Scotland’s radicals

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Scotland’s radicals

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Alex Salmond’s willingness to fish in the wilder waters of Muslim politics is irresponsible and offensive to the heroes of 30th June

Alex Salmond is fast turning into one of the most nimble politicians in British politics since Lloyd George. Since becoming Scotland’s first minister, Salmond has proven not only to be a skilful media politician but a formidable operator in the corridors of power. Since taking charge of the executive in May, with a one-seat majority, his Scottish National party (SNP) has launched a blizzard of initiatives.

Unusually for a nationalist leader, Salmond has cultivated a range of minorities, notably Scotland’s growing Muslim population, which is concentrated in a number of seats the SNP hopes to wrest from the Labour party. On 31st July, Salmond held a reception for Scottish Muslim leaders at his official Edinburgh residence where he declared that, in terms of engaging with Muslims, “We are ahead of virtually every other European country.”

He made more headlines on 7th August when he presided over a civic reception in Glasgow in honour of the men and women whose courage helped save Glasgow from disaster on 30th June, the day when two would-be bombers struck the terminal building of Glasgow airport. One of the heroes that day, 31-year-old baggage handler John Smeaton, later commented that he was only doing his civic duty when he intervened to help the police overpower one of the bombers. Yet there is growing evidence that Salmond is intent on strengthening his support among those members of Scotland’s 60,000-strong Muslim community who are all too ready to champion an ethno-religious identity rather than a civic one.

The chief tactician upon whom Salmond relies to build bridges with Scottish Muslims is Osama Saeed, the Scottish organiser of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAP). Saeed stood as an SNP parliamentary candidate in 2005, and has enthusiastically defended the idea of a global Islamic state in the press, on one occasion urging Muslims to withhold co-operation from the police. Following the failed bombing, Saeed was chosen by the BBC in Scotland to speak for Scotland’s Muslims. Largely excluded from the broadcast media were Muslims such as Glasgow university lecturer Amanullah de Sondy, who appealed in the Scottish press for more attention to be directed at “what I call progressive Muslims, the silent majority who do not wear their religion on their sleeve, and are open to discussion and debate about western dress, gender relations, social norms and other aspects of Scottish life.”

This July, Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, his deputy first minister and close ally, went to great lengths to deny the argument that religious ideology might be motivating Muslims to carry out acts of mass terror. The contrasting position had in fact already been argued in the press with considerable fluency by ex-radicals such as Ed Husain and Hassan Butt. Sturgeon repeatedly stated on television, and at a rally organised by the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) on 7th July, that “Islam is a religion of peace.” While this may be true, Sturgeon’s repeated use of the phrase betrays an unwillingness to offend the sensibilities of religious pressure groups whose value is their capacity to swing voters towards the party that is most amenable to their agenda.

The MAB has campaigned against the British presence not just in Iraq but also in Afghanistan, and is closely linked to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. Salmond, who has a long aversion towards western military engagement, shares many of the MAB’s concerns. He has met with its best-known figure, Azzam Tamimi, who declared in 2004, “If I can go to Palestine and sacrifice myself, I would do it.” In December 2005, while addressing Islamic activists in Glasgow, Tamimi declared that the SNP was the best party in Scotland to represent Muslim interests. He cited the party’s stance on Iraq, Palestine and the war on terrorism, declaring, “We have been impressed by the warm and welcoming attitude of the SNP.”

Salmond’s willingness to fish in the wilder waters of Muslim politics is clever—albeit risky—electoral politics. Despite his tiny majority, he intends to stay in government for a full four-year term by picking strategic quarrels with Downing Street and Whitehall not only over Anglo-Scottish matters, but over British foreign policy too. Yet the strategy conceals a glaring absence of both religious literacy and—I would contend—public responsibility.

There is no sign that Salmond wishes to reach out to those Muslim Scots who are committed to integration. Such people don’t usually form lobbies capable of delivering baskets of votes to parties at election time. They prefer to fit in with the rest of society rather than to emphasise their separation from it.

The message being promoted by Alex Salmond is: in Scotland, Muslim identity is welcome, while British identity is a thing of the past. But surely there is a danger that Scottish nationalism, because it is so clearly lacking in substance, will end up disappointing young Muslims searching for a durable radical cause. The SNP’s obsession with alleged English “overlordship,” and its failure to move beyond gimmicks and slogans on many policy areas, is unlikely to impress idealistic Muslims preoccupied with global concerns.

Salmond’s party is uninterested in engaging with many of the social problems that blight urban Scotland, instead preferring to grandstand on constitutional issues. In 2004, Nicola Sturgeon opposed the plans of the Labour administration in Edinburgh to target gang violence through its antisocial behaviour bill. She argued that it risked causing a complete breakdown in relations between young people and the police. This was not long after “Operation Gadher,” set up in 2002 to confront an Asian gang culture controlling much of Glasgow’s drug trade, was closed down because it was considered politically incorrect in influential quarters. Gangs, including Muslim ones, blight Sturgeon’s Glasgow Govan constituency and the neighbouring areas. There is a danger that the party’s privileging of religious identity could give urban violence a disturbing Islamic edge.

Much though the SNP hates to be reminded of it, establishing a partnership with religious figures and community activists—rather than reaching out to individual Muslim citizens—is a failed English policy. It backfired on a Conservative home secretary, Michael Howard, after he was instrumental in setting up the Muslim Council of Britain, and it backfired on Tony Blair and Jack Straw, who for even longer periods sought to manage Muslim concerns by working through religious gatekeepers.

Salmond seems to be uninterested in the new thinking from Whitehall about the need to treat Muslims as individual citizens, not as part of an amorphous and ill-defined community. This enables the concerns of women and other disadvantaged groups to be noticed, groups that religious campaigners usually prefer to overlook. It will be ironic if Salmond emerges as a social authoritarian eager to remake the face of the biggest Scottish cities, whose voters have vexed the SNP by rejecting it on numerous occasions. Plenty of evidence this summer suggests that this is exactly the direction he is moving in. It may well mean that Smeaton and the other heroes of 30th June will be wondering why Salmond is saluting them for their civic valour on the day the bombers tried and failed to destroy Glasgow airport.

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Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher's book The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism is forthcoming 

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