This is a guest post by Tom Gallagher, Professor of Ethnic Conflict and Peace at the University of Bradford
‘Stop the World We Want To Get on’. These were the words of Winifred Ewing, now the Grande Dame of Scottish Nationalism, when she won a sensational by-election in 1967, an event which marked the debut of the SNP as a political force to be reckoned with.
But it is now reasonable to ask exactly which epoch does the Scottish National Party want to join, as it drags along a compliant Scotland in its wake? Increasingly, the language it uses to scorch its opponents and groups like the Quilliam Foundation which dare to give it wise counsel, is from an epoch associated with rather scary and confrontational nationalism.
As a long-time SNP-watcher, even I was taken aback at how a party spokesman responded when Ed Husain urged the SNP to review its links with Osama Saeed, recently confirmed as an SNP parliamentary candidate, on account of his ‘sectarian and divisive record’.
In a briefing issued on 17 April Quilliam found a clear set of reasons for believing that it was highly problematic for a mainstream party like the SNP to promote Osama Saeed:
- Support for Yusuf-al-Qaradawi
- Support for the Caliphate
- Religious separatism and attacks on modern Muslim scholars
- Offering a platform to Prominent Islamists through the Scottish Islamic Foundation
- Displaying an ambiguous stance on Sharia punishments
- Urging Censorship and ‘defiance’ of Police counter-terrorism measures
The tone of the report indicated that a modern party like the SNP ought to see reason and ditch such an antediluvian figure. I felt like writing to Quilliam to point out that the problem lay not so much with the tartan Islamists but with the SNP itself. Just as small groups of restless, angry and sometimes idealistic young Muslims have found it difficult to engage with the West, this is true of the SNP, except that its ‘West’ stretches from the English Channel to the Cheviot Hills and is called ‘England’. Several conditions and complexes make it altogether natural for those currently directing the SNP to link up with disseminators of a politicised version of Islam. Like not a few Islamists, the party is fuelled by a grievance culture. England is viewed as an overbearing and intrusive force which has thwarted the evolution of Scotland into a successful country with a much larger population and a more illustrious role in the world. The SNP is defined by its separatism just like the Islamists: neither wish meddling outsiders to be able to dictate, or even influence, what happens in their respective sacred spheres. Powerful tribal leaders whose authority rests on their ability to look into the soul of their respective nationalist and religious faithfuls, and divine the path to salvation, play well not just in the strongholds of Al Q’aida but among part of the SNP ranks.
Instead of asking when will the SNP see the light over its Islamist Tendency, the question perhaps ought to be reframed to ask, when will Osama and his chums realise that their street credibility is not being enhanced by throwing in their lot with the SNP. The SNP is an angry rhetorical party short of ideas and fuelled by resentment as well as the ambitions of a few driven individuals. Comparisons can be made with nationalist parties that have risen and fallen in the Middle East and which proper Islamists shunned. Is Osama Saeed an apostate in danger of morphing into political careerist with a good line in religious evangelism?
In his defence, it has to be pointed out that he is relatively cosmopolitan compared with many who exercise authority in today’s SNP. Probably no other top party figure other than Alex Salmond, travels abroad as much on high-level party business,. Experience alone of the political scene in Washington DC, Cairo, the Gulf, and even points East would entitle him to be in the running for Scotland’s foreign minister if the United Kingdom really does unravel. He almost certainly visits England far more often than any other SNP notable and rarely displays the one remaining fashionable chauvinism in these islands, Anglophobia. Osama and his confederates also have a more sophisticated agenda than the rest of the SNP. They wish to consecrate a new form of traditionalism for Muslims in Western Europe. They are inspired by a vision of a Muslim community that is simultaneously pious and dynamic , remaining in close contact with South Asia and parts of the Middle East and perhaps one day forming a single ummah.
Tariq Ramadaan and Osama Saeed may be Islamists who believe religion ought to enjoys primacy in an exhausted and neurotic West which others even believe is ripe for post-democracy. But they are of course progressive and responsible when compared with those ultras who are committed to achieving theocratic governments in many different countries by indiscriminate violence. They also prefer to express their beliefs in opaque language which is not always open to just one interpretation.
