For my friends who don’t speak Dutch: here is the translation of a speech that Ahmed Marcouch, a Dutch-Moroccan muslim recently held in the Netherlands.
Often I talked with my Palestinian and other friends, many of them muslims, about the tensions that exist in my country with people who fear Islam and fear the influence of muslim migrants. Before this started to happen in the Netherlands, the murder of a Dutch filmmaker by an extremist muslim was one of the causes, I had already worked many years in Gaza, without realizing too much that it is a muslim country. I mean – I know most of my friends overthere are muslims, but it juist happens to be part of what they are, I have never seen it as a problem, and as I have differences with many Christians as well as with people who do not believe, I saw many differences between Palestinian muslims. Only when all the prejudice started in the Netherlands I thought – but all these things that are being said about Islam and about muslims, they just are not true. I know, because I know too many muslims, who are democratic, modern, tolerant people, even in Gaza, which is not an easy country to live in. So I made it my mission to get in contact with Dutch muslims, I made new friends, I support the migrant groups, the refugees in the Netherlands, I was invited for many discussions and iftar meals, in mosques, in parts of the city where many migrants live. One of the people I got to know, and I admire him greatly, is Ahmed Marcouch who is the first muslim mayor in the Netherlands (we will soon have a second one, of the second largest city in the Netherlands: Rotterdam)
So here is his speech:
Ahmed Marcouch, Mayor of Amsterdam-Slotervaart held a speech for the Labor Party, on religion and social-democracy, November 22nd, 2008, at the Utrecht University.
My father came walking.
He came to Europe.
Here, right here, in The Netherlands, he stopped and started working.
That was a wise decision.
After several years of staying in The Netherlands, he collected me from Morocco . I was 10 years old. This was a turning point in my life. Because of the fact he brought me to The Netherlands, I got chances and opportunities, which I would not have gotten anywhere else. Freedom, prosperity, but, above anything else, the opportunity to grow, both spiritually and intellectually.
For this, I always have been grateful to my father, but to Dutch society as well. I think this gratitude will last forever.
You have invited me here, to this conference on social-democracy and religion, to speak about Islam. I will do that with the greatest pleasure. I will do that very consciously and seriously as well. The question how Dutch society, Dutch politics, should approach Islam is urgent, important, and of many consequences.
This is actually the fourth time in Dutch history that religion has become an important issue in society. This is the fourth time we are being confronted with the question how we should handle a religion. The last three times in history, the way we answered this question has been crucial to our society as a whole. I am not exaggerating when I say that those three answers we have given in the past have defined Dutch society, and that those answers have made us into who we are today. I am almost sure that this will be the case with Islam as well. The way Dutch society and Dutch politics will approach Islam will be of great influence on our society in the future.
The first time, this question was asked by the Reformatory Movement. The answer was a war between The Netherlands and Spain , which lasted for eighty years. After winning this war, the Dutch resisted the temptation of creating an exclusively Protestant society. Instead, they created a nation which was founded on religious freedom. Thus, they became the most liberal country in Europe.
The second time, it was the Catholic Emancipation which put Dutch society to the test. Religious freedom implied equal rights for all religions. Dutch Catholics demanded this equality. Society subsequently recognized this equality and founded the appropriate institutions. This was the beginning of a process which would break down the walls between the different religions.
The third time was the tragic prosecution of Jewish citizens by the German occupants. Dutch society unfortunately did not succeed in protecting its Jewish citizens against National-Socialist violence and oppression. I still think Dutch society carries a debt towards the Jewish people for that. However, there have been many Dutch citizens who put their life on the line for Dutch Jews; just consider the brave actions of many Dutch people who – whilst the Dutch government stayed passive – protected Jewish citizens.
This time, which is the fourth, Islam is the very challenge. Islam, the religion which has been brought to our country as an unexpected gift, by Moroccan and Turkish laborers (and let us not forget all the refugees from Iran, Somalia, Bosnia, Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan). The religion which was invisible for a long time, because of the little improvised mosques in which older men met for prayer, conversation, and to socialize. The very same religion which manifested itself when the second generation asked their own questions about it.
A quite normal religion.
Islam has many similarities with Judaism and Christianity. Islam, as well, finds its origin in the Middle-East, and is monotheistic. Jews, Christians, as well as Muslims believe in the same God, the God of Abraham.
Islam is a religion for ordinary people. They earn their living, they love, they raise their children the best way they know how to. They try their best to compromise between their religion and modern Western society. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they do not.
Muslims and their civilization are in a difficult position. They have postponed their relationship with modern society too long. They still have to establish and consolidate this relationship. Modernization, for Muslims, is sometimes a painful and tiresome process.
The greatest pain has been caused by violence. The House of Islam has experienced this pestilence of violence for one generation now. An extremist minority commits violent crimes in the name of Islam. Many people have fallen victim to this violence, Muslims in the first place, but many others as well.
