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I Speak for Myself: The Question of Spokespeople for the Dutch-Moroccan Community

 

I Speak for Myself: The Question of Spokespeople for the Dutch-Moroccan Community

“If a Dutch person steals something, people don’t attack Dutch culture.  So when a Moroccan person steals something, why do people immediately bring up Moroccan culture?”

 — Jihad Alariachi, TV Personality, “The Halal Girls”

A lot has been said about Dutch-Moroccans in The Netherlands in recent years – especially in the aftermath of the assassination of iconoclastic filmmaker Theo van Gogh by Dutch-born Mohammed Bouyeri in 2004.  In contemporary Dutch society, Dutch-Moroccans are painted as terrorists or conservative recluses.  They are accused of living off social welfare while flagrantly disregarding the norms of Dutch society and harboring loyalties to distant shores.  Discussion of Dutch-Moroccan youth provokes a litany of complaints: they are criminals.  They are drop-outs.  They are out of control and up to no good.  

But all of this talk is rather one-sided.  In this climate of critique, suspicion and discontent, Dutch society has heard remarkably little by way of a Dutch-Moroccan response.  What about the more than 320,000 Dutch-Moroccans currently residing in the Netherlands?  Where are their voices in this debate?

The Dutch-Moroccan community is certainly not silent for want of prominent, articulate and influential members.  Although Dutch-Moroccans in the public eye are few and far between, they actively shape the country’s emerging consciousness of itself as a multicultural society.  Dutch-Moroccans can count among them rap-pop icon Ali B and controversial rapper Salah Edin.  They can turn on their televisions and tune in to TV personalities De Meiden van Halal (The Halal Girls).  In the realm of public affairs, they can cite politicians like Samira Bouchibti, Spokesperson for Youth and Family Affairs, Ahmed Aboutaleb, State Secretary of Social Affairs and Employment, or Ahmed Marcouch, City-Region Councilor for Slotervaart. Dutch-Moroccans could claim any or all of these public figures as community spokespeople – but they don’t. Similarly, these public figures could claim to be leaders or role models for their fellow Dutch-Moroccans – but they don’t.   

Understanding their exact place in this process is more complicated than one might think.  How are these figures perceived both within the Dutch-Moroccan community and in the Dutch mainstream?  At a time when there is increasing demand — from the media, from the general public, and even from some city councils — for Dutch-Moroccan spokespeople, is this a role that these public figures hope to assume?  All answers to these questions begin with recognition of the sense of difference within the Dutch-Moroccan community itself. Some contend that this community, so often the subject of public debate, does not exist.  Others object even to the notion of a spokesperson for such a diverse group. 

The politician and the TV personality: Dutch-Moroccan voices

“There’s one thing Samira Bouchibti said that I’ll always remember,” explained Miryam Kodad, a Dutch-Moroccan university student, over the sound of trains coming and going from Amsterdam’s Central Station. “‘So what about all those Dutch-Moroccan youth?’ a TV interviewer asked her once.  Bouchibti’s answer?  ‘I’m here to talk about the railways.’ ”

Bouchibti, a successful politician in Partij van de Arbeid (Dutch Labor Party), refuses to be seen through the narrowness of her ethnicity, as if being Dutch-Moroccan is her area of expertise.  And that’s what Miryam likes about her.  Even though Bouchibti is proud of her Moroccan background, she does not believe it should limit or define her as a politician.  Representing the Dutch-Moroccan community was not her motivation for going into politics, a point she likes to stress.  “It was about my own character, my vision, my way of thinking,” she stated emphatically. “Even If I was Russian I would’ve gone into politics.” 

But the issue is not quite this clear-cut.  When asked if she sees herself as a leader of the Dutch-Moroccan community or a leader who ‘happens’ to be Dutch-Moroccan, she replied, “the last.”  A pause.  “But also the first.  Being Moroccan, it’s like my gender.  You can’t take my Moroccaness out of me.”  As a political leader she does not have to choose between working for Dutch-Moroccans and working on behalf of all.  “I don’t work harder for Dutch-Moroccans, I work hard for everyone.  I don’t care if the face of poverty is black or white,” she says, the conviction in her voice clear, even across the phone lines from The Hague.  

Bouchibti sees herself as a success of the multicultural society.  Simply by being herself, she shows it is possible to be Dutch and Moroccan, an important idea for a country not yet used to the notion of hyphenated identities.  She would especially like to influence Dutch-Moroccan youth struggling to reconcile these two identities. This goal is all the more important given diversity and radicalization expert Khalid Boutachekourt’s argument that one of the triggers of religious radicalization can be the inability to balance these two identities.  In light of this notion, Bouchibti’s status as a role model for some Dutch-Moroccan youth should not be underestimated.

