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Different Generations: Different Needs.

The prophet Mohammed became the first leader of Islam without having had a formal education, due to his political skills which were arguably impeccable. While in his case we can attribute his plunge into politics to divine inspiration, in order to understand Muslim political participation and inclusion in Dutch society today, we need to go beyond this.
After reading Ian Buruma’s book, Murder in Amsterdam, I had a vision of the political landscape for Muslims in Holland. But talking to Muslims as well as non-Muslim members of Dutch society reveals that the reality on the ground is quite different. 

Political Participation: The First Generation 

The majority of Muslims in Holland come from either Morocco or Turkey. Others come from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries. There are also many Surinamese Muslims in Holland, but their situation is quite different. Although they come from far away, in South America, they are already part of the Dutch colonial past. The dynamics of inclusion are totally different; therefore, the level of criticism received by a Muslim Surinamese is not the same as that experienced by Muslims of Middle Eastern descent. In fact, discrimination or indifference towards a Muslim of Suriname descent is more likely to be because he/she is Surinamese, not Muslim. 
Even within Islam, as within the other two major monotheistic religions, there are some ideological differences. Thus, in order to understand Muslim political participation, first we need to be familiar with the chief reason why so many Muslims came to Holland. The first generation of Muslims that came from Morocco and Turkey tended to work hard, save money and return to their country of origin when they retired. Even in other countries like the U.S, a similar situation exists. For instance, to use a personal example, after more than 15 years of working in the U.S my mother and aunt returned to the Dominican Republic, as do hundreds of other families each year from Mexico or Jamaica who go back after years of hard work in the U.S. It is important to note that this first-generation pattern is not a product of their religious beliefs, but rather stems from economic factors. 
Some Muslims of this first generation left behind debt and other family responsibilities when coming to Holland.  As a consequence, making money is the highest priority, while political participation is secondary. According to the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, Morocco is the 4th largest recipient of remittances in the world. At the same time, Holland has the second highest number of Moroccans from outside Morocco, after France. Even in tiny El Salvador, on the other side of the globe, the majority of income received is through remittances. The fact that Morocco receives so much money from remittances does not mean that all the money is coming from Holland, but we can still make an accurate connection between this high volume and the large Moroccan population in Holland. If you were to ask first-generation Muslims and even other immigrants about the circumstances under which they came to Holland for the first time, they would tell you that they left a wife, son, mother, friend or relative back home who required, and perhaps still requires, financial support. It thus becomes virtually impossible to engage in other stressful, time-consuming endeavors under these circumstances. The situation often becomes so stressful and unbearable that they do not even have sufficient time to spend with the family already here. To return to my own experience, in 8th grade our entire class was composed of students of immigrant descent, and we all used to complain about the fact that our families did not spend as much time together as we had in our home countries. 
Of course, we can find exceptions to this pattern. There are Muslims from the first generation that end up staying in Holland and assimilating. A similar situation exists with Bolivians or Peruvian immigrants who went to Buenos Aires to work, with plans of returning, but eventually ended up staying. But even taking this into account, the reality is that once we get into routines and accustomed to a salary, it is difficult to give up that financial stability. This, in turn, keeps those people from venturing into the unfamiliar and more risky arena of politics.  If there is not the time, desire or motivation to become politically involved, then is highly unlikely that one will do so.  
Mehmet Yamali, who is the spokesperson for a large, diverse mosque in the center of Amsterdam, says that the first generation just talk about their problems back home, getting their son/daughter married, jobs, discrimination, and health issues. No serious discussion about political participation really materializes; conversations about politics in general tend to take the form of passive cheerleading.  In place of this, the first generation tends to be fixated on the “I am coming back to my country factor”. Of course, it is part of human nature to first focus on what is essential and fully necessary. But this need not entail an absolute lack of political involvement, or incompetence on the part of Muslims. What I intend to make absolutely clear is that the perceived lack of political participation by Muslims in Holland, Islam’s supposed incompatibility with democracy, and other aberrant stereotypes can be attributed to a poor understanding of all of these factors, resulting in unclear or faulty assumptions being made about Holland’s Muslim community.  
The issue of inclusion vs. assimilation is another dimension that requires a thoughtful full- fledged analysis, because inclusion and assimilation go hand in hand with political participation. We can blame Muslims for failing to assimilate, or we can try to understand why they failed to do so.  We can blame others for not making a genuine effort to understand and accept another human being. There are many native Dutch of high moral standards and character, but those who recently endorsed and vote for Wilders ought to take a minute to think about their opinions about Muslims. I don’t think that those who voted or endorsed Wilders lack moral altitude. I just think that those that endorsed Wilders simply haven’t made an effort to fully assess who they truly voted for. To ensure Muslim involvement in the political process requires a genuine effort from both sides, not simply of tolerance, but of acceptance.
At the end of the day, some immigrants decided to stay in Holland to assimilate.  They learned the language, followed “Dutch norms” and successfully started business enterprises, restaurants, boutiques, and our beloved shawarma and falafel spots all around Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Of course, we can find many different reasons and stories to explain why they decided to stay, but this is an entirely different topic.

