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  • Writer's pictureMENA Student Association

On Islamophobia in the Netherlands and Europe

By Salma Nasser and Yasmina Al-Ammari

Illustration by Nihal Miaaz

In a video depicting the routine harassment and assault of a Syrian refugee family in Heerlen, The Netherlands, has sent shockwaves around the country and beyond. In the video, several instances of the aforementioned abuse can be observed. This includes (but is certainly not limited to) banging on the door while carrying various weapons, several attempts to enter the home carrying weaponry, and throwing Molotov cocktails in the direction of the home. Beyond what was documented on video, Mohamed Sakka, the father of the family, shared that neighbours released their dogs on the family, yelled obscenities, accused them of terrorism, sexually intimidated their daughter and attempted to remove her hijab, and threw dog faeces, stones and eggs at their house. The family were, once again, forced to flee violence, and now reside in Belgium.

Unsurprisingly, the video went viral both within the Muslim community in the Netherlands as well as within the larger Dutch community. In the following days, we were approached to address this issue and deemed it necessary. The video and the outrage it has sparked begs the question: Is this an entirely new phenomenon? Or is it, in fact, a symptom of an already existing crisis of Islamophobia?

In order to answer this, we have conducted a small survey in which we asked students to share whether they have faced discrimination based on their religious beliefs, how Islamophobia has affected them, and to share any relevant experiences of discrimination, both within higher education institutions and in daily life.

What is Islamophobia (Anti-Muslim Hatred)?

Before delving into the testimonies, it is important to understand what Islamophobia really entails for the Muslim community. In simple terms, Islamophobia refers to the prejudice against Muslims. In recent years, it is quite evident that Western societies have become increasingly Islamophobic. In other words, the West has grown to “fear” Muslims which has ultimately led to the marginalisation, discrimination and bias against them.

The sharp increase in Islamophobia can be traced to 9/11 and the events that spiralled following this fateful incident. The ‘War on Terror’ transformed anti-Muslim hatred from prejudice on an individual level, to a state-sponsored hate campaign used to further a xenophobic and right-wing agenda.

Although 20 years have passed, anti-Muslim sentiment has only increased since then. Muslims and other minorities who had moved to Europe seeking asylum or better opportunities have ended up facing double-barrelled discrimination based on their faith and origin. Ironically, many western countries take pride in being leaders in human rights and equality when in reality, Islamophobia has revealed that this is not always the case when it comes to dealing with minorities. Although everyone supposedly possesses freedom of expression, wearing a headscarf or showing any other indication of one’s religion is frowned upon, as also shown in some survey responses:

“At schools, wearing a hijab had been a point of conflict many times, I have even been asked to take it off once”.

“In my high school in Germany, teachers used to tell me that wearing a headscarf is an indication of political affiliation and opinion which is frowned upon in educational institutions by the government.”

There is no denying that radical ‘Islamic’ movements such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have been a source of terror across the world. In a 2016 CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour, Queen Rania of Jordan mentions that these jihadist movements are “devoid of religious and moral legitimacy” and that they “manipulate certain elements of Islam in order to come up with their own toxic group”.

Although they may use the name of Islam in their movements, they are not a representation of Islam or the Muslim community.

Islamophobia: The Bigger Picture

Minor instances of Islamophobia as well as xenophobia are mere symptoms of a much larger crisis. The Netherlands is no stranger to Islamophobia. In 2016, four men received penalties for throwing Molotov cocktails at a Mosque in Enschede. In the same year, a case for discrimination was brought to the Amsterdam Court of Appeals, accusing a PVV (Party for Freedom) supporter of insulting Muslims. The court, in recognising the offensive nature of the incident, ruled that it did not exceed the limits of freedom of speech and was not to be regarded as an incitement of hatred, violence, discrimination or intolerance. Furthermore, since the Dutch elections in 2017, populist and Islamophobic rhetoric has sharply increased. This has garnered attention from human rights organisations such as The Netherlands Bar and Amnesty International. Political developments in regards to Islamophobia are, only naturally, also reflected in other areas such as the media, labour market, education and the judiciary.

Islamophobia is not exclusive to the Netherlands - it is rampant across the entire European continent.

While the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights conclude that only 12% of European Muslims feel that they have been discriminated against, in a study conducted by SETA in 2017, it was found that reports of Islamophobia are unrepresentative of the reality on the ground.

