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Western Mosques or Mosques in the West

 

This article aims to explore the attitudes and views of practising Muslims towards Dutch society vis-à-vis two mosques in Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands. We consider two apparently different mosques, Al Tahweed and the Milli Gorus mosque, Hagya Sophia. The reason for our narrow focus – on two mosques in Amsterdam with relatively diverse membership bases – is both practical and theoretical. Time constraints, travelling distances and limited access to mosques all played a role in determining the scope and breadth of our research terrain. More importantly, by comparing two different groups of practicing Muslims and their perceptions of Dutch society – on issues of integration, social status, media coverage and Western values – we hope to undo some of the all too easy West-and-the-Rest polarizations common in Dutch news and academic debates. As one Muslim scholar put it, “the Dutch like speaking to themselves” about Muslims. About Muslims but without Muslims. This article attempts to redress this oft-repeated refrain – uttered by Muslim worshipers frustrated at their sense of being mischaracterized – by examining the place not merely of mosques in Dutch society, but of Dutch society within these mosques. 

Occidentalism

To this end, scholars such as Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit have explored the term “Occidentalism”: put roughly, a certain way of viewing – of writing, imaging, and thinking about – the West which reoccurs throughout the so-called Islamic world. Occidentalism was coined as a direct response to Edward Said’s widely influential work, “Orientalism,” which, in brief, exposes the stereotypes of the “Oriental,” the Eastern, which lie, according to Said, at the heart of Western scholarly tradition. Occidentalism, like Orientalism, divides the world into East and West and, according to the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit, into two Manichean spheres of good and evil. In a recent lecture at the University of Tilburg, Margalit elaborated on this point by linking the image of the West as evil to the Occidentalist trope of the “Mega City”  - an immoral, highly and openly sexual, indecent, and unclean place: a “big whore.” The inhabitants of this city, this ‘invention’ of the West, are contaminated by sinful material concerns. Islam, a religion dictating the importance of purity and cleanliness, is thus set against the filthiness and decay of the Western city—the city as a symbol of the West. 

Occidentalism, according to Margalit, is as old as the existence of religion itself. Its origins can be found in the rubble of the tower of Babylon which, in Arabic, shares a root with the word Balar, or polluted, mixed—a hybrid of peoples and languages. The Tower of Babylon is a seminal point of reference in Occidental thought for it is responsible for the dispersion of humanity, for incurring the wrath of God by presuming to reach to heaven. As Margalit argues, the city, Babylon, combines a total lack of morality with a seductive materiality and freedom. A Muslim must be vigilant to maintain his or her faith in such a climate. 

To what extent is this viewpoint, explicitly or not, shared by Muslims living in a large Western city like Amsterdam? If Occidentalism does hold sway to some degree, does the trope of Babylon as a sinful place to be avoided by “good Muslims” preclude a meaningful integration of Muslims into Dutch society at large?  

Armed with pen and pad we made our way to the Al Tahweed Mosque in Amsterdam-West and the Hagya Sofia Mosque in the Baarsjes to examine the presence of Margalit’s theories. This is what we saw:

Al Tahweed

Afternoon prayers have finished. Worshipers stream out of the Al Tahweed Mosque in Amsterdam-West; some stop to chat, others reach for cell phones, and still others dash off on the bicycles lining the sidewalk outside. They are mostly men in their thirties and above; some wear traditional clothing, others are in dress shirts and slacks and some are in casual garb. Egyptian, Moroccan, some native Dutch.  After a little cajoling, M. Khojja, leaving the Mosque with briefcase in tow, agrees to speak with us. Khojja, a senior member of Al Tahweed, dressed in a traditional dishdasha and head cap, has a broad smile surrounded by a scraggly black beard. He tends to swoosh his arms in grand arcs as he speaks.   

He first brings us to a small food shop owned by one of the imams of Al Tahweed. Imam Sami, a short bespectacled man, also in dishdasha, gives us a gentle smile but asks that we keep it short. When asked about the differences between Mosques, for example, Milli Gorus and Al Tahweed, he replies: “We are all preaching the same religion, which is Islam. And we all have the same function: to be a house of prayer.”

Khojja then guides us to a small teashop in a bazaar just off of the Ten Katemarkt, a vast outdoor market of vendors in a diverse neighbourhood in Amsterdam. On the way, Khojja waves his hands at the sheer variety of foodstuffs and clothing being sold in the market. No better proof is needed, he says, that Al Tahweed exists harmoniously in a multicultural community in Amsterdam. As we sit down, he jokes with some friends and points to the colorful murals on the wall depicting sandy landscapes and ancient cities. “They’re mine,” he says with a proud grin. After a round of mint tea, we put our questions to Khojja. 

