Why are Scottish Muslims more comfortable with their identity than English ones?

[Source: Flickr- Jamie Mitchell]

Nafees Mahmud is a freelance writer based in Scotland


5Pillars journalist Nafees Mahmud explores why Muslims in the land of thistles and bagpipes experience life differently to their English co-religionists.

The perception that Muslims in Scotland have somehow better integrated their religious and national identities, and have more prominence in mainstream society than their English brothers and sisters, is widespread on both sides of the border.

Given Scotland has pioneered many successes for British Muslims – the first Muslim female to perform hajj: Zainab Cobbold (1933), the first Muslim councillor: Bashir Maan (1970), and the first Muslim MP: Mohammad Sarwar (1997) – this perception is not unjustified.

But what specific driving forces led not only to the above achievements but also to most of the 1,006 Scots polled in 2010 by Ipsos Mori to say integration for Muslims is easier in Scotland than England?

Cultural differences, immigration & jobs

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Dr Saqib Razzaq, Project Co-ordinator of Colourful Heritage, an online archive of experiences of Muslim migrants to Scotland in the 1950s and 60s, thinks the cultural differences between Muslim migrants of this era plays a huge role.

Most Muslims in Scotland are ethnically Punjabi
Most Muslims in Scotland are ethnically Punjabi

“South Asian Muslims who migrated to Scotland were primarily from Faisalabad and the Punjab region. This was different from the Muslims who came across to parts of England where many came from the Mirpur region. Respondents to the Colourful Heritage interviews indicated that such cultural differences impacted their ability to engage with local communities and extend beyond their immediate families.

“In Scotland they were mostly peddlars and transport workers on buses and from that they grew their own businesses in shops, wholesale supply and takeaways. Disproportionately, they were self-employed entrepreneurs compared with factory staff in England. The Colourful Heritage interviewees explained that when you are self-employed you are creating your own job and often creating them for others. It also gave them a greater sense of confidence as they were not relying on anyone. Respondents indicated this enhanced the confidence of the Scottish Muslim community which enabled more positive integration and respect in society.”

This also means today many Scottish Muslims are relatively better off than their English co-religionists and thus, with the exception of some parts of Glasgow, are not segregated into economically-deprived areas as in East London or England’s North West.

The importance of being white

Although there is evidence of racism in Scotland going back to the colour bans in dance halls of the 1920s and opposition from labourers to the employment of Indian lascars pre and post World War Two, Scotland seems to host more racially-progressive views than England.

In 2012 a YouGov poll found 25% of English people felt being white was an important part of being English, compared to 13% of Scots who felt pale pigmentation correlated with national identity.

Bashir Maan
Bashir Maan

Dr Razaq is not surprised by this difference. “If you look at when Bashir Maan was first elected as a councillor, following this in 1972 he ran to be an MP and narrowly missed out. The electorate then was not majority Asian or Muslim; it was local Scottish whites who voted for him. Scottish society has a very different fabric; it is open-minded, accommodating and welcoming to people of all nations.”

Perhaps Donald Trump should pay more attention to his Scottish roots.

Counter-terrorism policy has been a major point of contention for Muslims in England post 9/11.

Stefano Bonino, an academic at Northumbria University and author of the forthcoming book Muslims in Scotland: The Making of Community in a Post-9/11 World, acknowledges there is also criticism in Scotland but, with the exception of religious profiling at Scottish airports, believes Muslims in Scotland have less to complain about.

“There are organisations that work with police to tackle violent radicalization such as the Muslim Council of Scotland, and police have done workshops together with religious personnel and mosque representatives. Though there are comparatively fewer problems with violent extremism in Scotland than in England.

“The community is small, and that is one reason. Plus, even Muslims who are strongly against the War on Terror, such as lawyer and human rights activist Aamer Anwar, have openly spoken against terrorism thus avoiding the all too familiar English situation where critics of counter-terrorism oppose government strategies but fail to openly condemn terrorism and never propose any viable alternative.”

“It also helps that police stops-and-searches on streets do not target black and ethnic minority groups (but, rather, young people across the board) and that Police Scotland strive to make themselves visible to reassure the Muslim community.”

A different approach

What about the relationship between Muslims and the government? Most Muslims in Scotland feel Holyrood is reaching out rather than stigmatising them, unlike Westminster.

Dr Razaq notes the difference in approach. “Look at what happened in England after the 7/7 attacks and what happened in Scotland after the Glasgow Airport attack in 2007. After the Glasgow airport attack, Alex Salmond went to Glasgow Central Mosque and made his statement, standing very symbolically together with the Scottish Muslim community at a time when they were feeling vulnerable.

“The messaging from Scottish First Ministers has consistently been one of  ‘not in our name’ and ‘we’re all one community, I’m with you hand-in-hand here.’ Contrast this to Tony Blair and other Westminster leaders in response to 7/7 and other events where the narrative has a subtle difference. It is: ‘Of course this terrorism is not Islam but Muslims have got issues and Muslims need to do more to condemn such attacks even though we know it’s not in your name!

“The less alienating tone from the Scottish government has furthered the strength of pride of being Scottish, of being one community, standing united against injustices regardless where they come from.”

The future?

Muslims are well and truly woven into the fabric of Scotland’s history and present, but what about the future?

Stefano Bonino thinks Scotland and its Muslims could provide a blueprint of what he calls “actualized pluralism;” particularly its capital, Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Central Mosque
Edinburgh Central Mosque

“The Muslim community in Edinburgh is ethnically diverse. Only 43% are Pakistanis compared to 65% of Glaswegian Muslims. They are widespread across the city, relatively well-off and integrated in wider society. Edinburgh has put together many events that try to bring together the Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Interfaith organisations, the Alwaleed Centre at the University of Edinburgh, mosques and so on do a lot of intercommunity work. The Fringe Festival brings in hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world to Edinburgh, so Scots living in Edinburgh meet diverse ethnic people all the time.

“Plus Edinburgh Central Mosque – Scotland’s second most important mosque – is right in the city centre and on the university campus. It helps to bring together Muslims of different ethnicities and it also makes non-Muslims become ‘used to’ Islam, thus favouring inter-community contact and improving integration in society.”

So what, if anything, can they do south of the border to catch up with Scotland’s advancing inter-culturalism? Perhaps more engagement and less stigmatisation would be a start.

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