vote

Dr Timothy Peace, a postdoctoral fellow at Edinburgh University whose research specialises on British Muslims and political participation, said although Muslims living in Scotland certainly felt Scottish and an affinity to the country, this wouldn’t necessarily translate into a Yes vote.

It’s all to play for and to my delight friend and fellow Yes Campaigner Aamer Anwar reckons that in Scotland, at least, the oft talked about Muslim block vote which politicians and community leaders have relied upon in the past, no longer exists north of the Border.

“When you talk about a block vote, they will literally go door-to-door when it comes to election times and expect families to deliver sometimes 400-500 votes at a time,” he said. “That is the way it is done on the Asian sub-continent and the process was carried back to Scotland. I think for the second or the third or sometimes the fourth generation, people have had enough of having a vote taken for granted.”

Commonsense dictates the Yes vote will win but I would take nothing for granted in this battle for hearts and minds of voters living in Scotland.

A tartan-clad Mel Gibson portraying Robert the Bruce’s doomed brother-in-arms William Wallace may have rallied millions of cinemagoers’ sentiment against Westminster rule, but it’s going to take more than a Hollywood script to persuade voters, but if the Muslim vote turns out to be a game changer it would make victory even more delicious as the ancestors of those once brutalised, subjigated and oppressed by Empire dance on the grave of that evil which ruled over 458 million people, one-fifth of the world’s population at its height.

* British journalist Yvonne Ridley will join a panel including Anas Sarwar MP and Humza Yousaf MSP for areferendum debate organized by FOSIS (Federation of Student Islamic Societies) for Muslim students at Strathclyde University on Sunday 9th March, 6pm-9pm.

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