Addressing Islamophobia: Finding Solutions

In recent years, the Netherlands has frequently been confronted with public incidents of Islamophobia. It is essential to address this issue by finding solutions that promote inclusivity and respect for diversity. This article aims to explore key aspects of Islamophobia in the Netherlands, introduce strategies to combat it and build a more inclusive society.

Dutch Islamophobia on Recent Display

In 2019, the Netherlands passed a law banning burqas and niqabs in public spaces, along with other face coverings traditionally worn by religious Muslim women. According to Dutch lawmakers, the law was intended to promote security and facilitate greater communication in government buildings, hospitals, and schools. If caught violating the law, citizens are subject to a 150-euro fine.

Though the law also prohibits garments like ski masks and full-coverage helmets, it clearly targets Muslim women and others wearing religious garments, who are already vulnerable to discrimination given their minority status in Western countries. Despite the fact that it has gone largely unenforced, people of faith have reported  higher incidences of discrimination, which is why international rights groups across the globe have criticized legislation of this nature.

The Dutch government does not register self-identified religious affiliations among its population. Even so, the European Network Against Racism estimates that 4.9 percent of the adult population in the Netherlands is Muslim. When surveyed, Muslims in Amsterdam voiced their concern that Islamophobia is “becoming increasingly normalized in Dutch society,” with the burqa ban serving as just one example of this. It should be a priority for the Dutch government, then, to ensure the safety of this especially vulnerable population.

Islamophobia has become far more prevalent following the events of September 11, which (unjustly) established for many the link between Islam and the risk of violence. Though scholarship on radicalization has existed for decades, it has become much more of a focal point following the events of 9/11. In fact, the UN reports that discrimination against Muslims sharply increases around terrorist attacks and the anniversaries of such attacks.

The Dutch History of Islamophobia

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Netherlands began recruiting labor from elsewhere, mostly from Morocco and Turkey, along with former Dutch colonies Suriname and Indonesia. Prior to this demand for labor, the Muslim population accounted for less than 0.1% of the Dutch population.

As the MENA region struggled with tensions and conflicts in the following decades, the Netherlands saw numerous waves of migrants, including laborers and asylum seekers. This was further amplified during the migration wave of 2015, which has impacted the way most European countries handle migration issues. The fact that many migrants come from nations where Islam is the most prevalent religion complicates the fact that 42% of discrimination reports in the Netherlands are (allegedly) related to migration rather than religion.

Since 2015, the European integration of migrants has become a significant challenge, often met with resistance from leaders on the right and many European citizens, including people in the Netherlands. Quotes like the following from Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch right-wing Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom), have been reiterated across Europe for the last two decades.

“Politicians from almost all establishment [parties] today are facilitating Islamization. They are cheering for every new Islamic school, Islamic bank, Islamic court. They regard Islam as being equal to our own culture. Islam or freedom? It doesn’t really matter to them. But it does matter to us. The entire establishment elite—universities, churches, trade unions, the media, politicians—are putting our hard-earned liberties at risk.”

Political Discourse and Discrimination

Political discourse plays a critical role in shaping public opinion, which is precisely why discriminatory and inflammatory rhetoric can be so harmful. Rhetoric like that of Geert Wilders has contributed to a climate of Islamophobia in the Netherlands, leading to negative opinions about minorities and increased discrimination against Muslims. For instance, he has referred to Islam as a "totalitarian ideology," called for a ban on the Quran, and advocated for the closure of mosques across the Netherlands.

According to a 2019 report by the Dutch Human Rights Institute, discrimination against Muslims in the Netherlands increased by 10% in 2018 compared to the previous year. The recent increase in hateful political discourse may be one key piece to understanding why Islamophobia is now more prominent within Dutch society.

The impact of political discourse on discrimination against Muslims is not limited to the Netherlands. Similar trends have been observed in other parts of Europe and the United States. For instance, in the United States, former President Donald Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric contributed to an increase in hate crimes against Muslims, especially surrounding his executive order banning travel from parts of the Arab world in 2017. Though the speech of politicians may not directly incite discrimination or violence, increasingly repetitive hateful rhetoric has the power to transform public opinion, amplifying and exacerbating existing discrimination, especially targeting already vulnerable communities.

