Humza Yousaf's historic win is a beacon of light in Scotland

Humza Yousaf's historic win as Scotland's First Minister is a beacon of light
6 min read

Sam Hamad

04 April, 2023
The election of a second-generation Pakistani Muslim as First Minister of Scotland is an antidote to the anti-immigrant sentiment across Britain and Europe, writes Sam Hamad, who reflects on his own upbringing as a Scot of a similar background.
Humza Yousaf takes the oath as he is sworn in as First Minister of Scotland at the Court of Session on 29 March 2023 in Edinburgh, Scotland. [Getty]

After the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon and the subsequent three-way leadership contest, Humza Yousaf has emerged victorious, elected as the leader of the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) and then subsequently elected by a majority of members in the Scottish parliament as First Minister (FM) of Scotland. 

Yousaf was born in Glasgow to parents who had emigrated from the Punjab province of Pakistan to Scotland in the 1960s. His election is a quite remarkable point not just in the history of Scotland, but also of Europe, given Yousaf has become the first and only Muslim leader of a Western European nation. 

As a second-generation immigrant Scot, whose father is an Egyptian Muslim who came to Scotland in the 1980s, I can’t help but feel pride that Scotland has blazed this particular trail.

In the Scotland of my youth, the idea of our country having its own (even devolved) leader was unthinkable, let alone having a non-white Muslim one. In my youth, racism was part of everyday life. 

Back then, one would find casual racism not just in the playground and among peers, but among teachers, adults (including, as one example, a friend’s parents who once assumed my dad must be “good at making curries”) and authority figures. 

Even the police would get in on the action. When a whole gang of us had decided to ‘decorate’ a Post Office car park with chalk, a policeman barged into our house to talk to my brother and I. When my mother asked why they were only asking us about the incident when lots of other kids had been involved, the policeman replied, “Because your boys stick out like sore thumbs”. 

Even more disturbingly, and this was well beyond the 1980s, during 2000s and the War on Terror, after all my family had left our hometown, we heard the disturbing news that the same policeman had been asking neighbours about my brother and I’s whereabouts.

He had, perhaps having watched too many episodes of 24, got it into his head that we, two Scottish guys raised secularly but with the name ‘Hamad’, had possibly absconded to join the cause of Jihadism in Afghanistan. Just prior to leaving my hometown, at a house party, another drunken off-duty police officer had called me a “Bin Laden bastard”.

Scotland is often made to look good by the modern record of the SNP government when it comes to supporting and defending migrants and promoting anti-racism against the growing extremism of the British government.

However, the reality, on a granular level, has often been different. Yousaf becoming the most powerful elected figure in Scotland demonstrates how much times have changed, and hopefully this has had an effect on the communal level. At his confirmation in the Scottish Parliament, his wife even celebrated her heritage by wearing a traditional Palestinian thobe.

Nicola Sturgeon often spoke about how she hoped that part of her legacy was to empower women by showing how young working-class girls can rise through the ranks of male-dominated milieus and industries. Yousaf will hopefully try to play a similar role for Scotland’s ethnic minorities, showing them that the ‘white wall’ of Scottish politics is not so unassailable. 

He has not been scared of putting himself out there before when it comes to anti-racism, despite the inevitable racist backlash.

In 2020, following the murder of George Floyd and a debate on racism in the Scottish parliament, Yousaf delivered a powerful speech highlighting the lack of diversity across Scotland’s public sector and asking Scots to face up to Scotland’s “structural racism problem”. For this, he received over 6000 racist social media attacks in a single week, including death threats.

There is a long way to go. There are currently only 6 non-white members of the Scottish parliament. Across Scotland, an astonishing four-fifths of Muslims have reported some form of Islamophobic abuse, while 62% of hate crimes had race as an aggravator. 

These are not circumstances that will miraculously resolve with the election of a Muslim First Minister, but his election does tell of another political context that Scots ought not to shy away from. 

Within the context of unprecedented anti-migrant action from the Brexiteer British Tory government, Yousaf’s election ought to be considered genuine progress. Some might point to the fact that the current British PM, Rishi Sunak, is also a person of immigrant stock, but the difference is that Sunak is acceptable within the Brexiteer Tory milieu precisely because he’s willing to enact these hardcore racist immigration policies. 

This is where the SNP and Scotland’s independence movement deserve praise. In all of the 16 years since the SNP were first elected, never once has any SNP government attempted to scapegoat migrants or minorities, unlike the British government.

Instead, they have created the conditions in Scotland whereby anti-immigrant sentiment is seen as politically unsustainable and anti-racism is a default for all the major parties. 

Scotland is no safe haven from societal and everyday racism. But it has a history of anti-racism that the SNP embody, allowing them to create the political and social conditions whereby Scots overwhelmingly opposed the politics of racism and xenophobia that fed into Brexit.

It’s also why Scots have overwhelmingly rejected every Tory government and their increasingly illiberal and divisive agendas, all centred around the regressive incitement of Brexit.

Humza Yousaf, as a second-generation immigrant Muslim and supporter of an independent, progressive social democratic Scottish Republic with full membership of the European Union, is the living antithesis of everything that Brexit Britain represents. 

The dark forces that have sought to dislodge the SNP for decades, and dampen all progressive developments across these islands, will no doubt gather around Yousaf.

Scotland might be a small country with only a devolved government. However, within the context of Scotland’s own past and present problems with racism, as well as the illiberal anti-migrant policies of the Tories and even worse racist forces and sentiments sweeping across Europe, Yousaf must be considered a beacon of light.

Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.

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