Stefano Bonino, Muslims in Scotland: The Making of Community in a Post-9/11 World, Edinburgh University Press, £19.99, 9781474408028
Reviewed by Robin Jones
A recent Ipsos-Mori poll revealed the disparity between public perception and reality regarding the Muslim population in Europe. French respondents were the most likely to overestimate – the average respondent thought that 31% of the French population was Muslim. In reality, the figure is around 7.5%. British respondents also inflated their estimates, putting the Muslim population of Britain at 15% – more than three times the true figure of 4.8%. This tendency was further exaggerated when respondents were asked to project their estimates into the future. Brits predicted that 22% of the population would be Muslim by 2020; research from the Pew Research Centre suggests the figure will be 6.1%.
Bobby Duffy, the Managing Director for Ipsos Mori Social Research Institute, London, stated that the reasons for these errors were various and ranged through respondents’ struggles with simple maths, to media coverage of issues, to social psychology. Whatever the reason, it is an error that the far right has been working hard to manipulate with campaigns of deliberate disinformation and fear mongering. The left has a responsibility to counter that disinformation. Muslims in Scotland: the Making of Community in a Post-9/11 World, by Stefano Bonino is a valuable – and, sadly, rather rare – resource for those undertaking that task.
Though ‘[i]n Great Britain,’ writes Bonino, ‘scholars have produced outstanding analyses of Muslim communities living in England … The absence of a scholarly book on Muslims qua Muslims in Scotland constitutes a significant gap in the growing body of academic literature’. The main aims of this book, he states, ‘are to address this omission and to provide an updated account of the meanings attached to being a Muslim in contemporary Scotland’. These are high targets.
Almost 60% of Muslims living in Scotland are of Pakistani origin or heritage, the remainder were categorised in the 2011 census as ‘Arab’ (9.8), ‘African’ (6.2), ‘Other Asian’ (6.1), ‘Bangladeshi’ (4), ‘Other White’ (3.3), ‘White Scottish’ (3.3), ‘Indian’ (2.5), ‘Other Ethnicity’ (2.2) and ‘Mixed or Multiple Ethnicity’ (1.7.) Attaching meaning to such a broad grouping is a challenge and, indeed, a risk, though it is one that Bonino acknowledges from the outset: ‘(t)he diversity of the Muslim community in Great Britain, and across most European countries, makes it difficult to construct a single ‘Muslim community’ without incurring the risk of homogenising the experience of individuals who differ along ethnic, theological, gender and age lines’. Though a degree of such homogenisation is an inevitable consequence of the book’s declared aims, Bonino does well to challenge it as frequently as those aims allow.
The overall tone of the book is optimistic: for Scottish Muslims, he argues, ‘[t]he final balance speaks of relatively positive experiences of sharing a non-Muslim country with the largely white Scottish majority’. Edinburgh ‘with its cosmopolitan nature, economic and political power, geographically dispersed and integrated minorities, tolerant social attitudes and engagement with diversity’ is singled out for praise and is described as exemplifying ‘a post-ethnic, transcultural society.’
Bonino is not suggesting that Scotland is a prejudice-free paradise of integration. Success stories, he argues, ‘should not overshadow historical problems of ethno-religious discrimination. Prejudice against migrant labour and Scotland’s active involvement in the British Empire – a major theme in Scottish historiography in recent times – are just two key examples’. His chapters on discrimination are sobering and remind readers not only of how far Scotland has come, but also the distance it still has to travel.
Though primarily an academic work, there is much here for the more general reader: the chapter on historical ‘migration, settlement and development,’ for example, provides a brief and effective summary of immigration to Scotland during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Drawing on the work of Tom Devine, Bonino is successful in highlighting the different ways in which immigrant communities were established in Scotland and how these differences contributed to discrimination, especially in regard to labour market pressures.
The book is not without flaws – owing to the breadth of his subject Bonino has (understandably) spread himself quite thinly and there were occasional ambiguities in terminology that this reader found distracting (though it should be noted that the copy being reviewed was an uncorrected advance proof). Despite this, Muslims in Scotland is an essential contribution to a discussion that demands just the sort of extended research and consideration that Bonino affords it. This is the level at which we must hope the discussion continues.
Robin Jones lives in Paris where he works as an English teacher. His fiction, articles and reviews have appeared in the Edinburgh Review, Gutter, Jacobin, the Dark Mountain Project and Huffington Post.