NETHERLANDS. How to integrate the new immigrants into Dutch society? Why it is so hard and how come some people on both sides turn radical? Since September 11, 2001, the magic Dutch integration experiment has gone through some changes.
“On September 11, 2001, I was ten years old. I do not remember the situation of the Islamic community in the Netherlands. I only know how it is now”, admits Ugur, a 20-year-old Dutch Turkish guy I meet in the subterranean hall of the Fatih Camii Turkish Mosque situated in the centre of Amsterdam.
Tall and with the typical peaceful Mediterranean face, Ugur speaks English very well, while moving his big hands in the air just in front of a brick wall with the Turkish and Dutch flags. Ugur is part of the Second Generation, one of the hundreds of thousands sons and daughters of immigrants who came to the Netherlands many years ago to find a job and better living conditions.
“I have a 50-50 feeling, I love both countries and I feel totally integrated into Turkey as well as into the Netherlands. I speak Dutch with my dad and Turkish with my mum and I spend my days studying economics at the university and enjoying the company of my friends here in the mosque.”
The subterranean hall of the mosque is a meeting point for young and old people who want to find a small corner of the culture which is still in their hearts. Talking, playing games, drinking tea and watching Turkish television. Most of them are Turkish but there are also some Somali, Pakistani and Moroccan believers because, as Ugur explains, “this place is for everyone, and the imam is always ready to meet and help everyone”.
Ugur takes care to say that the Turkish community is very moderate. “We do not recognize radical Islam, we don’t apply Sharia and we are not in touch with those small radical groups who are still existing in this country”, he says. “But people and the media don’t know Islam and confuse a radical minority with the peaceful majority.”
The integration paradox
Ugur is the result of the immigration and integration experiment which took place in the Netherlands in the last thirty years, when the number of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East increased. Some people could call Ugur the exception that confirms the integration paradox, illustrated during an interview with Atef Hamdy, a researcher and political scientist at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael, specialized in the migration phenomenon.
Young people of the second generation are those who have more facilities and, at the same time, difficulties to integrate themselves into society”, says Mr. Hamdy. “There are two levels of non-integration, one external and one internal”, the researcher continues. Many Dutch don’t recognize the immigrants as real Dutch citizens and some new citizens don’t considers themselves as Dutch.”
“There is a generation gap between these young new citizens and their parents. Most of the times they speak different languages and even if they all try their best to integrate themselves into the Dutch society, they will walk into the wall of Dutch society”, Mr. Hamdy says.
Then 11 September came, opening Pandora’s box. From this moment in The Netherlands, being a Muslim started to be a problem. “Many Dutch began to think that maybe the Muslims were too much for a small and peaceful country like The Netherlands. Others thought it was too late to resolve the problem because the ‘enemy’ was already within”, Mr. Hamdy explains.
Influenced by radical Islamic groups already present in the Netherlands, some lonely unintegrated sons of the second generation became Islamic radicals, answering to the fears of Dutch society. Social conflicts carried out by the economical crises, riots, intimidations and killings – like those of politician Pim Fortuyn and director Theo van Gogh – have characterized the period from 2001 until now.
“But these conflicts”, Mr. Hamdy adds “gave the Islamic community the possibility to rethink its position in Dutch society, to understand that instead of the victim feeling, they should consider themselves as an active part of the Dutch society, economically, politically and socially. The white Dutch citizen understood this change”, Hamdy notes.
The Turkish imam and the moderate Islam
With two fingers Ugur holds the small glass and with a final sip he finishes his Turkish tea. Mehmet Yúrek, the imam of the Mosque, has just arrived. “Radicals are everywhere, in every community and society, in every religion and political ideology, but Islam is a peaceful religion”, says Imam Yúrek, inviting me to go into an old church converted into a mosque many years ago.
“We have isolated radical Islamists. In our mosque and in Dutch society there is no space for them. They are unable to respect the others because they use the Koran to hate and not love the others”, continues the imam standing next to the Qibla, the wall which the believers face during prayers.
The imam is putting on the ceremonial white clothes necessary for prayer. In less than one hour, hundreds of Muslims will come here to pray and listen to the sermon. “We live together and help each other. In this way every problem is solved and eventually radical ideas are suppressed”, he says.
When I ask how the Dutch society reacted when they converted the church into a mosque in the centre of Amsterdam, he said that “it was not a problem before, they knew we are peaceful, but maybe today it will be harder to accept.”
Islam: the controversial issue of today
But if September 11 is far, if the Islamic community has began to understand its new role in Dutch society and if white Dutch citizens are happy about this change, why are there always more citizens that are supporting the radical right-wing party? Why should converting a church into a mosque be a problem now?
Richa, a 40-year-old Muslim Algerian economy consultant, says that “the economic crisis, as every crisis in every age and country, creates conflicts with those who are different from the majority. This is very natural human behaviour. What we can do, is to fight against ignorance because it generates intolerance”, he adds. Taking as an example the Moroccan community in the country, he says that “most of them have a very low education which makes it harder to find a job and integrate into society.”
*This article has won the “Europe is MORE than you think Award” which took place from 1 September to 1 December 2009 granted by the Council of Europe and the ’European Youth Press’’.