By Hind Makki
“I only feel Dutch when I travel abroad.” A Dutch-born-and-raised man who works as an engineer for a Dutch ministry recently confided to me. He is a Muslim whose Berber parents immigrated to the Netherlands from Morocco in the 1970s to work as laborers. I am an American-born-and-raised Muslim woman whose Sudanese parents immigrated to the United States in the 1970s as graduate students. My Dutch friend had lived all his life in the Netherlands and learned about America through Hollywood and the White House. I was on a two week cultural exchange to the Netherlands getting a crash course on Dutch practices on Muslim integration.
The engineer and I share a lot in common: Our parents left North Africa for a new future in the West at the same time. We are long-time volunteers in our communities. We vote our conscience; veering toward issues like equal access to education and protecting the environment. We agree that an intellectual awakening in the Muslim consciousness needs to happen – that the legacy of reasoned interpretation of Islamic texts and traditions should be reclaimed by those of us not ascribing to a narrow worldview. We share the same cultural references of any Western kid who grew up in the 1980s: the Smurfs, Indiana Jones, Gorbachev. We are both professionals living and working in vibrant, diverse cities. We navigate between our parents’ cultures at home and our societies’ cultures when we step outside. On the face of it we are your basic Western Muslims.
But I am an American and he is an Allochtoon.
Born in the Netherlands or not, Allochtoon is the word used by Dutch society to describe immigrants and their descendants. And to the people it labels, Allochtoon has a connotation that is equivalent to a word in the American lexicon which is no longer uttered in polite society.
Dutch Muslims don’t exist yet. There are the Turks and the Moroccans and there are the Dutch. The Netherlands is trying to figure out what it means to be Dutch in a world where movement and migration happen only slightly less frequently than a teenager sending text messages to her friends. I became aware of the Dutch identity crisis almost as soon as I landed at Schipol International Airport. During my two weeks in the Netherlands, at train stations, in stores and on the street, I took every opportunity to question random people about their thoughts on Dutch identity.
Q: “What does Dutch mean to you?” was my staple question.
A: “Dutch doesn’t really mean anything anymore. People used to know what it meant, but now no one knows,” replied an exceedingly polite white university student I met on a train, with hands in his pockets and wearing a rueful smile.
Q: “Do you feel Dutch?” was another favorite of mine.
A: “Dutch-Dutch people don’t see us as real Dutch, so no, I don’t feel Dutch. But I am Dutch because I was born here,” replied a 15-year old Muslim girl who takes off her hijab to attend a Catholic high school because her headmaster doesn’t allow outward expressions of faith on school grounds.
Q: “What do you think of the term Allochtoon?” I asked a man who is frequently referred to by the media as “the youngest Allochtoon member of Parliament.”
A: “I hate it. That word separates me from the rest of the citizens of the Netherlands,” he replied, a hint of anger mixed with the frustration in his voice.
Q: “How can you develop a Dutch Muslim identity when your imams are preaching exclusively in Turkish?” I asked a history teacher whose grandfather had immigrated to the Netherlands after World War II.
A: “My kids will never be considered Dutch. The day after Van Gogh was assassinated my wife was at the train station and two men started insulting her. They told her to go back to her f—ing country. My wife was born and raised here in Amsterdam. But the worst part was that there were other people standing around and no one said anything to defend her. So I have to teach my kids Turkish so they know their identity. They will never be Dutch.”
There was hopelessness and disillusionment in the teacher’s voice. Although four generations of his family have lived in the Netherlands, his cynicism about integration of immigrants and acceptance by the majority population was very palpable.
Most mosques in the Netherlands are segregated by language and ethnicity. Sermons are conducted in Turkish or Arabic or Berber, rarely in Dutch. I had the chance to visit the Polder Mosque in a working class neighborhood in Amsterdam; the first mosque in Amsterdam to conduct sermons in Dutch, led by a 29-year old Dutch-born imam. The Dutch word polder refers to land behind a dike; people who live behind dikes have to cooperate with each other when there is a danger of flooding, regardless of personal differences. The word poldermodel describes an approach in which efforts are made to reach a very broad consensus on important issues, in order to ensure everyone’s participation and cooperation.
The Polder Mosque’s very name implies that it seeks to encourage cooperation among Muslims who come from widely different backgrounds, while referring to a Dutch practice that has been in use since the Middle Ages. Its supporters hope that by providing a religious space in the Dutch language, where men and women pray in the same room and by creating an open space where everyone is welcome – Arab or Turk or Dutch, Muslim or not, conservative or liberal – that the Polder Mosque will help to develop a truly Dutch Islam.
