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From Tahrirplein to Museumplein: Dutch-Moroccans and the Arab Spring

Dozens of people of Moroccan descent fill the busy street in Admiraal de Ruijterweg on the west side of Amsterdam, shopping, socializing, and eating traditional foods.  Walking down the street, we see store after store selling döner, mobiles, waterpipes, and food from various corners of the Arab world. Indeed, this street embodies the diversity that exists in the Netherlands: Moroccans and Dutch fill the stores, sharing the same space. Even just from listening to conversations, we hear Dutch, Arabic and Berber. The older Moroccans prefer Arabic or Berber, the languages of their native country, while the younger ones prefer to speak in Dutch.  

While uprisings, crackdowns and civil war rock the Arab world, these Moroccan immigrants are living on the margins of Dutch society.  There are approximately 350,000 first and second-generation Moroccans living in the Netherlands today, roughly 2% of the total population.  They are maligned by Dutch politicians, and viewed by much of the population with uncertainty and trepidation. Boys of Moroccan descent are assumed to be hooligans, or worse.  Just two years ago, the Albert Heijn To Go in Amsterdam and the Hague explicitly refused to accept job applications from those of Moroccan descent.  The fact that the largest supermarket chain in the Netherlands could so blatantly discriminate against one of the largest minority populations demonstrates the marginalized position of this group. Most of the younger generation was born here in Amsterdam, yet they, like their parents, are still considered allochtoon; literally, “from another land.”  Many of them feel like they live a double life, not “Dutch” enough to fit into Dutch society, yet not “Moroccan” enough to feel at home in Morocco. Instead, they occupy a kind of no-man’s land, unable to fully integrate into either culture. They resort to developing a unique culture of citizenship in order to appease both Dutch and Moroccan worlds. For them, being “Dutch-Moroccan” is their reality — for better or worse. 

In her recent research in the Netherlands and Morocco, psychologist Sheida Novin Farahbakhsh found that the Dutch-Moroccans identify themselves as Moroccan, but respond emotionally more like their Dutch peers. The similarity between the Dutch, Moroccans, and Dutch-Moroccans lies in their age. Youth transcends race, religion and nationality; the youth of the world are peacefully fighting for a personal identity that has not been forced upon them by outsiders. 

What,then, of the so-called “Arab Spring”?  Do revolutions and protests across Northern Africa and the Middle East affect these Dutch-Moroccans?  What are their perspectives?  These are the questions that we set out to answer as we began to talk to the allochtoon filling the street. 

The Arab Spring began in January 2011, with a single protest by a Tunisian man, Mohammed Bouazizi. This 26 year-old man had completed college, yet found himself unable to live in Tunisian society. His life deteriorated to the point where he resorted to selling fruits and vegetables on the street. Finally, the government confiscated his cart, and Bouazizi, hopeless, set himself on fire. This fire spread into a regional revolution.  Tunisia shocked the world when this country of 10 million people peacefully overthrew its dictator of over 20 years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  Soon, Egyptians, Syrians, Saudis, Libyans and others began to see the possibility of a country free from authoritarian rule, leading the entire region to erupt in peaceful protests and celebrations of freedom and change. 

Egyptians and Tunisians were successful in overthrowing their dictators due to a shared set of desires and realities in both countries. Employed and unemployed; city-dweller and villager; old and young; Muslim and Christian; all of these otherwise dissimilar people demonstrated together. What the protesters had in common in that they all sought to be free, a cause that motivates individuals to gather and form an entity that is greater than either Tunisians and Egyptians alone. The revolutions and demonstrations are spreading across the Middle East, similar to the spread of independence movements across Africa in the 20th century. Tunisians achieved their dream and prompted Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and the rest to follow, as the former's newfound reality challenged its neighbors to question their own lives, their values and their country’s future. A new set of rules had emerged for these countries' repressive leaders, and, likewise, for their allied counterparts in Western capitals.