“I am a role model whether I want to be or not,” quips Bouchibti.  “For the Dutch I’m a success story because I’m a Moroccan, I’m integrated, and I’m in politics.”  Such esteem is no small accomplishment given the results of a 2005 study revealing that 50% of Amsterdammers have a negative image of Moroccans. What’s more, 30% of Moroccan Amsterdammers have a negative image of themselves.  In what Dr. Dienke Hondius, professor of history at Erasmus University in Rotterdam terms a “media democracy,” highly visible public figures like Bouchibti can do much to change the negative image of Dutch-Moroccans in society.  They can fight prejudice, build bridges, spread knowledge, and lead by their own example.

If this is the case, the outlook is rosy for integration in the Netherlands: Dutch-Moroccan public figures are coming into the spotlight in politics and media, brimming with energy and willingness to articulate a new sense of Dutch-Moroccan identity.  They have stepped up to the plate to speak for themselves and in doing so become unwitting role models and focal points of discussion. This is not the whole story, however.  While public figures from visible minorities receive attention for their talent and ideas as well as for their contributions to intercultural understanding and harmony, the public scrutiny they attract may also reflect lasting feelings of difference, misunderstanding, and mistrust.   

Jihad Alariachi is well aware of these problems of difference and misunderstanding.  The Halal Girls, a TV show she hosts with her two sisters, attempts to dispel myths and misperceptions about the Muslim community in The Netherlands.  Certainly there is a difference between Muslim and Moroccan, but over the last few years, Muslim and Moroccan have been used interchangeably.  Alariachi wants to keep the two from being mixed up and to refute stereotypes about both.  Vivacious and opinionated, with a smile that is equal parts mischief and earnestness, she is well-equipped to negotiate the tricky job of outreach and education.     

“The purpose is to show that we’re normal people,” says Alariachi, sipping — you guessed it — Moroccan mint tea.  People assume Muslim women are oppressed by Muslim men, are submissive, housebound and unhappy. The girls want to show that “we can laugh, wear make-up, have opinions.”  Alariachi grins, her face framed by the headscarf that has garnered her and her two sisters, Esmaa and Hajar — the other Meiden in the Meiden van Halal — so much attention on national TV.  The show attracts a far-ranging audience.  After all, as Alariachi observes, “there are not many women with headscarves on TV.  Sometimes you’re the first Muslim they meet.”  If Alariachi and her sisters are role models, it is because of the way they have brilliantly and publicly managed to redefine what it means to be successful and successfully integrated in Dutch society. While Bouchibti emphasizes the universality of the values she espouses, The Halal girls purposefully claim and stress their hyphenated identity as they build bridges and dispel stereotypes based in ignorance.

No matter how many bridges they build, however, the sisters do not want to be spokespeople for the Dutch-Moroccan or the Muslim community.  In this respect, they are very much like Bouchibti; they only want to speak for themselves.  But “even if you say you aren’t a spokesperson, people perceive you as one both from inside and outside the Muslim community.”  Because there are so few women who look like the Halal girls on television, people don’t see them as individuals, but as representatives.  Alariachi explains, “More public voices would help.  Now non-Muslims think all girls with headscarves think as I do and Muslims criticize me for not portraying the community properly.” 

The Community that Wasn’t: Does the Dutch-Moroccan Exist?

According to Boutachekourt, who consults on issues of diversity at one of the oldest firms in The Netherlands, the Halal girls are not the only ones to face this kind of communal scrutiny.  The lack of Dutch-Moroccan voices in the public sphere often leads Dutch-Moroccans to expect those who do receive media attention to present the community in the best possible light.  Consequently, people who point out problems, like politicians Aboutaleb and Marcouch, may be accused of being traitors.  They must constantly assert that they speak for no one but themselves.    

“There is no way for me to be a spokesperson because Moroccans are not a unified community.  It is simply not possible to generalize,” Bouchibti says.  Furthermore, neither Bouchibti nor Alariachi want to be community leaders, in the sense of organizers and advocates for Dutch-Moroccans.  “When I think leader I think big powerful people.  We don’t need a leader to tell us what to do.  We need role models.  We need to see a mirror of ourselves in society, in politics and television.  We need to recognize ourselves in society,” Alariachi explains.  Many Dutch-Moroccans agree.  They see people like Bouchibti and Alariachi as examples of individual, not group, successes.  For reasons ranging from the family-based structure of Moroccan society to their own sense of integration, they do not see a need for Dutch-Moroccan leadership.  One of them, 22-year-old student Mustapha Esadik puts it bluntly: “It is no community and therefore it does not need a leader.”