The concept of actively creating an identity that is authentically Muslim and authentically American is not new to me. Throughout the course of my life, the Muslims surrounding me were challenging themselves and our communities to reconcile our faith with the culture of our American lives. Our Founding Fathers had long ago inculcated the values of democracy, tolerance and inclusion in the American psyche, – if not always in practice, at least in theory.
To me, being American means honoring the Constitution, which long ago declared that the right of the individual to be treated in dignity and as equal to her neighbor, as the basis of our national identity. Our history is replete with leaders and movements changing the reality of social injustice that many Americans suffered through, to the lofty ideals of our Constitution. Being American has very little to do with where a person is born or to what religion he subscribes.
Being American is about committing to honor the principles that laid the foundations upon which this country was built.
And that ethic of protecting the equal treatment of individuals is what my mother called upon last year to explain her exasperation at two teenagers who had yelled at her to “go back home” as she drove home from work one day. Unlike the history teacher’s wife, my mother was not born and raised in America. She came to this country as an adult; she chose to change her citizenship and she chose to raise her children in a society very different from her own. She was exasperated by the teenagers’ ignorance; “How can they not realize that America can be the home of a black woman with an accent and a headscarf? I learned about my freedom of religion and freedom of expression in that class I took before I became a citizen. Maybe those kids didn’t learn about the Bill of Rights in their history class yet.”
Well, that is doubtful, but my mother did touch upon a cornerstone of American national identity: that it is not based in ethnicity or even where you are born, but that it is based in ascribing to a certain set of values that are enshrined in our founding documents and have been protected, sustained and further developed throughout these last two centuries.
This peculiarity in our national identity – unique among the industrialized nations to which immigrants now flock – has always provided all Americans the space to create an identity that is pluralistic and affirming of individuality at the same time. American Muslims have followed in the footsteps of earlier minorities; the Irish, the Jews, the Polish, and so on, and have incorporated their voice, culture and ethics into the tapestry of America. American Muslims have reached out to the larger community by providing social services such as free health clinics and mosque-run food pantries. An ethic of social justice permeates the work of many American Muslim organizations. They do not only cater to their own group, but serve all Americans. And by expressing our faith through the arts, American Muslims contribute to the landscape of music, film and (hyperlink: http://www.srtp.org)theater while mixing in yet another ingredient to our pluralistic identity.
If pluralism means the active engagement of one’s identity while living in a society of individuals, in order to create a productive and cooperative society, then American Muslims are doing just that. What is unique to America is the idea that there is always space to add new textures and colors in the fabric of our national identity, so long as our original ideals of the respect for individual freedom are upheld. Muslims in America are finding new ways to articulate their faith and pass it on to their children. Using a new language, exploring new artistic frontiers, honoring the legacy of the civil rights movement, American Muslims are developing a new identity – one that is as equally American as it is Muslim.
The engineer told me he only felt Dutch when he traveled. I know what he means; when I travel I definitely feel American. But I also feel American when I sing the Star Spangled Banner while watching 4th of July fireworks. I feel American when I root for our athletes at the Olympics. I feel American when I volunteer at a street festival held in Chicago’s inner city. I feel American when I break my Ramadan fast in a sukkah at an Orthodox synagogue during Sukkot. And I feel American when I enter my mosque from the front door, listen to a sermon in English about creating space for spirituality in between our busy lives as commuting professionals or soccer moms or sleep-deprived students.
It hasn’t been easy for America to sustain an identity that is inclusive of our nation’s diversity and honors the goals of the Founding Fathers. But it has worked for 232 years. And when we strayed from our ideals, the American people always found a way to bring our reality closer to our ideals.
While I was in the Netherlands, I visited Rotterdam, a city that is nearly 40% Allochtoon. There I met a white Dutch woman who had converted to Islam several years ago and asked her my favorite questions, eager to hear what would surely be an answer I hadn’t heard.
Q. “Do you feel Dutch? What does being Dutch mean to you?”
A. “Those are very complicated questions. I can’t answer.” She laughed, but her blue eyes remained serious.
The Netherlands is working through its identity crisis and there are no easy answers. But as we come up on the 400th anniversary of the Dutch settling in the New World, perhaps there can be a sharing of ideas on identity across the Atlantic, based on our mutual history and our diverse present. As the poldermodel suggests, the Dutch are very keen on finding solutions that everyone can live with. So as they continue to think through their identity crisis, it might not be a bad idea remember what a fellow participant in the exchange noted: there might not be a consensus on what it means to be Dutch, but nearly everyone was unanimous, that in order to be Dutch you must love stroopwafels.
Hind Makki is an Outreach, Education, and Training Associate at the Interfaith Youth Core, and is down to her last two boxes of stroopwafels.
The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.