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)