I’m Dutch; I was born in Holland: Looking at the future

The key to cultivating a sustainable role for Muslims in the political landscape lies in the rising generation of youths that were born in Holland. This includes those who came when they were young during the early-mid 1990s, and still lacked a robust identity when they first arrived. For those that were born here, assimilation and inclusion is even easier. They feel a strong bond with Holland, with perhaps a vague, platonic love for their parents’ home country. In many cases, they have never visited Morocco, Turkey or Iran.
In other words, for this upcoming generation, the issue of inclusion and belonging is not as severe as of the first generation. This has political ramifications, since one prerequisite for meaningful political participation is for there to be a significant degree of inclusion. Maral Noshad Sharifi, a young talented student in the political science program at Leiden University, originally from Iran, who is currently the President of the Commission on Multicultural Society for the D66 Youth Assembly in the Hague, states that from an early age, youngsters ought to be exposed to role models who can help cultivate their motivation and desire to become future role models themselves. She points out that because she arrived as a refugee from political persecution in Iran, her immigrant status is different than others. As a political refugee, one gets assigned to different neighborhoods and cities all over Holland, whereas voluntary migrants typically live near people from their own background. She rightly points out that this situation only exacerbates the problem of inclusion. This is extremely important to address, because if the new generation continues to be born into “satellite dish” communities, excluded from mainstream society, then inclusion and later political participation will become harder to achieve; the continual fomenting of such communities represents bad policy. Maral tells me that because she had the opportunity to attend a mixed, diverse school, she was able to obtain a great education and to easily transition into Dutch society. But many of these youths lack such an opportunity. 
There are other obstacles as well. Mr. Haci Karacer, director of Flextreme, an organization that works and empowers young talented students, says that some of the investment in educational programs is misplaced. Instead of hosting cooking and bicycle lessons, those resources should be put into leadership development. In the U.S., for instance, there is a greater focus on leadership/personal development than vocational training.
It takes a Herculean effort to divert resources, due to entrenched interests and other budgetary realities, not to mention the fiscal constraints created by the current global economy crisis. In this context, investing in a traditional education ought to take priority over a vocational one. A more educated Muslim community in the fields of science, math and the arts would yield tangible social and economic results, which could translate into greater political participation on the part of Muslims. Once mainstream Dutch society begins to see Muslims as not simply immigrants but as doctors, lawyers, physicians and musicians, perceptions would change, stereotypes would be confounded and political participation would be easily fomented. The likelihood of a Muslim candidate running for office in diverse areas might change. Granted, there are already some Muslims elected to office, but this only occurs in communities where Muslims tend to be the majority. Once we see a substantial number of Muslims getting elected in communities where they are not the majority, then we can talk about meaningful political participation. 
In addition, there is a need for women of Muslim descent to take a more prominent role in politics. For example, in Morocco the government established a minimum 10% quota for female membership in Parliament. Such a model should be proposed by Muslims to ensure that women of other ethnic backgrounds will have a chance to get elected as well.  Given that more than 50% of the population in Holland is female, it is extremely important to have more women playing a pivotal role in Dutch politics.
Mr. Karacer acknowledges that there is a lack of human capital among Muslims, which translates into an absence of young talented Muslim leaders from the political arena.  In some respects this parallels the situation in Harlem and the South Bronx in New York, poor neighborhoods which suffer from a lack of human capital among its African-American residents.
Fatma Koser Kaya, a member of Parliament from D66, proposes an initiative whereby employers, companies and other respectable individuals are brought together with youths of Muslim background to explore networking opportunities. She has hosted several of these networking conventions in Utrecht, Amsterdam and Hague. Not only does this opportunity help young people with their professional careers, but it also can help them to forge new and meaningful friendships over time. Sometimes, the important thing is who you know, not what you know. If I were a young Muslim from a “satellite dish” community, an opportunity to interact with people from different communities would, at the very least, enable me to learn something new from a social perspective.  It is far more practical and beneficial to learn now how to behave with people different from me, and not later, when I am in the workforce. 
There are a number of other political factors that might lead to a more substantial and meaningful political participation from Muslims. Wilders, one of the candidates for office, is currently engaged in a crusade against Islam. On the positive side, this behavior could easily backfire and weaken his agenda, by bringing Muslims out of the woodwork and into the voting polls, or inspiring them to organize. Those youngsters currently growing up with the experience of intolerance would now have a real-life opportunity to seek change. When you put an individual’s back against the wall, you can expect a reaction. We might not see that reaction immediately, but Wilder’s increasingly inflammatory rhetoric could only have the effect of mobilizing ethnic Muslims to become more politically involved. 
Kirsten Van Den Hul, a change agent who currently works on programs related to corporate social responsibility and other educational campaigns, observes that mainstream politicians have failed to understand the needs and desires of the general population, and that this might explain the recent low voting turnouts and political apathy. Citizens seem disengaged and indifferent to what is happening in a larger context. The principles of Politics 101 tell me that Muslims might become more organized and prepared in the near future, but we can only hope that political participation in Holland will reach the impressive numbers that Israeli citizens demonstrate when they have more than 80% voter turnout at the polls. Once the people of Holland care about politics to that degree, the soup will taste much better for the average  Dutch citizen of any ethnic background. At the end of the day, we are all humans who need to be understood.
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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2009


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