Last week saw Muslims across Scotland join the world’s 1.8 billion followers of Islam in celebration of Eid al-Adha – the “Festival of Sacrifice” and the second of two Islamic holidays marked globally each year.
In cities like Glasgow, Islam has long been a prominent part of society. Scotland’s first mosque was opened in Glasgow’s Oxford Street in 1944 and Sandymount Cemetery became the first burial site for the interment of Muslims around the same period. Since then, thousands of Muslims from the likes of Pakistan and the Middle East have called Glasgow, and elsewhere in Scotland, home.
Earlier this month, Detective Chief Superintendent Gerry McLean, head of Police Scotland’s organised crime and counterterrorism unit, claimed that Muslims tended to feel more integrated north of the Border than elsewhere in Britain – which was why Scotland had largely avoided any Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks.
Indeed, as London and Manchester have been left reeling from atrocities carried out in the name of Islam in recent years, the last act of (Islamist) terrorism to visit Scottish shores was the attack on Glasgow Airport in 2007. Then, an SUV laden with propane gas cylinders and petrol containers sped towards the airport’s departure hall, but was halted by a concrete pillar at the main entrance. Fortunately, only five bystanders were injured – none seriously.
The 2011 census counted some 77,000 Muslim adherents in Scotland – up from 43,000 in 2001. And, insofar as McLean’s words hold true, generations of Muslims in Scotland can share a story of integration, success and a rejection of Islamist terrorism that has blighted other parts of the UK.
Mohammad Asif arrived in Scotland from the horrors of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2000 and made Glasgow his home. Asif, who today is chair of the Scottish Afghan Society, told the Sunday Herald he felt “lucky to end up in Scotland”. “Yes, initially, there were a lot of problems – people didn’t understand why asylum seekers were coming to their neighbourhood and there was misinformation by the right-wing media,” said the 50-year-old. “But whichever Scottish Government has been in power – especially the SNPGovernment – has always been supportive of asylum seekers and refugees.”
Asif added that while Conservative MP Boris Johnson’s incendiary remarks about some Muslim women earlier this month caused Westminster to resound to accusations of Islamophobia, Scotland’s political climate has long fostered a greater sense of inclusion for the nation’s Muslims.
“I saw someone say in England that the moment Boris Johnson opens his mouth, there is a rise in Islamophobia and racism,” he said. “Luckily, in Scotland, we don’t have these sort of politicians.”
Miles from Scotland’s central belt, and away from the political fray, evidence of Scotland’s Muslim integration can be found in the Outer Hebrides – or the Western Isles. Here, just a few short months ago, the UK’s northernmost mosque opened in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis to accommodate the area’s tiny Muslim population.
The Sunday Herald caught up with Miriam Amjad, who was born and raised in Stornoway, as she prepared to celebrate Eid. “The mosque is a gift – we’re so very happy with it,” said the 60-year-old, who is the daughter of one of the first Muslim settlers in the Outer Hebrides. “From my own point of view, I’m just delighted we have a little masjid [Arabic for mosque].”
For Amjad, the mosque has been a long time coming. She recalled the many meetings and aborted attempts to raise money for a mosque in Stornoway as she was growing up. As she began to lose hope, action was taken that saw the project through to the end. Today, the mosque also serves the small number of Syrian families who have arrived in the Western Isles fleeing their war-torn homeland. While the breakaway Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) objected to the mosque’s establishment, the Western Isles’ long-held Christian tradition saw fit to welcome the masjid – much to Amjad’s delight.
“The day of the [mosque’s] opening said it all,” stated Amjad, her soft Hebridean lilt belying her Asian background. “There just wasn’t any room to stand.”
Academic research also gives credibility to a Muslim population at relative ease in Scotland. Stefano Bonino is a postdoctoral research fellow at Italy’s University of Trento, and author of Muslims in Scotland: The Making of Community in a Post-9/11 World (2016).
Bonino told the Sunday Herald that many factors have contributed to a Muslim sense of wellbeing in Scotland, and the country’s status as a low-level target for Islamist terrorists.
These include Scotland’s fairly small Muslim population as compared with England, the limited levels of ethnic segregation and the all-embracing nature of Scottish nationalism, which, unlike English nationalism, has espoused civic values. “There is also the division along sectarian lines between Protestants and Catholics – especially in Glasgow,” added Bonino.
“So, the sectarian issue, in a way, displaced Islamophobia.”
Yet, those who contend that Scotland’s tolerant reputation is more illusion than lived reality point to Glasgow’s dark tradition of Protestant-Catholic bigotry – and the nation’s own cases of Islamophobia, which have caused Muslim discontent and prompted integration concerns.
Cases of racial and Islamophobic hate crime, including racist daubing, are not an alien concept in Scotland: in May, a Syrian refugee in Edinburgh was stabbed and nearly killed in a racially-aggravated assault. Two of Scotland’s most prominent Muslim MSPs, Anas Sarwar of Labour, whose father was the first Muslim MP to be elected to the UK Parliament, and Humza Yousaf of the SNP, have also spoken of their own experiences of Islamophobia.
Scotland, say many observers, is not immune to the type of Islamophobic abuse that can lead to widespread Muslim grievance – and a breakdown of inter-community trust. And any notion that the nation’s Muslims were somehow isolated from the fanaticism of Isis was shattered when it was revealed that Aqsa Mahmood had left her Glasgow home at 19 to join the Islamist extremist group in Syria in 2013.
Saleem, 46, a white Scottish convert to Islam from Catholicism, who asked the Sunday Herald to withhold his surname, is from Edinburgh. The retailer, who stated that his experiences as a white male put him in a “privileged” position, doubted claims that Scotland was somehow more at ease with its Muslim community than anywhere else in the UK. Saleem, who said he had been subjected to an Islamophic attack the one time he ventured out wearing a Muslim skullcap, opined that all today’s “Muslims were [subject to] distortion in the global media picture”.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.