The approximately 320, 000 residents of Moroccan descent living in The Netherlands, generally referred to as the Dutch-Moroccan community, tend to share in this conviction — they are not a community.  “The Moroccan Does Not Exist,” according to Mohammed Benzakour’s 2005 article, which divided Dutch-Moroccans into five different groups.  These groups include the multiculturalists who see themselves as bridge builders; the self-haters who want to deny Moroccan identity entirely; the fundamentalists whose ultimate loyalty is towards a global Muslim Umma; the secular Muslims who see themselves as emancipated and look down on practicing Muslims; and the Berber nationalists who don’t even identify as Moroccan.  

But it’s not just these five groupings that stand in the way of a unified Dutch-Moroccan community.  The majority of Moroccans in The Netherlands have roots in the Rif, the northern part of Morocco, where family is the central mode of organization.  The notion of having loyalties beyond the clan is therefore not innate. Unlike the Turks, who readily organized themselves as an ethnic minority when they arrived in The Netherlands, the Moroccans have held to a more tribal sense of identity.   

Another reason Dutch-Moroccans do not subscribe to a sense of community solidarity is their focus on integrating in mainstream society.  While the first generation of Dutch Moroccans arrived on Dutch soil in the 1960’s as guest workers, providers of inexpensive migrant labor, members of the second generation, born and raised in this country, refuse to see themselves as guests.  They are citizens of the Netherlands and fluent in Dutch, and “when we speak out, we do so not as Moroccans but as Dutch-Moroccans,” notes business leader Mohammed Baba.  

He is one of this new generation — educated, integrated, and successful.  Baba founded MEX-IT, a consultancy on intercultural management.  He has a lot to say about Dutch-Moroccans.  They’re a diverse bunch, he acknowledges — in terms of language, geography, and mindset.  And there are definitely issues that need to be addressed.  Yet he is confident that Moroccans are focused on being part of society — and they have been remarkably good at it, on the whole.  “Normally it takes three to four generations for integration to occur: the Moroccan community has been integrated in two generations.”

They may come as a surprise to ears awash in news of “the Moroccan problem.”  But no news is not always good news, as Rochdi Darrazi explained over a cup of coffee at Rembrandtplein.  Darrazi is another face of this upcoming, savvy generation.  “My grandpa was a farmer, my dad was an immigrant worker, and I’m working for one of the most elite firms in the world,” he remarks proudly.  It is Darrazi’s hypothesis that the best integrated people in The Netherlands are the Moroccans.   “The fact that you hear about bad interactions in the news is a function of the fact that there are so many interactions in the first place.”  For Darrazi, breaking down barriers inevitably leads to some friction.  It is no longer possible to speak of the old Dutch notion of the ‘pillarized society,’ in which different ethnic or religious groups form pillars that together hold up Dutch society, standing together but never touching each other.  Moroccans are at the fore as the Dutch vision of a multicultural society shifts from the live-and-let-live model of pillarization to a more active policy of integration.  “When Turks are together, nine times out of ten they talk in Turkish.  When Moroccans are together they talk in Dutch.”  With their focus on integration, Dutch-Moroccans generally refuse the cultural enclave and thus group unity.

Now, however, an emerging group of young Dutch-Moroccans think that uniting the community is crucial to further integration.  They believe a sense of group solidarity is essential, and they contend that the Dutch-Moroccan community needs leaders to take it to this next phase of integration in The Netherlands — new leaders, for a new generation.  For them, one major disadvantage Dutch-Moroccans face now is the absence of true leadership.  

Walking the Tightrope: Towards Community Leadership

The leadership that does exist is lacking in sustainability, independence and legitimacy, they say.  Currently, spokespeople tend to emerge only in the aftermath of a crisis — the most prominent example being Marcouch’s rise to the fore as Spokesperson for Moroccan Mosques of Amsterdam and Surrounding Areas in 2004 after the murder of Theo van Gogh.  The challenge, according to Darrazi, is transitioning from reactive to proactive long-term leadership.

In order for leadership to build momentum it needs to be seen as legitimate by those it claims to represent. Said Boulaayoun, member of Platform Marokkaanse Jongeren Utrecht, a Moroccan youth group in Utrecht, dismisses leadership today as failing on this account.  “The persons who are seen as ‘Moroccan leaders’ by outsiders (read: Dutch people) are ten out of ten times self-proclaimed and do not have any legitimacy whatsoever within the Moroccan community,” he states.  Khalid Kasem, a law student and friend of Darrazi, explains that this lack of legitimacy is tied to a lack of independence.  “The people selected to speak and act for the Dutch-Moroccan community are all selected and funded by the government right now.”  As a result, they are wary of being overly critical of the status quo. They are less outspoken than people like Boulaayoun and Kasem would like.    

