A civic reception will take place next month for the Glasgow airport workers and travellers whose courage on Saturday 30 June when bombers struck the terminal building may well have prevented horrific slaughter.
John Smeaton, a 31-year-old baggage handler, became the emblematic figure for a day when God smiled on Glasgow. His comment that he was only doing his civic duty was indeed a boost for the battered concept of citizenship. He was affirming that, as well as rights, we also have duties that sometimes we are called upon to exercise in order to protect freedom and the rule of law.
Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond will preside at the ceremony honouring Smeaton and the other heroes. This will only spoil the occasion because of the way the leader of the Scottish National Party and his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, have handled the terrorist attack. Both of them emphasised a narrow tribal identity which nationalism at its most unenlightened too often does. One of Salmond’s first public reactions was to reveal that the two men detained at the airport were not Scots, much to the chagrin of the security services who were well aware that such leaks could only hamper an effective reaction to the incident. Thus the suspects were defined by their Scottishness or lack of it. In the days ahead he and Sturgeon went to great lengths to deny the argument that religious ideology might be motivating Muslims to carry out acts of mass terror, even though this had already been argued in the press with considerable fluency by ex-radicals who had abandoned the revolutionary Islamic cause.
On 1 July Salmond made a well-publicised visit to Glasgow’s Central Mosque, to assure religious leaders of his determination to prevent the 25,000-strong Muslim community around Glasgow from being an object of attack. It is unlikely that in this encounter he urged them to co-operate with the intelligence services, or disavow the attacks on free speech which revived when Salman Rushdie was knighted. Or to examine whether there are ways in which Islam and its teachings are interpreted that drive young men in the direction of violence.
This might be hard for Salmond to do because facing down extremism requires close co-operation with the organs of the British state just as he is mounting a campaign to delegitimise the British role in Scottish life on many fronts. Of course he needs to build on a still-narrow electoral base when 32 per cent of the vote gave him a slender one-seat majority in the elections for a Scottish parliament in May. There is plenty of evidence that he sees the cultivation of Glasgow’s Muslims as one of the ways in which he can achieve an electoral breakthrough in a city always resistant to the SNP appeal. Sturgeon repeatedly stated on television that ‘Islam is a religion of peace’. Whereas the non-Muslim majority was sternly warned not to contemplate retaliation against Muslims because the full force of the law would be used against them, there was no equivalent call for Scottish Muslims to challenge radicals who exploit the violent traditions within Islam.
The Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) is emerging as the most vocal Islamic force in Scotland. It champions an austere brand of Islam and is closely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It is fiercely opposed to any British involvement in Muslim lands and struck up a tactical alliance with the Socialist Workers party to form the Respect party led by George Galloway. The MAB’s chief spokesman in Scotland is Osama Saeed, a vocal and energetic campaigner. He has previously stood as an SNP candidate and after the bomb attempt he was the local Muslim the BBC in Scotland nearly always turned to in order to speak for the 65,000-strong community.
Alex Salmond has been happy to meet the MAB’s Dr Azzam Tamimi, who told the BBC’s Tim Sebastian in November 2004 that ‘If I can go to Palestine and sacrifice myself, I would do it’. In December 2005, while addressing Islamic activists in Glasgow, he stated 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.’
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.
At a conference in Manchester last August Tamimi told his audience that they should see themselves as Muslims in Europe, not European Muslims. He urged them to pledge allegiance to an international Islamic cause rather than offer their primary loyalty to the state which, arguably, gives them far more freedom and economic opportunity than most Muslims can find across the Middle East. My fear is that by reaching out to young Muslims on a simplistic anti-British agenda, all Salmond will succeed in doing is radicalising them and ensuring that the balance of power swings decisively towards militant voices in the Scottish Muslim community.
Under a brilliant electoral manager whose cunning merits comparison with Lloyd George, the SNP remains a vote-winning machine light on ideas. It certainly does not offer a coherent model for a Scottish society in which the rights and duties of citizenship are clearly spelt out. There is no desire to reclaim and update the values of the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment where a political contract was advanced for governing society based on freedom of religious affiliation, neutrality of the public space, and insistence on the superiority of civil laws over religiously based ones. Scottish thinkers like David Hume were committed backers of the Union, which devalues their worth in the eyes of the SNP even though their ideas could be of enormous help in assisting young Muslims to come to terms with life in a secular and individualistic Britain.
Due to their preoccupation with tribal politics, I contend that the SNP should stay away from the ceremony honouring the civic valour of the airport heroes. Instead, I would argue that the honours should be performed by Mohammed Sarwar, Scotland’s first Muslim MP. In 2005 he upheld the concept of civic duty by going to remarkable lengths to track down the Muslim hoodlums who murdered Glasgow teenager Kriss Donald in 2004. He ensured that they were extradited from Pakistan and helped avert a backlash following this brutal murder. Only when the SNP puts aside the ethnic card and learns the importance of promoting a civic space where appeals to tribal identity hold no place should Alex Salmond contemplate identifying with civic heroes like John Smeaton.
Tom Gallagher is professor of ethnic conflict and peace at the University of Bradford.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 28, 2007