BY ALISON GREENE, FREELANCE WRITER
[January 27, 2008]
ITD's Netherlands Muslim Youth Project is meant to stimulate ideas around integration and to help prevent radicalization among Muslim youth in the Netherlands. In October, 2007, fourteen Dutch youth workers, journalists, local government representatives, teachers, and community leaders came to the US to learn about how Muslim youth experience this country and what is done to help them become part of the fabric of society.
“Here in the US, I am Dutch,” said one woman wearing a hijab, the traditional headscarf of Muslim women, “but in the Netherlands, I am not. I am Muslim.” Around the table at ITD in Amherst, heads nodded in empathy: in their country, where most had been born and educated, a group of mostly second-generation Muslims felt alienated. As one of the participants, Leyla Cakir, had explained in an earlier interview: “Often I feel more Dutch than the Dutch,” but in Netherlands society, “as a Muslim you should give up your religion before you can join in - may join in.”
Around the room it was clear that this feeling of a split identity was common. The men and women came from different regions of the Netherlands; they came from different ethnic backgrounds. But each of them had devoted their careers to helping Muslim youth integrate into Dutch society, trying to spare the new generation the frustrations they had felt growing up.
In this trip to the United States, they wanted to enrich their knowledge and experience of Muslims in the world. They were skeptical, however, of what the United States could teach them. Based on their own experience, and on what they presumed to have occurred here since 9/11, most expected to hear tales of violence against Muslims, job discrimination, and the isolation of Muslims from the general American community.
But as they attended lectures from professionals and academics about Muslims in America, spoke with student leaders, and listened to imams, both native born and immigrant, a different picture of Muslims in America emerged. Instead of encountering alienated Muslims, the Dutch group learned that in the United States, many Muslims do view themselves as Americans. The group then delved into the learning why, and how, such a different outcome was achieved. Part of the answer, they found, is education.
Muslim Immigrants in the US
For immigrants, becoming comfortable in a new culture is largely dependent on education. There are new customs to learn, often a new language, new laws, new traditions. In America, education has always been the key to immigrants' success, no matter which culture the immigrants come from.
In order to show the program participants how immigrant Muslims come to feel American without losing their Muslim heritage, ITD introduced them to the educators who play such a large role.
Right off the plane, the Dutch Muslim group was brought to a dinner hosted by the Muslim Student Association of the University of Massachusetts, to celebrate Eid, the feast that ends the fasting month of Ramadan. Throughout the program the Dutch group had many opportunities to talk to both young people and leaders. They learned from Muslim educators ways that Islam can be taught in an integrated way in the school curriculum, and how Islamic values are emphasized as consistent with American values. Integrating Islam with the mainstream culture was an entirely new prospect for the group.
“Another key to successful integration into the community and society,” states Julie Hooks Davis, the ITD project director, “is the role played by the imam.” Traditionally the leader of prayers, many imams in the US play a much larger role in the Muslim community, acting as social and spiritual advisor to people or families in crisis or in transition, organizing weekend Arabic and Qur'an classes for children, hosting discussions for adults, and reaching out to the non-Muslim community.
In the Netherlands, imams are often brought in from overseas. Their main job is to lead the daily prayers in Arabic. Rarely if ever do these first-generation immigrants learn Dutch; they live their lives quite separate from the Dutch community. The boards of the mosques are also first-generation Muslims, who for the most part don't speak Dutch. So the leadership of the religion is not integrated into Dutch society and culture. Their Muslim followers are set apart as well.
As the Dutch group discovered, in America the role of imam is much different. Here, they lead the prayers, but they also perform the same functions as American ministers: reaching out to other religions, providing counseling to families and to the bereaved. Importantly, they speak English to their youth, and encourage them to participate in the community. To succeed in America, the imams have learned the way of all American immigrants: “People don't complain, they just do things,” noticed one of the Dutch participants, “and integrating here is tied to prosperity and ultimately a strong American identity.
After working, traveling, attending lectures and cultural events, more than one of the participants claimed “This has been one of the most memorable experiences in my life.”
Rachid Habchi, a police officer, said “When I came to the airport bound for the United States, I thought ‘What am I doing here? But now at the end, I'm very glad I came. We started out strangers, and now we feel like family.”