Muslims feel at home in Scotland but concerns persist about security practices at airports

Written by Stefano Bonino on 21 August 2015 in Comment

Stefano Bonino discusses perceptions around stops and searches at airports as well as wider work with the Scottish Muslim community

Muslims are a key component of the contemporary Scottish social landscape. They express strong feelings of belonging to Scotland. They can be found at the highest levels of government. They contribute to business and culture.

Political messages close to traditionally Muslim positions, such as opposition to the Iraq War and a less vociferous take on anti-extremism policies, have earned the government Muslim support.

Yet the Scottish Muslim community still faces challenges, often in the form of prejudice, discrimination and social disadvantage. The global stigmatisation of Islam in the wake of 9/11 has played a key role in sustaining stereotypes all over the West.

Its local ramifications in everyday Scottish life experiences have impacted on the ways in which some Muslims can interact with the public, prospective employers and authorities on an equal basis. 

Security spaces, especially airports, represent a major area of concern for Scottish Muslims, as noted in The Herald’s reportage of my work on Monday. My own studies, as well as Leda Blackwood’s research (with colleagues Nick Hopkins and Steve Reicher), have demonstrated that Muslims perceive to be unduly targeted during stops and searches at airports.

Airports are and will remain key spaces for counter-terrorism activity. Preventing dangerous individuals from entering the country (or leaving it unmonitored) goes a long way toward making Scotland safe. Equally, community relations are premised upon a sense of equality and it remains to be established whether airport security staff and police officers target the roots and destinations of travel or the ethno-religious background of travellers.

Similarly, the proportion of ethnic minorities stopped and searched at airports needs to be carefully evaluated in relation to their population size. Police tend to be reluctant to share data (often for very good reasons) and requests for disaggregated figures on stops and searches under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 were denied by three police forces (now part of Police Scotland) in 2012 on grounds of national security.

While police representatives at a public consultation in Edinburgh in 2011 admitted that Schedule 7 had impacted on certain ethnic communities, it is important that numbers are made available to corroborate or disprove Muslim perceptions of being excessively targeted. The security apparatus must ensure that Muslims do not feel as if they were singled out purely because of their ethnicity and/or faith. Consciously or unconsciously feeding grievances will only alienate Muslims and cause a knock-on effect on community relations.

There is also a more positive side of this story. Stops and searches on Scottish streets have not disproportionately targeted ethnic minorities, neither before nor after 9/11. Outside of airports, Scottish Muslims seem to enjoy positive relations with the police; officers often pay visits of courtesy to mosques and keep the community safe during far-right demonstrations. Overall, racist incidents continue to fall across Scotland, in line with both a downward trend seen since 2006/07 and a general decrease in crime rates (currently at their lowest since 1974).

Yet we should not be too complacent about the good disposition of Scottish people towards minorities. The weakness of the Scottish Defence League in Scotland compared to the English Defence League in England alone has not prevented Muslims, predominantly Pakistanis, from suffering from discriminatory treatment at the hands of a minority of Scots.

But while Muslim communities have been under pressure across Europe for more than a decade, the Scottish context has managed to foster relatively harmonious relationships between its Muslim and non-Muslim populations.

The specific socio-historical settlement of Muslims in Scotland, a small and rather dispersed community, a progressive politics, a civic nationalism, the absence of a strong fascist tradition and the welcoming disposition of many Scots are just some of the many reasons why Scottish Muslims feel more tolerated and welcome than their counterparts south of the border.

There is much potential for Scotland and, in particular, its capital city Edinburgh to become a model of pluralism that other European countries can look at. Scotland can boast a number of ‘firsts’ in British politics: the first Muslim councillor (Bashir Maan in 1970) and the first Muslim Member of Parliament (Mohammad Sarwar in 1997).

With reportedly easier experiences to integrate compared to England and a healthy ethnic diversity, the Scottish Muslim community will continue to play a key role in the cultural, economic and political arenas.

In light of the ongoing threats posed by global Islamist terrorism, Scottish authorities should certainly remain vigilant to prevent a tiny minority of individuals from harming the public.

But a crucial component of such activity of crime prevention is ensuring that security operations do not unconsciously alienate those same communities, which are expected to live in peaceful coexistence with the rest of society. 

Stefano Bonino is a lecturer in the Social Sciences Department at Northumbria University and holds a PhD and an MSc from the University of Edinburgh. His studies include ‘Visible Muslimness in Scotland: between discrimination and integration’ in Patterns of Prejudice and ‘Scottish Muslims through a Decade of Change: Wounded by the Stigma, Healed by Islam, Rescued by Scotland’ in Scottish Affairs. The author can be contacted at stefano@stefanobonino.com​.

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