Challenging anti-Muslim racism in Scotland

Image source: Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC)

Smina Akhtar is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology, at University of Glasgow.


Smina Akhtar goes through the different strands and layers of anti-Muslim hatred in Scotland. 

There has been significant media attention on hate crime against Muslims in Scotland following the racist Brexit campaign and the terrorist attacks in London and Manchester. Many suggest that the solution to hate crime is greater education. I want to argue education alone will not be effective; we must also challenge the state structures that produce and reproduce racism. To do this, we need to understand how the state itself has historically used racism within its own laws, structures and discourses to divide populations.

Racism and Empire Based on Scientific Racism

Scientific racism produced a hierarchy of “races” based on physical and cultural traits such as skin colour, the shape and size of skull, all used to determine the intelligence and cultural capacity of such “races”. The idea of race was developed by scientists in the Eighteenth Century and then used to justify colonialism. The occupation and violence the British (English and Scots) inflicted on the colonies was for the sake of economic profit and for the achievement of political and military power. These scientific theories of racism however did not stay in the colonies; they were used to educate the British (English and Scots).

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The 1870 Elementary Education Act brought schooling for all children aged 5 to 18. The books used in schools were written at the height of empire and glorified the power and importance of Britain in the world, presenting white Anglo-Saxon’s as the superior race. Children were taught to be obedient, proud and to always defend the British empire and their way of life (Virdee, 2014). These same books were used in Scottish schools too. This creation and spread of racist attitudes based on the superiority of the white British man was demonstrated by “racist riots” which took place in 1919 in Britain’s main sea ports including Glasgow where Black and Asian men were employed as seaman. White men returning from the First World War came back to find that they couldn’t get jobs because they had been replaced by people who they thought were inferior and not even British (Virdee, 2014).

Post-War Immigration

People in the ex-colonies were encouraged to settle in Britain after the second world war because Britain needed their labour. They nevertheless experienced widespread and violent racism. Though Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968 was widely criticised, the government, only three years later in 1971 passed an immigration act which stopped all primary immigration of Black and brown people by placing a requirement on migration which stated that only those who could prove that they had two generations of family connection to Britain could settle here. Australians, Americans etc could easily prove that connection whereas Africans and Asians could not. Thus, racism was once again embedded within state structures and laws, this time justified by the argument that having too many “coloureds” increases racism, thereby blaming the presence of migrants for the hostility they faced.

A Problem of Culture

The discrediting of scientific racism resulted in racism being expressed in terms of cultural differences. So how is this still racist? Hostility towards “other cultures” is presented as natural, and the mixing of cultures as unnatural – culture becomes naturalised just as race was, moreover racism is perceived to be a natural reaction to the mixing of cultures which suggests there is a hierarchy of cultures too (Balibar, 1991). Such a theory of race based on cultural difference allows for the denial of racism. People like Nigel Farage and the far right in general violently deny their racism just as Enoch Powell did; instead they argue that cultural diversity is not desirable or normal.

This strategy was cleverly used by Margaret Thatcher in 1978 to build support for tightening up immigration controls for spouses, she said that “the British people were worried that ‘this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”. It was quite clear that it was only the cultures of Black and brown people which were perceived to be problematic.

Racism expressed in cultural terms gives it flexibility to change as required. The Rushdie affair, 9/11 and 7/7 resulted in the racialisation of Islam and Muslims. This is why the statement, “we can’t be racist against Muslims because they’re not a race” is a bogus argument.

The Dehumanisation of Muslims

The Rushdie Affair enabled the state and the media to label Muslims as a backward and violent people who burned books and were religious zealots. The attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001 was used to justify the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq because it is easier to justify wars with people if they are first defined as less than human.

Whilst 9/11 was used to justify foreign policy interventions, and specifically wars against Muslim countries, the 7/7 terrorist attacks carried out in London, because they were carried out by Muslims born and bred in the UK, resulted in the re-formulation of state counter-terrorism policies focusing on British born Muslims. They were underpinned by two explanations for the causes of terrorism, the first, that Islam was a violent religion and that all Muslims were potential terrorists, the second, that extremism was a result of a distortion of Islam and that an effective strategy would be to separate the “moderate” Muslim from the potential terrorist (Kundnani 2014). Consequently, policy interventions targeted all Muslims, illustrated by the Trojan Horse hoax and the installation of CCTV camera’s in Muslim neighbourhoods in Birmingham. Muslims are required to give up their cultures and assimilate by accepting a set of undefined “British Values” and a “British way of life”. Additionally, any visible signs of ‘Muslimness’ are viewed with suspicion.

The dehumanising project is one which is continually developing and takes advantage of current events which criminalise sections of the Muslim community such as the recent sexual grooming scandals which have resulted in the “paedophile” label being applied collectively to all Muslim men creating an amplified racist narrative. This is at the expense of less attention being paid at the failures of Social Work Services listening to the voices and suffering of the young vulnerable victims who had repeatedly reported the abuse.

Racism in Scotland

Many of the areas discussed in this article such as migration, immigration and counter-terrorism are reserved matters and so are not devolved to the Scottish Parliament. It is nevertheless important to note that although the policies are produced at a UK level, implementation takes place at a Scottish level, for example police cells have been used to detain asylum seekers. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 requires public bodies such as health services, education services, prison Services, Police and local authorities (all of which are devolved to Scotland), to coordinate the implementation of the Prevent Strategy. Scottish Government as well as some Scottish Public bodies have produced their own Prevent strategies and action plans. When terrorist attacks happen in England or politicians stoke up racism this results in an increase in racist attacks in Scotland.

The SNP’s civic nationalist discourse which promises full acceptance to all migrants in return for loyalty to Scotland has further contributed to the myth that there is little or no racism in Scotland (Davidson et al 2018). This myth is believed by the vast majority of white Scots yet it has a massive impact on Black and brown Scots too. Nasar Meer’s study on experiences of racism and discrimination of Muslims in Scotland found a massive discrepancy between experiences of racial discrimination and reporting of cases which can be explained by race functioning as an “absent present” (in Davidson et al 2018). In other words, racism is so very part of everyday life that it is “simultaneously absent and present” due to its normalisation in everyday life.


Anti-Muslim hate crime cannot be fully understood or challenged without appreciating that it is a form of racism and that racisms change depending on time and context. So paraphrasing Stuart Hall, we must accept that there is no one racism but several racisms. The racialisation of Islam and Muslims is relatively recent and a result of geopolitical events at both home and abroad. This article has shown how the British state and its institutions have embedded racism within their own policies and discourses in order to pursue a political agenda both in the UK and in its foreign policy interventions.

Key texts used to source the information used in this article include:

  • Balibar, E (1991) Is there a Neo-Racism? in Balibar, E, Wallerstein, (I991), Race, Nation , Class; Ambiguous Identities. Verso Books
  • Davidson, N, Linpaa, M, Mcbride, M and Virdee, S (2018) No Problem Here; Understanding Racism in Scotland. Luath Press.
  • Kundnani, A (2014) The Muslims Are Coming: Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on terror. Verso Books
  • Virdee, S (2014) Racism, Class and the Racialised Outsider. Palgrave McMillan

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SOURCEIslamophobia in Scotland
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