Media Depiction: Reframing Muslim Identity

The media also plays a crucial role in shaping public opinion and attitudes toward Islam and Muslims. Unfortunately, in the Netherlands, media coverage of Muslims has often been stereotypical, negative, and sensationalized, further normalizing Islamophobia within society.

One common stereotype in the media is the portrayal of Muslims as intolerant and dangerous, as the media often focuses on acts of terrorism or radicalization. Muslim voices are often absent from public discourse, but when they are featured, they are portrayed as perpetrators or victims of violence.

Additionally, Muslim religious practices/beliefs are depicted as incompatible with Dutch values and norms. This portrayal creates a climate of fear and suspicion among non-Muslims in the Netherlands and elsewhere, marginalizing and stigmatizing Muslim communities and creating a sense of alienation and exclusion.

To address this issue, media organizations should be more inclusive and representative in their coverage of Muslims. Journalists should seek out diverse perspectives and voices, presenting a more nuanced and accurate portrayal of Muslim communities in the Netherlands. Media organizations should also be held accountable for spreading false or discriminatory sentiments about Islam and Muslims.

Additionally, it is essential to acknowledge consumers’ role in the issue, as they should be aware of the potential biases and prejudices in media coverage and seek out a variety of information sources. Tis is precisely why education is a crucial component of addressing media coverage of Muslims. Educational institutions should promote media literacy and critical thinking skills, encouraging young people to analyze media coverage and identify biases and stereotypes. By promoting more accurate and unbiased media coverage, we can equip ourselves to combat Islamophobia and foster a more inclusive and tolerant society in the Netherlands.

Prioritizing Intersectionality

People in the Netherlands and other Western nations face numerous sorts of prejudice based on the intersection of their identities including race, gender, sexuality, religion, socioeconomic status, physical ability, and more. These identities are relational rather than distinct from one another in the context of discrimination.

While adjudication of discrimination often considers single-issue prejudices, discrimination more often takes place on the basis of multiple factors like race and gender, for example. In other words, people experience discrimination differently depending on their overlapping identities.

The term's use has drawn opposition from conservatives all over the world because they typically feel victimized by it. American political commentator Ben Shapiro, for example, considers it a “hierarchy of victimhood,” in which white men would rank at the very bottom. This becomes a problem for those who fear losing their current ranking or status within society.

Instead, society should focus on empowering and uplifting those who need it most, those whose identities overlap, creating what researchers have called a “cocktail of oppression.”  When combating the prevalence of Islamophobia in society, intersectionality must be central to the discussion.

Dismantling Stereotypes, Facilitating Interfaith Dialogue, and Promoting Inclusion

While there are certainly ways to minimize the prominence of Islamophobia in society, it is essential to understand that unconscious biases will always exist in modern society. We can work to be more aware of them, challenge our pre-existing beliefs, and surround ourselves with diverse perspectives. The road ahead is long, but there is no doubt it is worthwhile. The following steps are just a few of many that can be taken to address Islamophobia in the Netherlands.

The first is to increase the representation of marginalized communities in the media and popular culture and to listen to Muslim voices. Ideally, these voices should represent a diverse set of beliefs and perspectives, making Muslims feel seen and understood while simultaneously helping non-Muslims. understand cultures, beliefs, and practices that differ from their own. Media representation can provide a more complete and nuanced understanding of minorities and other vulnerable groups.

It is also important to collect and analyze data in a more nuanced manner. The Netherlands does not collect data on religion in particular, but it should be careful about generalizing those who migrated from the MENA region. Danish policy, for example, openly collects data on all “non-western” immigrants. The act of separating data in this way risks increasing discrimination within society. The UN Committee criticized Denmark’s efforts against discrimination as their data collection methods marginalize non-natives from particular regions of the world, sweeping them into a general “other” category. While the Netherlands does not make a distinction between Western and non-Western migrants, there is room for improvement. The Netherlands can learn from the Danish example by collecting data on varying populations equally.

