Muslims are also Scots, so treat us the same

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HALF of Scots see Muslims as a cultural threat, according to a report published by the Scottish Government this week.

The report also found that while 4 per cent of people would object to an Asian teacher, 21 per cent would do so if it was a Muslim teacher.

Today, in a revealing interview with The Scotsman, Osama Saeed, a member of the Muslim Council of Scotland, calls for better understanding between the majority of Scots and Muslims, who make up 0.8 per cent of the population.

Mr Saeed, 27, is one of the leading voices in Scotland speaking out on behalf of the Muslim community. Born in Glasgow and educated at Bishopbriggs High and Glasgow University, Mr Saeed became interested in politics after the 9/11 attacks. He admits bad feeling has got worse towards Muslims since 2001 with commentators speaking of a "clash of civilisations" between Muslims and the West and reports of extremism in Scotland.

He says the ongoing war in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as recent legal cases in Scotland, has made many young Muslims angry. But, he says, it is just as much the responsibility of Muslims to engage in the democratic process and speak out against terrorism, as it is for others to try and better understand Islam.

Ultimately, he says, Muslims are no different from any other group in Scotland and deserve to be treated the same.


You are a well-known voice on Muslim issues in Scotland. How did this come about?

I was brought up a Muslim and had always been involved in youth groups and taken my faith seriously. But it was after 9/11, when I was 21, that the personal became political.

Suddenly Muslims were all over the news and I think in Scotland I was probably the first person other than the traditional community leaders who was able to speak out and it just snowballed. It was clear that a lot of work had to be done in public to clarify misconceptions about Islam.

How did you react when you saw the pictures of 9/11 on television?

People went to the mosque that evening and it was like: 'That is it. We are all finished. Time to sit in the corner quietly. Do not be seen or heard. We may even have to leave soon.' But I think they were wrong. Far from silence, what was required was for us to come out and explain ourselves, campaign for the things that are right, and I think that is what has been borne out by what has happened over the last few years.

Things do seem to have got worse. This week statistics showed an increased number of people see Muslims as a cultural threat, with half considering Scotland would lose its identity if an increased number of Muslims came to live here. Why do you think this is?

It is because of the international situation. (The Iraq and Afghanistan wars] and the terror attacks on London. But it was around before then. There has been this idea pedalled around over the last few years about a "clash of civilisations". Mistrust of Muslims is couched in this sort of inflammatory rhetoric.

There have been reports of extremism at mosques in Scotland. Does that make it worse?

People talk out of ignorance when it comes to Islam and some talk with a very mendacious attitude and want to smear by innuendo and just make stuff up. It does not help.

It makes it very difficult to try and get out the right message about Islam (as a peaceful religion].

What about the particular cases of Mohammed Siddique (who was convicted for having material related to al-Qaeda on his computer] and his lawyer Aamer Anwar (who now faces charges of contempt of court for speaking out against the conviction]?

I think there is a growing awareness of the powers that the Terrorism Act has given to the authorities. But there is a debate to be had about whether people who are not actually engaged in active plots can be prosecuted as terrorists.

On the one hand the government is giving out money to divert young people who are interested in extremism and on the other hand they are prosecuting people. The authorities have to say what is the dividing line, because people are very, very confused.

It is vital we champion the democratic process in the Muslim community but that is difficult because of the atmosphere.

Do you think it is making young Muslims frightened to speak out?

The reality is that parents are getting very jumpy about their kids getting involved in any kind of Muslim activity no matter how mundane for fear of them ending up on some watch, and that is dangerous, because when there is anger about foreign policy there needs to be an outlet, and that has effectively been shut down by the atmosphere and the approach to the Muslim community.

Young Muslims are feeling angry at what is going on in the world with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. What is vital is that these people are channelled into the democratic process, where they can air their views and make change.

Is there a danger young Muslims could be driven underground?

Every time a Muslim speaks out against the war in Iraq they are labelled as an extremist even though they have the same views as their non-Muslim friends. Because they are Muslim it is considered more dangerous.

In the end if people are not coming together openly there is the internet and no-one knows what is going on there.

What can be done to encourage young Muslims to take part in the democratic process?

We have leadership training programmes for young Muslims and self-empowerment sessions teaching them that you can be a young Muslim rooted in your faith and be a good citizen. In fact one demonstrates the other, because to be a good Muslim you have to be a good citizen.

What about more established figures?

Against racism, society stood with blacks and Asians. There is a discomfort even amongst some at the higher echelons of society to do the same with Muslims. For this to happen, we need to break down barriers. Initiatives need to come forward telling not just that Muslim terrorism has no place within Islam, but many non-Muslims need to hear the true essence of the faith too.

Have stories like the recent furore over the teddy bear in Sudan given the wrong impression of Islam?

People lump Muslims into one basket when things like this happen whereas the reality is that Muslims in this country are campaigning for freedoms for other Muslims around the world.

We have to campaign for democracy, free speech and general advancement of these societies that starts with education but also includes political reform.

Do you think Muslims in this country could actually help to improve relations with Muslim countries?

There is this idea in many people's minds that Muslims in this country sympathise with regimes like Saudi Arabia or Libya, when in fact many people are here because they fled those regimes and are here because of the freedoms we enjoy.

Often it is Muslim society in this country that is uniquely placed to work with these societies (as in the Muslim peers helping to free the teacher in Sudan].

If there is going to be a bridge over the chasm between civilisations, then Muslims in this country are uniquely placed to cross it.

Most of the Muslim population in Scotland is from the Indian subcontinent and Pakistan. You are second-generation British. Are people of your generation moving away from the old traditions?

People have turned away from the cultural ways of a different country but are turning towards the original tenets of the faith.

The practice of the religion is going up and up.

Have you suffered any prejudice yourself?

I have had lots of verbal stuff, people calling me bin Laden or terrorist. People make predictable jokes about my name (Osama]. But I think it is worse for kids. I have known one child that had to change their name from Osama because it became so bad and it is difficult for girls who wear the hijab.

Do you think it is particularly difficult for Muslim women in Scotland?

I think the people who suffer the most are Muslim women who wear the headscarf. I think the issue of abuse that can take place in the family needs to be addressed in all communities. In general the picture is getting better. For example, forced marriage is being tackled and cultural practices are being replaced by the essence of what is taught in Islam.

There are around 42,600 Muslims in Scotland at the last census count. Is the population increasing?

Not really. The last influx came when there was a labour shortage and it is more eastern Europeans filling that gap today. The new Muslims are often asylum seekers. There is not a great deal of co-ordination to help this group and there should be more to help our fellow brethren.

What do you hope for your children as Muslims growing up in Scotland?

I have to believe relations will improve, otherwise you would go crazy. I think internationally things will calm down and with hard work we can make things work better here as well. We could be an example to the rest of the world.

How does Scotland compare with the rest of the UK in treatment of Muslims?

Scottish Muslims feel more affinity with Scotland than many indigenous people and I think the reason for that is that we have been given a space to do our own thing. In England there is more antagonism and Muslims are more defensive, but in Scotland we just get on with it.

How do Muslims contribute to Scottish life?

People expect special things from us and while I do think we have a unique set of ideas to contribute to Scotland, the reality is that most people in society just want to get on with their jobs, look after their families and volunteer in the community if they are particularly civic-minded. That is what Muslims are doing. We are just normal people like anybody else in Scotland.