Guest Blogger: Dutch Muslims?

By Hind Makki “I only feel Dutch when I travel abroad.” A Dutch-born-and-raised man who works as an engineer for … Continued

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.

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  • Arif

    Give up islam and 99% of your problems of identity will be solved almost instatnenously. Look around you there are Chinese, Laotions, Vietnamese, Africans, Hindus, Bhudists etc, not one of them are craving to be American, Dutch or any other nationality other than who they are. Muslims no matter what nationality, identify themselves as “Muslims” and therein lies the problem. About the Dutch thing;Happy Friday!!!

  • GeorgiaSon

    BRUTAL REALITy KEEPS REARING ITS UGLY HEADThe reality, that is, behind the touch-feely propaganda about moderate Islam and the idea that whatever problem confronts Muslims in the West, it’s not their fault. Two articles in recent days in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution make the point.Yesterday, we read about a Pakistani immigrant who strangled his daughter because she wanted to end her arranged marriage. The father murdered his daughter because she “would disgrace the family,” according to an arrest warrant. Chaudhry Rashid, 56, told police he is Muslim and that extra-marital affairs and divorce are against his religion. That’s why he killed her, the arrest warrant says.In court this week Rashid said, “I have done nothing wrong.”Today, we are hit with this headline:“Teens to return from immersion in radical Islam -Film chronicles Atlanta boys’ transformation in a Pakistani religious school linked to al-Qaida.”It’s about a Muslim father in Atlanta who did not like the influence of American culture on his sons. So four years ago, he packed them off, against their will, to a religious school in his native Pakistan. There, they were to learn one thing and one thing only: how to recite the Quran from memory. Oh, turns out that the teachers at the Binoria madrassah aim to ingrain young minds with radical ideology. So they also learned—and solemnly assert—that no Muslims were involved in 9/11. And how did we happen to learn about these two young Muslims? Only because a documentary Pakistani-American filmmaker, Imran Raza, discovered the boys in 2005, saw them again in 2007, and sent a camera crew earlier this year to film their story. The result is “Karachi Kids.” In the film, Raza states that many Taliban militants graduated from the school and that Osama bin Laden once spoke there.After the story first broke in the media, the father’s initial attempt to get his sons back to the U.S. ran into a stonewall when the Pakistani government refused to grant exit visas. It took Congressional intervention with President Musharraf and four years of publicity that focused on the boys’ desire to go home and the madrassah’s alleged connections to radical Islamic groups to bust them lose. The two boys finally returned to Atlanta late Thursday. The family has lived in Atlanta since 1992, but remains conservative and deeply religious.Two stories within one week in one metropolitan area. How many similar ones will go unreported? Let’s hope that whatever moderate Muslims exist will find a way to speed up Muslim assimilation into America. Meanwhile, we have no choice but to limit the number that are here at any one time. Just look at the example of the Netherlands.

  • Observer

    A believing Muslim can never be anything but a Muslim. He might be born in the USA or Holland but he will never be American or Dutch. His loyalty would be to the Ummah, the Muslim community. That is what differentiates them from the other immigrants to the West. Those others work hard to assimilate, but the Muslims, especially the practicing ones amongst them, work hard to distance themselves from the rest, by their mode of dress, their names, their rituals. Most might not be actively involved in treacherous acts against their country of residence but many contribute financially to Islamist organization such as Hamas, Qaeda and Hizbulla that try to fight against the West’s interests around the world. They identify more with those distant fanatic groups than their neighbors.

  • ANONYMOUS

    GEORGIASON:”Two stories within one week in one metropolitan area. How many similar ones will go unreported? Let’s hope that whatever moderate Muslims exist will find a way to speed up Muslim assimilation into America. Meanwhile, we have no choice but to limit the number that are here at any one time. Just look at the example of the Netherlands.”****************************************************You are the most ignorant person with bigoted ideas.Although no one should condone such things one should also know that one should not use guilt by association to any group.There are still racist people in America. That does not mean all Americans are racists.Hindus still have the caste system in India and dowry is still given and taken there despite a law making it illegal in early 1950s. Should we condemn all Hindus?Last Christmas, two priests belonging to two different denominations fought with sticks and brooms in a church in Jerusalem. Should we generalize about Christians?Last Christmas again, several churches were burned down on Christmas day by the Hindus in Orissa, India. Are all Hindus to be blamed?The Army of God fanatics bombed numerous abortion clinics in America. Should we condemn all Americans for this?Not too long ago, Rev. Jones of Jonestown, Guiana perpetrated the so-called suicide of his followers. Should we condemn all Christians for Rev. Jones?Your ideas are not only impotent but also shameful.

