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Mutual estrangement

By: Anna Rydholm

 

As anxiety grows over conceptions of national identity and migration, Muslims more and more emerge as the lowest caste in the Netherlands. But take a few steps outside the Dutch box, and the perspective appears to be somewhat different.

Half past five in the afternoon, the compact dark lays like a thick duvet over the streets of Harderwijk, since recently also accompanied by heavy snowfall and freezing winds. But inside Roël Lugard’s heated house, situated in the modern district of this medieval town, it is easy to neglect the unfriendly weather. Roël is an experienced host – as the president of nationwide Surinamese organisation Samon he is used to giving interviews– and he certainly prefers to do them on home ground. – I think it is much nicer to meet journalists in my home, it says so much more about my background and myself than a sterile office can ever do. By the way, would you like some Surinamese soda? Teenage daughter Vinny has been studying in the adjacent black leather sofa, now the offer makes her glance up from her Macbook with a big smile. – That’s typical for my father, he always wants to show our guests what is typically Surinamese, and he always becomes happy when he talks about his home country. This evening, however, other subjects are on the agenda – namely immigration, segregation and prejudices. Issues of immediate interest in a country increasingly characterized by inter-ethnic antagonisms and an occasionally rather spiteful tone in the public debate. Not infrequently, the main target is the Muslim part of the population. Roël says that his perception of Muslims is somewhat two-sided. –It’s quite difficult, actually. In Surinam there is not a problem, there are Muslims, Christians, Atheists– and we all live peacefully together. But if you turn on the news here in the Netherlands, you will only see Muslims doing terrible things in the name of Islam. Then you start to wonder; is it really because of the religion as such?

 

Segregation that bolsters conflicts Roël is not the only one being confused, though, as the notion of inter-ethnic relationships implies several aspects to keep in mind. Maykel Verkuyten is a professor at the Department of General Social Sciences at Utrecht University. Professor Verkuyten has devoted his research to the field of racism, discrimination, ethnic relations and ethnic identity, and he recognizes that there are currently some clashes between different ethnic groups in the Netherlands. –Segregation exists on all levels, not only between different ethnic migrant groups, but also between migrants and native Dutch, and this lack of natural contact can lead to conflicts. We have a lot of examples in the media, like the clashes between Moroccans and South Moluccans in Culemborg, or between right wing extremist youngsters and different minorities in Gouda. But Professor Verkuyten also states that the stories delivered by newscasters and bold headlines do not always show the whole picture, referring to the old truth that bad news sells. – One the other hand, one might argue that the huge attention these events get actually shows us that it is going pretty well. These accidents are often very local and temporary– and therefore interesting from a media perspective. If such things happened on a daily basis, no one would care. What we also shall bear in mind that there are a lot of positive examples, like inter-ethnic cooperation in schools, neighbourhoods and organisations. The latter is something that Roël Lugard has considerable experience with, as Samon often organize conferences together with other immigrant organisations with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. –We believe that we all benefit from cooperation and sharing our experiences of being immigrants in the Netherlands – how we can live here, raise our children and become an integral part of the society. Another aim is to build networks, which is important since discrimination in the labour market sometimes makes it hard to get a job. The Muslim issue, despite being portrayed as seriously problematic in the Dutch media, has never been a major issue during these conferences though. According to Lugard, this is simply due to the fact that it is not perceived as a big or urgent question. – I don’t experience that there is a problem between Muslims and other groups of immigrants, but there is definitely a problem between Muslims and the native Dutch. I often go to Amsterdam, Utrecht and Rotterdam, and it is the same scene everywhere: the atmosphere in the immigrant quarters is rather friendly and relaxed and no one is afraid of Muslims, whereas many Dutch seem to live under the constant threat of a terrorist attack.

