Scotland’s Muslim voice in secession debate

Muslims will play a significant role in deciding if their future is in the United Kingdom, or an independent Scotland.

Alex Salmond Launches A Draft Referendum Bill On Scottish Independence
In 2014, Scots will vote on whether to secede from the United Kingdom [GALLO/GETTY]

Glasgow, Scotland – Glasgow’s Indian restaurants show how Asian traditions can be given a tartan twist. Have you ever tried haggis pakora? It’s surprisingly good.

Scotland’s other national dish is chicken tikka masala. This early example of fusion cooking was invented in the 1970s by Glaswegian chef Ali Ahmed Aslam, who founded the Shish Mahal restaurant in the city’s west end.

What people care about is your values and personal work ethic and vision for the future of the country, not what you look like.

– Anas Sarwar, Labour Party MP

He created the mild curry by soaking spices in a tin of tomato soup after one of his Scottish customers complained that his meat was too dry.

Scotland has about 75,000 Muslims. Most came from Pakistan in the 1960s and ’70s and the community punches well above its weight politically and economically.

In 1997, Glasgow Govan elected Mohammed Sarwar as the first Muslim MP in the whole of Britain. His son Anas now represents the same area at Westminster. 

“The interesting thing about it is that people would naturally think the first Muslim MP was elected in an area where a large part of the population was Asian, like Birmingham,” Anas Sarwar told Al Jazeera. “In fact, it was a working-class constituency in Glasgow where less than 10 per cent of people are Asian.”

He added, “That says a lot about the people of Glasgow. Glaswegians accept you for what you are, not where you come from. What people care about is your values and personal work ethic and vision for the future of the country, not what you look like.”

Succession bells ringing

The Scottish National Party government in Edinburgh is planning to hold a referendum in autumn 2014 on seceding from the United Kingdom and creating a new independent state.

Last year, Anas Sarwar was elected as Scottish Labour’s Deputy Leader. An articulate and engaging speaker, the position gives him a prominent role in the debate about Scottish independence.

“I did not come into politics to fight for constitutional arrangements, to keep my country together,” he says. “But I think it is interesting that someone who comes from an ethnic minority has been given a large responsibility in the Labour Party for keeping my country together.

“Whether in good times or hard times we know when we work together, pull together and stick together that we are better together.”

 Scotland’s independence referendum deal inked

Western Scotland has absorbed successive generations of Irish and East European immigrants who came to work in its mines, factories and shipyards. They played a proud role in the history of the Labour movement on “Red Clydeside” – a period of leftist radicalism in Glasgow during the early 1900s.

Most Muslims in Scotland have also traditionally voted for the left-of-centre Labour Party, which was seen as the champion of the underdog. In April, Labour leader Ed Miliband travelled to Glasgow to launch a new group “Muslim Friends of Labour Scotland” to try and shore up that support. But many Asian voters have swung to the SNP.

The First Minister, Alex Salmond, has worked hard to convince Muslims that he is on their side. As a furious critic of the Iraq war, his stance on foreign policy helped to give him credibility.

A survey by YouElect of Muslim voting intentions found that 53 per cent of Muslims viewed foreign policy as the biggest issue. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the foreign policy concerns they felt most strongly about.

Humza Yousaf, the Scottish government’s External Affairs Minister, told Al Jazeera this was the issue that pushed him to join the SNP.

“My involvement in the anti-war movement at the time was the catalyst that drove my thinking towards independence. The belief that we should never be dragged into a war our nation disagreed with was at the heart of my belief in independence and remains central to why I still support the notion today.”

A former spokesman for the charity Islamic Relief, 27-year-old Yousaf is the youngest minister on Salmond’s team.

Our model of civic nationalism is a great model for Europe and the world. I think it is part of Scotland’s egalitarian tradition.

– Humza Yousaf, Scottish politician

His grandfather, a master tailor in a small village in India, took part in protests against British rule in his homeland. He jokes that he is carrying on a proud family tradition by campaigning for independence in Scotland.

In other parts of the UK, Muslims regard nationalism with suspicion, associating it with the racism of fringe groups.

Scottish Muslims have also suffered from racist slurs and attacks, but the SNP has worked hard to foster a confident civic nationalism that is open to all, regardless of religion or ethnicity.

“Our model of civic nationalism is a great model for Europe and the world,” Yousaf says. “I think it is part of Scotland’s egalitarian tradition, the idea that we are all worth the same.”

Research by the British Council found a perception among Muslims and non-Muslims alike that integration in Scotland was easier than in England. This was partly attributed to the particular features of Scottish culture, which was seen as sociable, friendly and straightforward.

Humza Yousaf and Anas Sarwar are already significant players on the Scottish political scene, and they are on the way up. It is an intriguing thought that 10 years from now Scotland’s two main political parties could both have Muslim leaders.

With articulate and prominent voices on all sides of the debate, followers of Islam here will play a big part in deciding whether that future is in the UK or an independent Scotland.

(You can follow Andrew McFadyen on Twitter @apmcfadyen)

Source: Al Jazeera