That’s why I suspect Osama Saeed was far from overjoyed by the furious outburst from an SNP spokesman when questioned by The Times about Quilliam’s concerns about their high profile activist’s track-record. The article, entitled ‘SNP urged to drop “sectarian and divisive” Muslim candidate’, written by Angus Macleod, Scottish Political Editor appeared in the Scottish edition of the paper on 23 April. The unknown spokesman riposted:
‘This disgraceful attack is untrue from start to finish, and shows that the politics of smear is not confined to websites.
‘The Quilliam foundation has zero credibility…this smear must be seen for what it is. We have strong community relations in Scotland, and when we are all working to build unity, the very last thing we need is people with no knowledge of Scotland spreading nastiness and smears’.
Ed Husain may not have known what hit him upon reading this fusillade. This kind of stuff may be the standard putdown of splitters issued from the caves of Waziristan but here it is being fired off by a mainstream party which, whenever its leader goes abroad, always insists it is motivated only by nationalism at its most civic and responsible. We know that even Nick Griffin of the British National Party has ditched such bombast. The Quilliam people might be even more discomfited to realise that the ‘SNP spokesman’ could well be an Edinburgh civil servant. For Alex Salmond has drafted in a contingent of political workers to the various devolved ministries who now enjoy civil service status and princely salaries to boot. The most important of them arguably is Kevin Pringle who runs Salmond’s media office and glories in the title of Senior Special Adviser to the First Minister. Probably nobody in the party is closer to Salmond than Pringle who transforms the leader’s thoughts into pugnacious soundbites and who the largely unheroic Scottish press corps hold in wary respect.
If Alistair Campbell had ranted in such a splenetic way about a current foe of New Labour, he would have been met with scorn and ridicule by the press. But this is Scotland which doesn’t do satire and where you learn to keep a civil tongue in your head when addressing your betters. Take the Herald newspaper. Based in Glasgow and once a significant national broadsheet, it has gradually retreated from its political unionism while often adopting a world view sympathetic to multi-culturalism and critical of the conduct of major Western powers.
Neither this press organ nor any other branch of the Scottish media now includes figures on the Left who view the SNP government’s alliance with Islamists as a retreat from progressive politics, or at least are prepared to say so in print. This is in contrast with the press in London where left-wing journalists who have consistently argued against government collusion with non-violent Islamists include such figures as Martin Bright, Joan Smith, David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen.
Of the Scottish broadsheet press titles only Scotland on Sunday and the Sunday Times have offered regular coverage of the rise of political Islam. The topic generates far more concern in England arguably not because of anti-Muslim prejudice but owing to well-founded fears that precious freedoms might be eroded as a result. Given Scotland’s turbulent religious history, the lack of concern displayed by much of the press and even bodies like the Humanists is striking, suggesting that basic political freedoms are less appreciated here than in other parts of the United Kingdom.
Let us look more closely at the claims made in the statement quoted above from an anonymous SNP spokesman.
‘This disgraceful attack is untrue from start to finish…’
Quilliam made categorical claims backed up by quotes from Osama Saeed himself, writing on his blog, Rolled Up Trousers, and in the Guardian. If these were defamatory, then the very permissive libel laws of this country offer him and the SNP generous opportunity for redress. But if not, what has the party to lose by not refuting them ‘from start to finish’.
‘The Quilliam foundation has zero credibility…’
Would it not be a constructive step for Alex Salmond , perhaps on one of his visits to the House of Commons where he still sits as an MP, to invite Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz for tea to hear their views about Islam in its highly politicised forms? After all, Salmond belongs to a country whose progress has arguably been marred in the past by unwise rulers who have allowed mobilised Christian religions undue access to political power, the results not always being pretty to behold..
‘…this smear must be seen for what it is…’
But instead of being put up to this by God knows who, what if the Quilliam crowd are instead motivated by a desire to prevent a community like Scotland’s Muslims falling under the sway of people who hold very doctrinaire religious positions?
