15.05.2006Zafer Senocak – Abdelkader BenaliMuslims and Integration in Europe
Amsterdam, 4 April 2006
Abdelkader Benali I am astonished by how globalised we have become during the last ten years, due to the Internet, cheap plane tickets and the mutual attraction between cultures. We can see this globalisation from events like 9/11 and the war in Iraq and now I, Abdelkader Benali, who was born in the poor north of Morocco of semi-illiterate parents and whose father moved to Europe in the sixties and worked as a Gastarbeiter before establishing himself as a butcher in Rotterdam, am writing in proper English to a German-Turkish author, discussing interesting topics like the headscarf, secularism vs. religion and the best way to avoid misinterpretation.
We have met in Maastricht, the city where the famous treatise was signed that opened the way to a unified monetary Europe. At that time this idea of Europe (as de Gaulle would have said) was seen by many hard-toiling people as a cheat. Nothing good would come of it.
Since then a lot of complaints have been raised about the big world we are living in; our leaders have been scorned and it serves them right; but it looks as if even the staunchest opponent of this Europe has turned mild or in the least has tuned down his earlier criticism.
Nowadays the number one topic is Islam in Europe and the question if the laws, morals and social standards of Muslims are compatible with the prevailing secular society. I sense confusion in this discussion and – after what happened in Amsterdam with Theo van Gogh and the rise of a right wing government that has launched a political program of Muslim containment – fear. Among the common people there's the idea that nothing good can come out of Muslims.
Their behaviour is backward; and as arguments to justify their view they point to the headscarf that covers the head but suppresses the woman, or the way Muslims slaughter their lambs on the Feast of Sacrifice, or their anti-Western rhetoric when it comes to issues like globalisation and separation of State and Church.
The first time I saw Muslim immigrants represented as a group was in a German movie I watched as a child. The story dealt with a group of Turkish immigrants who had come in a van from Anatolia to work as Gastarbeiter in Germany. They sleep in the van, pray and barely talk to each other. In Berlin, City of Sin, they end up in a sex show. They see a couple copulate naked on the stage. People have paid to see this and they applaud when the man has ejaculated. People never applaud for a woman reaching her orgasm. My parents would never allow me to watch that very explicit part of the movie, but somehow I saw it. I never forgot it. Muslim immigrants abhor cheap sex.
And suddenly I am looked on as an author with a Muslim background who can tell society and its well-wishers how to deal with this homogeneous part of the population. When people ask me what I think, I always know how to tease them. I think a writer should tease. Especially now with so much hullabaloo going on.
"How are we going to solve the Muslim problem," people ask me.
"I don't see a problem," I respond.
"What do you mean, you don't see a problem?"
"What do you mean by problem?"
"Well, don't you see that the second generation of Moroccans looks down on Western culture, they are anti-Semitic to the core, they import their woman from their country of origin, try to emulate the traditional life of their parents and they still eat with their hands."
"What is the problem with eating with your hands?"
"You know what I mean." I just have to smile before I answer.
"Did you read this inquiry that has just come out in the Netherlands?" I respond. "Forum, an institute that follows trends in multicultural society has asked young Muslims about their religious behaviour, their points of view on life issues and so on. And what has come out of it, among the facts, is that scarcely any of them attends mosque. They care more about the right model of Prada's than the right position for praying in the direction of Mecca. They are young and like all the young they are extreme. So they feel extreme emotions, dress extreme and talk extreme. Look at the generation of '68 that put flowers in their hair and listened to very strange music and called for world revolution. How many of them really pursued their goals?"
The discussion has not ended yet. Intelligent people who have found a Moroccan-Dutch writer who is open to discussing everything from Islam in the Valley of the Palms in Southern Morocco to Mahler's Fifth can be very, very persistent.
"But calling for love and peace is different from calling for jihad and death to the infidel. This generation has no respect whatsoever."
"Maybe they resemble the general attitude of our times. To have no respect for authority, to be critical of Bush, Blair, to say it like it is, to raise issues concerning discrimination and social injustice and to ask again what it means to be religious in secular times – that's not only confined to young Muslims. Everybody talks about such things, the game is open."
"So you say they are not different?"
"I call a spade a spade and to me all the spades look alike."
"Even when they wear a headscarf?"
"You know: I see girls with headscarves who wear make-up and smoke cigarettes. That looks like a contradiction but one day I saw a Turkish girl with a headscarf (Turkish girls wear their headscarves totally differently from Moroccan girls) holding a dog on a leash. That is a contradiction in terms at its most sublime extreme."
"So you don't see the threat?"
"I see a lot of dogs on a leash."
"Some of these dogs can bite."
"Some of these dogs are totally harmless."
"Some headscarves want more headscarves and are controlled by a man with a beard."
"Some headscarves enjoy great sex, even if they don't talk about it, even if they keep it secret to society. Do we need a ScarfStock, like the generation of the sixties needed a Woodstock to confirm its total liberation from everything, so that it could say it had solved the existential riddle that haunted society after the Second World War?"
"So you don't see the threat?"
"I am a realist. I think we should have strong security services to undermine attacks on our civil society. But I think personal freedom is more under attack now than the so-called civil society is."
"I wish you were right."
"And I wish arguments could turn even the most fearsomely intelligent person into somebody who trusts the future and is willing to fight for it."
"So you want to bring down the threat?!"
"You can't win."
"Because the threat doesn't play games."
"We will see about that."
Abdelkader Benali was born in Ighazzazen, Morocco in 1975 and moved to Rotterdam when he was four years old to join his father who was working there. He spoke Berber but soon started to write successfully in Dutch, winning several literary competitions. Acclaim for Benali's work followed rapidly, with translations of the novel, Wedding by the sea, appearing in many countries including England, the US, France and Germany.