Just after sunset Tuesday, Humza Yousaf led his family in Islamic prayer and broke their Ramadan fast in an unusual setting: the 18th-century chandeliered drawing room of Bute House, the grand residence of the prime ministers of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Yousaf, 37, had just made history. Scotland’s devolved parliament had confirmed him that day as the nation’s first Muslim. Prime Ministeras well as the youngest and the first of an ethnic minority.

Now the new leader of the ruling Scottish National Party can focus on an even bigger goal: ending the 316-year union between Scotland and England.

Nearly a decade after Scots voted 55 percent to 45 percent in 2014 to remain in that union, the UK’s constitutional future remains shrouded in uncertainty. Polls suggest Scottish opinion is almost evenly divided independence – and that younger voters are clearly in favor of leaving the UK.

“We will be the generation that brings independence to Scotland,” Yousaf assured SNP members after his election victory this week.

Humza Yousaf with members of his family
Humza Yousaf with members of his family at Bute House on Tuesday © Twitter

But ending the union will not be an easy task for Yosafthe private-school-educated grandson of a Pakistani tailor who emigrated to the west of Scotland in the 1960s. His narrow victory in the SNP leadership election to succeed Nicola Sturgeon capped a bitter contest that inflamed divisions in the formerly disciplined party.

After nearly 16 years in government, the SNP is facing increasing criticism over its record. While Yousaf has been seen as a rising party star since he was elected to the Scottish parliament in 2011, many analysts question his ability to overcome the UK government’s refusal to allow a second independence referendum.

Sir John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said Yousaf must overcome low public approval ratings, a possible preference for surrounding himself with “like-minded people” and a tendency to become defensive when criticized. .

“He’s smart, eloquent and fluent, but he’s not very popular and he has a heavily criticized record,” Curtice said.

Humza Yousaf with his cabinet
Yousaf at his first cabinet meeting on Friday © Getty Images

Yousaf has insisted that turbulent stints as transport minister, law cabinet secretary and, more recently, health minister showed he could handle the toughest jobs in government. But with Scotland’s healthcare system still in something close to crisis, critics say it has “failed upwards”.

It was Kate Forbes, the fresh-faced 32-year-old finance secretary who was Yousaf’s main rival for leadership, who pushed the knife the deepest. “When you were Minister of Transport, the trains were never on time; when you were minister of justice, the police were tense to the limit; and now, as health minister, we have record wait times,” she told him during a heated televised debate.

However, it is a sign of how much Scotland has changed in recent decades that it was Forbes’s traditional conservative Christian beliefs and his opposition to gay marriage that became a campaign issue, rather than Yousaf’s Muslim faith.

Unlike Forbes, the new prime minister sees no contradiction between his religion and the socially progressive agenda championed by Sturgeon, including legislation intended to make it easier for transgender people to gain official recognition of gender change.

But the narrowness of Yousaf’s victory – he beat Forbes by a final tally of 52 to 48 percent – suggests that SNP members may be more conservative than previously thought.

controversy over gender recognition reform, which opponents say threatens women’s sexual rights, cast a shadow over Sturgeon’s final months in office. Yousaf intends to challenge a UK government blockade on Scottish law, but critics feel vulnerable.

“@HumzaYousaf is the kid who just saw the skater disappear across the ice, but yells ‘look at me y’all!’ as he staggers straight into the hole,” author JK Rowling said in a tweet.

Yousaf’s progressive values ​​also make some co-religionists uncomfortable. But for many Muslims and people of South Asian descent, his success is a milestone. Junaid Ashraf, co-founder of the Scottish Asian Business Chamber, said it was a delight to see a Scotsman of the same immigrant background rise to lead the nation and be celebrated for it. “The feeling I have is of security and warmth,” he said.

Yousaf, a career politician who studied politics at Glasgow University and was prompted by opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq to follow his father into the SNP, hopes his election will encourage anyone who feels they “don’t belong ”.

“It doesn’t matter if Scotland has been your home for a day or for 10 generations, regardless of your ethnicity, regardless of your gender, regardless of your religion and regardless of your sexual orientation, transgender identity or disability, this is your home.” said. he said Tuesday.

Humza Yousaf and Alex Salmon
Yousaf talks to then SNP leader Alex Salmond before taking the oath of allegiance in the Scottish parliament in 2011 © Andrew Milligan/PA

It’s a message that contrasts the SNP’s brand of “civic nationalism” with the approach of the UK’s ruling Conservatives. Although Rishi Sunak is a Hindu of South Asian descent and the UK’s first non-white prime minister, he has made limiting the arrival of immigrants a top priority.

Yousaf, who as international development minister helped Syrian refugees disembark during a visit to Greece in 2015, described the UK government’s attempt to stop almost all migrants from applying for asylum as “horrible”.

“The UK government’s cruelty to refugees is exactly why we need Scottish independence,” he said.

But the SNP needs a broader justification for independence than differences over immigration or gender. Curtice said Yousaf needed to make an “intellectually credible case” showing how Scotland could be better off outside the UK.

Yousaf this week named the nation’s first “independence minister” but has yet to seriously address its likely economic and fiscal impact.

Still, Habib Malik, former head of the Islamic Relief Scotland charity, has no doubts about the determination of the man he hired as a teenage volunteer in 2003. Yousaf started out sorting donated clothes and cleaning toilets, but quickly became an accomplished organizer and fundraiser. Of funds. .

“He has challenges, no doubt, massive challenges. But one thing I know: he will not give up,” Malik said.

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