The recent referendum in the UK to leave the European Union has brought widespread xenophobia to light throughout the country. Following the June 23 vote, one Muslim schoolgirl in England was told “Get out, we voted Leave”, while a Muslim native of Wales who campaigned for Remain received a Tweet saying, “Great news…you can pack your bags, you’re (sic) going home… bye then!” Meanwhile, in the week leading up to the vote, Labour MP Jo Cox, known for her advocacy for Syrian refugees, was fatally shot and stabbed by a man shouting “Britain First”.
These examples of hatred throughout the UK in the wake of the Brexit vote are truly shocking. Yet, they are not reason to lose hope in the plight of Muslims in the West. Some of the UK’s finest young leaders today are from the British Pakistani community, and are as British as any Anglican Englishman from Essex.
One of these top young Pakistani leaders is Scottish native Humza Yousaf, a member of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Minister for Transport and the Islands. A mere 31 years of age, Yousaf has already served for four years as Scotland’s first minister for Europe and International Development. During his rapid ascent to power he has faced racist attacks.
Born in Glasgow in 1985, Yousaf married Gail Lythgoe in 2010 and speaks with a broad Scottish accent. Yousaf is a young, competent and self-made Pakistani-Scottish leader who has worked hard and dedicated himself both to Glasgow and to Scotland to ensure the people he represents have a strong advocate in Edinburgh. He is a true public servant and role model for all Scots.
While conducting fieldwork for my latest project film and book project, Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity (Brookings Press, forthcoming), we had the honour of sitting down with Mr Yousaf and discussing his Pakistani-Scottish background and his thoughts on the unique Scottish identity. We also learned that Yousaf’s story is not only one of great talent and dedication to one’s community, but of Scotland’s warm embrace of its Muslim community, and the difference that has made for Scots of all faiths today.
Yousaf’s family arrived in Scotland during the 1960s — his father’s family coming from Pakistan in 1964, when his grandfather arrived in Glasgow to work for the Singer Sewing Machines factory, and his mother’s family, of South Asian origin, from Kenya in 1968. From there, Yousaf explained, “They both went to high school here and my father to the university here and [he] has had his own business here, for the best part of 35 years, almost.”
Yousaf explained that, since their post-war arrival, the Pakistani community in Scotland has been well received. Yousaf attributed this to the community’s tremendous contributions to the nation, noting, “They opened up shops, takeaways, restaurants, and they employed local people. So people didn’t have any issues with them.” He remarked that the community certainly faced racism at the time, and as he noted, “Racism still exists and I would never sweep that under the carpet, never dismiss it”, but regardless, he found that since Pakistanis were contributing so much to the community, a forum for dialogue quickly opened.
Yousaf’s father, growing up in Glasgow, also experienced the warmth of the Scots first-hand from a young age, as recounted in a story of when he worked in a corner shop. Yousaf recounted his father telling him that when he was young, he was asked when he worked weekend shifts in a corner shop, “‘What’s your name, son?’” Yousaf elaborated, “My dad would say, ‘Muzaffar’, and they would say, ‘Oh, that’s too complex, we’ll just call you Tony’. And so that name stuck to this day, and it helped break down the barriers and form that dialogue.”
Yousaf described Scottish identity as being characterised by what he called a “civic nationalism” which he characterised as “open and inclusive.” Yousaf contrasted this to the “type of nationalism that you see across Europe,” as well as England. He explained, “I’ve never been asked once as a Scot, whether I’m Scottish first or Muslim first, or whether I’m Scottish or Pakistani, and ‘which identity do you choose over the other’…That’s not necessarily the experience of my friends south of the border, family south of the border… Particularly areas like Bradford, Manchester, Birmingham, London. Less-so London but certainly, those other areas, that they’ve always felt like they had to choose.”
Yousaf noted there are many reasons though as to why first-generation immigrants to Europe from Pakistan and other parts of the Muslim world would have separated themselves from the majority culture. He explained, “You immediately become insular because you need to set up the structures that are important for your religion. So you have to set up the mosques, the madrassas, the halal butcher, you know, whatever it is that you need for your community to survive and thrive.”
Ultimately, Yousaf argued, for Muslims to feel more integrated in European society, they need to civically and politically engage themselves. He also called for leaders in the community to be sure they are opening doors for the youth, elaborating, “My advice would be for more Muslims to certainly engage themselves civically, and politically engage themselves. And with the greatest of respect, I mean those who are younger as opposed to those who are older. So the gatekeepers need to step back and encourage those who are younger to get involved, not hold them back, but involve them and encourage them.” Yousaf emphasised though that successive generations of Muslims in Europe need to work hard to become part of their societies — a need which is more prescient than ever.
“Certainly there seems to be a xenophobic tidal wave that’s sweeping across Europe currently, with Islam as one of the main targets in the spotlight”, Yousaf said. He felt that if Muslims hope to push back against this tidal wave though, they must engage in dialogue both within and outside their own communities, while also not being so quick to blame outsiders for their problems. He elaborated, “Here in Europe, we are quick to blame the outsider. So whether that’s been the United States, or the UK, Tony Blair, George Bush, you name it, somebody else has always been the problem, or the issue.”
Humza Yousaf’s story teaches us two things in light of heightening xenophobia across the UK. When a member of a minority commits him- or herself fully to the society, one will find a much warmer reception from the majority and develop a sense they are making a difference. For the host societies, though, Yousaf’s experience as a Scottish-Pakistani leader teaches us that, when a majority opens its arms to a minority community, the communities will work in greater harmony with one another and ultimately build bridges. In today’s climate, the British would do well to learn from the Scottish model, and British Muslims would do well to listen to the wise words of Humza Yousaf.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 13th, 2016.