Muslims against the grain

Article published on Sept. 6, 2006
community published
Article published on Sept. 6, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Following Theo van Gogh’s assassination in 2004, the Dutch sense of respect and religious tolerance is under great pressure. Second-generation immigrants feel excluded and criticize the hedonism around them

Far from the bustle of the famous red light district, a group of fifteen Moroccan girls meet, as on every Sunday, in the Badr mosque. Voices on the first floor guide my steps while I cover my shoulders with a cloth. Sticking my head round the door, my presence disturbs their intimacy. The girls rush to the veils scattered about the floor to cover their heads.

Through the open door at the back of the room, two marine blue eyes observe the scene. Maymouna is the Dutch girl that coordinates the group of young Muslim women between the ages of 16 to 26 at the Badr mosque. “Imagine how you would feel if in your own country people have misgivings about you because they suspect that you are an extremist and are going to kill them.”

The girls from the Badr mosque have Moroccan parents, but they were born in Holland. They believe that it is difficult to be a Muslim here given the liberalism of the Dutch society. “I have the sensation of living against society. Sex, for example, is very important to the people around me. A Muslim is like a mirror that confronts every person with their conscience.”

Faith governs Noual’s life, a 20-year-old youth who criticizes “Christians that only go to Mass on Sundays to redeem the sins that they have committed during the week”.

Religious Fraternity

On July 22, a demonstration against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon winds it way through the streets of Amsterdam up to the Rijksmuseu esplanade. Among the demonstrators is Youness Lyousoufi, 23 years old, who coordinates the male group at Badr. He believes that these forms of political expression “can serve to temper and prevent violent attitudes”. Youness maintains that young extremists know very little about Islam and that ‘they can hardly see the wood for the mosques’. He has just finished a Masters in Architecture and is working for a construction firm. He says that it has not been difficult to find a job and he feels fortunate to live in Amsterdam where he would like to marry a Muslim lady regardless of her nationality.

Identity Crisis

“I am not like the rest of Moroccans because I was born here and my mother tongue is Dutch. But I feel different to the Dutch people I come across in the street. My true identity is that of a Muslim.” This sentiment is strongly reflected in other European countries. Some 81% of British Muslims and 69% of Spanish Muslims consider themselves first Muslims and only then citizens of their country. This is a higher proportion than in Jordan, Egypt, or Turkey. In turn, only 46% of French Muslims believe than they Muslims above all while 42% claim that their identity has nothing to do with citizenship.

Two years after Van Gogh

The death of the provocative film director Theo van Gogh in November of 2004 questioned freedom and tolerance that had always characterized the immigration policies in Amsterdam. The patronizingly politically correctness gave way to iron fist policies promoted by the former minister for immigration, Rita Verdonk. To restrict the reunion of married couples, the minister wanted to establish a minimum admission fee amounting to 120% of the minimum salary. Populist politicians like Geert Wilders came out in favour of closing all orthodox mosques.

However local government sees things differently. The campaign “We Amsterdamers” aims at tackling the Islamophobia that emerged following the assassination of Van Gogh. The municipal project wants to foster a common local identity which integrates Muslims.

An office in De Baarsjes neighbourhood and several instates also organise sessions to denounce discriminations and integrate Muslims, 11% of the city’s population.

At the University of Amsterdam, Marcel Maussen, researcher for the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies of Amsterdam, explains that the mayor Job Cohen considers religious organisations to be valid partners. Maussen believes that this “policy prevents radicalization”. The City Council and Muslim associations of the city also organize various events such as Ramadan Festival, which attract Muslims from the city to pray and eat.

Closed Doors

Despite these initiatives, some second generation immigrants like Noual believe that they would have more opportunities in an Islamic country. “I know that I would not need to wear a miniskirt or show my skin in order to become a doctor. Europeans believe that our husbands order us to stay at home, but this same European society does not let us enter the labour market and keeps us at home.”

Inevitably, I ask them if they want to live in an Islamic country. An overwhelming number of arms are raised all around the room in the Badr mosque. By contrast, Youness maintains that neither he, nor his friends, plan to leave Holland because they’ve settled here. “Morocco is a good holiday destination but for work it’s different – some of my friends there have Master degrees and are stuck selling tomatoes.”

Parallel Lives

Youness tells me that he respects the Dutch approach to homosexuality, sex and drugs but that he sees things differently. Krzysztof Dobrowolski volunteers at the COC association in Amsterdam and organizes institutional classes of tolerance towards homosexuals. This Polish volunteer recognises that “the majority of Muslims say that according to the teaching of Islam homosexuality is inadmissible. But many of them affirm that gays are free to lead their life and go to hell.” Krzysztof says that institutional demand for his services has increased by seven-fold in the last three years. “It pains me to say that it is easier to be homosexual or come out of the closet in a school with a low percentage of immigrants.”

Speaking about the upcoming elections on November 22, Professor Maussen believes that “people are tiring of the hard rhetoric”. Indeed the Dutch government cabinet collapsed on June 30 after the polemical Rita Verdonk questioned the Dutch citizenship of the Somali delegate Hirsi Ali. Whatever happens, another assassination or terrorist attack will certainly destroy the Dutch respect and tolerance that is under painful reconstruction after the Theo van Gogh’s death.