Salmond Hussein?

[Thursday, again]

This is a delightfully sniffy article – or should I say articles? – about the SNP. Not a smear piece, exactly, it has a little bit more sophistication: it’s a smart-arse smear. But note well the unease at Salmond’s opposition to imperialist wars…

This version is from OpenDemocracy

Scotland’s nationalist-Muslim embrace
Tom Gallagher

Scotland’s establishment has responded to an abortive terrorist operation by reaffirming support for the country’s Muslim minority. The silences as well as the words are politically significant, says Tom Gallagher.

9 – 08 – 2007

The terrorist attack that narrowly failed to inflict mass slaughter at Glasgow airport on 30 June 2007 has had a singular impact on Scotland’s public life. A universal sense of shock was followed by vigorous official efforts to build bridges to the country’s approximately 60,000 Muslims. A week later, on 7 July, the cream of Scotland’s establishment gathered in George Square in Glasgow’s heart to offer them protection and reassurance. The institutions represented included the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP), the police, the Church of Scotland, the trade unions, and the vocal anti-war movement. Nobody wondered aloud about the religious dimensions of the violent ideology that had evidently motivated the would-be massacre. Indeed, Scotland’s health minister and SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon was explicit that “Islam is a religion of peace”.

Muslims at the 1,500-strong rally mixed freely with the representatives of political and lobbying groups who made up the bulk of the crowd. The central spot was reserved for Osama Saeed, an articulate young Muslim activist (and former SNP candidate) whose intensity and fluency have made him a sought-after guide to the mood and concerns of Scotland’s Muslims since the airport attack. Saeed’s argument that the Muslim community’s moderation is a given might be confirmed by the absence (in those parts of Glasgow where most Scots Muslims reside) of the Islamic bookshops, bitter young men and fully-covered women that are characteristic of parts of London and of other English urban conurbations with large Muslim populations.
Tom Gallagher is chair of ethnic peace and conflict studies at Bradford University, northern England. Among his nine single-authored books is Theft of a Nation: Romania since Communism (Hurst & Co, 2005), published in the United States as Modern Romania (New York University Press, 2005)

Tom Gallagher has written extensively on sectarian and religious issues in modern Scotland, including Glasgow, The Uneasy Peace: Religious Tensions in Modern Scotland (Manchester University Press, 1987). He is currently embarking on a research project exploring the reaction of the British state and society to the emergence of Muslim radicalism from the Salman Rushdie affair of 1988 to the present

Also by Tom Gallagher in openDemocracy:

“Understanding Slobodan Milosevic: between the cold war and Iraq” (13 March 2006)

“The European Union and Romania: consolidating backwardness?” (27 September 2006)
At the same time, Osama Saeed is an unapologetic advocate of the hardline Islamism espoused by the organisation whose Scottish branch he heads, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). He has enthusiastically defended the idea of a global Islamic state and urged Muslims not to cooperate with the police. Media outlets which have reported police appeals for vigilance have not raised with Saeed his political track-record; none appears to have approached him in the spirit of sceptical inquiry that animates coverage of other prominent figures (for example, suggesting that there might be a tension between his extravagant condemnation of the Glasgow attack and support for radical Islamism, even that that this combination might be part of an intellectual taqiyya [deception]).A shaken Scotland, it seems, is not in the mood for tough questions.

A story for solidarity

Glasgow’s brush with disaster has proven to be a windfall for Scotland’s left-of-centre pro-independence Scottish National Party, which has led the government since the May 2007 elections to Scotland’s devolved parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. The SNP has assiduously cultivated Scotland’s Muslims, and its historic (if narrow) victory in May included the election of the country’s first Muslim MSP, Bashir Ahmad. The party’s shrewd leader (and Scotland’s first minister) Alex Salmond has used the airport attack as an opportunity to place his party at the foreground of national affairs in much the same way as Tony Blair used the death of Princess Diana in 1997 to project himself as New Labour’s leader of destiny.

At the 7 July rally, Salmond’s chief lieutenant Nicola Sturgeon offered perfunctory praise for John Smeaton, the airport-worker whose presence of mind and unassuming manner on 30 June has made him a hero in many quarters; but she soon moved on and declared that “I wish to particularly praise the Muslim community in Scotland”. On 1 July, hours after the foiled atrocity, Salmond had made a well-publicised visit to Glasgow’s central mosque to assure the city’s Muslim religious leaders of his determination to prevent the community from being an object of attack. Sturgeon reinforced the point, promising that Scotland’s tough legislation designed to stamp out public aggression between feuding Catholics and Protestants would be used against anyone tempted into a twisted form of retaliation.

