Strong Sense of Belonging Among Antwerp’s Muslim Community Jeopardized by Official Policies

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ANTWERPDespite some positive programs and recent survey results showing that 90 percent of Muslim respondents have a clear sense of belonging to Antwerp, the city is pursuing policies that weaken the trust between Muslim citizens, policymakers, and local government, said the Open Society Foundations in a new report released today.

“Innovative programs developed by the Antwerp city council to promote inclusion are at odds with city policies, such as the ban on headscarves for certain public employees, teachers, and students,” said Nazia Hussain, director of the Open Society Foundations’ At Home in Europe Project. “This contradiction in particular only reinforces a sense of exclusion that many Muslim women and girls in Antwerp already experience and diverts attention from more pressing issues. The attention given to the wardrobe choices of a few women is disproportionate to the actual reality and needs of Muslim communities.”

These tensions are revealed in Muslims in Antwerp, a new report by the At Home in Europe Project that examines social integration in one of Belgium’s most diverse cities. The report shows that the experiences of Muslim minority groups—especially those with a Moroccan and Turkish background—are sometimes dramatically different from those of the majority population. 

“It is clear that a large group of people feel at home in Antwerp,” said Naima Charkaoui, director of Minderhedenforum, an organization that represents ethnic and cultural minorities. “Despite this strong sense of belonging, we urgently need to find solutions to some well-known problems such as discrimination in housing and the labor market and challenges in the field of education. The recommendations of this study need to be translated into concrete actions. We are in the process of starting a platform which unites various minority organizations and individuals to engage as one voice with Antwerp. Ethnic-cultural diversity should be treated as an opportunity, not a problem.”

According to the report, discrimination remains a critical barrier to full and equal participation in Antwerp. Therefore it is important that policymakers engage in dialogue with established community leaders and with young, Belgian-born, educated Muslims—voices that are crucial to the success of inclusion polices in Belgium.

Key Findings

  • Religion is an important aspect of identity for Muslim respondents, but it is not a barrier to identification with Belgium. The majority of Muslim respondents identified as Belgian.
  • While over half of Muslim respondents viewed themselves as Belgian, only a third felt that others viewed them in this way.
  • Research suggests that individuals with a Moroccan or Turkish background, who are born and raised in Belgium and who speak fluent Dutch, feel among the least accepted.
  • The overall educational situation of Muslims is much worse than non-Muslims; they are more frequently held back, and more leave school without a diploma than other groups.
  • Skin color, ethnicity, and religion were among the common reasons cited by Muslim respondents for being rejected for a job.

Muslims in Antwerp is the result of more than three years of research. The study involved in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with Muslim residents, local government officials, Muslim leaders, academics, journalists, and activists in the district of Borgerhout.

This study is part of a series of monitoring reports entitled Muslims in EU Cities that focuses on 11 cities in the European Union with significant Muslim populations: Amsterdam, Antwerp, Berlin, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Leicester, Marseille, Paris, Rotterdam, Stockholm, and the London Borough of Waltham Forest.

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The Open Society Foundations work to build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens. Working with local communities in more than 70 countries, the Open Society Foundations support justice and human rights, freedom of expression, and access to public health and education.

The Forum of Ethnic Cultural Minorities represents ethnic cultural minorities in Flanders and Brussels. The organization aims to strengthen the position of ethnic cultural minorities in society. The Forum is an umbrella organization consisting of 17 federations which in turn unite more than 1,500 grass-roots organizations. The Forum lobbies and campaigns on a wide range of policy issues affecting minority ethnic cultural communities in Belgium. We also actively encourage participation of ethnic and cultural minorities in society through a number of empowerment projects with young people and adults interested in taking an active role in society and/or politics.