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Why Did So Many Muslim and Ethnic Minority Scots Vote Yes?

Could Scottish independence be the first nationalist movement that ethnic minorities don't feel threatened by?

In recent months, the Yes campaign saw a surge in support for independence among minority groups, with one radio poll showing two-thirds are voting 'Aye'.

That, coupled with a number of high-profile Scottish Asian defections to the nationalist cause, seems to suggest that minorities do not see Scottish patriotism as threatening, but tolerant and immigration-friendly. Some have expressed concern though that with a rise of nationalist fervor, a rise in xenophobia is inevitable, and perhaps yet to come if resentment against outsiders continues to simmer.

Minorities make up around 2% of the Scottish population, compared to around 13% of the United Kingdom population as a whole. A poll by Asian radio station Awaz FM poll showed 64% of Asians in Scotland would vote Yes, while 32% were against.

The foot was heavily on the gas among grassroots Yes campaigners in the Scottish Asian community, with a heavy presence at local cultural events. And the Yes campaign has a number of high-profile Asian politicians and spokespeople, including the Minister for External Affairs and International Development Humza Yousaf MSP from the Scottish National Party.

Anum Qaisar, the general secretary of the Muslim Friends of Labour, organised a mock referendum vote at the University of Strathclyde in March for Muslim students. She herself went into the debate convinced she would vote to stay part of the union.

After the debate, the number of students who said they planned to vote 'No' had almost halved. And it also changed Qaisar's own mind, and she defected to the Yes campaign. "It made me question why Westminster doesn't trust Scotland," she said. "I also worry about the direction UK politics is going; as the granddaughter of immigrants I don’t want anti-immigration and xenophobic policies at the forefront of political debates.

"I want to see the preservation of a fair and just welfare state, taxes that do not favour the richest but provide a safety net for the most vulnerable, and a Scotland where we spend money on our children’s future not on illegal wars or nuclear bombs."

Qaisar cites the war in Iraq as a key motivating factor for many young Scottish Muslims. More recently, she said, she was dismayed at a "plea" from the police to get mothers to report their sons if they believed they were headed to Syria to fight "This kind of attitude makes people distrust the Government even more. With Gove’s accusations that 'British values', and I still have no idea what that means, need to be taught in school, this is naturally going to aid distrust."

For Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh, a Glasgow-based human rights lawyer and ex-SNP candidate, the Yes vote among minorities is less about a rejection of the bad politics of Westminster, but a chance to be a part of history. Born in London to an Indian father and a Czech-Welsh mother, Ahmed Sheikh has been an ardent nationalist for well over a decade.

"I think the feeling amongst immigrants, many of whom will have come from nations with a history of instability, is that if you have a chance, a real chance, to grasp independence in a clean, peaceful way, why wouldn't you? What could be stopping you?" the former Young Conservative activist said. "People come here to make a better life for themselves, and now they have a real chance to take a positive choice themselves to make life better for their Scottish-born children."

Conversely, the majority of Scotland's 6,000 Jews are pro-union, said Frank Angell a former SNP candidate and the honorary secretary of Glasgow Jewish Representative Council, a fact he attributes to the closeness the community has with Labour politicians in Glasgow, where most of the population resides.

Angell is the exception. Unlike many minorities in Scotland, his connection with the nation goes back well over a century. "My father came from Hungary during the Second World War, but my mother's family had been in Scotland for decades, my great great grandmother is buried in Glasgow," the retired dentist said. "Our family was always exceptionally proud to be Scottish Jews, and for me that has translated into the desire to want to be part of an equable Scotland.

"Scots are very tolerant people," he added. "I think the fact that Scotland has such a large diaspora has something to do with that. Scots have often seen themselves as a persecuted minority, that makes them very sympathetic."

Dr Nasar Meer, an Edinburgh-based social sciences academic at the University of Strathclyde who has studied the support for independence among minorities, agreed that minorities "identify with the narrative" of Scotland.

"They understand what it feels like to be oppressed, and that's the Scottish version of their history too," he said. "Though, of course, it's not necessarily true that Scots have always been oppressed. Scots ran the British Empire, practically. The Indian military has a Scottish tartan in its formal regalia."

Scottish nationalism has a very "low boundary" which makes the movement accessible even to recent immigrants, he added. "It's not like there's a specific language you have to speak, in contrast to Catalonia, Quebec or the Basque region. There's more Punjabi and Urdu spoken in Scotland than Gaelic, though we will see if that changes," he said.

"I think Scotland is one of the most welcoming countries in the world," said Qaisar. "There is a real sense of community in Scotland - not just between ethnic minorities but as a society I believe that Scotland is an incredibly tolerant country. Therefore immigrants gain strong ties to Scotland straight away."

Ahmed Sheikh, who moved from London to Glasgow at the age of four, said she felt a deep connection with her adopted nation from a very early age. "The concept of Scottish society and Scottish nationhood is really strong, but so is the idea of being a Scottish Asian. You hear that phrase used in business and by politicians." Likewise, she describes Scotland as "extremely tolerant" and believes minorities might be motivated by the anti-immigration rhetoric "down south" to vote Yes. "We are forced into the situation where we are under Tory government, which is not what most of them would want," she said.

Nationalism is almost inevitably coupled with xenophobia, and other worldwide separatist movements have often gained momentum by weaving anti-immigration rhetoric into their campaigns, most notably in Quebec. A rise in the number of immigrants to the Canadian region has been credited for the slow decline of the separatist party there, the Parti Québécois.

Angell attributes this innate fear of nationalism fervour to the trepidation the Jewish community feel about independence. "It's not surprising that talk of nationalism and nationalist parties arouses suspicion in the average Jewish person," he admitted, adding that there has "never been any suggestion of that kind of bent from the nationalist party in Scotland."

"Of course, the concerns about nationalism do cross your mind, but there has been a real rise in right-wing feeling and xenophobia across Europe and it hasn't happened in Scotland. People were very surprised that even one Ukip MEP got in, and that was probably anti-EU feeling rather than xenophobia."

Meer called Scottish nationalism "the soft, cuddly kind" but said he understood the concern that ethnic and racial minorities may find they do not fit into a concept of nationhood built on myths and legends of white Scottish heroism.

"The Scots are yet to be really stress-tested, say if communities wanted to open Sharia councils in Scottish cities, or even a Muslim school. There aren't any currently in Scotland," he added. "Then it would be interesting to see the colour of public debate, we may start to see a shift."

Jessica Elgot is Assistant News Editor at The Huffington Post UK, with a special interest in immigration, religion and extremism. She won the Wyn Harness Prize for Journalism in 2011. Previously, Jessica was a Senior Reporter for the Jewish Chronicle, the UK's oldest Jewish news paper and also reported for the Independent and i Paper. She continues to make regular appearances on BBC 5Live. She is an English Literature graduate of University of Nottingham and completed a Postgraduate degree at the University of Cardiff. Jessica can be reached at or on Twitter @jessicaelgot

This article first appeared on the Huffington Post website.