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Humza Yousaf and the new face of Islam in public life

Humza Yousaf and the new face of Islam in public life

Paul Bickley on Humza Yousaf becoming Scotland’s First Minister and the evolving perception of Islam in public life. 28/03/2023

When The Satanic Verses was published in 1988, it was violently protested across the globe. India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and South Africa banned it, while crowds gathered, infamously, to burn it in the streets of Bradford. Bookshops were bombed. On 14 February 1989, author Salman Rushdie was attending a book event in London. When news came through that Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa condemning Rushdie and the publishers to death, he was taken from the event by security services and spent more than a decade in hiding.  

So it was that within months of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Cold War, other walls were going up, and the first rumblings of a new struggle were being felt. This conflict would not be between geo–political power blocks but between western liberalism and discontents in the wider world, most obviously in the form of political Islam. Domestically, the Rushdie affair set the tone for a multi–decade debate about the relationship between Islam and what became known as ‘British values’. In 2023, this is debate is still very much live – with a recent review of the Prevent scheme suggesting that officials were “not doing enough to counter non–violent Islamist extremism”. Meanwhile, the Muslim community has felt consistently othered, and targeted, by such policies.  

Much of this can be traced first to liberal bewilderment at the sheer ferocity of Muslim response in 1988. What about free expression? What about tolerance? Then, Islamist terrorism regularly injected an accelerant to this fire – every couple of years, a new atrocity to remind us that some British Muslims, even if the tiniest minority, truly hated the West, freedom, democracy, etc… Indeed, it could be argued that significant part of the Islamist agenda in 9/11, London, Madrid, Mumbai, Paris and the rest was indeed to create a sense that Islam and liberal democracy could not co–exist.  

But yesterday, Humza Yousaf won the race to become the UK’s first Muslim leader of a major political party, and in due course first minister of Scotland, which makes him the first Muslim premier in Europe. The Scottish Labour Party is also led by a Muslim, Anas Sarwar. We have a Muslim mayor for London.  

Credit where credit is due – at least in terms of the public square and political leadership, our civic culture has achieved a surprising diversity. Can you name a leading Muslim politician in any comparable European democracy? You would struggle… there are only four Muslims in the US House of Representatives, and not a single Muslim has ever served in the US Senate. Islamist extremism remains a problem, and Islamophobic political movements remain a problem, but that Muslims can hold high office is an encouragement, whatever our hyphenated identity. 

Of course, it’s complicated, and in some ways unfair to make a comparison. France or Spain’s or Germany’s Muslim populations are vastly different in their makeup. It’s notable that all of the three British politicians mentioned above have South Asian backgrounds. In other words, the integration story here is not simply about Muslims in a secular or latently Christian culture, but about history, nationality, ethnicity and class. At the end of the day though, there is something here which we should celebrate.  

Nevertheless… For as long as I can remember, two factors have driven the debate around religion in the public square in the UK. If one has been the questions around Muslim integration, the other has been the steady de–Christianization of society. As recent Theos annual lecturer Tom Holland has pointed out, many of our deepest values remain unwittingly Christian. But the formal disaffiliation and indeed rejection of Christianity should not be downplayed. The most recent census statistics are the latest marker in the ground, but there is no doubt that the numbers tell a story that goes beyond merely individual attitudes.  

Which poses a question, which bears directly on the Humza Yousaf victory in the SNP leadership election. We can never know for certain to what extent Kate Forbes’ religion damaged, or did not damage, her chances. But given the narrowness of the result we must at least consider that it may have been a decisive factor. Equally, can we assume that Yousaf’s path to victory was easier because of his faith? Not at all. But at the same time it didn’t seem to be a headwind for him in the way it was for Forbes.  

Recently, we commissioned YouGov to ask UK adults what beliefs and views they thought should on principle debar someone from holding senior public office. One in ten of us – 11% – think being a Catholic meant that you should not be allowed to hold public office. More – 13% – think the same way about Orthodox Jews. Surprisingly, for me at least, 16% said that being a Muslim should prevent someone from holding high office, but 19% about evangelical Christians – the most opposed amongst all the religious groups listed. Ten years ago that result would have been very different. Not that it’s a competition, but it is now evangelical Christians, not Muslims, who are most seen as the other. Given everything that has gone before, this is a startling turn. 

How have Muslim politicians managed to prosper? And why did Forbes struggle, in spite of the UK’s still significant if no longer majority Christianity? There will be lots of different factors, aside from the obvious ones about a supply of able, hard–working, thoughtful and motivated people. Among them, it has to be said, is the way that politicians like Humza Yousaf and Sadiq Khan are forced wear their religion relatively lightly. While Forbes’ seemed almost deliberately to thrust her theo–political identity to the front and centre of her candidacy, Yousaf positioned himself to continue the progressive SNP platform, including by suggesting he would take the Westminster government to court over the gender recognition legislation. Plenty supported Forbes (which surely is a reminder that the movement behind independence is itself a diverse one), but not enough to win the day.  

An intriguing passage of play, as they say. In terms of politics and public life, ‘secularisation’ has again failed to explain the nuance of complexity of our theo–political landscape. And we will likely see more leaders from ethnic or religious minority backgrounds rise up the ranks, but this might not mean what we think it could mean. Less the Islamification of the SNP, more the SNP–ification of Islam.  


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Scottish Government, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Head of Political Engagement at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity.

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Posted 28 March 2023

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