DO you want to read a funny story? It is about me, who came here thinking: “Ah, finally, I’m in Scotland. What a rational, sensible country, surely immune to all that hate-filled nonsense.

“I mean, they voted against Brexit! Let me see what that civic nationalism of theirs is all about; clearly, they’ve cracked the code to living together as a country.”

I often catch myself yearning to meet the version of me who was eagerly preparing to relocate to Scotland after the Brexit vote – my last chance to make the move before the end of freedom of movement. I wish I could tell her: “Girl, I’m from the future, and let me tell you, even seemingly open-minded, inclusive societies are not immune to the crazy, hate-filled polarisation.” In that regard, 2024 Scotland ain’t a pretty sight.

It’s amusing, really, that one of the myriad reasons that drew me to Scotland was the suffocating atmosphere in France following the 2015 Paris attacks.

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The nation was thrust into a state of shock and mourning as multiple deadly terrorist attacks unfolded, inevitably instilling fear and anxiety among the population – precisely the intended outcome. In the aftermath of such tragedies, the political climate became increasingly charged, emotions ran high, and tensions escalated.

The political discourse in France was gradually becoming toxic, marked by a troubling rise in Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism. These ugly manifestations were fuelled by a potent mix of fear, misinformation, and political opportunism. Immigrants and Muslims became convenient scapegoats, unfairly targeted and blamed for the attacks, with certain segments of society advocating for harsher measures against them.

Coincidentally, it was during this tumultuous period that I found myself considering a move to Scotland. In the wake of the independence referendum and the Brexit vote, my interest in Scotland intensified, and I must confess, I had somewhat romanticised the idea of Scotland as a haven untouched by such chaos.

For many progressives, Scotland was revered as a beacon of hope and a model society to aspire to. From a distance, it appeared to be a place of reasonable people, where inclusivity and open-mindedness flourished, and where toxic rhetoric was kept in check.

In those moments, I thought: “Yes, let’s leave France behind; I could certainly do without the madness. Scotland is serene. Scotland is rational. Scotland refuses to entertain such nonsense.”

However, I must now humbly acknowledge my mistake. That was silly of me. It turns out that Scotland is susceptible to the same bouts of moral panic-level madness that afflict France.

I had assumed that Scotland’s brand of civic nationalism, which is very similar to the French version, which is that belonging to the nation is not determined by one’s ethnicity, ancestry, or cultural background, but rather by shared values, citizenship, and participation in the political community, would serve as a bulwark against such turmoil.

I looked at Scotland and saw a model of openness and fraternity, thinking to myself: “We could learn from them, emulate their spirit.”

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Yet the past few months have shown otherwise. Scotland and France, we’re grappling with similar issues, albeit in different contexts. We’re essentially wrestling with the same fundamental question: Where do we draw the line between free speech and hate speech?

However, while France’s focus centres more on religion and the concept of secularism (laïcité), Scotland’s tensions are primarily around gender.

Despite these differences, both societies show similarly terrible responses. We seem to have forgotten the essence of living together, le vivre-ensemble. The intense and contentious debates surrounding laïcité in France offer a clear illustration of this phenomenon, particularly concerning politicians and public personalities who veil their hostility toward Muslims and individuals perceived to be Muslim, especially those of North African descent, under the guise of laïcité.

What we often fail to recognise is that these individuals are not genuinely advocating for peaceful coexistence; instead, they are fostering an environment conducive to the proliferation of resentment and hatred, which, in the end, fan the flames of societal divisions.

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Laïcité, as a concept, is intended to establish a neutral and inclusive public space where individuals of all religious backgrounds, as well as those with no religious affiliation, can peacefully coexist and participate equally in society.

Its aim is to prevent any single religion from wielding undue influence in the public sphere and to safeguard the rights and freedoms of all citizens, irrespective of their beliefs. What laïcité is not about is providing a useful tool to target one specific community.

So if the focus of our debate is “how far can we go to wind up the Muslims, leaving them feeling sidelined and unappreciated”, then I’ll say I’m not very interested in this debate, actually.

The real issue lies in their warped interpretation of laïcité, which seems to revolve solely around being hostile towards Muslims while technically staying within legal bounds.

In my book, that completely misses the mark of what secularism is all about and chips away at its core values, including le vivre-ensemble – the idea of diverse people living together in mutual respect and harmony.

The National: People gathered outside the Scottish Parliament to express their opposition to the Hate Crime Act

This brings me back to the present situation in Scotland, particularly with the sour tone that has enveloped expressions of opinions, especially in light of the Hate Crime and Public Order Act and the Gender Recognition Reform Bill.

The crux of the debate seems to revolve around questions like: “Can I still misgender people? Can I call a trans woman a man?”

It’s as if our main concern is finding ways to legally make life as unpleasant as possible for those with whom we disagree over their identity. Doesn’t that sound absurd?

I’ve never really understood the allure of provocation for likes, especially when it comes from influential figures. I mean, sure, it’s technically legal, but come on, is that really the gold standard of democratic participation in a respectful, mature society?

It’s as if we’ve completely lost sight of the basics – let’s at least try to be decent with each other.

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Instead, it feels like our main concern as a society is figuring out just how close we can get to the edge of free speech without tumbling into hate speech territory.

If this is the best we have, well, this is disappointing. That is a far cry from this idealised view that I had of Scotland.

But maybe I am the one to blame for my own naivety: the poison of division and hatred is a very efficient one indeed, and if we let it spread, it will.

We all, especially those of us who hold a platform, need to have a long hard look in the mirror and think about how we have allowed this kind of behaviour, which only aims at pitting people against each other, to become so normalised.