Islam and Europe

Concertgebouw and More Couscous

Dutch and Moroccans need to show more curiosity, says Abdelkader Benali, Moroccan-born Dutch author. In this essay, Benali discusses the mutual lack of knowledge and its effect on the relationship between the Dutch and the Moroccans

photo: AP
Students and their parents of the Tarieq Ibnu Ziyad Islamic elementary school form a human chain in the southern Dutch city Eindhoven.

​​I was born in Rotterdam, the city where the politician Pim Fortuyn, assassinated in 2002, made his meteoric rise. For the past two years I've lived in Amsterdam, where the director Theo van Gogh lived and was shot by Mohammed Bouyari on 2 November 2004.

When I learned the details of the perpetrator's biography, my first thought was: this man is only two years younger than I and is more like me than I care to admit.

He was known as a hard-working, well-behaved, ambitious young man who tried to improve the world he and others live in. That's how I am too, I thought. An article about Bouyari said that “he is one of the many Moroccans for whom success is within reach and who, when they fail to achieve it, go into a state of crisis”. There are many young men like that. Was I successful?

Lip service

I was born in the mid-seventies in Morocco and moved to the Netherlands at the age of three, the child of guest workers. Guest workers are always men. Women aren't recruited for jobs in their homeland.

The first immigrants accepted the fact that they would not enjoy success in their host society, as long as their children might be better off one day.

They were content with what they got (and that was already a step forward in comparison to the mountain villages they came from) and paid lip service to the Netherlands by keeping their mouths shut and letting their representatives speak for them.

Their children reneged on this agreement. They speak fluent Dutch, and they rub salt in the wounds; they want to slaughter the old holy cows and be accepted as Dutch.

It is not their parents who made them this way, but the Dutch. The Dutch made them come of age. It's almost an irony of fate that Mohammed Bouyari is a product of the Netherlands. How could that happen?

The Netherlands fed me my education with a big spoon: reading, writing, arithmetic. I was stuffed with ideas, godly and ungodly, appealing and disconcerting.

Dutch creed: Say what you think!

One of them gave me trouble: in the Netherlands you always have to say what you think. That's seen as spontaneous and sporting, but when I did it from time to time, I got into trouble, whether at home, on the street or at school.

I realized that you have to say what you think in a way that doesn't get you into trouble, that lets you get out of it easily and, on top of that, brings you recognition. In short, I wanted to be a writer.

The Netherlands provide opportunities for talent to develop. You get one chance, and if you don't use it, you get another one. That's how we are, we're proud of it, that's what we fought for, the Dutch say to you, and when you ask how long it's been this way and what it was like before that, you get no answer.

The Netherlands have an enormous amount of freedom and little history. At some point Mohammed Bouyari gave up this freedom and went off in search of history so that he could play a role in it.

I wanted to be a writer. I felt that I had something to say in Dutch that had never been said or written before. I wanted to use this language at all costs, and I was encouraged to do so. That was allowed, there was nothing people wanted more than that.

The Netherlands of good intentions

That is the Netherlands I grew up in, as, I believe, did Mohammed. The Netherlands of good intentions, with ideals written in big letters. The Netherlands that tried to be so progressive and tolerant, sometimes against their better knowledge.

At some point the disgruntlement increased; it had already been seething for some time, and now it became glaringly obvious. People realized that the political elite was not addressing the issue. Everyone saw that many foreigners were living in crowded conditions, but why wasn't it discussed in The Hague?

It was well-known that the crime rate was higher among Moroccans than among the Dutch. Why didn't anyone do anything about it? Questions which might have been asked out loud in another society were reduced to whispers here. You weren't allowed to talk about it, because it was un-Dutch. Not tolerant.

After September 11 everything happened very quickly. Now the Muslims were the target of criticism and resentment. More than that, our freedoms were threatened by a growing group of intolerant, traditionally-oriented conservative Muslims.

Doubts about the multicultural society

First Rotterdam and then the Netherlands succumbed to Pim Fortuyn. Doubts about the multicultural society were now expressed out loud, always a decibel louder and louder, until the eardrums began to burst. I didn't worry much about it.

The Netherlands are so liberal, there's room for lots of ideas, and maybe it was a good thing to have something to counterbalance the exaggerated socialist utopias, the whole discussion would benefit. Society was changing quickly, and that had to be coped with responsibly.

In short, I too thought the political elite would solve the problem. Instead they slept on while the criticism grew louder and louder.

Strikingly, my parents were the first ones to talk about the old Netherlands with a sentimental undertone. Long before Fortuyn I picked up their criticism at the dinner table: immigration has changed the Netherlands, many Moroccans are losing their orientation in this country, the Netherlands have to look out for their interests a little better.

The words of simple, direct people. Former immigrants taking the Netherlands' measure while the Dutch kept their eyes wide shut.

I never would have thought my parents would be able to hit the nail on the head like that. I don't hold it against them, but it has a bitter aftertaste.

When is Dutch Islam going to be taken seriously?

The Netherlands seem progressive, but now that the emperor is running naked through the streets, we see that they've been stagnating all these years.

They've never thought about what to do with their young capital, which is now starting to dissent. They've never thought about what they want to do with Islam in the Netherlands. Why is it taking so long for Dutch Islam to be taken seriously?

One hears about a great concern for the autonomy of all sections of the population. This argument draws too strongly on the Netherlands' cultural history. There is no one Islam in the Netherlands, any more than there is one kind of Moroccan.

Put five Moroccans together and within ten minutes you have six different opinions. But the Dutch don't see that. How come? It's sheer ignorance on both sides.

There is little mutual cultural dialogue. For the past twenty-five years there has been a growing group of Muslims in the Netherlands, and no one knows their customs. How did it happen that the ruling elite never addressed the issue? Did they have too much to do?

Moroccans must stop turning away

After Theo van Gogh's murder Turkish people immediately took the position of feeling guilty for something that was not their fault at all – a good Dutch habit. The Dutch were delighted to see that. Instead of being delighted, they should have been ashamed at their own ignorance.

Turkish Muslims are as different from Moroccan Muslims as Sicilian Catholics are from Swedish agnostics. Moroccans don't pray in Turkish mosques and Turks don't pray in Moroccan mosques. However, strange it may sound, this behavior encourages segregation.

But no one wants to live in a country where segregation prevails, for when social groups are isolated from one another it leads to alienation and us-versus-them thinking.

Moroccans have become used to turning their back to society when it suits them, and the Dutch thought that was all right and even sympathized. Years of living peacefully side by side can be an expression of civilization.

The Dutch missed out on couscous and the Moroccans missed out on the Concertgebouw, but both got plenty of peace and quite in exchange. But when silent segregation prevails, the plant of fundamentalism grows rampant, and now it is time for Moroccans to stop turning away when it suits them.

Sometimes they must show their face when the other wishes it. This shift in behavior would be something of a liberation: we will never be strangers to each other again, for fate has brought us together.

Abdelkader Benali

© Abdelkader Benali/NZZ/ 2005

Abdelkader Benali, born in 1975, lives as a writer in Amsterdam. His novel Wedding by the Sea was published in English translation in 2000.

This article was previously published by the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Translated from the German: Isabel Cole

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