Dutch-Moroccan Nadia Bouras traveled to Morocco to participate,even skipping a formal meeting with the king’s advisory board to join the protests. “Some of my colleagues joined as well. There was singing, chanting of slogans. Youngsters, but also old people, men and women. This was peaceful protesting; these people are democrats.”            

Almost overnight, Western reporting about North Africa and the Middle East shifted from having heavy, negative connotations to a positive and progressive tone.  The term “Arab” became, for the moment at least, associated with democratic reforms, rather than terrorism and violence.  The world watched in amazement as young people rose up to defy their governments, to defy the status quo.  As 22-year-old Dutch-Moroccan Farida Belkecem spoke about her reaction to the Arab Spring, her voice swelled with pride, “I couldn’t believe that people were so courageous that they took to the streets in large numbers to enact change!  I was very proud of the people my age who took action.”  

From “Moroccan” to “Muslim” and back? Changing perceptions through the Arab Spring

For most of her life, Farida has been considered a Muslim.  Never mind that she doesn’t practice the religion, nor feel any cultural connection to the faith.  Her identity as a Muslim was sealed on September 11, 2001.  It was at that moment that, in the eyes of those around her, she suddenly became simply a “Muslim.”  The nuances of being a secular teenager born in the Netherlands to Moroccan immigrant parents were lost.  Native Dutch people began to peer at her with suspicion, fearing that she could be one of the “radicals.”  Before the Sept. 11th attacks, Farida remembers having been asked about Moroccan culture, food, and music, but never religion. She embraced the label of “Moroccan” with pride as she spoke with friends about her culture.  But the attacks imposed a new label on her, that evokes painful memories of that event.  Following September 11, everyone assumed that she practiced Islam and associated her with the radicals, a presumption which makes her feel “horrible.”

Ten years later, she sees signs of hope.  As the Arab Spring continues into the summer, she rejoices.  “These revolutions are not about religion; they are about people,” Farida tells us, a smile spreading across her face.  For her, this a turning point — a chance for a new identity.  She hopes that the native Dutch will see these people as Egyptians, Tunisians, and Moroccans rather than only as“Muslims.”  She chafes against the stigma of being considered “Muslim,” and wants those around her to recognize her instead as a proud Dutch teenager of Moroccan descent.

Nearby, Farida’s brother shakes his head.  Like his sister, Mohammed was born and raised in Amsterdam and is enthusiastic about the events taking place in North Africa and the Middle East.  Yet unlike her, he does not see much hope for a change in how others perceive him.  The Arab Spring only affects Arabs, he explains, not the way that native Dutch view them.  Rather than becoming more involved in their new resident country, he sees Arabs abroad gaining a renewed sense of attachment to their homeland.  Many of his friends who have never visited Morocco are now asking questions about the country, and wanting to learn the native language.

As the siblings enthusiastically discuss their perceptions of the Arab Spring, their mother looks on with a hint of uncertainty.  Though her children are convinced that the revolutions will bring positive changes, she is less convinced.  Instead, Mrs. Belkecem worries that the native Dutch will see Arabs, and her family by extension, as uncivilized.  She has lived in the Netherlands for 26 years, yet still does not feel well-integrated into Dutch society.  She fears that the Arab Spring will only widen the differences between native Dutch and those of Moroccan descent.

“Europe had its revolutions centuries ago!  Moroccans and others are only protesting now, in the year 2011.  Native Dutch people will see this as another way the Middle East is behind the rest of the world,” explains Mrs. Belkecem.  We look at her in surprise; the reaction among native Dutch seemed so supportive of the Arab Spring.  She is more pessimistic.  “Watch the news and you’ll hear people talking about groups like the Muslim Brotherhood who might take control in Egypt and other countries.  I see this as just another way the Dutch will assume Muslims are radical.”