Dutch society must also make an effort to accommodate Muslims in everyday spaces, so practices like prayer or fasting no longer seem strange or particularly novel. One way to do this is to incorporate prayer spaces in workplaces, schools, and other frequently visited buildings. This enables Muslims to steadfastly practice their faith in a setting where their peers support them. It may also be helpful to educate students or employees during the month of Ramadan so their Muslim colleagues feel supported and empowered if they choose to fast. Intercultural education promotes mutual understanding and respect between different cultural and religious communities.

Interfaith dialogue plays a key role in exposing groups to other cultures and, more generally, facilitating a peaceful European integration process. There are numerous initiatives throughout Europe that aim to promote dialogue among groups that are traditionally misunderstood or in conflict with one another.  The Hague Peace Project is one example of this, as they host a Turkish-Kurdish work group among others that have created a steady flow of projects and events stimulating interaction and peaceful dialogue between these diaspora groups in the Netherlands. Their work encouraging dialogue about human rights and diversity as part of the Muslim identity has undoubtedly created change in the city.

Final Takeaways

As a final note, it is crucial to make the distinction between equality and equity, considering actionable plans to achieve each in a variety of settings. Equitable actions help achieve long-term equality in society. Equal opportunity and access to resources are often not enough for a society with a history of colonialism and inequality. There is no doubt the Netherlands has a complicated history and has been tasked with new challenges in the twenty-first century, but these actions would set the country on a path leading to greater inclusion and understanding of cultures.

A new special issue in Ethnic and Racial Studies explores how a spatial perspective opens up novel ways to see Islam and Muslims in Europe by focusing on the geographic aspect of religion, discussing sites from Catalonia to Kazan, from halal supermarkets to a Muslim girls’ football team.

Contestations around Islam in Europe often take on specific spatial forms: right-wing groups protest the construction of mosques, legislators restrict the wearing of Islamic face coverings in public buildings, and politicians declare certain geographical areas such as the Parisian banlieues to be the battleground where the future of Europe will be decided.

This shows that the place of Islam in Europe, in both a metaphorical and a material sense, is deeply contested. However, does attention to moral panics around visible Islam in Europe provide us with an adequate understanding of how Muslims move through streets, shops and buildings? How can we understand the complex entanglement of Muslim and non-Muslims in Europe’s built environment, and what does that tell us about the idea of “inclusion”?

The way we identify what counts as “Islamic” or “Muslim”, a person, a place, a building, is deeply shaped by what we think a particular religion should look like. We often think about religious buildings such as mosques, religious dress such as hijab and religion allegedly overstepping the boundaries of its rightful place in the secular political order.

This distribution of attention is prone to neglect forms of being Muslim in Europe that have material effects in other, often unexpected ways. For instance, consider the following picture.

A group of young people gathered at Place du Luxembourg in Brussels.
© Chris Saunder

If you look at the picture, what is your first impression? Does it show Muslims in a way they are usually portrayed in media presentations and political debates? Would the term “Muslim” or “Islam” even come to mind, or is this just a mixed crowd of young people posing for a photo?

A closer look at the picture reveals several surprising layers of meaning at the intersection of Islam, space and Europe, which we discuss in detail in the introduction to the special issue I have written with Adela Taleb and Chris Moses, and which builds on ethnographic fieldwork undertaken by Adela Taleb in her doctoral research.

The picture is taken at the Place du Luxembourg in Brussels. It shows an event organised by the team of Magid Magid, then a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the Green Party of England and Wales. Magid, who identifies as a “Black Muslim” was born in Somalia and came to Europe as a child refugee. He employed people from diverse backgrounds as his team to work at the heart of the EU’s institutions in a conscious effort to make EU spaces less “white”, to hire people who “would never [have] had the opportunity to work in the European Parliament either because they were from Africa […] or because they wore a headscarf”.[1] The group assembled to mark the UK’s departure from the EU with a playful “farewell party”, to address their disappointment over the rupture. It included a satirical “marriage game”, where British “refugees” who lose their residence status due to Brexit were able to enter into a sham marriage in order to gain an EU passport.

For a short time, the mini-festival transformed the Place du Luxembourg, a symbolic centre of power of EU institutions, into a space where a Muslim politician challenged the nationalist politics and the lack of minority representation at the heart of European power. A one-day event has a very different time horizon than the construction of a mosque. And yet, through this and other images that went viral via Magid’s prolific social media presence, these temporally short events produce images that travel. They become reused, shared and eternalized in the complex labyrinths of virtual places and digital archives.