Khojja tells us, interestingly, that his donning of the traditional dishdasha and cap is relatively new. It is a reaction, he says, to a feeling of marginalization in the Netherlands since the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. “Before 9/11,” he says, “attitudes towards Muslims and integration were on the right track.” He connects what he sees as a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment, or Islamophobia, to the political saliency of such attitudes. Pim Fortuyn and Ayaan Hirschi Ali come up. Fortuyn, a recently assassinated politician, and Ali, a current member of parliament, are both known for their controversial stances regarding immigration and minorities. These two people, he believes, utilized for their own ends a fear of Muslims. “When you fight the Muslims,” he says of Hirschi Ali, “you only make them stronger.” His defiant tone is later muted when he says, incredulously, “Some people call me Osama Bin Laden!” He points outside. “But that’s not me!” Cooling off a little, he adds wryly, “He’s American.” 

On the subject of integration – to what degree Muslims must strike a compromise between their religious edicts and culture (e.g. dress, sexual divisions, places of residence) – Khojja is equally passionate. “I have been living here for thirty-four years,” he laughingly shouts. “I am Dutch.” While he agreed with some of Pim Fortuyn’s policies on limiting integration, policies that are now commonplace, Khojja says he ultimately felt excluded by the politician. “If I am in Greece and I see a Greek man whistle at a Dutch girl as she walks by, I will be offended, and defend her…because I am a proud Dutchman. But according to Fortuyn I am not Dutch because my skin color, religion, and dress are different.” 

Khojja returns to Fortuyn again and again. Fortuyn, an openly gay politician, for him, represents the gay rights movement that, in turn, serves as a stand in for the way in which Dutch society has sought to demonize and modify Islam. He sights the uproar over a mosque in Rotterdam early last year in which Imam El Mundi compared homosexuals to pigs. Khojja never denied the accuracy of the quotation; he does stress that the event in question occurred inside the mosque after two journalists baited El Mundi. “Muslims don’t want to make the Netherlands into a Muslim state; they just want to practice their religion,” he says. “Gays can do what they want, but respect our customs as well.” 

Rhetorically, his argument makes sense. But, as Khojja points out, he is Dutch.  Is it acceptable, on the basis of religious difference, to preach intolerance of homosexuals in the Netherlands? Khojja raises this question in the course of our interview; he also illustrates its logical consequence. Khojja’s elaborate discussion of the different types of homosexuality, of the sexual revolution, of “hippie days,” and of the “decadence” and “corruptive” powers of gay men all sound like stereotypical (read “Occidental”) images of the West. Here the seductive chaos of the Western city takes the form of a city projecting the threat of homosexuality. 

Milli Gorus

In the Baarsjes neighborhood, an inhabitant of Amsterdam will not easily recognize the Hagya Sofia Mosque. An old Opel factory, painted in chipped blue paint, a line of industrial-grey windows lining its façade, greets worshipers as they file into this religious and social complex created primarily for the Turkish community of Amsterdam. 

The vice-president of Milli Gorus, Uzeyir Kabaktepe, who guided us through the Mosque on an earlier visit, describes his organization as a federation of some 107 different groups. These include mosques, students’ and women’s groups, and youth groups for girls and boys.  According to Kabaktepe, Milli Gorus has around 5000 paying members and about 30,000 adherents. Unlike Diyanet, a sister organization in the Netherlands which receives support from the Turkish government, Milli Gorus is politically and financially independent. 

The Turkish government is not the only organization from which Kabaktepe wishes to keep his distance. When asked about the relationship between Milli Gorus and Al Tahweed, the vice-president is adamant: “Al Tahweed is totally different. It practices a form of political Islam.” In contrast to Imam Sami of Al Tahweed, Kabaktepe does not believe that all Mosques are “preaching the same religion” or “have the same function.” Kabaktepe describes the members of the Al Tahweed Mosque as very much connected to the political situation in their home countries and strongly devoted to spreading their identity. He refers to Al Tahweed’s alleged links to terrorist training camps in Saudi Arabia committed to the creation of a global Islamic society. Al Tahweed is accused of collecting money for this sort of Jihad – to foster a religious state, Islamic nationalism, in the Netherlands and wider Europe. “Ten years ago, Milli Gorus had the same problem,”  Kabaktepe explains. They were also seen as a terrorist organization, “…while in reality, and in contrast to Al Tahweed, we were giving political support to Turkey.”  With the change in government from a military dictatorship in Turkey to a non-military, secular democracy, this is no longer an issue.  