The tenor of the SNP’s public statements suggests that Salmond, in private conversation, did not ask for greater effort from religious leaders in challenging extremism or disavowing attacks on free speech even when Muslim sensibilities are offended.

The SNP is a grievance party par excellence. Salmond is proving skilful at stage-managing events in which an inept central government based in Whitehall is seen as reluctant to consult with the elected Scottish government. In this light it is not surprising if a party adept at exploiting the real discontent felt by many Scots towards a British state which often seems to reflect English priorities also appeals to increasing numbers of Scots Muslims. Many of the latter have travelled far to settle in Scotland and worked mightily from a starting-point at or near the bottom of the social scale to establish a sustainable life for themselves and their families. A land whose repertoire of national, public attitudes includes on occasion a finely honed sense of grievance can thus offer to a minority a resource which can provide a convenient channel to aid integration – all the more so when the minority itself is not the object of suspicion.

In some respects at least, south Asian migrants to Scotland (many of them Muslim) have found their path easier than in parts of England because they have arrived in a society that often defines itself as a minority culture – one where articulate nationalists (and not only they) have portrayed the national story in terms of a constant struggle to exist in the shadow of a larger, arrogant and sometimes threatening English neighbour. The dominant Scottish self-perception is that of a small outward-looking country with robust anti-imperialist traditions (even though Scots were arguably the main architects of empire in many places during the heyday of Britain’s overseas role). This progressive anti-imperialist image too is one that a significant number of Muslims find it easy to relate to.

An additional factor is that the Scottish establishment’s embarrassment – even guilt – about two centuries of religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants (one that has affected education, housing patterns, sporting rivalries and employment) means that it nowadays makes great efforts to accommodate minorities.

Alex Salmond’s moment

The Glasgow rally on 7 July was the first public opportunity to view the balance of forces in the Muslim community after a week of turmoil. Elderly figures like Bashir Maan, Scotland’s first-ever Muslim city councillor, had their place of honour. But a younger generation of campaigners, who helped organise the assembly in the city’s main square just days after co-religionists almost succeeded in destroying the city’s airport, are now making the running. Osama Saeed declared that the community had nothing to apologise for and roundly criticised the “rightwing press” for asking uncomfortable – and in his view divisive – questions. He called for an enquiry into the root causes of terrorism in Britain and appeared confident that the finger of blame would be pointed at departing prime minister Tony Blair, who was condemned at the rally more often than any bomb-carrying doctor.

Alex Salmond may never have worn a uniform, but he is projecting himself to religious minorities previously loyal to the Labour party – not just Muslims but the much larger Catholic one mainly drawn from past waves of Irish immigrants – as Scotland’s answer to Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt or the Irish leader Michael Collins, who both struck out against an overmighty Britain in the last century with impressive effect. The cause of Scotland’s freedom was personalised in the May elections by a ballot-paper which said “vote Alex Salmond for Scotland’s First Minister”. This natural populist in a country usually known for its colourless politicians likes nothing better to tweak the tail of the mangy old British lion. For Salmond the equivalent of the Suez canal is Britain’s fleet of nuclear submarines whose home base is in a deep-water loch northwest of Glasgow.

A potent aspect of Salmond’s ebullient political persona is his lack of shame, a quality reinforced by an amnesiac media who show no willingness to examine his record in relation to issues where Muslims have been centrally involved. In March-June 1999, for example, Britain was a leading participant in the war over Kosovo in the attempt to halt the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic’s systematic repression of the (mainly Muslim) Kosovar Albanians. Salmond was a vehement opponent of the Nato campaign, and famously described the organisation’s (so far) only military action on European soil as “an act of unpardonable folly”. This capped a decade when he had remained silent throughout years of Milosevic-sponsored aggression against the Kosovars’ co-religionist Bosniaks in former Yugoslavia.

The British foreign secretary at the time of the Kosovo war, Robin Cook – also the country’s most respected centre-left leader at the time of his premature death in 2005 – witheringly branded Salmond as Belgrade’s stooge, “the only European leader to stand side by side with Milosevic” in a way that showed him as “simply unfit to lead”. The SNP’s poor performance in the inaugural elections to the Scottish parliament in May 1999 (while the war was underway) was widely attributed to Salmond’s intervention.

