Scotland’s nationalist-Muslim embrace

Tom Gallagher
9 August 2007

The terrorist attack that narrowly failed to inflict mass slaughter at Glasgow airport on 30 June 2007 has had a singular impact on Scotland's public life. A universal sense of shock was followed by vigorous official efforts to build bridges to the country's approximately 60,000 Muslims. A week later, on 7 July, the cream of Scotland's establishment gathered in George Square in Glasgow's heart to offer them protection and reassurance. The institutions represented included the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP), the police, the Church of Scotland, the trade unions, and the vocal anti-war movement. Nobody wondered aloud about the religious dimensions of the violent ideology that had evidently motivated the would-be massacre. Indeed, Scotland's health minister and SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon was explicit that "Islam is a religion of peace".

Muslims at the 1,500-strong rally mixed freely with the representatives of political and lobbying groups who made up the bulk of the crowd. The central spot was reserved for Osama Saeed, an articulate young Muslim activist (and former SNP candidate) whose intensity and fluency have made him a sought-after guide to the mood and concerns of Scotland's Muslims since the airport attack. Saeed's argument that the Muslim community's moderation is a given might be confirmed by the absence (in those parts of Glasgow where most Scots Muslims reside) of the Islamic bookshops, bitter young men and fully-covered women that are characteristic of parts of London and of other English urban conurbations with large Muslim populations.
Tom Gallagher is chair of ethnic peace and conflict studies at Bradford University, northern England. Among his nine single-authored books is Theft of a Nation: Romania since Communism (Hurst & Co, 2005), published in the United States as Modern Romania (New York University Press, 2005)

Tom Gallagher has written extensively on sectarian and religious issues in modern Scotland, including Glasgow, The Uneasy Peace: Religious Tensions in Modern Scotland (Manchester University Press, 1987). He is currently embarking on a research project exploring the reaction of the British state and society to the emergence of Muslim radicalism from the Salman Rushdie affair of 1988 to the present

Also by Tom Gallagher in openDemocracy:

"Understanding Slobodan Milosevic: between the cold war and Iraq" (13 March 2006)

"The European Union and Romania: consolidating backwardness?" (27 September 2006)

At the same time, Osama Saeed is an unapologetic advocate of the hardline Islamism espoused by the organisation whose Scottish branch he heads, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). He has enthusiastically defended the idea of a global Islamic state and urged Muslims not to cooperate with the police. Media outlets which have reported police appeals for vigilance have not raised with Saeed his political track-record; none appears to have approached him in the spirit of sceptical inquiry that animates coverage of other prominent figures (for example, suggesting that there might be a tension between his extravagant condemnation of the Glasgow attack and support for radical Islamism, even that that this combination might be part of an intellectual taqiyya [deception]).A shaken Scotland, it seems, is not in the mood for tough questions.

A story for solidarity

Glasgow's brush with disaster has proven to be a windfall for Scotland's left-of-centre pro-independence Scottish National Party, which has led the government since the May 2007 elections to Scotland's devolved parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. The SNP has assiduously cultivated Scotland's Muslims, and its historic (if narrow) victory in May included the election of the country's first Muslim MSP, Bashir Ahmad. The party's shrewd leader (and Scotland's first minister) Alex Salmond has used the airport attack as an opportunity to place his party at the foreground of national affairs in much the same way as Tony Blair used the death of Princess Diana in 1997 to project himself as New Labour's leader of destiny.

At the 7 July rally, Salmond's chief lieutenant Nicola Sturgeon offered perfunctory praise for John Smeaton, the airport-worker whose presence of mind and unassuming manner on 30 June has made him a hero in many quarters; but she soon moved on and declared that "I wish to particularly praise the Muslim community in Scotland". On 1 July, hours after the foiled atrocity, Salmond had made a well-publicised visit to Glasgow's central mosque to assure the city's Muslim religious leaders of his determination to prevent the community from being an object of attack. Sturgeon reinforced the point, promising that Scotland's tough legislation designed to stamp out public aggression between feuding Catholics and Protestants would be used against anyone tempted into a twisted form of retaliation.

The tenor of the SNP's public statements suggests that Salmond, in private conversation, did not ask for greater effort from religious leaders in challenging extremism or disavowing attacks on free speech even when Muslim sensibilities are offended.

The SNP is a grievance party par excellence. Salmond is proving skilful at stage-managing events in which an inept central government based in Whitehall is seen as reluctant to consult with the elected Scottish government. In this light it is not surprising if a party adept at exploiting the real discontent felt by many Scots towards a British state which often seems to reflect English priorities also appeals to increasing numbers of Scots Muslims. Many of the latter have travelled far to settle in Scotland and worked mightily from a starting-point at or near the bottom of the social scale to establish a sustainable life for themselves and their families. A land whose repertoire of national, public attitudes includes on occasion a finely honed sense of grievance can thus offer to a minority a resource which can provide a convenient channel to aid integration - all the more so when the minority itself is not the object of suspicion.