While much social media fetishizes novelty and hence espouses a presentist bias, these images also appear against the background of the deep time of this history of Islam in Europe. In contrast to the current trend in migration studies that only focuses on the migration waves of the 1960s and 1970s, the perspective of deep time asks what images, discourses and stereotypes have shaped the way in which the connection between Islam and Europe have been seen throughout the last two millennia, from Islamic mathematics, to Al-Andalus, the Ottoman conquests, slavery, European empires, nation-building and military intervention in the twentieth century, to name but a few.

The way Muslims and their actions are perceived need to be understood in light of centuries of exoticizing discourse, meticulously dissected in Edward Said’s seminal book Orientalism. Walking through London, Amsterdam, Brussels and other European capitals reveals the deep imprint that colonial aspirations and atrocities have left on Europe as Adela Taleb shows in her discussion of fabric of “EUrope”. Asking about the relationship between Islam in Europe is therefore not only about questioning the place of Islam, but critically investigating what kind of place “Europe” is. What does it mean that “Islam” has served as Europe’s principal “Other”, for the kind of place or territory it is today, especially if you happen to be European and Muslim? Analysing Islam in Europe through a spatial lens also draws our attention to the selective processes of remembering that follow colonial and racial mechanisms of classification and hierarchization.

This has critical implications for what we understand by “Europe”, but also of what inclusion and exclusion could mean. In a space that celebrates atrocities against Muslim populations in history books, street names and statues remembering heroes of European empires from Morocco to Indonesia, what would it mean for young Muslims to feel included? The criticism voiced against perceiving Muslims primarily through the lens of “integration” has been articulated by some of my interlocutors through the response, “integrate into what”? In the same way, a spatial perspective urges us to ask, “included into what”?

The terminology of inclusion is in itself spatial, it creates an inside and an outside. But what are the criteria for inclusion, and who has participated in creating those? This is not a mere question of a lack of representation, as the political activities of Magid demonstrate. It is also a question of how spaces and communities that are imagined in a way that is culturally and religiously particular, for instance, shaped by Christianity and its imprint on current manifestations of secularism, can accommodate difference.

To begin answering these questions, our special issue suggests, can only be found through careful observations of how people negotiate these spaces and their agency therein. The contributors come from a wide range of academic disciplines and geographic perspectives. Peter McMurray investigates how Shia Ashura processions shape the new soundscapes in the streets of Berlin and Kars. Kathrine von den Bogert investigates the struggles of young Muslim women that challenge the assumptions about who should play football in Dutch public playgrounds, and how the players should look like. Matteo Benussi discusses the emergence of a new halal economy in Russian Tartastan and how they shape the “pietascapes”, taskscapes of pious Muslims.

Mar Griera and Marian Burchardt dissect the bureaucratic hurdles faced by religious groups to stage public events in Barcelona, revealing the racialised and religion-specific interaction orders faced by Muslims in a city that prides itself on its multicultural ethos. Chris Moses digs into the deep history of a central London site where a waqf, an Islamic endowment, is constructed. Ryan Williams allows us insights into the religious-secular and security-related dynamics of a security prison ward in England. Thijl Sunier shows how local charisma and trust in Muslim leaders are crucial in their quest to normalise and institutionalise Muslim life in Dutch cities. My paper discusses how we need to rethink state, space and secularism to understand “local secularisms”, illustrated through the analysis of the failure to construct one of the largest mosques and Islamic centres in Germany. Kim Knott, one of the pioneers of the study of Islam and space, offers insightful reflection on how the special issue addresses key developments in the field and what scholars should now focus on for further study.

Together, the papers sketch how Muslims make space in Europe, shaped by love for their families, passion in their faith, reflexivity of their political judgements or, as most people do, muddling through the complexities of everyday life.

Research on radicalisation, extremism and social exclusion needs to take the nuances offered by a spatial perspective seriously as a matter of analytical exactitude and political urgency. The social and epistemological benefits of this perspective are exciting and will contribute to a debate that can better account for the deep time and complex geographies of religion and politics in Europe.

[1] Interview conducted by Adela Taleb

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram