A report on the first public inquiry into Islamophobia in Scotland has been released by the Cross-Party Group on Tackling Islamophobia, in collaboration with Newcastle University Professor Peter Hopkins. The inquiry was set up in 2018 following an increase in levels of both Islamophobia and racism in Scotland1. At the time, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, Humza Yousaf, and current Scottish Labour Party leader and Chair of the Cross-Party Group, Anas Sarwar, both appeared on BBC’s Sunday Politics Scotland to discuss the prevalence of Islamophobic and racist abuse they were receiving on a daily basis2. Sarwar then launched the cross-party group with the “aim of ‘rooting out’ institutionalised racism in Scotland”3.
Following the release of the report, Anas Sarwar has stated that the results “should shame us all”4 and a list of forty five recommendations have been made for the Scottish government to act upon. The report asks for a cross-party “no tolerance” approach to tackling Islamophobia and calls on the Scottish government to instigate a full independent-review5.
The Background to the Report
Anas Sarwar opened the report with a personal forward, sharing his personal experiences of Islamophobia, from growing up in Glasgow as the son of Britain’s first Muslim member of Parliament, to the racism he experienced as a Member of Scottish Parliament (MSP) and part of Scottish Labour6. In referencing Scotland, Sarwar states “we pride ourselves on being a welcome and tolerant country, but it’s clear how much more work we have to do”7. The introduction to the report further expands on this, referencing it as the need to address “Scottish exceptionalism”, which was a key motivating factor in the establishment of the CPG on tackling Islamophobia.
The report adopts understandings of Scottish Exceptionalism referenced by both Harris (2018) and Hopkins (2016) who understand that there is a tendency to avoid analysis of, and disengage with discussions of race, racism and Islamophobia (Hopkins, 2021: 10-11)8. Despite the Scottish Muslim population having increased by 80% over the past ten years9, the report notes that Scotland’s race equality Framework (2016) or the 2017-2021 action plan does not reference Islamophobia10. This silence, they argue “demonstrates the serious lack of significance afforded by Scottish policymakers to the issue of Islamophobia”11.
The inquiry included a total of 447 online respondents, with 43% identifying as female and 56% male. The age range was from 13-87 years and the majority of respondents being between the ages of 30 and 5012. Whilst most respondents resided in the Glasgow (60%) and Edinburgh postcode (16%), several responses were also collected from Falkirk, Kirkcaldy, Aberdeen, Dundee and Motherwell13.
Summary of the Findings
The findings in the survey detail the escalation of Islamophobia in Scotland. 75% of respondents reported that Islamophobia is a regular everyday issue for them, with 78% saying Islamophobia is getting worse and 79% fearing experiencing it. For 115 of the respondents, the streets are where they most commonly experience Islamophobia, which is similar to evidence submitted by the AMINA Muslim Women’s Resource Centre. After streets, public spaces such as shops and restaurants (46%), public transport (40%), education (29%) and work (27%) are where Muslim respondents reported experiencing Islamophobia14. Physical assault/violence, verbal abuse and social exclusion are all reported as being experienced by respondents.
Glasgow is identified as the area in which Islamophobia is getting worse, specifically on the streets and in schools where 65% of respondents have experience verbal abuse. In a quote from a respondent “more recently, we have to think twice before going out alone or going out after dark or going to certain areas in Glasgow. When people have nothing to lose then they don’t care if they get arrested for violence against someone they perceive as being from the Islamic faith”15.
Mosques and Islamic centres are also reported as being attacked more frequently. According to the report the surprising fact was that attacks were increasing and occurring in more rural areas, where the Muslim communities are smaller. For example, the vandalism on the Elgin mosque in May 201916.
The gendered nature of Islamophobia is also observed in the inquiry, with the negative and disproportionate impact it has on women. According to findings “Muslim women are more likely to encounter Islamophobia than men: 56% survey responses say that women are at most risk, and 58% of Glasgow residents think that women are at greater risk of experiencing Islamophobia”17. Respondents report experiencing Islamophobia specifically because they wear a hijab. The gendering of reporting incidents of Islamophobia is also considered in the report where “men are more likely to report physical assault and damage to buildings/property, while women report incidents that occur at college”18. However, of all those who experience direct Islamophobia only 22% report to the police. According to the report, those who experience Islamophobia in the workplace / places of education say that their complain was not taken seriously, or dismissed.
Focusing on non reported incidents , 58% of the men and 41% of the women, declared that they are not incline to report, especially in the young generation19. They provided the following reasons to explain their silence: lack of confidence in the police and justice system, institutional racism in the police, lack of evidence, scale or knowledge, frequency of events and fear of reprisal20.
The inquiry also identified three key factors enabling Islamophobia in Scotland: 1) Scottish politics, politicians and elections, far-right politicians and Brexit, 2) military intervention abroad and problematic counter-terrorism policies, alongside terrorist incidents, 3) poverty and austerity. Findings related to factor one show that “Islamophobia tends to intensify before and during election campaigns”20, where the problem starts in parliament due to the presence of right-wing politicians whom comments or actions are not questioned. Brexit was also considered a factor here. Not only did “several participants connect Brexit with anti-Muslim British nationalism and xenophobia21 but it was also associated with “wider language, actions and policies of those politicians who fuel and legitimise Islamophobia“22, with specific reference made to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. The second element refers to military interventions and counter-terrorism policies which are perceived as stigmatising especially through news coverage of terrorist incidents. The respondents especially in the younger generations, describe how they experience Islamophobia at school or on the journey to/from school23. More broadly, 93% of the Muslim respondents consider that the print media promotes Islamophobia, by reinforcing stereotypes of Muslim men and women. 84% of the respondents also argued that social media contribute to the increase in Islamophobia24. The final factor focuses on poverty and austerity. Here, respondents report that they “feel that Islamophobia is increasing since Muslims are a convenient scapegoat for broader and economic problems“25. This, they argue, is because by focussing on policies such as immigration and terrorism, which puts Muslims under the spotlight, politicians are able to deflect attention away from economic inequalities26.
The ways that the respondents respond to Islamophobia are also considered. 53% reported that they alter their behaviours as a result of experiencing or fearing Islamophobia, which includes concealing their Islamic identity, being hyper vigilant in everyday spaces and withdrawing socially. In addition to this, some respondents reported that they changed their behaviour proactively through educating others. For some this has been through communicating that Islam is inclusive, peaceful and open, whereas some respondents have reported it is something necessary to be “defensive, argumentative and, in some cases, aggressive to those who are Islamophobic”27.
The final section of the report focusses on the barriers that are created for Muslims by Islamophobia in Scotland. 77% of the respondents felt Islamophobia impacted on educational outcomes from school through to university, 86% think that it affects their employment opportunities (particularly finding or retaining employment), and just over half of respondents mention the negative influence of Islamophobia on their ability to access Scotland’s public services. This figure increased to 69% in Glasgow27. Respondents, particularly women, also reported the impact Islamophobia has on their everyday life. Respondents in the inquiry were quoted as saying “it creates division, it creates a ‘them and us’ that is extremely unpleasant” and “it simply is a barrier to a healthy and safe existence”28.
In response to the report, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims released a statement on twitter including their invitation to the Scottish government to consider adopting their definition of Islamophobia. Their definition, which was proposed in 2019, states “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”29
Zara Mohammed, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain responded to the report through multiple media platforms. In an interview with the Sunday Post she stated “for many Muslims, an inquiry findings Islamophobia in Scotland is no surprise but the sheer scale of the problem had the power to shock“27. She went on to add that “to build a truly diverse Scotland, one that gives all young people equal opportunities, requires meaningful partnership. I have every hope that this report will not reflect our values as a society in the years ahead and that we can, and will, come together to overcome these problems“28.
The Church of Scotland also reacted to the report. Rev Dr Susan Brown, convener of the Faith Impact forum spoke of the “need to intensify that interfaith commitment” and “support our political leaders and faith leaders to work together to address the realities highlighted and seek ways to implement the recommendations that have been highlighted”29.
The Scottish Government is yet to release their official response to the report.