NETHERLANDS CONSIDERS NEW RELATIONSHIP WITH MUSLIMS
There are many first, second and third generation Muslims in the Netherlands who play significant roles in both public life and private work, writes ALISSA J. RUBIN
LIKE many Muslims, Ahmed Aboutaleb has been disturbed by the angry tenor of the Dutch election campaign. Far-right candidates have disparaged Islam, often depicting Muslims as outsiders unwilling to integrate into Dutch culture.
It is especially jarring for Aboutaleb, given that he is the mayor of Rotterdam, a fluent Dutch speaker and one of the country’s most popular politicians. Nor is he alone — the speaker of the Dutch Parliament is Muslim. The Netherlands also has Muslim social workers, journalists, comedians, entrepreneurs and bankers.
“There’s a feeling that if there are too many cultural influences from other parts of the world, then what does that mean for our Dutch traditions and culture?” said Aboutaleb, whose city, the Netherlands second largest, is 15 per cent to 20 per cent Muslim and home to immigrants from 174 countries.
Today’s elections will begin Europe’s year of political reckoning. The Dutch elections, coming ahead of others in France, Germany and possibly Italy, will be the first test of Europe’s threshold for tolerance as populist parties rise by attacking the European Union and immigration, making nationalistic calls to preserve distinct local cultures.
It is an especially striking gauge of the strength of anti-establishment forces that such calls are falling on receptive ears even in the Netherlands, a country that for generations has seen successive waves of Muslim immigration. If anything, the Netherlands is a picture of relatively successful assimilation, especially when compared with nearby France or Belgium.
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, one of the most stridently anti-Muslim politicians in Europe, recently described some Moroccans as “scum”. His Party for Freedom is expected to be one of three to receive the most votes, challenging the centreright government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
If barriers exist, many Muslims — like Aboutaleb, 55, who arrived in this low-lying country from a mountain village in Morocco when he was a teenager, speaking hardly a word of Dutch — say hard work is nonetheless rewarded. But, Aboutaleb’s extraordinary success story, and his sense that he was given many opportunities by the Netherlands, is more characteristic of an earlier generation.
There is no doubt that religious prejudice is on the rise in response to both the recent influx of Muslim immigrants and growing fears of terrorism in Europe. Both are readily manipulated by politicians, who promote the idea that there are now so many nonwhite, non-Christians in the Netherlands that Dutch traditions will be lost or obliterated.
Yet, there is a seed of fact: there are more and more non-Western migrants or their children in the Netherlands, comprising about 10 per cent of the population in a country of about 17 million. But, not all are Muslim. There are, for example, a number of Indians who are Hindus or Buddhists.
The latest figures released by the Netherlands’ Central Bureau of Statistics show a net increase of 56,000 immigrants in 2015 and 88,000 last year, with the largest number last year, about 29,000, coming from Syria.
The number of municipalities that have populations with 10 per cent to 25 per cent non-Western migrants doubled between 2002 and 2015, according to the Netherlands Institute for Social Research, a government agency that studies social policy.
And, there are many first, second and now third generation Muslims in the Netherlands who play significant roles in both public life and private work.
“Wilders speaks to a part of Dutch society that feels their Dutch identity is threatened,” said Fouad El Kanfaoui, 28, a banker at ABN Amro in The Hague and a second-generation Moroccan Muslim. He also serves as the chairman of the Ambitious Networking Society, an organisation for young businesspeople, entrepreneurs and those in the arts who are mostly of a Moroccan background.
“The Dutch supermarkets and bakeries are leaving,” he said. “Instead of Hans’ bakery, it’s Muhammad’s bakery. When traditions change, it’s difficult. When it’s confronting them personally, it’s challenging.”
Achraf Bouali, 42, born in Morocco, left a diplomatic post to run for Parliament in the current election on the slate of D66, the leading left-leaning party. The party has a strong focus on education and the environment and is socially liberal.
He sees the current anti-immigration politics as a product of external factors that have reverberated in the Netherlands — terrorism in Europe, the 2008 financial crisis, which left many Dutch feeling less well off and less secure; and, the recent wave of immigrants coming to Europe from war-torn regions in the Middle East.
But part of what gives Muslim politicians like him hope is that in the past, many Muslim immigrants have blended quite seamlessly into Dutch society.
In the 1990s, tens of thousands of Muslims came from Bosnia during the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia. Afghans came during their country’s civil war and the Taliban period. Both groups have integrated well.
Before them, large numbers of Indo-Dutch immigrants came in the 1940s from what was then Dutch parts of Indonesia. Moroccans and Turks came for jobs in the 1960s and 1970s.
The modest Schilderswijk neighbourhood of The Hague, which has been the scene of riots
The Dutch elections, coming ahead of others in France, Germany and possibly Italy, will be the first test of Europe’s threshold for tolerance as populist parties rise by attacking the European Union and immigration, making nationalistic calls to preserve distinct local cultures.
in the past, has become synonymous in the Dutch media with the troubled Muslim part of town.
Jan Kok, a career police inspector in The Hague, has become a sort of chief cultural officer for the police force and works with three station houses around the city to improve relations with Muslims.
He created a mandatory course for new police recruits to teach them about working with minorities and a course for those already on the force.
He said many young immigrant men “grow up without a father, without respect for the police, for the rules in the Netherlands”.
But he is empathetic to their deeper struggle.
“They have a problem with their identity: Am I a Dutchman, am I a Moroccan, am I both?
“Everyone needs to belong somewhere — to a church, to a mosque — and most of them don’t have that.”
He added: “And then you have Wilders and Rutte, the prime minister, saying ‘You don’t like it here, then go away’, but these boys were born here. Where are they going to go?” NYT
A market in Almere, a Dutch city home to immigrants from 153 nationalities. Many Muslims in the Netherlands are expressing alarm at the way far-right election candidates have depicted Muslims as outsiders unwilling to integrate into Dutch culture.