I truly am ashamed by this extremist violence. I wish I could make it all go away. I feel guilty towards the victims. I consider it a personal responsibility for all people in general, and for Muslims in particular, to do everything in their power to end this pointless blood shedding.
A happy ending.
Nevertheless, the endpoint of this historical process, in which Islam and modern society finally meet, has been determined, I think. Just like Judaism and Christianity, Islam will establish a relationship with modern society. Islamic civilization will gradually transform into several modern societies.
Ladies and gentlemen, maybe you think I am this positive about a happy ending, because I think Islam is resilient. I will not deny that. Islam is a religion which has “Think independently” as a first commandment, and “Work for justice” as a second. Such a religion does not have to be afraid of a confrontation with modern society.
However, I trust modern society and Western civilization. It is the attraction of modern accomplishments which guarantees a happy ending. Freedom, prosperity, the striving for personal happiness, and democracy and justice on top of that, are irresistible.
Barack Obama said it very well the moment he addressed all citizens of the world: “We walk different paths, but our destination is the same”.
The Dutch Muslim.
There are people in our society who warn us against the Islamization of The Netherlands. I pity them, because they are not able to make a simple calculation. Islam will always be a minority religion in The Netherlands. They have no idea about the things Dutch Muslims care about. Dutch Muslims do not want to change Dutch society in something else. They just want to participate in Dutch society, in an equal manner. Those people underestimate the power and resilience of our society. They actually are not patriotic at all.
In reality, the opposite is happening before our very eyes. We can witness the westernization of Muslims in The Netherlands. I am not talking about the Dutch translation of the Quran, or about imams preaching in Dutch – how ever important those initiatives may be. I am talking about Islamic education in Dutch universities and colleges. I am talking about the endeavor of imams to learn the language and to understand Dutch society. I am talking about dialogue. However, above everything else, talking about the ordinary Muslim who is trying to combine his faith with a successful existence in The Netherlands; in this secular, multi-religious society, and who is gradually succeeding in doing this.
The westernization of Dutch Muslims knows many forms. Some Muslims abandon their faith. Others form liberal movements within Islam. We should appreciate all those people who are building bridges, more than we are doing right now. Orthodox Muslims as well are working on finding a way to participate in Dutch society. Many people ignore this.
We, ladies and gentlemen, allowed our Secretary of Integration, Ellen Vogelaar, to be criticized relentlessly when she said that Islam, in the future, would be a part of Dutch tradition. Of course, she was right. Or rather, she was much too careful in her choice of words: Islam already is a Dutch religion. It is the religion of a group of Dutch people who are trying to find a compromise between their faith and Dutch society. So they should.
For the fourth time in history, The Netherlands has to determine the relationship between religion and society. This time, Islam is the issue, Islam is the one asking questions, Islam is the challenge. Dutch politics have to respond. They have to give directions to the local and national governments. They have to give directions to society.
Freedom of religion has to determine the way Dutch politics, the Dutch government, and Dutch society will address Islam. Freedom of religion is a fundamental right. A fundamental right of every person, of every single citizen.
Freedom of religion is a fundamental right, and, therefore, it stands above everyday majority politics. It is a significant, formal, part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and of most national constitutions. This means that freedom of religion is a basic, and essential, if you will, element of any democracy.
Freedom of religion is an individual right, not the right of any group or church. Any individual is free to believe whatever he wants, whether his beliefs are religious or not. The individual has the right to live and express his beliefs. It is the individual who has the right to join a (religious) community. It is the individual who has the right to allow this community to be organized, to establish itself, to ensure its existence.
Because of the freedom of religion, the government has to treat all religions and beliefs equally. The government should not discriminate. This essentially should be the case in any given democracy. The individual has the choice to make a difference, to believe in something, or to believe in something else – or not to believe at all.
Freedom of religion gives any Muslim in The Netherlands the right to express his faith. It gives him the right to become a member of a religious community and to work on behalf of this community.
It gives him the right to express his faith openly, verbally, in his gestures, in his symbols. It gives him the very right to debate with people of other religions and beliefs. However, it also gives him the right to debate with other Muslims, about one interpretation or another. And – last but not least – it gives him the right to give up his faith.
Freedom of religion gives Islam the same rights and entitlements as any other established religion. Islam in The Netherlands has the same rights as any religion: Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism.
The decent society.
Religious issues are very important: to a religious person, his faith is the essence of his identity.
If someone, anyone, does not feel as if he is taken seriously in his faith, as if he is being discriminated against, or not considered equal, or as if he is considered backward, or mistrusted, then, this does not only affect his religious experience. He feels humiliated. He feels his self-esteem being affected by it.
The way we address religion is not only a freedom issue. It is, in a profound way, an issue of dignity, of human dignity.