 

The ethnic hierarchy But actually, this threat is something that has been highly present in the Netherlands since the assassination of right wing politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002, influencing the politics and the public debate, as well as people’s personal perceptions of Muslims –who more and more emerge as the scapegoat of the Dutch family. Professor Verkuyten confirms this. – Some of mine colleagues at the faculty have conducted research about a phenomenon called the ethnic hierarchy- implying that the majority group will always favour some groups before others. This is something that happens in all countries, not only in the Netherlands. According to Professor Vekuyten, the upper class of this Dutch ethnic hierarchy consists of European immigrants: Greeks, Portuguese and Spaniards. Next follow people from the former colonies – Surinamese, Antilleans and Indonesians. At the bottom we find the former labour immigrants from Turkey and Morocco. He also says that this ranking is nothing but random, rather deeply rooted in the concepts of familiarity and stereotypes. – Perceived cultural differences definitely play a role here. Surinamese and Antilleans are part of our colonial history. Although many of them are black, they are therefore perceived as more integrated in Dutch culture. Turks and Moroccans, on the other hand, are considered as really different and belonging to another sphere, culturally as well as religiously. The public concept of religiosity and about Islam in particular does undeniably constitute a crucial role when it comes to the perception of Muslims. Professor Verkuyten says that this is something that needs to be considered from a historic point of view. –The focus on Islam as such is something that has increased during the last decades. 15 years ago, people talked a lot about Turks and Moroccans, but not so much in terms of Muslims. The whole debate about integration and multi-culturalism was about ethnic and cultural differences, not about religion. That changed after 9/11, and today the debate is extremely focused on Islam, it is something that you can see in all European countries. But except from the issue of religion, Muslims in the Netherlands are often portrayed as problematic from a socio-economic perspective as well, i.e. they are uneducated, unemployed and receive generous grants from the government. Professor Verkuyten agrees that Muslims generally have a less high standard of life than the Dutch average. – Turks and Moroccans are generally worse off, not only compared to the native Dutch, but also to other minority groups. They are less educated, have less well-paid jobs and the level of unemployment is much higher. It is true that the second generation is catching up, but progress is slow and discrimination is still a major obstacle. Roël Lugard has a somewhat different understanding, and he thinks that the image of uneducated and disfavoured Muslims often is somewhat simplistic. – I often meet Moroccans in my work with the organisation, and most of them are actually well educated, have good jobs and are generally well established in society. Of course, there are problematic individuals, but to be honest I think that these are fewer than among the Surinamese population. It might be that the Moroccans do more drastic things that cause a lot of attention.

 

The normalization of Xenophobia Some people claim that Muslims are less willing than other immigrant groups to integrate and adopt themselves to the Dutch society, and instead tries to establish own, isolated communities. Roël says that he doesn’t really have a clear-cut opinion about that theory, but after a while he produces a hypothetical explanation. –Maybe, it could be because of our different backgrounds. Some immigrant groups still accept the imperialist attitude of Europe and the demand for assimilation, since they regard the white man as superior. We Surinamese might perhaps do that unconsciously, because of our slavery heritage. But the Muslims don’t have that background, and maybe they could be more hesitant to abandon their culture and identity because of that. Whatever the actual truth might be the public opinion about Muslims as different, suspicious and potentially dangerous is becoming increasingly apparent. But according to Professor Verkuyten, it is not so much a change of people’s actual opinions as a change of the public discourse. – During the last ten years, the public opinion has become more negative towards immigrants in general and Muslims in particular. It is now accepted to say very harsh things, things that probably would be called racist in other countries. It is a sort of normalization. Roël Lugard is of the same opinion. – I don’t think that the Dutch have become more xenophobic; this is something that always has been there. The difference is that people now express their actual opinions more freely, they are not afraid of being classified as racists anymore. The consequences of this development is also something that Roël experiences in his daily life – Both at work and in my personal friendships, I have discovered that people talk in another way than they did just a few years ago, jokes about my origin and things like that. It is supposed to be funny but the undercurrent message is clear: You are an immigrant and you will never become the same as us. Roëls experiences announce hardly good perspectives for a relaxation of inter-ethnic groups in the future. But perhaps things are not that bad, after all, as Venny describes the situation at her high school. – In my school there are not so many different ethnic groups. There are some Moroccans, but otherwise there are mostly native Dutch. We are only 3 black students, out of 1500, so everyone knows me, she says and laughs. – But I don’t mind since I don’t feel different. I judge people through their personality, not their nationality, their religion or the colour of their skin.  

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