Kabaktepe cites what he calls the radical pan-Arabism of Al Tahweed to distinguish the mission of Milli Gorus. His organization is committed to political and social integration into Dutch society. Though it consists mainly of Turkish Muslims, its members, he says, consider themselves to be Dutch and have no interest in Turkish nationalism. The way Islam is practiced in Hagya Sofia is a private, individual experience that varies from one person to the other and does not imply any isolation from society. A member of the Turkish Mosque can live and integrate in Dutch society and be a decent Muslim at the same time.  

Contrary to M. Khojja, Kabaktepe does not think that attitudes towards Muslims in Dutch society at-large have significantly radicalized since 9/11. He does agree that, particularly in Rotterdam, there was an increase in prejudicial treatment of Islamic minorities, which took the form of postponing the construction of a Mosque by the local government.  According to him this was the exception and not the rule. Especially when it comes to his plans for the construction of the new Hagya Sofia Mosque that is due in 2008, Kabaktepe is very optimistic. “Only the banks are giving me some problems with interest rates,” he jokes.  

 

To explain the religiosity and conservatism of many younger Muslims, most of whom are third or second generation Dutch, Kabaktepe speaks about the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of Dutch society. “The police,” for example, “are much more lenient – more concerned with talking than with beating people up.” This is extremely different from Turkey. There are fewer consequences for breaking the law and fewer incentives not to. This creates an atmosphere of self-regulation: Freedom is a temptation that can grow too large, which invites younger people in big cities to become more religious by imposing self-discipline. According to Kabaktepe, this partly explains the fact that a more religious Turkish society can be found in the Netherlands than in Turkey.    

Islam and the West 

In our search for a proper definition of Occidentalism as it exists in the attitudes of Muslims in the Netherlands we met with Dr. M. Parvizi Amineh, senior research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies. He felt that the question, as we had posed it to Kabaktepe, Khojja and others, should be formulated differently. The term Occidentalism, he said, implies that there is, in fact, a clash of two different civilizations, two different histories, going on in the Netherlands and Europe. The supposed “Eastern” and “Western” civilizations have actually been part of the same historical trajectory for hundreds of years. With the rise and spread of capitalism in the 17th century and the exclusion from that system of many Islamic countries, there has been a socio-economic marginalization of Muslims which has given rise to the many radical sects of Islam. From this time on, he states, there has been one global history, one integrated economic system, moving ever closer together. It is thus wrong to think about two distinct and unique Islamic and Christian civilizations.  

Dr. Markha Valenta, a professor at the Free University in Amsterdam who focuses on the interactions of Muslims in Western societies, echoed Dr. Amineh’s comments regarding the perceived clash of Islam and the West.  To our surprise, she described the common portrayals of both Milli Gorus and Al Tahweed as fairly conservative. “They are mentioned mainly when they offer some resistance to integrating pressures,” she says. In this respect she reiterates the concerns of both M. Khojja and a Muslim-convert at Al Tahweed we interviewed named Josef Stevens, who bemoan the misrepresentation in the Dutch media of their organizations and of Muslims generally. Valenta, like Khojja, cites a shift in Dutch public opinion beginning with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. “9/11 was responsible for the explosion of prejudices which were there all the time but were not discussed.” In some ways she sees this as a healthy development; currently, though, she finds the tone of the major newspapers –Ayaan Hirschi Ali is again mentioned – as hysterical. “The discussion,” she says, “is getting destructive, and it feeds the defensiveness of Muslims.” When asked about Khojja’s sentiment – of being unrepresented – she agrees: “There is no one who stands up for Muslims in a way that makes it into the news.” 

Like Amineh, Dr. Valenta also discusses the misconception that there is one Islam. “Islam is increasingly a form of social identity, and it is becoming more individualized in Europe and in the Netherlands.” The notion that there is one Islam, she continues, is actually being foisted on the Muslim community by the Dutch government. “There is pressure for a central Muslim organization to make it easy for the Dutch government to distribute funds and to carry on dialogue.” This, she adds, is typically Dutch: the desire to place people in groups, to categorize them, and to use government powers to regulate and finance them. Ironically, it is precisely this notion of a monolithic Muslim identity that many politicians fear. The difference in opinion between Milli Gorus and Al Tahweed – “the difficulty these religious groups have in working together” – is, she suggests, a testament to the fact that there are many Islams within the Netherlands.  