If an individual expresses himself about someone’s religion in a condescending way, that is annoying. However, it is not the end of the world. You have to be able to deal with it. If the government, the institutions of our society, or the public opinion are doing this, it is a different matter. It becomes more difficult not to take it personally. Humiliation comes in gradually. You start to believe you are a lesser citizen because of your faith, and that it will always stay that way.
It seems, then, as if society – as a price for being a full member of it – demands self denial from you.
The six elements of Islam politics.
I think Dutch Islam politics should contain six elements. Elements which complement each other. Elements which only work together. (1) Welcome Islam. (2) Fight extremist violence. (3) Allow some space to orthodox elements of Islam. (4) Support the emancipation of women and gays. (5) Stimulate and enforce debate. (6) Fight discrimination.
(1) We need full recognition and equality of Islam and of the rights of Muslims, by politics, the Prime-Minister, the government, the political parties in the centre, and Mayors. This way, we can show society that we are serious about our constitution and about the basic human rights. The people who are provoking fear of Islam would have less power. It would reassure Muslims and make them stronger as individuals.
(2) The fundamental separation of church and state implies that a religious community has no right to use violence, has no right or vote in legislation, and no right to punish. These means are exclusively available to the state. The government has to prosecute anyone who commits crime or violence in the name of Islam, or anyone who threatens to use violence in the name of Islam. This goes for terrorism, but for violence against people who renounce their faith, abuse of women, female circumcision, vengeance in the name of honor, arranged marriages without consent of the people involved, and violence against gays, as well. The government should be able to count on the co-operation of Muslim communities in the process.
(3) The value of religious freedom in a society can be measured against the way it treats orthodox religious people. They are “odd”, a “nuisance”. However, exactly in this area a society should prove itself. Tolerance towards the orthodox religious individual is essential. It is necessary to negotiate about boundaries, to talk about compromise. There are boundaries in tolerance towards orthodox Islam. Either way, tolerance should end the moment the rights of others are being violated.
(4) As far as women’s rights and gay rights are concerned, many Muslim families and Muslim communities still have a lot of work to do. Politics, government, and society should disapprove of discrimination explicitly and convincingly. If the law is being broken, punishment should be the consequence. Muslim women, and Muslim gays should emancipate and fight for their rights, being morally and practically supported in the process.
(5) Public debate and Dutch freedom are good for Islam. Dialogue (Job Cohen), criticism (Ayaan Hirsi Ali), provocative expression (Theo van Gogh) all deserve a place in society and within Islam. Islam can handle criticism, sharp criticism even. It is not made of card board! Public debate about Islam is indispensible. Universities should perform Islamic theological research. Do not forget: God does not need to be protected from insults; He is above that.
(6) Discrimination against people, based on their race, sex, sexual predisposition, origin, age, or religion is prohibited. This is, or should be, a fundamental value in every democracy. It goes without saying that discrimination against Muslims has increased in the last few years. The government should prosecute in case of discrimination. The government should take measures in preventing and compensating discrimination as far as the job market is concerned.
Social-Democracy has to do it.
The leader of the Labor Party, Wouter Bos, already stated this a while ago. Social-Democracy should do it. Social-Democracy should take a leading role in normalizing the relationship between society and Islam. Social-Democracy has to take over the power from right-winged politics. It has to express its vision on integration of Muslims in Dutch society in a very specific and clear manner, towards the members of the party, as well as towards all Dutch citizens.
The Labor Party is the party of the working people, of the less fortunate, and of the people who have heard and understood the call for justice. Immigrants in The Netherlands are a part of this. Dutch Muslims are a part of this.
This should not exclusively be the task of the Labor Party. It should be the assignment of all Dutch political parties in the centre – because it is about the realization of a basic right. However, the Liberal Party has allowed itself to be taken hostage, as the Christian-Democrats hesitate, because of their own identity.
The Labor Party is the party of emancipation. The Labor party always has been the party of self-fulfillment and self-emancipation. It has always supported organizations which strive for this. The Labor Party is on the side of emancipation of laborers, women, gays, immigrants, and, yes, Muslims.
Proud of The Netherlands.
Society has to earn the pride of its citizens. Politics should not take this lightly.
I am proud of The Netherlands. This society deserves my utmost respect. I am proud that freedom of religion is such a fundamental value in Dutch society. I am proud of the fact that Dutch society has allowed the big changes in the last few centuries to take place without violence. I am proud of the fact that it has connected the pragmatism of freedom, prosperity, and happiness, to justice. I am proud that it has fought totalitarianism and that it actively has contributed to the victories of democracy.
I am convinced of the fact that Dutch society will make the most of the fourth religious issue in its history. It will do so, by embracing its new Muslim inhabitants, being free and equal citizens, who do not have to deny who they are.
Ladies and gentlemen,
My father came walking. Without announcing it, he entered modern society. Here, here in The Netherlands, he stopped and went to work. Ever since he brought me here from Morocco, I am continuing his journey, without fear or resentment.