Scotland has always considered itself a society that is “open, inclusive and outward-looking” according to its first minister, Nicola Sturgeon. But the nation’s popular and persistent belief that it does not have a problem with racism has been contradicted by a study by Tackling Islamophobia, a cross-party group of the Scottish government. This starkly reveals that 75% of Muslims experienced Islamophobia as a regular or everyday issue.
According to race think-tank the Runnymede Trust, Islamophobia is defined as “hatred or fear of Muslims or of their politics or culture” and can include “any distinction, exclusion, or restriction towards, or preference against Muslims”. Non-Muslims also find themselves victims of Islamophobia when they are mistakenly identified as Muslims, an all-too-common experience for ethnic minorities in Scotland.
The report highlights that Muslim women are most likely to suffer from discrimination. The majority of respondents believe that Islamophobia is getting worse in Scotland, with Glasgow showing the highest levels. Mainstream print and broadcast media were seen to promote Islamophobia by the majority of the study’s respondents. Social media was also cited as an arena where Islamophobic attitudes are circulated in Scotland. However, Islamophobia in Scotland is most often experienced on the street in the form of verbal abuse.
Muslims in Scotland have responded by changing their everyday habits in efforts to hide their Islamic identities. Some choose not to wear a headscarf or speak in a foreign language on public transport, for example.
Scotland has largely escaped criticism in public debates on race and racism due to the commonly held attitude that there is no problem to discuss. Scottish political elites have helped to advance the narrative that Scotland is more collectivist in nature and places a higher value on social welfare, making it exceptional in this issue to other parts of the UK, including England.
These arguments have been used to promote a civic brand of Scottish nationalism which has been successful in gaining support from minority ethnic groups, including among young adults. While it is good that Scotland has an inclusive notion of citizenship, we should be wary of making broad generalisations about Scottish exceptionalism.
At the successful Kenmure Street demonstration in Glasgow in May – where protesters halted a UK government immigration raid on two Indian men at a flat – there were numerous anti-UK banners and proclamations of Scotland having a better attitude to race. The demonstration was a significant victory for community resistance, but using it to justify notions of exceptional Scottish tolerance and inclusion is misleading.
There is some evidence to suggest that the Scottish public places a higher value on social welfare, and recent election results highlight a preference to vote for centre-left political parties. It is also true that Scotland has a long history of worker-led social justice campaigns. However, the extent to which Scotland is more open or inclusive to immigrants than other parts of the UK is often over emphasised. For example, survey evidence from YouGov found that public attitudes towards immigration were largely similar north and south of the border.
In the Kenmure Street case, reporting on the news story focused on the hostile approach of the UK immigration services, which were seen to symbolise the cruelty of the Westminster establishment. Despite claims that it would implement a “fair and humane asylum and refugee system”, the Scottish government has not been explicit about how it would regulate immigration should it be given the legislative powers to do so (immigration is a reserved matter for Westminster). It is not clear, for example, how it would process asylum claims or respond to failed claimants. So it is easy for the Scottish government to capitalise on this emotive issue in public campaigns and debates.
What can be done?
The Tackling Islamophobia report recommends that political and council leaders should be more vocal in addressing Islamophobia through a no-tolerance position. It advocates the inclusion of Muslims to public boards and senior positions. Additionally, it is suggested that Islamophobia be included in the existing Race Equality Framework.
These formal improvements could help to pave the way for addressing the root causes of Islamophobia in Scotland. But it is equally important for the Scottish public to take heed of this report’s worrying findings and acknowledge that in reality, Scotland has a poor reputation when it comes to the treatment of some of its most vulnerable citizens. Proclamations of Scottish exceptionalism and “no problem here” only hinder this process.
Evidence suggests that Scotland has a long way to go to live up to its perception of being open, inclusive and outward-looking, particularly for its Muslim population. The country needs to ditch its complacency and examine its efforts to combat discrimination, and consider how much it actually listens to its Muslim citizens and includes them at all levels of society. This starts with an acceptance of the cold hard facts, which may be a little difficult for some to hear.