How young Muslims in Amsterdam are defying stereotypes

Mosque Taibah in Amsterdam. Photo by Haya Yousef

Continuing her series, Laura Illeris talks to Muslim students in Amsterdam who share their views on religious pluralism, misconceptions about Islam, and the way Muslims are portrayed in the media. While all the interviewees speak fondly of diversity and acceptance in Amsterdam, the experiences of discrimination cannot be left unmentioned.

Not all the religious communities in the Netherlands are following the trend of declining religious affiliation. In a period of 50 years when hundreds of Christian and Jewish institutions disappeared, more than 400 mosques were established, according to a report, reflecting the status of Islam as the fastest growing religion in the Netherlands.

People think that cultural things actually come from Islam, like the burqa

While the scene in Amsterdam features a lot of religious and cultural diversity, the recent Amsterdam city council announcement to increase security around mosques shows that Islamophobia is present in our society. Young Muslims still feel they have to stand up against misinformation and discrimination, and are keen to counter negative stereotypes.

Religion versus culture

Mashhour Hosny. Photo by Haya Yousef

Unlike Christianity and Judaism, the settling of large Islamic communities in the Netherlands is a more recent social phenomenon caused by migration from other parts of the world. This means that a large part of the Dutch population is still unfamiliar with Islam, which has a number of implications for both Dutch and non-Dutch Muslims in the Netherlands. Often, young Muslims find that there are a lot of misconceptions about Islam in this country.

For one, religion is often confused with culture. One reason is that many mosques are established based on ethnic identity, such as Turkish or Moroccan mosques, leading people to conflate ideas about Islamic practices with cultural customs of those who follow Islam. Mashhour Hosny, 21, was born in Egypt but has lived his entire life in Amsterdam. According to him, people often do not know the difference between religion and culture, as they often overlap. “People think that cultural things actually come from Islam, like the burqa.”

“It is a pity that people think Islam prohibits women from doing things”

Hosny thinks that the treatment and status of women in general are often cultural issues. He has two sisters and does not see them as being restricted in what they are allowed to do. For Hosny, the idea that women do not have free choice, do not become highly educated, and must stay at home are common misconceptions. He says that “it is a pity that people think Islam prohibits women from doing things” and adds that “in most cases, it has to do with the culture and the way of thinking of parents, and not necessarily with religion.”

Joanne Boerema

Joanne Boerema, 28, notes that Muslim women are highly educated and that Islam provides the freedom to work and to educate yourself. Being ethnically Dutch and growing up in the Netherlands, Boerema is in a unique position to talk about religion and culture. She grew up occasionally going to church with her mother who was Christian, but never felt that Christianity was the right fit for her. After years of studying different religions, she eventually converted to Islam. “People think I am betraying my Dutch origin,” she says. She chooses to cover her hair which some people seem to think is contradictory to Dutch values, and she is sometimes asked why she does not go to an Islamic country.

Such reactions perhaps speak to the general fear that religion signifies a return to old, non-liberal values. As we have seen within Christian and Jewish communities, there is much diversity of beliefs and practices, and naturally the same can be said for Muslim communities. In the media, however, Muslims often get referred to as a uniform group belonging to the same culture.

Facing discrimination

For some, the growth of Muslim communities in the Netherlands since the 70s has caused a blown-up fear of the influence of Islam and as a result the Dutch overestimate how many Muslims are in the Netherlands. On average, Dutch people say 20 percent of the population are Muslim, while it is only 5 percent (although in the Randstad this number is usually at least doubled). And unfortunately, fear often gives rise to discrimination.

“If you do not conform to the company’s cultural rules, then you are not welcome”

Raja Ramzan

Raja Ramzan, 26 and a devout Muslim, enjoys living in Amsterdam because he finds that people are generally accepting. However, he thinks that racism and discrimination are still a problem. “It’s just more subtle,” he says. “Right now, I’m looking for a job as a software engineer. My interviews are always great, but for some reason in the interview there is always emphasis on my religion. Always.”

Ramzan does not shake hands with women as a show of respectand in accordance with his religious beliefs, which are that chastity between a man and woman should be preserved. In some cases, this leads to an immediate rejection. “In one interview, when they found out that I don’t shake hands with women, they just outright said ‘then we don’t want you here.’ That’s blatant discrimination.” He adds that he respects these people more because “at least they are honest.”

In other job interviews, Ramzan says that the rejection is more subtle. “You have people who act like they are diverse, and they want different people in their company, which is not true at all. In commercial companies, if you do not conform to the company’s cultural rules then you are not welcome.” As a Muslim, Ramzan does not drink alcohol and therefore does not feel comfortable attending the common ‘vrijdagmiddagborrels’. “If I mention that in an interview, then it is almost certain that I am not welcome anymore, because I do not fit in the cultural norm.”

“If I throw away my religion and all the morals and values, and also my beard, then I might be accepted”

Ramzan states that many Muslims feel like “second class citizens,” and that he himself is not accepted as Dutch by everyone, despite having lived in the Netherlands his whole life. “If I throw away my religion and all the morals and values I have learned from it, and also my beard, then I might be accepted.”

Boerema says that having an Islamic identity is sometimes not easy, but she is aware that she is in a privileged position being white and Dutch. “I do not experience the hardships other Muslims do, such as name discrimination or racism,” she says.

Souhaila Derraze

Souhaila Derraze, 19, was born and raised in Amsterdam. She finds that others sometimes assume that she is not Dutch, or cannot speak the Dutch language well. “I regularly get the question about my origin, whether I am half Dutch and half something else.” She adds that she also gets told that her Dutch is ‘pretty good’. Derraze and Ramzan are certainly not alone. In a study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 42 percent of Muslim respondents in the Netherlands said that they had experienced discrimination based on their ethnic origin.

Stereotypes and the media

The problem of discrimination also becomes politicized when politicians view young Muslims only through the prism of radicalisation. The media does not help on this front, as images of radicalized young Muslim men often surface, even though in the Netherlands this problem is much less severe than in other European countries such as France, Belgium, and the United Kingdom.

Several Muslims declined to be interviewed, because of their lack of confidence in media interviews

As some young Muslims blame the media for perpetuating these stereotypes, distrust of the media seems to have become an issue. Several people declined to be interviewed for this article, citing lack of confidence in media interviews as their reason why.

So while some politicians and news outlets are concerned with radicalized Muslims, the interviewees are more concernedwith stereotypes and misinformation about Islam. Both Boerema and Ramzan see that people perceive Islam as being oppressive, restrictive, and violent. Ramzan also adds that Muslim men, especially those with long beards, are seen as ‘unhygienic, angry, and not knowledgeable’. According to Boerema, there is simply not enough media attention paid to what the average Muslim believes.

‘Do not make assumptions, just ask

While there may be distrust of the media, people are open to talk about religious views to counter these stereotypes and misinformation. These young Muslims want to encourage others to ask questions, rather than make assumptions based off what they see in the news. They say that they are happy to talk openly about their religious views.

“If anybody is ever curious about Islam, please do not just make assumptions, go and ask”

Hosny encourages us to ‘look further’ and not take for granted what is reported in the media. “Do not hesitate to ask a Muslim about why they do things and how they see Islam,” he says, and adds that he loves it when people ask him about his religious beliefs or practices.

Ramzan similarly asserts that he is more than happy to talk about his religious views. “If anybody is ever curious about Islam, please do not just make assumptions, go and ask. You might have a really pleasant conversation, you might enjoy it.” Ultimately, they all stress that we can learn from each other, and say that it is not about converting or convincing, but about understanding each other better.