THE Yes campaign may be gaining in momentum but its success or failure could be determined by an unlikely group of Scots – those coming from the Muslim community.
They represent less than 2 per cent of the Scottish population but in a battle that has divided public opinion some are beginning to wonder if Muslims could swing the balance of power. Campaigners on both sides are slogging it out for every single vote and the final battleground could be fought in those households belonging to Scotland’s most recent arrivals.
That Muslims in Scotland could produce a Bannockburn-style victory for the Yes campaign has not been lost on the SNP. They might represent only 1.4 per cent of the population in Scotland but in a country which could be split down the middle come next year, Muslims could tip the vote in favour of independence.
Census figures released at the end of September show that in the last decade the number of Muslims in Scotland has nearly doubled, from 40,000 to 77,000. More confident than their English counterparts, it seems integration – while preserving religious identity – has been much easier than elsewhere in the UK. This was supported in 2010 by a poll, for the British Council Scotland, which found six out of ten Scots believed Muslims were integrated into everyday Scottish life.
The survey, carried out by Ipsos Mori, also revealed that 46 per cent of those questioned thought that Muslims living in Scotland were loyal to the country. Will that loyalty prove stronger than loyalty to the Union? A leading question indeed and one that, for the time being, remains unanswered.
Rowena Arshad, director of the Centre for Education for Racial Equality in Scotland, said at the time: “The finding that 65 per cent of survey respondents have some degree of favourability towards Muslims is, to some extent, reassuring, regarding the future of Scottish community relations.
“Scotland is a small country but, as the research shows, there is potential that it is not a country of small minds.”
The concept of independence is nothing new for the older generations in the Muslim community and their influence could also sway the younger ones, especially those drawn from Pakistan and Indian communities, which emerged as sovereign nations following the end of the British Raj rule in 1947.
The Bangladeshi communities had to wait until 1971 before enjoying the same status, so could this now be seen as an opportunity to strike back at Empire after generations of their ancestors were forced to endure British colonnialism?
One of the leading lights of the Yes campaign, and someone who is a highly regarded source of pride for most Muslims in Scotland, is Humza Yousaf, who has served the SNP as a member of the Scottish Parliament since 2011. The following year he was appointed Minister of External Affairs and International Development.
While Scottish politics does not get as bogged down with the cult of celebrity as in Westminster, Yousaf, the son of immigrants who arrived in Britain in the 1960s, is considered to be a rising star.
He says: “The prime motivation to vote Yes in the referendum will be the same for Muslims as it is for every other community in Scotland. It’s about what is best for our families, for jobs, the cost of living and communities. These motivations and values are shared across communities.
“Independence is about enabling us to belong to a country with the power, resources and ambition to build an inclusive society, nurture world-class public services, tax fairly and be a good global citizen.
“A lot of people in Scotland’s Muslim community were inspired, as I was, by the words of the late and great Bashir Ahmed, who said it doesn’t matter where you come from but where we are going to go together as a nation that matters.”
If Humza Yousaf is right, the spirit of Braveheart is alive among Scotland’s Muslims. But while a tartan-clad Mel Gibson portraying Robert the Bruce’s doomed brother-in-arms William Wallace may have rallied millions of cinemagoers’ sentiment against Westminster rule, it will take more than the rousing words of a script writer to impress the wily Scots – including those from the Muslim community. «
• British journalist Yvonne Ridley is the assistant secretary general of the International Muslim Women’s Union. She moved to Scotland two years ago.