Like her daughter, Mrs. Belkecem resents the Western assumption that all Muslims are radicals.  Yet, unlike her children, she does not see the Arab Spring as a cure to this problem.  Instead, she fears that the revolutions will make the situation even worse for Arabs living abroad.  In this regard, her reaction exemplifies that of many older people of Moroccan descent, who view the Arab Spring with cautious optimism rather than exuberant enthusiasm.  

While the uprisings in the Arab world have inspired young people, their parents worry about a negative backlash.  This mirrors many arguments heard in the Middle East and North Africa, where the younger generation protests and the older generation looks on with concern.  As is often the case during periods of social upheaval, it is the young people who feel most positive about change.  They see a brighter, more promising future ahead.  Even as Mrs. Belkecem’s son considers the horrors that are coming out of Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and other countries, he is proud because “these protesters are making the ultimate sacrifice with their lives for freedom and, therefore, should be praised.”  On the other hand, older people feel less confident about the likelihood of improvement due to having spent most if not all of their lives in fear while petro-dictators reaped millions through corrupt businesses and government officials.  Many have witnessed years of oppression and isolation, and doubt that the Arab Spring will fundamentally change their lives.

The Arab Spring and Political Involvement

For Dutch Moroccans, the Arab Spring is not just important in defining their personal identities, but also in changing the level of their social and political participation.  As they watch their Arab counterparts elsewhere taking action to improve their countries, it has inspired many Dutch-Moroccans to become more politically involved as well.

Nadia Bouras, a Dutch-Moroccan scholar who has conducted research about Moroccan immigrants in the Netherlands, divides Dutch-Moroccan youth into three groups.  She estimates that about a third of these youth were well-informed about the events taking place in the Arab world and were impacted by it, sharing their stories with one another.  Another third were aware and felt a bond, but were not necessarily very well-informed.  This group could be touched by the events if they traveled to Morocco on vacation and experience the uprisings and debates about them firsthand.  The last third was neither interested nor engaged in the revolutions, and unlikely to become politically involved as the Arab Spring unfolded.

Our interviews confirmed this division.  Farida Belkecem is enthusiastic about the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, yet feels no need to become involved politically.  She doesn’t vote or participate in other ways.  However, she notes that some of her friends began to express their thoughts on Moroccan politics or local politics in the Netherlands.    

On the other hand, the Arab Spring had an immense impact on 23-year-old Aboutaleb Jannat, persuading him to become a “critical citizen.”  Like Farida, Aboutaleb was born and raised in the Netherlands; however, it was only after the uprisings began in the Arab world that he began to consider how certain policies would affect him personally.  At first, he became involved through dialogue with family and friends. “Through discussions and debates were we able to talk about the futures of all the countries in the region and consider where certain countries, like Egypt, may end up with upcoming elections. Who knows? I may live in Morocco in the future and I definitely want to live in a better Morocco and a freer North Africa,” he explains. Like the youth organizers in the Middle East, he believes that the first step towards enacting change is dialogue. The next step is taking action. The unfolding events convinced him to take part in a small demonstration in Amsterdam, and circulate several petitions attempting to convince the Dutch government to play a stronger role in the post-revolution nations and support Libyan refugees.  

In addition, Aboutaleb’s political involvement extended to issues facing the Netherlands.  He signed petitions which encouraged everyone, regardless of socioeconomic or religious differences, to respect and love one another.  Such initiatives, he feels, encourage dialogue and cooperation between groups within the Netherlands. He expresses a similar hope that the Arab Spring will bring people together.

At the same time, Habib El Kaddouri, a senior policymaker for the Samenwerkingsverband Marrokaanse-Nederlanders (SMN, Union of Moroccan Dutch), worries that because of the Arab Spring, more attention will go to Moroccan than to Dutch politics.  El Kaddouri’s nongovernmental organization engages in dialogue with the Dutch government and provides information to the underserved Dutch-Moroccan community about these meetings.  “Young people should not forget that measures from the Dutch cabinet affect their rights and freedoms directly.  The situation in Morocco will mean an impulse to activate and mobilize the Moroccan-Dutch community.  Generally, the Dutch-Moroccan community feels underrepresented in Dutch politics.  The governing coalition is not coherent and acts opportunistically against minorities.  The opposition is weak in its resistance and people generally feel less and less accepted and unwelcome in this country,” El Kaddouri explains.  

