Scottish Independence Referendum and Muslims’ Participation
By Dr Qari Muhammad Asim
The Muslim community was deeply engaged, along with everybody else, with Scotland’s Independence Referendum. Muslims have been involved in both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns, which shows that the Muslim community is active and engaged with the political process in this country. Muslims care and want to contribute to the society in which they live.
In terms of the number of Muslims, in 2011, the Muslim population in Scotland was around 77,000, accounting for 1.4% of Scotland’s population. About 40% of them live in Glasgow. The first Muslim known to have been in Scotland was a student who studied at the University of Edinburgh between 1858 and 1859.
There is no such thing as a ‘Muslim bloc’ vote in Scotland or England so everyone was considering what they were hearing and deciding what was best for the next generations. For ‘Yes’ voters, independence promised better chances of prosperity for the upcoming generations. However, ‘No’ voters saw, in the long run, more political and economic benefits for staying part of Great Britain.
Vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’
Some Muslims thought of independence as an opportunity to break away from some of the foreign policies of Westminster affecting the Muslim world. They had a vision that Scotland would be able to continue to maintain a free education system, free medical prescriptions and guarantee the survival of the National Health Service in Scotland.
The majority of Muslims living in England were concerned about the country breaking away from the 300+ years old union. They cared about remaining together and opposed separation. They saw subdividing the United Kingdom as counterproductive both for Scotland and the rest of Britain. They thought that the economic prosperity of Scotland was exaggerated i.e. they believed that claims about how much North Sea oil Scotland had and the revenues it would generate, and how much natural resources Scotland owns, were not fully grasped by those in favour of independence.
In any event, the past few weeks had seemed as though the country was in peril as polls began to show the separatists taking lead on the unionists.
Many European leaders, particularly those facing separatist movements within their own countries, were closely following the Scottish independence momentum. With one eye on Catalan nationalists, the Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy insisted that an independent Scotland could not expect automatic membership of the EU.
Many questions ranging from oil and the economy to the pound and the Queen, were hotly debated. The following are some of the questions that were on the lips of many Muslims:
Would Scots retain British citizenship after a Yes vote?
What would Scotland’s foreign policy look like?
Would an independent Scotland keep the pound?
Would an independent Scotland keep the Queen?
What would be Scotland’s self-defence plan?
Would there be no tuition fee?
After months of intense campaigning and passionate debates by both camps, Scots decided on 18th September to stay part of Great Britain. The ‘No’ side won by 55 per cent to 45 per cent.
There are a number of lessons that can be learnt from the Scottish Independence referendum:
1. Usually, the turnout in elections is very low. People, generally, do not come out because they believe their vote does not make a difference. “What’s the point? They’re all the same” are some of the comments that we hear. However, people are not apathetic, they just need something they feel is worth turning out to vote for.
The vast interest generated by the Scottish referendum raises questions that are applicable in a broader context amongst British Muslim communities, where political engagement at a national and even local level can be sporadic. Have political parties / leaders in the Muslim world made conventional politics so bland that people barely pay attention? By the same token, it can be asked have the management committees / trustees of British Muslim institutions made the issues that they focus on so bland that British Muslims barely pay attention? People in charge of running a country or an institution must re-gain the trust of the people they purport to serve. A worthy movement can always spur people into activism.
2. The numbers voting for independence far exceeded what anyone might have imagined when terms for the referendum were agreed two years ago. It is a measure of dissatisfaction with the way they are governed that 45 per cent of Scots were willing to risk going it alone. Whenever there is dissatisfaction or there are grievances, people are prepared to go to extreme lengths to be heard and counted for. This is to the extent that a sizeable proportion of the Scottish population was willing to break away from a 300 year long history.
Again, there is a broader lesson to be learnt here. There are many dissatisfied / disenfranchised young Muslims in the Muslim world. This dissatisfaction led to the Arab Spring. When people in the Muslim world have elected a party to run their country, their democratic choice must be accepted by the remainder of the world otherwise young people will alienate themselves from democracy and resort to un-democratic means to bring about change in their country.
There are many dissatisfied/ disenfranchised young Muslims in the UK; they feel alienated in their own country. Our government and the Muslim leadership must find the root causes of such dissatisfaction and aim to eliminate those as quickly and efficiently as possible.
3. Political strategists have assumed that GDP and unemployment statistics take priority over all other considerations. Scotland has shown that people respond to politics and/or policies when they say something emotional about the world they live in – their sense of belonging, rootedness, control.
4. Elements of imperialism and dominance must be replaced with equality and fairness to win the hearts and minds of our own people.
5. People want to feel that they have the power to make their own decisions and are in charge of their own destiny. Hence, nationalism is on the rise throughout the world.
Points 3 to 5 above are important for the Muslim community too. If we are to engage with young Muslims and make our institutions more dynamic and engaging, then the leadership and ‘elders’ in the community must create an environment in which young Muslims feel a sense of belonging to those institutions. Young Muslims must be seen as equal partners in bringing about change in attitude within our communities. They must feel empowered and in charge of their own destiny. Young people must be entrusted to make decisions and lead the next generation.
As far as our government is concerned, these are some of the key points that can be learnt from the Scottish Independence campaign and can provide good consideration when making domestic and foreign policies. The Scottish referendum gives hope for the dawn of a new, cleaner politics.
In conclusion, Scotland has decided to remain part of the UK and the Prime Minister David Cameron has announced new powers for all the regions. Amongst the many revelations made by the referendum was the fact that Muslims are undoubtedly engaged in British politics, they are as committed to securing a better future for their nation as other communities. Now is a good opportunity for all of us, regardless of our background, to contribute new ideas about how our regions and nations are run for the benefit of this country and the entire world. It is an opportunity to change the way the United Kingdom does its business and make it more effective, fair and ethical.
Economic inequality was one of the key points in the Scottish Independence referendum debate and it seems to be one of the key issues leading to resentment, unrest and instability in the world.
There are some hard lessons to be learnt from the Scottish Independence referendum, which can help the government improve its image and position amongst its own people and the entire world.
Qari Muhammad Asim
Imam, Makkah Mosque Leeds