Conclusion 

Dr. Amineh earlier stated: “The marginalization of minorities is nowhere as strong as in the Netherlands; even in France the situation is better.” This is a startling statement, if it’s true. The fact that Amineh proffers it at all suggests some link with Valenta’s discussion of the “typically or historically Dutch policies of ‘putting people in boxes.’ In other words, perhaps the process of marginalization – economic, social, political – that many of the Muslims we spoke to feel is actually a consequence of the Dutch attempt at integrating these religious minorities. A history of dealing with the Catholics and the Protestants—of assigning to these groups a central representative body to which the government could disperse funds and with which it could meet and coordinate—may have worked in the past, but it ignores the non-hierarchical nature of Islam and the many different sects present in the Netherlands. Lumping them together – the Muslims – even while attempting to “integrate” them into Dutch society is a symptom of the same rhetoric that stokes fear of Islam as a monolithic and foreign threat. 

In this sense, the title of our article – “Mosques in the West, or Western Mosques” – is also a kind of mistake, a symptom of the terminology of “badly integrated” or “well integrated,” Occidentalist or pro-Western. In reality, the notion of creating an ideal Western mosque is impossible for it implies that there is some kind of non-Western mosque in Europe. 

In a Time Magazine article of December 24, 2001, on “Islam in Europe,” the author, Nicholas Le Quesne, contends that there is a new form of “Euro-Islam” that depends on “the adoption of a form of Islam that embraces Western political values, such as pluralism, tolerance, the separation of church and state, democratic civil society and individual human rights.” 

Whether we are speaking about a mosque like Al Tahweed – apparently conservative with links to Saudi Arabia – or about Milli Gorus – steeped, as it is, in the language of pro-Dutch integration and constructing a new “WesterMosque” – there is no such thing as a Mosque in Europe which is not shaped by its environment. As Kabaktepe’s example of the reaction to the freedoms of a big city like Amsterdam suggest, the freedom, particularly of young people in the Netherlands, is responsible for the attitudes of both Mosques. “The process is European, but the content seems foreign to many,” says Valenta. In other words, Al Tahweed and Milli Gorus, and the many different forms of Islam practiced within the Netherlands, are a consequence of the very freedom – of the “Western political values” – found in Europe. 

It is fair to say that without acknowledging the variegated nature of worshiping Dutch Muslims and leaving aside the terms “Western” or “European” to describe and interact with the Muslim minorities, little progress can be made in easing their feelings of misrepresentation and marginalization. The attempt to make Islam into a foreign agent struggling to adapt to Europe is a denial of the fact that most of the 800,000 Muslims in the Netherlands (Time Magazine, December 2001) have a faith that is exclusively and particularly Dutch.

A new policy is needed – one which departs from the tradition of recognizing and positing religious authority in one place, as has been the precedent for dealing with religious minorities in the Netherlands. This policy should speak to individual Muslims, not to mention the many non-practicing Muslims, in Dutch society. “The Dutch government would like to see the mosque as a church,” says Valenta. But, she warns, the two are different and require different responses—not because Islam is exceptional but because there are genuine differences in the way this religion is practiced and observed. Real engagement means acknowledging and responding to this fact. 

 

References

 

Lectures and Interviews

Lecture of Avishai Margalit on ‘Occidentalism’ organized by the Nexus Institute at the auditorium of Tilburg University, 20 June 2004.

Al Tahweed 22 June 2004. 

Interview with Josef Stevens.

Interview with M. Khojja. 

Interview with Imam Sami 22 June 2004.

Interview with Uzeyir Kabaktepe, vice-president of Milli Gorus, in his office, 23 June 2004.

Interview with Doctor of Islamic Studies M. Parvizi Amineh of the University of Amsterdam, in his office, 25 June 2004.

Interview with Dr. M. Valenta of the Free University of Amsterdam, in her office, 29 June 2004.

Articles

Nicholas Le Quesne, “Islam in Europe: A Changing Faith,” Time Magazine.  24 December 2001.

Janny Groen en Lidy Nicolasen, “Griezelen uit onbegrip,” de Volkskrant. 20 June 2004.

 

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