Understanding Identity: Muslims in the Netherlands

An important part of our mandate is to assure our young people that others do not define who they are.

What are the May European Parliament elections going to mean for our immigrant and minority populations? Across the continent, parties on the right anticipate strong gains, and concerns are rising about the implications for migrant communities.

The case of Rotterdam in the Netherlands is instructive. Here in the country’s second largest city, just under half of the population has an immigrant background, many of Turkish or Moroccan heritage. Stichting Platform Islamitische Organisaties Rijnmond (SPIOR) is an umbrella organization for groups with an Islamic identity in the greater Rotterdam area (the Rijnmond).

Muslims are often a target of rightist parties, and there is no shortage of media attention being paid to us as the elections approach. It would be easier for organizations like ours to participate in a public debate on the place of Islam in Europe if there were more positive stories being written. Some of the questions we hear include: Why are youths of Moroccan origin more likely to be involved in crime? Do young people identify themselves as Dutch, and if not, why not?

Where questions are legitimate, SPIOR itself is looking for answers. We are committed to helping our community and our city, and educating Dutch society as a whole, that the Muslim community is doing important and effective work that makes real contributions to the nation.

SPIOR brings together 66 mosques and other Islamic groups that combine our faith with concern for social justice. At the core of everything we do is a commitment to social cohesion. Under the Open Society Foundations banner, we cooperate with two other organizations, Platform Buitenlanders Rijnmond and Dona Daria, working with immigrants’ and women’s groups. In other activities we work with many others, including local churches and synagogues.

On the national level, SPIOR manages religious education for about 2,500 Muslim children in public primary schools, hiring and training teachers and supplying materials, and liaising with other faith-based groups who provide the same service—Humanist, Protestant, Catholic, and Hindu.

In the city and surrounding area we are offering constructive solutions to real issues on the ground. SPIOR ran an award-winning training program for youth called, in the local vernacular, wajaw. We brought together young people from different cultural and religious backgrounds and found trainers they could relate to who could ask them tough questions: “Who are you?” “Are you Muslim… Moroccan… Dutch?” “What do you want from your life?”

The young people talked about getting in trouble and finding work, and about discrimination—one speaker on that topic was a local rabbi who shared his perspective. This is a hard group to reach, yet many came for all 15 meetings.

What we learned is that a lot of young people identify largely as Muslims, and they probably have a greater attachment to Rotterdam than they do to the Netherlands. From here, it is our job to help educate our youth as to how they can make their way, helping others and offering their own contributions in the community.

This year, we are running a program called “Living Together, Remember Together.” We are acknowledging the communality of our experiences as we celebrate significant events, like commemorating the Second World War in May and Keti Koti—the remembrance of the abolition of slavery.

The political discourse in the days following the municipal elections in the Netherlands on March 19 were dominated by Geert Wilders of the PVV, the Party for Freedom. Wilders seized center stage even though the PVV only contested two of 403 municipalities. 

Before a crowd of supporters in The Hague, Wilders asked if they wanted “more or less Labour Party.” “Less,” they cried—the same as when he asked, “More or less Europe?” Then Wilders said, “Do you want more or fewer Moroccans?” and the crowd shouted, “Fewer! Fewer!” “Then we’ll arrange that,” he said.

Although Wilders was criticized across the political spectrum and two of his MPs left the party, he had once again set the national agenda. “He’s gone too far,” some said, and there was speculation as to what it might portend for the PVV in May where the party is currently holding 4 of the 25 Dutch seats.

At SPIOR, we witnessed more immediate and concrete consequences of Wilders’s provocation. Over the course of the next week, the regional antidiscrimination agency received 800 complaints; they usually get 1,000 in a whole year. SPIOR joined in a press release put out by faith-based groups in Rotterdam. Among the signees was a rabbi, who knows that Jews and Muslims can equally be targets of hatred.

Wilders carefully avoids talking about Muslims, preferring to attack Islam and ethnic groups that happen to be predominantly Muslim. Disturbingly, as an effect of the political and public debate, we see that many younger people feel they get blamed for everything, and say they don’t feel at home in their own country. An important part of our mandate is to assure our young people that others do not define who they are. They’re not passive victims; they are responsible for themselves.

SPIOR’s constituents include Muslims from 12 different cultural origins, and we are the only regional umbrella organization in the Netherlands representing such diversity. Among them are Turkish, Moroccan, Surinamese, Pakistani, Somali, and Indonesian mosques in our area and the only dedicated Bosnian mosque in the country.

Although we are religiously inspired, we are not a religious organization. We never tell anyone how they should practice Islam, nor do we presume to speak on behalf of all Muslims. For example, 10 years ago we started to raise the issue of forced marriages, a sensitive topic in many of our communities. These marriages are forbidden in Dutch law but many people believe they are part of their religion. In fact, they are prohibited in Islam too, and we worked with imams and scholars in the education process.

In our 26th year, SPIOR represents a majority of the region’s mosques and can potentially reach three-quarters of the Rijnmond’s Muslim population of 100,000. In an average year, approximately 5,000 people are participants in our programs.

Our message to them is uniformly positive and inclusive. Our job is to bring elements of Dutch society together. We believe that being a Dutch citizen and being a Muslim is not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, the two elements combine to make a stronger person, capable of contributing so much.

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