In some respects at least, south Asian migrants to Scotland (many of them Muslim) have found their path easier than in parts of England because they have arrived in a society that often defines itself as a minority culture - one where articulate nationalists (and not only they) have portrayed the national story in terms of a constant struggle to exist in the shadow of a larger, arrogant and sometimes threatening English neighbour. The dominant Scottish self-perception is that of a small outward-looking country with robust anti-imperialist traditions (even though Scots were arguably the main architects of empire in many places during the heyday of Britain's overseas role). This progressive anti-imperialist image too is one that a significant number of Muslims find it easy to relate to.

An additional factor is that the Scottish establishment's embarrassment - even guilt - about two centuries of religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants (one that has affected education, housing patterns, sporting rivalries and employment) means that it nowadays makes great efforts to accommodate minorities.

Alex Salmond's moment

The Glasgow rally on 7 July was the first public opportunity to view the balance of forces in the Muslim community after a week of turmoil. Elderly figures like Bashir Maan, Scotland's first-ever Muslim city councillor, had their place of honour. But a younger generation of campaigners, who helped organise the assembly in the city's main square just days after co-religionists almost succeeded in destroying the city's airport, are now making the running. Osama Saeed declared that the community had nothing to apologise for and roundly criticised the "rightwing press" for asking uncomfortable - and in his view divisive - questions. He called for an enquiry into the root causes of terrorism in Britain and appeared confident that the finger of blame would be pointed at departing prime minister Tony Blair, who was condemned at the rally more often than any bomb-carrying doctor.

Alex Salmond may never have worn a uniform, but he is projecting himself to religious minorities previously loyal to the Labour party - not just Muslims but the much larger Catholic one mainly drawn from past waves of Irish immigrants - as Scotland's answer to Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt or the Irish leader Michael Collins, who both struck out against an overmighty Britain in the last century with impressive effect. The cause of Scotland's freedom was personalised in the May elections by a ballot-paper which said "vote Alex Salmond for Scotland's First Minister". This natural populist in a country usually known for its colourless politicians likes nothing better to tweak the tail of the mangy old British lion. For Salmond the equivalent of the Suez canal is Britain's fleet of nuclear submarines whose home base is in a deep-water loch northwest of Glasgow.

A potent aspect of Salmond's ebullient political persona is his lack of shame, a quality reinforced by an amnesiac media who show no willingness to examine his record in relation to issues where Muslims have been centrally involved. In March-June 1999, for example, Britain was a leading participant in the war over Kosovo in the attempt to halt the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's systematic repression of the (mainly Muslim) Kosovar Albanians. Salmond was a vehement opponent of the Nato campaign, and famously described the organisation's (so far) only military action on European soil as "an act of unpardonable folly". This capped a decade when he had remained silent throughout years of Milosevic-sponsored aggression against the Kosovars' co-religionist Bosniaks in former Yugoslavia.

The British foreign secretary at the time of the Kosovo war, Robin Cook - also the country's most respected centre-left leader at the time of his premature death in 2005 - witheringly branded Salmond as Belgrade's stooge, "the only European leader to stand side by side with Milosevic" in a way that showed him as "simply unfit to lead". The SNP's poor performance in the inaugural elections to the Scottish parliament in May 1999 (while the war was underway) was widely attributed to Salmond's intervention.

The world's wind

Alex Salmond's dream is for Scotland to join an arc of prosperous north Atlantic nations from Ireland and Iceland to Scandinavia. But it might at best prove to be a northern version of Ken Livingstone's left-leaning multicultural metropolis in London. The party lacks skilled political leaders, other than Salmond himself, and it seems hard to imagine a majority of Scots voting for independence. But perhaps such a scenario could come to pass if the increasingly neurotic mood among large sections of English opinion, as their identity is seen to be threatened in multiple ways, leads to a backlash against the Scots.

Scotland receives considerably more in state subsidies than much of England. It is not beyond reason that Scottish policies, such as the decision to absolve Northern Irish students from tuition-fees at Scottish universities which English ones must nevertheless still pay, could result in a coherent campaign in which Scotland is told to exit via the door marked "Britain" and not come back. Salmond would relish such an outcome,and some believe he is trying to provoke it by upsetting English sensibilities.

A separate Scotland could turn out to be a modern, efficient state that harnesses the energies of its people, including those achievers who previously had to go abroad to make their mark in the world; or it could be a kind of leftist London authority on a larger canvas, committed to redistributionist policies and a neutralist foreign policy garnished with fashionably right-on rhetoric in the hope that a durable patriotic consensus would emerge.

Whatever Scotland's ultimate fate, the times ahead are bound to be testing. Scotland's Muslim minority will not be immune from the same attention as their co-religionists elsewhere as long as a terrorist threat persists in western Europe. At least some Scots Muslims may find it difficult to remain aloof from transnational radical currents that see Islam primarily as an ideological tool to create a revolutionary new state. The resources of political Scotland are at present being mobilised on the community's behalf, but not always in a thoughtful or acceptable way. Whether Muslims will find the Scottishness on offer an acceptable way to combine a religious identity with a national, secular one remains to be seen.


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