  • ANONYMOUS

    OBSERVER:Your non-sense is appalling. Indonesian Muslims are both Indonesian and Muslim. Indian Muslims are both Indian and Muslim. And American Muslims are both American and Muslim.American Muslims are Democrats and Republican. They are taxi drivers, physicians, surgeons, lawyers, engineers, professors and so forth. They are staunchly nationalistic. Their home is America.Fortunately, about 80% of American Muslims are highly educated, affluent, articulate and staunchly pro-America.STOP YOUR NON-SENSE.

  • Anonymous

    REPLY TO ANONYMOUS MESSAGE POSTED July 12, 2008 12:03 AM:Why on earth do you think that throwing all those examples of ignorant behavior by Hindus, priests fighting in Jerusalem, abortion clinic bombers, and Jim Jones makes any point whatsoever about my comments? Do you really believe that the payment of dowries by Hindus equates to honor killings by Muslims?Just for the record: There are not schools by the thousands that explicitly indoctrinate Hindus, priests, abortion clinic bombers, American racists, and members of religious cults that their evil ideas are correct and that they have a right to carry out violence against their enemies. There is not some country reaping billions from some valuable commodity that is financing such schools worldwide. In short, you are nonsensical in trying to draw a parallel between the examples you cite and the Muslim madrasses, financed by Saudi Arabia, found all over the globe.Your examples are truthfully the extremists in their religion and their countries and are recognized as such even within their own cultures. They are not openly tolerated, if not encouraged, by the mainstream in those countries, the way honor killings and religious indoctrination are tolerated and encouraged by the mainstream in Muslim countries. Abortion clinic bombings are vigorously investigated and prosecuted in the U.S. Powerful cororations have had to pay tens of millions of dollars for sexual and racial discrimination. The tolerance of honor killings by Muslims is well known. You have slit your own throat by attempting to paper it over and claiming that it is no bigger a problem than the examples you cite. Just today, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an an excellent op-ed piece on the issue by a woman who has lived in the Middle East. Check out: “Islam looks other way on ‘honor killings’ – Sickening practice demands new laws” at Keep accusing me of bigotry and ignorance, if you like, and I will keep flooding you with the evidence and the analyses that reveal Islam’s imprisonment in 6th century thinking, especially toward women. You might even try to figure out the difference between rational debate and ad hominem attacks—i.e., name calling. Like most Muslims, you obviously don’t know the difference. It’s a result of your growing up in a culture that does not respect freedom of expression. Remember the core thought in my original comment: not to engage on each point of Islamic doctrine but to point out that America needs to think twice about expanding the Muslim population in America. It’s not just what Muslims do inside their own countries, bad as it is. What frightens me is the fact that Muslims who have lived for years in America still have their behavior determined by the extremist religious values they brought with them. That is the disturbing lesson of the two incidents I cited.

  • ANONYMOUS

    Reply to Observer:”What frightens me is the fact that Muslims who have lived for years in America still have their behavior determined by the extremist religious values they brought with them. That is the disturbing lesson of the two incidents I cited.”" All Japanese Americans are traitors” (during WW II)was the paradigm during that difficult period for the Japanese Americans.”All Italians are mafia” was the mantra for quite some time.”All Blacks are criminals” is still the belief of some bigots. The hatred for Blacks is still expressed openly on the blogs one can read.Now it is poor Muslims’ turn.Your assumption that based on one or two isolated cases of “honor killing” in America, all 7 million The Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has condemned this recently and so has the Islamic Society of North America. If some people live in their cocoons and do not like to read what newspapers in Muslim countries are writing about such issues is not the fault of American Muslims.The last sentence in your quote above is meant to frighten American people about Muslims. Fortunately, a vast majority of Americans understand this.The examples given in my previous post contested by you were meant to illustrate the folly of generalizing about any group based on isolated cases.

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