The world’s wind

Alex Salmond’s dream is for Scotland to join an arc of prosperous north Atlantic nations from Ireland and Iceland to Scandinavia. But it might at best prove to be a northern version of Ken Livingstone’s left-leaning multicultural metropolis in London. The party lacks skilled political leaders, other than Salmond himself, and it seems hard to imagine a majority of Scots voting for independence. But perhaps such a scenario could come to pass if the increasingly neurotic mood among large sections of English opinion, as their identity is seen to be threatened in multiple ways, leads to a backlash against the Scots.

Scotland receives considerably more in state subsidies than much of England. It is not beyond reason that Scottish policies, such as the decision to absolve Northern Irish students from tuition-fees at Scottish universities which English ones must nevertheless still pay, could result in a coherent campaign in which Scotland is told to exit via the door marked “Britain” and not come back. Salmond would relish such an outcome,and some believe he is trying to provoke it by upsetting English sensibilities.

A separate Scotland could turn out to be a modern, efficient state that harnesses the energies of its people, including those achievers who previously had to go abroad to make their mark in the world; or it could be a kind of leftist London authority on a larger canvas, committed to redistributionist policies and a neutralist foreign policy garnished with fashionably right-on rhetoric in the hope that a durable patriotic consensus would emerge.

Whatever Scotland’s ultimate fate, the times ahead are bound to be testing. Scotland’s Muslim minority will not be immune from the same attention as their co-religionists elsewhere as long as a terrorist threat persists in western Europe. At least some Scots Muslims may find it difficult to remain aloof from transnational radical currents that see Islam primarily as an ideological tool to create a revolutionary new state. The resources of political Scotland are at present being mobilised on the community’s behalf, but not always in a thoughtful or acceptable way. Whether Muslims will find the Scottishness on offer an acceptable way to combine a religious identity with a national, secular one remains to be seen.

Gallacher defends himself against claims he is a stooge of imperialism in the comments section with this amazing line:

There are other forms of imperialism much worse than that produced by the mangy British lion and whose true potential for causing harm in the world has not been fully realised.

And this is another version of the article from the dire Prospect:

August 2007 | 137 » Web exclusive » Scotland’s radicals

Alex Salmond’s willingness to fish in the wilder waters of Muslim politics is irresponsible and offensive to the heroes of 30th June

Tom Gallagher

Alex Salmond is fast turning into one of the most nimble politicians in British politics since Lloyd George. Since becoming Scotland’s first minister, Salmond has proven not only to be a skilful media politician but a formidable operator in the corridors of power. Since taking charge of the executive in May, with a one-seat majority, his Scottish National party (SNP) has launched a blizzard of initiatives.

Unusually for a nationalist leader, Salmond has cultivated a range of minorities, notably Scotland’s growing Muslim population, which is concentrated in a number of seats the SNP hopes to wrest from the Labour party. On 31st July, Salmond held a reception for Scottish Muslim leaders at his official Edinburgh residence where he declared that, in terms of engaging with Muslims, “We are ahead of virtually every other European country.”

He made more headlines on 7th August when he presided over a civic reception in Glasgow in honour of the men and women whose courage helped save Glasgow from disaster on 30th June, the day when two would-be bombers struck the terminal building of Glasgow airport. One of the heroes that day, 31-year-old baggage handler John Smeaton, later commented that he was only doing his civic duty when he intervened to help the police overpower one of the bombers. Yet there is growing evidence that Salmond is intent on strengthening his support among those members of Scotland’s 60,000-strong Muslim community who are all too ready to champion an ethno-religious identity rather than a civic one.

The chief tactician upon whom Salmond relies to build bridges with Scottish Muslims is Osama Saeed, the Scottish organiser of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAP). Saeed stood as an SNP parliamentary candidate in 2005, and has enthusiastically defended the idea of a global Islamic state in the press, on one occasion urging Muslims to withhold co-operation from the police. Following the failed bombing, Saeed was chosen by the BBC in Scotland to speak for Scotland’s Muslims. Largely excluded from the broadcast media were Muslims such as Glasgow university lecturer Amanullah de Sondy, who appealed in the Scottish press for more attention to be directed at “what I call progressive Muslims, the silent majority who do not wear their religion on their sleeve, and are open to discussion and debate about western dress, gender relations, social norms and other aspects of Scottish life.”

This July, Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, his deputy first minister and close ally, went to great lengths to deny the argument that religious ideology might be motivating Muslims to carry out acts of mass terror. The contrasting position had in fact already been argued in the press with considerable fluency by ex-radicals such as Ed Husain and Hassan Butt. Sturgeon repeatedly stated on television, and at a rally organised by the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) on 7th July, that “Islam is a religion of peace.” While this may be true, Sturgeon’s repeated use of the phrase betrays an unwillingness to offend the sensibilities of religious pressure groups whose value is their capacity to swing voters towards the party that is most amenable to their agenda.

