Over the past 18 months, it has been proved beyond doubt that Scotland is sadly not immune to prejudice and hate.
Islamophobia, antisemitism, homophobia, sexism and other forms of prejudice can be found in our workplaces, on our streets, and in our classrooms.
Whatever divisions may exist between political parties, or sometimes even within political parties, they pale into insignificance compared to the divisions that some seek to create in our communities.
Earlier this year, I was delighted when Scotland’s main political parties agreed to adopt a formal definition of Islamophobia in a landmark bid to tackle prejudice.
It classifies discrimination against Muslims as a form of racism, and reads: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”
This means we can move on from discussing whether Islamophobia exists or how it manifests itself and instead focus on what we can do to challenge and defeat it. It also sends a powerful signal to those who peddle hatred that Scotland’s Parliament stands united against Islamophobia.
Holyrood’s Cross-Party Group on Tackling Islamophobia has also been involved in a series of other initiatives, such as a Charter Mark for schools, visits to media newsrooms, and an audit of the diversity of Scotland’s civil service.
Last week, MSP Humza Yousaf and I were named ‘political heroes of the year’ for speaking out about our own experiences. Whilst that is a huge honour, the truth is that we are not heroes. We are actually lucky that we have a platform and can use our voice.
The real heroes are those who face discrimination and either can’t speak out, or do and aren’t listened to. This campaign is for them.
That’s why today I am launching the first ever public inquiry into Islamophobia in Scotland.
Working in conjunction with Professor Peter Hopkins and Newcastle University, we are seeking written responses from individuals, employers and organisations about experiences and consequences of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred.
The Cross-Party Group is also seeking views about what steps should be taken to tackle Islamophobia, and the written responses will be followed by verbal evidence sessions and outreach across the country. Submissions can be made at www.islamophobiainquiry.org
At a time when division and disunity seem to be on the rise, with the constant “us” versus “them” politics and the othering of whole communities, we need to come together and give voice to those who feel voiceless and hope to those who feel all hope has gone. That’s why we want to hear as many views and experiences as possible.
A recent survey found that two-thirds of Muslim women in Scotland had either witnessed or experienced a hate incident or crime, with victims revealing they had their hijab pulled off, were spat at, and were told to “go back to where you came from” – even those who were born here.
When I was growing up, it was a regular occurrence to be racially abused when in the city centre with friends. There were the streets that we knew were no-go areas for us. Even passing by was a risk – I had friends who were brutally assaulted for even daring to cross the street.
Today, I think we perhaps see less in-your-face racism, but I feel it has become more insidious. Social media has given it a different platform and amplification.
We have to win this fight against hatred for our children and our children’s children. One of my greatest fears is that my children will grow up in a more divided and hate-filled world than I did.
Education is the key to defeating prejudice and discrimination.
Teachers play a vital role in changing this culture, but the best lessons for children often come from fellow children, building confidence and better understanding.
A child can help educate and change a family, who in turn can educate and change a community.
But discrimination is also about more than just abuse or threats. It impacts on life chances and outcomes including people not getting jobs or missing out on promotion.
For example, we know that under two per cent of civil servants working in Scotland are ethnic minority.
I hope this historic public inquiry will help us both understand the scale of the problem and find some of the answers to the problem too.
The fight for equality in all its forms won’t be won by itself with time, it will require more hard work, and it will require greater dedication. Let’s not pick and choose, but instead come together and challenge all forms of prejudice so no individual or community feels alone – this must be a fight for all of us.
Public inquiry submissions can be made here: www.islamophobiainquiry.org. The deadline for written submissions is 12 noon on Monday, 26 August.
Anas Sarwar is a Scottish Labour MSP for Glasgow