If young Dutch-Moroccans begin to feel more of a connection and association with Morocco as a result of the Arab Spring, they could become increasingly detached and isolated from the Dutch political system.  In this regard, their affinity for their native country of Morocco could hinder their ability to integrate and participate in their country of residence. Conversely, a growing sense of appreciation regarding the democratic rights and responsibilities of the Moroccan community in the Netherlands could facilitate dialogue, and further empower its exponents. 

Dutch government officials of Moroccan descent dare not even discuss how outside influences may be affecting the Moroccan Diaspora in the Netherlands. We asked otherwise outspoken advocates for the multicultural model of society, Mayor of Rotterdam Ahmed Aboutaleb and District-Mayor of East Amsterdam Fatima Elatik, for their opinions about the impact of the Arab Spring.  Both declined to comment. Meanwhile, there are ongoing heated debates in the communities that they claim to represent.

Tweet It, Post It, Like It: Dutch-Moroccans and Social Media

One platform for increased interaction, particularly among youth around the world, is the Internet. The advent of social media websites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter has generated debate on the impact of social media on the Middle East populist uprisings.  Protesters began tweeting, providing a live stream to the events in Tahrir Square and helping the chants of millions echo for the rest of the world to hear. These websites helped youth organizers form a community, as they planned the uprisings in secrecy. The Arab Spring shows us how instrumental cyberactivism can be in toppling despots. 

All of the Dutch-Moroccan youth that we spoke to mentioned the crucial role of social media in heightening their awareness of the events taking place during the Arab Spring.  Farida first learned about the uprisings in Tunisia through Facebook postings.  It was very surprising for her to hear that a country so close to Morocco was in the middle of a revolution.  She became excited and talked with her friends about the sudden changes erupting in the region.

Morocco, a monarchy since the eighth century, is now itself in turmoil. King Mohammed IV was forced to recognize the need for constitutional reform under pressure from a peaceful people’s movement, which had been carefully planned on Facebook to erupt on February 20th. Today there are almost 200 Facebook groups dedicated to the February 20th movement, each with up to 6,000 members.  Some groups favor the movement, others oppose it, but they all use social media to inspire debate and organize their supporters. Both sides use the king as a symbol, employing nationalistic ideas and imagery to gain members.  Information is disseminated almost instantly, updating people around the globe of the events taking place inside the Arab world.  In an age of constant connectivity, social media is rapidly changing the way in which people interact and position themselves in relation to the ruling authorities.

Ahmed, another young Dutch-Moroccan, explains, “Since the Arab Spring started, I obtain my news from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.  These websites serve as platforms for Egyptians, Tunisians, Moroccans, and thousands of others in the region who are trying to bring real news, their own firsthand experiences, to the rest of the world.  Why wouldn’t I listen to them?  I can read about people who have been detained or see recordings of protests.  For me, I’d rather get the direct source rather than have it filtered through news organizations.” 

Like Ahmed, many young people distrust traditional media sources, preferring to get their news from social media contacts.  They view these “firsthand accounts” as more accurate and immediate than reports generated by journalists.  It also allows them to be more active participants.  In response to the Arab Spring, Ahmed began posting links about events in the region on his Facebook page.  He recognizes that this is a small act, but it allows him to feel more connected to the Arab Spring because he is speaking up and trying to raise awareness.

