I first visited The Netherlands in 2008, when I was part of a delegation of American Muslims who were invited to learn about the integration of Muslim immigrants there. My most vivid memories of that trip are of conversations I had with young Muslims about their relationship with Dutch national identity. When a young engineer of Moroccan-Berber origin told me that he only feels Dutch when he travels, he touched upon the ambivalence many Muslims have about their national identity.
It is an oft-repeated adage that American Muslims are “better integrated” than our counterparts in Western Europe because we are, on average, better educated and wealthier than even the majority population, thanks to selective US immigration laws. During the first major wave of Muslim immigrants after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, the typical newcomer held a university degree, possessed a skill set desired by the US, and was ready to join the American labor force. These immigrants and their children flourished, though the community has been stigmatized and singled out in the wake of post-9/11 crackdowns on civil liberties. On the other side of the Atlantic, Muslims in Western Europe are heavily comprised of the working classes; children and grandchildren of “guest workers” from former colonized nations whose upward mobility, economic viability and political enfranchisement has often been slow to materialize.
The years since the London and Madrid bombings have seen a push in both the public and private sectors to facilitate relationships between American and European Muslims through fellowships and exchange programs, such as the one I participated in 2008. Some may believe that this sort of public diplomacy will somehow help European Muslims to adopt some of the characteristics of their American counterparts, in the hope that their economic malaise and sense of social alienation will magically disappear. While I strongly believe that exchange programs and efforts to build and strengthen transatlantic networks among Muslim activists, academics, artists and social entrepreneurs is mutually beneficial, the story is more complicated than this.
The challenges faced by European Muslim communities can be understood when framed within the unresolved questions around national identity facing all Europeans. In the past few decades, the European Union’s economic interests have been bearing down on national borders, to the chagrin of European populists who have tried in vain to ignore the increasing racial and religious diversity in their societies. Add to that mix a new generation of savvy European Muslim leaders, who refuse to be treated as guest workers who will one day “go back home.” These young people are reclaiming the voices of their communities and are helping to reshape the European narrative into one that includes the sacrifices and contributions of immigrants. Critically, the increasing visibility of young European Muslims has resurrected the debate around religion in the public space.
Since integration is a two-way street, the focus on what Muslim communities are doing on either side of the Atlantic to address the challenges of Islamophobia, social and economic alienation and political disenfranchisement might seem myopic. Still, how these communities engage with the larger society is still an important part of the integration equation. Over the next two weeks, I will visit The Netherlands and Belgium, and connect with people of various religious and ethnic backgrounds who are working to strengthen the social fabric in their countries. I’m excited to meet Dutch and Belgian interfaith activists, inner-city grassroots leaders and artists and to share their stories with you. I hope you will also enjoy reading notes from an American Hijabi in Europe.