Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Holland and Its Muslim Immigrants

On a minibus transporting researchers to a medical conference, a Dutch colleague, sitting across from me said "look a mosque with TWO minarets". A sly smirk flashed across his face as he emphasized "two", as if trying to bait me. I turned around to look. Indeed, there amidst a drab urban landscape at the edge of Rotterdam, was a humble small mosque, not particularly attractive, with a central dome framed by two small, slender minarets. Refusing to bite, I said "yes, it is Turkish in style and their mosques often have two minarets". There was no further discussion. Now, I am not one to over read what people say, but clearly his statement was pregnant with what was left unsaid. "It is bad enough that we let THEM build a mosque, but then they have to rub it in by building TWO minarets" is what he meant to say. This sentiment, in a nutshell, summarizes the state of European suspicion, paranoia and distrust towards the recent -and not so recent- Muslim immigrants. The latest manifestation of this tension is the ongoing battle over the building of mosques.

In Holland, known for a long time for its liberal policies on immigration the tide turned abruptly in 2004 when the film maker and rabid Islamophobe, Leo van Gogh, was murdered by a home grown Muslim extremist. This murder was followed by numerous acts of vandalism against the Dutch Muslim community and resulted in a palpable hardening of Dutch feelings towards immigrants and asylum seekers in general.

Twenty to thirty years ago as the Dutch standard of living rose, these immigrants, mostly from Morocco and Turkey, streamed in to fill a void at the bottom of the labor market. In Holland, as many Northern European countries, they were provided with housing in communities physically separated from the rest of the population. The reasoning was that the immigrants were in Holland temporarily and thus keeping them together would maintain their sense of community and cultural integrity. Or perhaps the explanation was just a cover for a covert racist attitude among the Dutch who preferred that their "guest workers" remained out of sight. Whatever the true reason, this setup created second and third generation immigrants who are alienated and disenfranchised from the rest of the Dutch society and who became easy prey for peddlers of extremist ideologies. Some in Holland lay the blame on the immigrants themselves saying they prefer living in insular communities and that their closed and conservative faith prevents them from integrating into Dutch society. Yet some of my thoughtful Dutch colleagues tell me that me that racism and anti-Muslim feelings, present long before Leo van Gogh was murdered, are also largely to blame. A job application form with an Arab or Muslim sounding name, they assure me, stands little chance of being selected regardless of qualifications.

(Photo: Leiden canal, posterized photo by AK)


Pierre_P said...

Selam aleikum,

As a Dutch national that has traveled to many muslim countries, has even more muslim friends and acquaintances and is married to a Turkish (although secular wife), I have read your blog with interest. This article summarizes partly the incredibly complicated issue of current multicultural western societies.
One of the biggest problems in the Netherlands and in the West in general is that we have not had an equal influx of educated muslims. Hence, we are exposed to the more conservative and uneducated side of islam. Unable to look further than the few people that inhabit their country, they believe this underdeveloped and incorrect conservative interpretation of islam is representative of the whole. THe media obviously does not help in correcting this image and thus the Dutch perception of islam amongst the 'normal man' is not very positive, resulting in simple populist politicians such as a certain "Geert Wilders" declaring Islam is a rediculous religion and it should not be welcome in the western world and the Netherlands. Pathetic and misinformed, but popular amongst simple people that are again not educated, such a politician has been able to influence public perception and get about 5% of the dutch vote. Both sides should nog condemn eachother but have an open dialogue of tolerance and mutual understanding.

Allah hafiz,


Abu Kareem said...


Thank you for your comments. I agree with you that immigration is a complex issue and simple explanations are inadequate and false. What worsens the issue is when each side retracts and assumes the worst of the other side leaving no middle ground. The truth and the solution is often somehwhere in between.

Sara said...

Hello Abu Kareem,

I just stumbled onto your blog by mistake, and I'm ever so glad I did! I'm an Arab living in New York as well, and your blog seems to elaborate on all the thoughts that go through my head each day. I feel that I'm not completely satisfied living in the Middle East, nor am I satisfied living in the U.S., to a point that makes me wish I could grow gills and just live underwater with the fish :)

And about immigration issues, I've also noticed that the majority of Muslim Arabs living abroad are of poor education and adopt extreme religious beliefs. Not only does this portray a negative image for Arabs in general, it also divides us Arabs as a people and a community. My hair stylist, who is a Christian Palestinian, always talks about politics while working on my hair. When I told him that I come from a Muslim family, he said "Why do your people always make us look bad?" What struck me is his choice of words when he said "YOUR people," as if he is no longer part of the Arab community. I personally don't agree with the ways in which some Muslim Arabs behave when they're living abraod, but I can never exclude them from my life, as I have grown accustomed to interacting with both extremes. It's just sad to see that we are being divided amongst ourselves - let alone amongst Americans and the Dutch as you have mentioned - when it is important to get along with each other when living in a country that's not our own! Oh well...

Your blog is very well written by the way. I'll note myself to come back and read some more.

~ Sara

The Syrian Brit said...

Abu Kareem,
The problem you describe in the Netherlands is replicated in most former colonial powers, that have 'imported' cheap labour from the colonies. In the UK, members of the Pakistani community (in particular) face problems/challenges/attitudes similar to those faced by the Turkish community in Holland.
While the 'ghetto mentality' amongst immigrant communities may be partly to blame, the ingrained attitudes of the natives cannot be totally blameless..
I think the point made by Pierre P that people on both sides tend to blindly generalise is a valid one, but that generalisation is reinforced and underlined by insensitive practices by the uneducated (but loudly vocal) few, to the detriment of the sensible, moderate and tolerant many..
The only hope we have comes from mutual understanding, and open dialogue..

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Interesting I never hear anything about this, a friend of mine told me something about it but i said was nothing, byt the way he works with police.

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