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Galvanizing Political Engagement among Muslims in the Netherlands by Drawing Inspiration from American Examples of Success

Project Overview

A report providing recommendations to Dutch Muslim organizations on how to foster political engagement in the Muslim community using the American context as guidance.

Identifying the Problem

Over the past decade, events such as the hijacking of American planes on 9/11 and the murder of Theo Van Gogh have ushered in a political climate in which Muslims living in the Netherlands are facing increasing discrimination and negative characterization. In an atmosphere of misinformation, nativist individuals such as Geert Wilders peddle images of Muslims as intolerant fundamentalists for political gain. Because of the rising discrimination against Muslims, there is a need to counter the disparaging rhetoric with voices from the Muslim community that assert their dignity and value to Dutch society. 

Formed in response to the horrific July 2011 attacks in Oslo, Norway, the authors of this report felt compelled to contribute their expertise to counteract the negative environment of Islamophobia in the Netherlands. Nathan and Umar started discussing the political climate in Europe that had led to the Oslo attacks, and wondered about the ultimate effects of the event. In the process, they found themselves drawing comparisons to the struggles of American minority groups for integration and success. They believed that examples of such achievements by minority communities in the United States could be used to generate suggestions for the Dutch Muslim community to better combat Islamophobia and discrimination.

Creating A Solution

Senior Fellows Nathan and Umar teamed up with Elizabeth A. Clark to write a report that addressed the increasing Islamophobia in Europe and provided recommendations for how the Muslim community could effectively respond. They began by conducting a series of qualitative interviews with leaders in the business, media and political communities. This paper represents a synthesis of several interviews with community and political leaders in Muslim communities in the Netherlands as well as American examples of successful minority political engagement, such as the various groups that became visible during the Civil Rights Movement. The report contains four themes: Identity, Diversity in the Muslim Community, Political Engagement and Media. 

1. Dutch and Muslim Identity

Findings 

  • Although each identity is difficult to define, both Dutch and Muslim identities are cast as mutually exclusive.
  • "Dutch" is depicted as White, European and Judeo-Christian or secular.
  • "Muslim" is depicted as religious, undereducated and from outside of Europe.
  • The media portrays a false dilemma between being a devout Muslim and being a proponent of Western values.

Recommendations

  • Emphasize shared Dutch and Muslim values of equality, human rights and freedom of religion in all public relationship activities.
  • Foster discussion about the compatibility of being a devout Muslim and an engaged Dutch citizen.
  • Modernize the curricula at Islamic schools to promote the idea of an Islamic identity within a Western society among the youth.
  • Foster leadership programs and civic engagement among Muslim youth.

2. Diversity in the Muslim Community

Findings

  • There is much religious, ethnic and generational diversity among Muslims living in the Netherlands.
  • Such diversity presents challenges to building a strong, cohesive Muslim Dutch community that is representative of all Muslims in The Netherlands. 
  • The lack of a unified community makes it more difficult for Dutch Muslims to present a united front against xenophobic attacks.

Recommendations 

  • Foster open debates about the diversity within the Muslim community to encourage tolerance of differences, open communication and identification of shared values.
  • Support a campaign showing the diversity within the Muslim community, but also highlighting how they still share commonalities that are far more important than their differences.
  • Attempt to issue a joint statement or fatwa from a broad representation of the Dutch Muslim community denouncing violence and terrorism to send a strong message to the non-Muslim Dutch community that Muslims honor the shared values of peace and non-violence.
  • Consider reaching out to diverse Muslims groups to increase representation and a sense of unity.
  • Increase internal transparency to generate an environment of openness and accountability.

3. Political Engagement of the Muslim Community

Findings 

  • Dutch Muslims have weaker connections to political and civic society.
  • They vote in much smaller numbers than non-Muslims and have weaker civil sector institutions.
  • The youth, in particular, suffer from civic disengagement and feelings of cultural isolation.

Recommendations

  • Articulate a clear political agenda around which the community can organize.
  • Increase the sense of urgency within the Muslim community to enhance political engagement that is needed to bring about change in the current public discourse.
  • Find ways to empower Muslim youth to play an important role in the public debate.
  • Launch a campaign to facilitate informal interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims.

4. Media

Findings 

  • The dominant images in the Dutch media of Muslims are negative stereotypes of Muslims as fundamentalist, homophobic, intolerant people.  
  • These images and their accompanying narrative are largely untrue and damaging to the majority of Dutch Muslims who have a wide range of religious and cultural beliefs and cherish the values of freedom and equality.  

Recommendations

  • Utilize social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube to demonstrate the diversity of and ability to relate to Dutch Muslims. 
  • Collaborate with the Dutch government to develop television programing that would depict contemporary Muslim experiences in order to break down negative stereotypes.
  • Invest in media training to learn how to best market “being Dutch Muslim” and portray positive images of Islam in the Dutch media.

Ultimately, Nathan and Umar believe that the Muslim community needs to simultaneously build solidarity within their community and also reach out to engage the external non-Muslim Dutch community. The authors began by presenting their findings and recommendations to Contactorgaan Moslims en Overheid (CMO), a Dutch umbrella organization formed by the government to consult about Islam. While the organization provided positive feedback,  it was not in a position to work to adopt the recommendations at that time. 

The authors then had a series of discussions with their interviewees and other individuals in the community. They agreed that it would be better to try and distribute the report to the community using social media channels, as the report is written by younger professionals and is more apt for a youth audience. Wij Blijven Hier!, one of the most well-known blogs about Dutch Muslim affairs in the Netherlands, has agreed to post the report. Furthermore, the authors are writing an op-ed about the contents of the report and linking the relative decline in Dutch support for the EU project with the rise in Islamophobia/Euroscepticism.

Lessons Learned

Nathan and Umar stress that the key to a successful project is being able to quickly adapt to the unexpected challenges you will inevitably face. It is crucial to readjust your expectations to make the project feasible and to continually pursue other ways to make your efforts successful in light of short-term adversities. They also recommend identifying early on the dynamics of the institutions with which you are working. By targeting the individuals that have to power to enact change if they are swayed, you can gain wider support for your project. They also recommend being open to change because it often results in finding new opportunities that you may not have thought of initially. Sometimes these new opportunities end up being the most important finding or output of your work. Just keep an open mind and be relentless in trying to make your project successful.

Funding

The total cost of the project was $4,100, which included air travel from the United States to the Netherlands, lodging in Amsterdam, transportation across the Netherlands, providing food during meeting with interviewees and planning for an upcoming Senior Fellows event to further discuss how to implement the findings of the project.

Nathan and Umar were able to fully fund their project after their project proposal was chosen as one of the winners of the HIA Senior Fellow grant competition, which seeks to empower Senior Fellows to create projects that embody HIA's educational mission and facilitate cooperation among Senior Fellows from different countries. The Senior Fellow grant fund is administered by HIA The Netherlands and supported by a generous grant from the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, Department of War Victims and Remembrance.

Awards & Recognition

"Galvanizing Political Engagement among Muslims in the Netherlands by Drawing Inspiration from American Examples of Success" was one of the winners of Humanity in Action's 2012 Senior Fellow Grant Competition.

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About This Project

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United-states United States 2009

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