Experiences and Opinions

Incidents of Islamophobia do not exclusively manifest themselves in political debate and physical violence. In fact, they are representative of a deeply entrenched form of prejudice. Like any other prejudice, be it homophobia, anti-Semitism or xenophobia, Islamophobia is taught. Hence, while it may not always be a visible form of verbal abuse and physical attacks, it is ever-present. When asked how increased Islamophobia made respondents to our survey feel, 54.8% answered that they have faced discrimination based on their religious beliefs.

Additionally, respondents were asked to share their experiences with discrimination. Within the sphere of higher education in Europe, there have been countless instances where Muslim students have faced microaggressions due to their faith. For example, one respondent explained a situation in which “Images of the Prophet Muhammad were shown in class, with several Muslim students present”. This is considered offensive and inappropriate in Islam as creating visualisations of prophets risks idolizing them, not to mention that it can never be an accurate depiction of what they actually looked like. The respondent continues saying that “students [in the class] politely asked the professor not to show these images in class, or at least not in this manner without any warnings or reasons”. Although this may sound like a simple way to respect a certain group,“The professor disregarded this, saying that in universities, everything should be possible... Despite the fact the professor offended several students, she continued to fiercely defend her use of the images”. It is important that a curriculum is sensitive to the cultural and religious specificities of students, instead of expecting students to adjust accordingly.

There is also the issue of essentialising the Middle East and Islam as the counterexample of liberal progression; “As part of my Gender Studies Degree, lecturers frequently used references to the Middle East as counterexamples to liberal progression without feeling the need to qualify or explain why that example was relevant”. Additionally, “when talking about Islamic countries, lecturers constantly implied that they were bad without giving definitive reasons, hence believing everyone in the room was in agreement with them”.

Such instances indicate that Islamophobia presents itself in many forms —implicitly and explicitly. But what does this mean for the everyday life of a Muslim?

On the extreme end, it means Muslims have to face discrimination in the workplace: “This happened when I applied for my first internship... I was greeted by the director of the company and another lady. They didn't seem anywhere near as enthusiastic to have me as they were on the phone. They asked a few basic questions when the big question dropped: your headscarf, can you take it off? I was very confused at first… Then they explained that they mean that they only want to take me as an intern if I took my hijab off. I immediately felt terrible, as if my heart sunk. With tears in my eyes, I asked why. He said that he doesn't want anyone in his company to wear a hijab...”. They may also experience physical attacks: “Being spit on because of my hijab”; and verbal harassment: “A woman bluntly said: go to hell with your little terrorist!”.

It also means that Muslims are continuously dealing with latent affronts to their identity. As one respondent describes: Many acquaintances at university have asked mocking questions or belittled my religion and treated me differently than the rest”. Even in the absence of such affronts, some feel burdened with the responsibility to teach and educate. A respondent writes: “That responsibility to undo the incorrect perceptions of Islam can be a lot of work, and often, it feels as though there is an inherent expectation of all Muslims to teach and educate those who have been misled by Western media and schooling...”.

What can be done? Our stance.

We, the MENA Student Association, recognise the pressing and rising problem of Islamophobia in Europe that affects the daily lives of Muslims- including their physical and mental wellbeing.

As our association is led by university students for fellow students, we deem it important to reaffirm the role of higher education institutions in combating this issue and amplify the voices of students who are affected by Islamophobia and other prejudices.

Considering that many people of MENA background identify as Muslim, we believe that we owe it to our community to address this issue that tolerates outright racism and stereotyping. However, we recognise that Islamophobia is only one of many other issues that minorities in Western countries face and that it is part of a larger anti-immigrant and xenophobic political climate.

In order to overcome this pressing issue, we believe that Islamophobia must be tackled in the different parts of society from education and the workplace to community-building initiatives. Using our platform, our association will continue to do its part by addressing any structural issues that may encourage such discriminatory behaviour. Different communities must accept their differences and establish mutual respect and balance in order to coexist. The goal should not be to homogenise society, as its beauty is found in its diversity.

We invite students who feel that they have been mistreated in the higher education setting or in the Netherlands in general to approach us, and we will do our best to aid and guide you towards a suitable entity that can help resolve your issues and provide further guidance in ensuring your personal wellbeing.

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