After all, ex-radicals have seen the consequences at close hand in English conurbations. Bureaucrats and local politicians sought to manage immigrant communities from the 1980s onwards by imposing ethnic identities on them and reducing the level of pluralism as self-appointed community leaders were appointed to act as latter-day colonial governors. This is the kind of creepy manipulative policy the SNP is emulating. It is the misfortune of Muslim Scots that they are the guinea pigs. But the rest of us, if we wish to find life in the new nationalist Scotland tolerable will also have to comply.
Scotland is enjoying an elaborate cultural makeover. A new stereotypical collective identity is being unfurled. It involves repackaging poets, artists and musicians as troubadours for Nationalism as well as high-profile festivals in the winter months where public participation will be tirelessly urged irrespective of the Scottish weather, and Gaelic lettering and Saltire flags emblazoned on every conceivable public space.
Such cultural propaganda, when tried out in Ireland, was mercilessly lampooned by satirists like Flann O’Brien. But in Scotland our stand-up comics and acerbic columnists for a long time have only had the United States, the wicked bankers, and despoilers of the environment in their sights. So the SNP’s bid to have us all marching in step to the same patriotic tunes along rain-washed Scottish streets has a good chance of success.
‘We have strong community relations in Scotland…’
This is moonshine and it is a perhaps a welcome sign of hubris that the SNP is ready to peddle such dope. Move away from the patriotic hype and a discerning visitor soon finds a small country with a great deal of anger that is directed into religious and quasi-religious rivalry (Orange versus Green nowhere stronger outside Ulster) and of course towards the English and some of the hated overlord’s symbols. To acknowledge this local dystopia involves spurning the Braveheart fantasy which is something that the SNP will never do so. Instead, it blithely paves the way for new inter-communal stand-offs by promoting a range of policies, beginning with state-funded Islamic schools, which are likely to increasingly isolate a currently quite-well-integrated Muslim community, from the rest of society.
‘…we are all working to build unity…’
This is the default position of all restrictive political movements which rely on suffocating conformity in order to prevail. Until recently the SNP was a byword for infighting and intrigue and unity of a sorts has descended as the opportunity to smash a feeble opposition and establish a dominance undreamt of a short time before, suddenly presents itself.
‘…we are all working to build unity…’
are revealing words. They indicate how impatient Alex Salmond, and those whom he has gathered around him are, with forms of pluralism involving searching debate and honest differences of opinion.
‘…the very last thing we need is people with no knowledge of Scotland spreading nastiness and smears’
These words encapsulate the self-righteous provincialism of the SNP. Mere foreigners, unless they drink from the fountain of nationalist purity, will never understand a country whose magnificent and complex history does not yield its secrets easily to outsiders. This kind of clap-trap has been pushed by ruling nationalists from Mussolini to Enver Hoxha and Kim Il-sung. In fact the Quilliam staffers almost certainly know far more about the consequences of crudely promoting religious precepts in ethnically-mixed parts of inner city Scotland than do SNP politicians who often just bother with these areas at election time.
I would like to think that there are still civic-minded folk in the SNP prepared to acknowledge that the Quilliam Foundation is well-meaning and only has good intentions towards Scotland and even the SNP itself. Quilliam is pointing out that Scotland is likely to become a more tribal place as a result of imposing a narrow religious identity on a section of the population. National self-confidence is bound to diminish and it will be less prepared to handle the challenge of independence, if that prospect ever materialises .Ed Husain and his colleagues are some of the most constructive and enlightened figures to reach public prominence in Britain for some time. If they have any backbone, the other parties at the Scottish Parliament, who have well over 50 per cent of the seats, ought to invite Quilliam to make a presentation at Holyrood showing why their work on combating extremism is relevant for Scotland today.
Habibi adds: commenter Devorgilla has flagged this video, where Saeed scurrilously compares Labour to right wing extremists in Continental Europe:
Saeed is introduced by Salmond as a member of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB).
This harangue by Azzam Tamimi, a former MAB leader, whose comments Saeed has recommended you read, alongside those of George Galloway, nicely sums up the spirit of that organisation:
Poor old Union.