Breaking Through in the Netherlands

Posted on February 5, 2008


Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008


When Famile Arslan showed up for her first day of work, the receptionist pointed her toward the broom closet. “‘The cleaning supplies are over there,'” Arslan recalls being told. “I had to say, ‘No, I’m not the cleaner. I’m the lawyer.'” In fairness to the receptionist, Arslan was making history that morning, as the first attorney to wear a hijab in the Netherlands. Ten years on, she has her own practice in the Hague. Her name’s on the door, her cat Hussein pads around and a veiled assistant fields phone calls. “People keep telling me how successful I am,” says Arslan. “But I’m not all that successful. Had I not been a migrant woman in a hijab, I could have gone much further.” Still, when younger Muslims ask Arslan how to climb the professional ladder, she’s optimistic. “If you think strategically, this is a great time to be a European Muslim,” she argues. “Everyone’s focused on us, so it’s an opportunity — if you take it.”

For European Muslims, the era after Sept. 11, 2001, has been both the best and worst of times. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have strained relations between Europe’s governments and its Muslims; there has been a rise in Islamophobic incidents; the specter of Islamic radicalism dominates media debates and shapes government policy. But the era in which Muslims became a feared minority also saw another trend: the rise of a Euro-Muslim middle class. A Gallup poll last year found European Muslims to be at least as likely to identify themselves as British, French or German as the general populations. Migrants’ children have begun moving from corner shops and factory floors to offices. They swap business cards at Muslim networking events like Britain’s Emerald Network or Holland’s Toward a New Start, a group for Moroccans who, in the words of founder Ahmed Larouz, are “the sort of people who say, ‘I want to be CEO of Philips.'” Parisian professionals go to Les Dérouilleurs, a networking salon whose name (the Un-Rusty Ones) jabs at the stereotype of les rouilleurs — jobless Maghrebi youth “rusting away” in the banlieues.

That’s all good news. More disheartening was news in January that the first person convicted under British laws targeting the preparation of terrorist acts was Sohail Qureshi, a 29-year-old dentist from London. That followed the arrest in Britain last summer of three doctors and an engineer on suspicion of attempting to strike Glasgow’s airport with a car containing propane-gas canisters. This has challenged the stereotype of jihadis as disenfranchised madrasah students, presenting Europe with a troubling question: Why would those who have made a success of their professional lives be drawn to violent extremism?

The answer lies in the subtle nuances of Western Muslim lives. What non-Muslim Europeans often see as alienation among their Muslim populations is often integration in disguise. The second and third generation are more confident Europeans than their migrant parents — and they’re more confident Muslims, too. In the media, debates over Muslim women being allowed to wear veils in schools, courts and government jobs have been read as a clash between European and alien values.

In fact, they’re signs of Westernization, flaring up when the daughters of Muslim migrants, armed with European educations and passports, edge toward the mainstream. The debates over the veil are waged not by downtrodden housewives, but by women who are studying, teaching or working as lawyers. Fatima Zibouh, a Ph.D. candidate and researcher at the University of Liège in Belgium, says her hijab is “not a flag or a symbol, merely a manifestation of my spiritual life.” A British teaching assistant, sacked for wearing the face-covering niqab, invoked not Shari’a or tradition but her concern for the rights of career women: the ruling, she said, made her “fearful of the consequences for Muslim women in this country who want to work.” [more]