It may indeed be important for a unifying leadership — sustainable, independent, and legitimate— to emerge and catalyze the formation of a Dutch-Moroccan community.  A Dutch-Moroccan community united behind Dutch-Moroccan leadership would finally be able to present a strong response to the negative discourse currently pervading Dutch society.  Credible official representatives could stand up for Dutch-Moroccan interests in the policy arena, manage the Dutch-Moroccan image through statements to the media and the Dutch public, deal internally with problems of violence and poverty facing the community and inspire young people to attain high positions in government, media and business.  By acting as spokespeople, public relations managers, community leaders, and role models, the new Dutch-Moroccan leadership could bring about change both for and in the Dutch-Moroccan community.  

Still, in some ways, the formation of a more unified Dutch-Moroccan identity might seem like a step backwards in the sometimes uneasy march towards integration.  Isn’t it a good thing that Dutch-Moroccans currently refuse to be categorized?  Doesn’t integration take place at the level of the individual?  Won’t an acknowledged ‘Dutch-Moroccan community be an easier target for those who like to essentialize the Dutch-Moroccan identity?’  Such questions go right to the heart of multiculturalism, and show how high the stakes are for Dutch-Moroccans, and indeed all Dutch.    

Ours is an age of increased mobility, where an interconnected economy and uneven birthrates trace patterns of international migration that will transform the populations of the Netherlands and its neighbors for years to come.  In order for the Netherlands and its traditions of tolerance and harmony to survive, Dutch society must find a new way to think about itself, a new way of thinking outside the box – or the pillar – about minorities and majorities.  Group identity should not be allowed to determine individual identity.  When this happens outside of a community, discrimination and stereotyping can result.  When this happens within a community, it can splinter off into isolation and extremism, and the society of which it was a part may find itself in danger of complete fragmentation.    

This is why a group march, whether it consists of African-Americans in the 1960s or Dutch-Moroccans in the 2000s, must ultimately be for individual rights, and the right for members of a group to be seen as individuals.  Individuals who think and act for themselves are essential to any well functioning democracy. This is why the individual should be allowed to transcend the narrowness of ethnicity, religion, or cultural background – which is not to say that  ethnicity or religion or cultural background should be forgotten, but rather that the individual should navigate them himself, not have his life’s path dictated by them.  And this is why, even as the general demand for Dutch-Moroccan spokespeople remains, it is important to remember that whichever leading voices do emerge will never be able to encompass the voices of all Dutch-Moroccans. Nor should we expect them too.  No matter what leadership arises, it will still be important for Dutch-Moroccans to be seen as individuals, and to see themselves as such.    

The best, most visionary Dutch-Moroccan leadership would show that group solidarity and individual self-definition do not have to be irreconcilable.  In seeking to unite the community, these ground-breaking Dutch-Moroccan leaders could pave the way for a future in which all Dutch-Moroccan voices are heard as individual voices.  “For me, I can only ever speak for myself,” Alariachi said, summing up her thoughts on her identity as a Dutch-Moroccan.  And in this one phrase, she could speak for all.  

 

References

 

Interviews:

Jihad Alariachi, De Meiden van Halal (June 23, 2007).

Mohamed Baba, MEX-IT BV, Adviseurs voor Intercultureel Management (June 20, 2007).

Samira Bouchibti, Spokesperson for Youth and Family Affairs, Partij van de Arbeid (June 21, 

2007).

Khalid Boutachekourt, Van de Bunt (June 22, 2007).

Rochdi Darrazi and Khalid Kasem (June 22, 2007).

Dienke Hondius, Professor of History at the Erasmus University, the Free University, and Utrecht 

University (June 21, 2007).

Miryam Kodad, Student at the Utrecht University (June 18, 2007).

Surveys of Dutch-Moroccan Youth:

Asmae Assabouh (June 21, 2007).                       

Said Boulaayoun, Platform Marokkaanse Jongeren Utrecht (June 25, 2007).

Mustapha Esadik (June 20, 2007).

Sakina Kodad (June 20, 2007).

Humanity in Action Lectures:

Frank Bovenkerk, “My Culture Made Me Do It: The Idea of Cultural Defence in Criminal Law” 

(June 14, 2007).

Print Sources:       

Benzakour, Mohammed: “ ‘De Marokkaan’ bestaat niet” (The Moroccan Does Not 

Exist), in NRC Handelsblad, 20-12-2003, p.19.

Buruma, Ian: Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance 

(New York: The Penguin Press, 2006).

 

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