The MAB has campaigned against the British presence not just in Iraq but also in Afghanistan, and is closely linked to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. Salmond, who has a long aversion towards western military engagement, shares many of the MAB’s concerns. He has met with its best-known figure, Azzam Tamimi, who declared in 2004, “If I can go to Palestine and sacrifice myself, I would do it.” In December 2005, while addressing Islamic activists in Glasgow, Tamimi declared that the SNP was the best party in Scotland to represent Muslim interests. He cited the party’s stance on Iraq, Palestine and the war on terrorism, declaring, “We have been impressed by the warm and welcoming attitude of the SNP.”

Salmond’s willingness to fish in the wilder waters of Muslim politics is clever—albeit risky—electoral politics. Despite his tiny majority, he intends to stay in government for a full four-year term by picking strategic quarrels with Downing Street and Whitehall not only over Anglo-Scottish matters, but over British foreign policy too. Yet the strategy conceals a glaring absence of both religious literacy and—I would contend—public responsibility.

There is no sign that Salmond wishes to reach out to those Muslim Scots who are committed to integration. Such people don’t usually form lobbies capable of delivering baskets of votes to parties at election time. They prefer to fit in with the rest of society rather than to emphasise their separation from it.

The message being promoted by Alex Salmond is: in Scotland, Muslim identity is welcome, while British identity is a thing of the past. But surely there is a danger that Scottish nationalism, because it is so clearly lacking in substance, will end up disappointing young Muslims searching for a durable radical cause. The SNP’s obsession with alleged English “overlordship,” and its failure to move beyond gimmicks and slogans on many policy areas, is unlikely to impress idealistic Muslims preoccupied with global concerns.

Salmond’s party is uninterested in engaging with many of the social problems that blight urban Scotland, instead preferring to grandstand on constitutional issues. In 2004, Nicola Sturgeon opposed the plans of the Labour administration in Edinburgh to target gang violence through its antisocial behaviour bill. She argued that it risked causing a complete breakdown in relations between young people and the police. This was not long after “Operation Gadher,” set up in 2002 to confront an Asian gang culture controlling much of Glasgow’s drug trade, was closed down because it was considered politically incorrect in influential quarters. Gangs, including Muslim ones, blight Sturgeon’s Glasgow Govan constituency and the neighbouring areas. There is a danger that the party’s privileging of religious identity could give urban violence a disturbing Islamic edge.

Much though the SNP hates to be reminded of it, establishing a partnership with religious figures and community activists—rather than reaching out to individual Muslim citizens—is a failed English policy. It backfired on a Conservative home secretary, Michael Howard, after he was instrumental in setting up the Muslim Council of Britain, and it backfired on Tony Blair and Jack Straw, who for even longer periods sought to manage Muslim concerns by working through religious gatekeepers.

Salmond seems to be uninterested in the new thinking from Whitehall about the need to treat Muslims as individual citizens, not as part of an amorphous and ill-defined community. This enables the concerns of women and other disadvantaged groups to be noticed, groups that religious campaigners usually prefer to overlook. It will be ironic if Salmond emerges as a social authoritarian eager to remake the face of the biggest Scottish cities, whose voters have vexed the SNP by rejecting it on numerous occasions. Plenty of evidence this summer suggests that this is exactly the direction he is moving in. It may well mean that Smeaton and the other heroes of 30th June will be wondering why Salmond is saluting them for their civic valour on the day the bombers tried and failed to destroy Glasgow airport.

I expect that it is only a matter of time before Gallagher is quoted in the gutter press as an authority on the dodginess of the SNP in power. The day will come when The Sun prints an Islamophobic hit piece on the SNP with the headline, SALMOND HUSSEIN!

There is another version for The Spectator, luridly entitled The SNP is playing a deadly game with Islam, which includes the following:

Despite leading a supposedly mainstream party, Salmond seems intent on copying Trotskyite agitators who seek to prosper by sweeping young Muslims into their ranks on an ‘anti-imperialist’ agenda. To the chagrin of English revolutionaries, their sects are proving only a halfway-house for young Muslims who prefer a revolutionary cause based on global Islam. Will Scottish nationalism prove a more attractive long-term draw for idealistic young Scottish Muslims? I doubt it.

Well, that says it all, really…

We’ll have to wait and see where he pops up next. Certainly, he is adept at tailoring the message for the audience. A thinking man’s Nick Cohen?


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