In addition to individuals using social media as a source of information and activism, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the Netherlands have also turned to social media sites to gain support and organize activities.  Habib El Kaddouri, a senior policymaker for SMN (the Union of Moroccan Dutch), explains that his organization uses Facebook to help keep track of events taking place in Morocco and elsewhere in the Arab world, and as a forum for discussion and debate.  SMN's solidarity with the “20th February Movement” in Morocco is expressed primarily within the Dutch intelligentsia and activist circles, using social media to bolster support and encourage involvement.

Nadia Bouras, a Dutch historian of Moroccan descent, also uses such social media outlets to help connect people in Morocco with the Western world.  She feels personally involved in the events there, explaining, “It creates a connection of involvement and solidarity, but also responsibility.  I make sure their story gets told, by distributing news and anecdotes on Twitter and Facebook.”

Looking Forward

“I am part of this story; this is the story of our parents, our cousins and our grandparents.”  Nadia’s words echo the feelings of many Dutch-Moroccans as they seek to understand their role in the events of the Arab Spring.  For some, the revolutions offer hope for a new identity here in the Netherlands.  For others, they represent a window into their heritage and an opportunity to learn more about their roots.  Still others find new opportunities for increased political involvement and civic participation.  Yet, there are also many people of Moroccan descent who show little interest in the events of the Arab world.  

As the impact of the Arab Spring trickles into the West, many Dutch-Moroccans are conceiving of their identity in new ways as they try to create more of a true multicultural society in the Netherlands.  How can one be both Dutch and Moroccan?  Is it possible to be emotionally and politically involved in two worlds?  The Arab Spring has brought such issues to the surface for a new generation, forcing young Dutch-Moroccans to confront their dual identity in new ways.  As they vacation in Morocco during the summer, many could develop a stronger sense of connection to these developments and begin taking action once they return to their own communities in he Netherlands.   

A subtle awakening is taking place in the cafes, shops, and community centers along the Admiraal de Ruijterweg and throughout the Netherlands.  Within the Dutch-Moroccan community, there is much debate and discussion about the relationship between Morocco and their own lives here. They may not agree, but they keep talking.  For Nadia, this discussion is personal.  Like many Dutch-Moroccans, she feels an intense double loyalty as she seeks to bridge the divide between Morocco and the Netherlands.  “This double loyalty, however, does not have to be a burden; their ideas of democracy can have an impact when they are imported into the debates taking place.”  For Nadia and thousands of Dutch-Moroccans like her, the Arab Spring represents new hope for the future.  She smiles, “these are exciting times.”



Ahmed (Last name unknown).  Young Dutch-Moroccan.  Amsterdam, The Netherlands.  June 21, 2011.

Belkecem, Farida.  Young Dutch-Moroccan.  Amsterdam, The Netherlands.  June 20, 2011.

Belkecem, Mohammed.  Young Dutch-Moroccan.  Amsterdam, The Netherlands.  June 20, 2011.

Mrs. Belkecem.  Mother of Farida and Mohammed.   Amsterdam, The Netherlands.  June 20, 2011.

Bouras, Nadia.  Dutch-Moroccan Historian.  Amsterdam, The Netherlands.  June 21, 2011.

El Kaddouri, Habib.  Senior Policymaker, Samenwerkingsverband Marrokaanse-Nederlanders.  Amsterdam, The Netherlands.  June 21, 2011.

Farahbakhsh, Sheida Novin.  Psychologist.  Amsterdam, The Netherlands.  June 21, 2011.

Jannat, Aboutaleb.  Young Dutch-Moroccan.  Amsterdam, The Netherlands.  June 21, 2011.


“Bevolking; kerncijfers.”  Centraal Bureau voor Statistiek. http://statline.cbs.nl/StatWeb/publication/?VW=T&DM=SLNL&PA=37296ned&D1=a&D2=0,10,20,30,40,50,(l-1)-l&HD=110627-1042&HDR=G1&STB=T

“The Arab Spring.”  The Nation.  March 21, 2011. http://www.thenation.com/article/158991/arab-spring




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Netherlands Netherlands 2011


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