Much more than just Muslims

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at

"I'm afraid you are slowly turning into an Islamist", says an Egyptian friend after a lengthy discussion on Dutch politics. His remark shocks me. I've been a secular leftist all my life. Since my university years, now almost 30 years ago, I have considered the Islamists as my arch-enemies.

The fact that they took power in my country Sudan and eventually forced me to leave as a refugee has not exactly improved my relationship with them. 

But having lived in the Netherlands for more than ten years, I am gradually realising that I have woken up to a completely different political situation, where familiar things have taken a different meaning and where old enemies appear in new clothes.

Centre stage
In Europe I thought to have come to a place where I did not have to worry about religion mixing with politics anymore. So imagine my surprise. In the years that I have lived here, I have witnessed how Islam has taken centre stage in politics. Just like back home, but in a totally different way.

The indigenous Dutch population started to worry about the integration of Muslim immigrant minorities. After 9/11 in particular this became a major political issue. Right-wing politicians emerged to attribute all the alleged problems of integration and more to the religion of Islam. Mr Geert Wilders' Freedom Party became enormously successful; so much so that the present minority government in the Netherlands depends on its support.

For a long time I didn't mind. When Ayaan Hirsi Ali was applauded by the Dutch people for her criticism of Islam, I appreciated her courage at least, as a brave young woman who dared to speak her mind! But gradually a chill set in.

Excessive and bizarre
The atmosphere in the Netherlands changed considerably. As an immigrant I could really notice it. Increasingly often, I felt I was being treated as a stereotypical Muslim, something I never was nor wanted to be. When I failed to fill in a municipality form in time, it was suggested it had something to do with my being a Muslim. Boys in the neighbourhood caused trouble in the streets and then it was ascribed to their being Muslims.

I have always been an enthusiastic proponent of religious criticism, but in the Netherlands I was confronted with such excessive and bizarre objections to Islam that I eventually found myself defending the religion of my parents. It was something I would not even have dreamt of a few years ago.

We immigrants from Muslim countries have come here from a vast diversity of religious, ideological and political backgrounds. We came as nationalists, socialists, Islamists, conservatives, liberals, Shiites, Sunnis, Ahmadiyya and so on. But here in the Netherlands, we are all lumped together as 'Muslims' holding the same set of questionable reactionary views.

Two herds
Your identity is, unfortunately, not only what you think you are, but also what others think of you. Like the vast majority of immigrants, it is my impression that all of the diversity, differences and individuality of immigrants is being reduced to only one single component of their culture which is Islam, while ignoring the enormously varying interpretations and manifestations of Islam itself.

The populist anti-Islam political euphoria is indeed forcing independent individuals to seek a herd to belong to and that is, unfortunately again, equally valid for both Dutch and immigrants.

If the present polarisation continues and other facts and factors influencing immigrants continue to be ignored, immigrants from Muslim countries will eventually all turn into Muslims. And 'Islam' will not be a religion anymore as it used to be, nor a mere ideology as Mr Wilders wants to see it. It will become an ethnic identity that is shaped to distinguish us as a group.