Omar Afzal: Why Scottish attitudes towards Muslims are not as progressive as the country often thinks

Muslim Council of Scotland head of comms Omar Afzal calls for action to tackle discrimination against BME communities in Scotland

AT the recent launch of a cross party group for tackling racism and Islamophobia, Anas Sarwar MSP spoke about experiencing prejudice and hate throughout his life and in particular, his recent Scottish Labour leadership campaign.

Sarwar – who was defeated in the leadership election by Richard Leonard - revealed that a senior Labour councillor told him that Scotland “wouldn’t vote for a brown Muslim Paki”, prompting Scottish Labour to launch an investigation.

His revelations have given others the courage to speak out and underlined the need for us to challenge the common misconception that Scotland is an exception to a UK-wide problem of everyday racism and Islamophobia.

A UK-wide audit revealed that the Scottish civil service was the least diverse in the UK, with only two per cent of the workforce identifying as non-white.

Islam has a long and rich history with Scotland, and the Muslim community here has deep roots. There are Muslim soldiers from the subcontinent who served in World War 2, buried in the Highlands. The first woman to travel from the UK for the Hajj pilgrimage was Lady Zaynab (Evelyn) Cobbold, daughter of the Earl of Dunmore. The UK’s first professional Muslim and Europe’s first Indian footballer was Celtic’s Mohammed Abdul Saleem in season 1936/37.

It’s from Glasgow that the UK’s first Muslim councillor was elected, as was the first Muslim justice of the peace and the first Muslim MP. At the historic 2014 Independence referendum, Muslims were at the forefront of the debate on either side.

An Ipsos Mori poll in 2010 revealed that three out of five Scots believe that Muslims are integrated into “everyday Scottish life”. Similarly, a report by the Scottish Government in 2011, drawing on a number of academic papers, showed that significantly more Muslims felt that being Scottish was an important part of their identity, when compared with similar studies involving Muslims and English identity.

It’s this remarkable legacy that has led to the idea of Scottish exceptionalism - that while England saw race riots, divided communities and rampant racist English nationalism, Scotland was a welcoming land of opportunity where Muslims and BME communities flourished, becoming an integral part of Scotland’s independence movement.

The picture across the UK today, however, is bleak. A test carried out by the BBC last year found that a job applicant with a Muslim name is three times less likely to get an interview when compared with applicants with identical skills and experience.

A study on Islamophobia in Edinburgh Schools revealed that more than half of Muslim secondary school children have suffered Islamophobic abuse, with primary school figures even higher.

A report, Rising to the Top, by Demos, revealed that Muslims are less represented in managerial and professional occupations than any other religious group. Last summer’s UK-wide race disparity audit showed alarming data on how a person’s ethnicity impacted outcomes in justice, education, employment and health.

The Scottish Government didn’t take part in the audit, suggesting it was “not in the best interests of the Scottish people”. Drawing on employment and benefits data supplied by the DWP, however, the audit revealed that the Scottish civil service was the least diverse in the UK, with only two per cent of the workforce identifying as non-white.

A study on Islamophobia in Edinburgh Schools, also published last year, revealed that more than half of Muslim secondary school children have suffered Islamophobic abuse, with primary school figures even higher.

So the picture in Scotland is similar to that of the rest of the UK and under the veneer of Scottish exceptionalism there lies an undercurrent of prejudice; conscious or otherwise, which Sarwar’s revelations have finally brought into public discourse.

Muslims in Scotland early last century working as peddlers or some of them lascars, were among the first to settle here. They were born and brought up under a repressive and brutal British occupation of India, where facing racism and discrimination was part of their everyday life (the mindset of British supremacy was brought back to the UK from India by the ruling and upper classes).

The generations born in Scotland to migrant parents, or who have migrant grandparents, face a more insidious version of the hate and discrimination that the elders did.

They found their way to Scotland, where their focus was to provide financial help for the families they had left behind. Facing rampant racism and discrimination here also, they entered into a wilful trade-off - turn a blind eye to the abuse, don’t rock the boat and, in return, you will be able to help your loved ones by living and working in Scotland.

This mindset was also adopted by later immigrants arriving from the 1950s onwards. In an eye opening thesis published in 1994, the historian, academic, politician and writer Bashir Maan calls this the mindset of “no problem here”; a wilful purdah over the truth. They, like their predecessors, came to see this as the price they had to pay for their place in Scotland and a way of the community prevailing in the midst of everyday bigotry.

To an extent it worked, as Scotland never really saw the race riots and polarisation of communities other parts of the UK did. What it also did, however, is reinforce the illusion of Scotland being an exception. A number of academic papers since then commented on the myth of this phenomenon also.

Now, the generations born in Scotland to migrant parents, or who have migrant grandparents, face a more insidious version of the hate and discrimination that the elders did. One case that came to me recently; a Muslim woman, working in a specialist role in a government department, was told to forget about a promotion because she wears a hijab and her “face doesn’t fit”. When prompted on taking the case forward, she replied: “I don’t want to rock the boat, I just needed someone to talk to.”

Or the case involving a teenager who left school, opting for home schooling because of the intense Islamophobic bullying he was facing. There are many more cases like this. Look under the surface and you find that these kinds of incidents are commonplace - institutional and structural prejudice and everyday racism.

The question of identity and authenticity - how authentically Scottish you really are given your ethnicity and religion - is another hurdle BME communities and Muslims today face.

The question of identity and authenticity - how authentically Scottish you really are given your ethnicity and religion - is another hurdle BME communities and Muslims today face. The conversation of “where are you from?”, which both Sarwar and Humza Yousaf have mentioned over the last couple of weeks, is usually followed up by “where are you REALLY from?” and “so where are your parents from?”.

Whether consciously or subconsciously, as an ethnic minority, you are perceived as Scottish, but not really or authentically Scottish. One of the tweets to Sarwar in the aftermath of his revelations talked about bloodlines and heritage when determining who is Scottish - I think Cheddar Man might have a thing or two to say about that.

Tropes around the loyalty of Muslims, lack of Muslim integration, “Muslims taking over” or “creeping sharia” are persistent and commonplace, creating a climate of suspicion around Muslims. Sarwar’s revelations tell some uncomfortable truths which we must face up to.

They highlight the need for more effort in all areas to ensure that our workplaces, public sector, classrooms, representative bodies and boardrooms better reflect our diverse society; that someone’s ethnicity or religion isn’t the determinant factor in their options, choices and outcomes in life.

Hopefully, the many expressions of support and willingness can translate into real action. I believe the cross party group can be the first step towards achieving that.

Omar Afzal is the head of Communications & Media Engagement and serves on the national executive board of the Muslim Council of Scotland

Picture courtesy of Scottish Labour

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