European Hyphens Lessen Fear of The Other

    {Hyphenated Europeans – like hyphenated Americans – help stymie the fear that angry right wingers – European and Muslim – want to breed among us, argues Mona Eltahawy.} AMSTERDAM — My niece and nephew were born in the U.S. They are called first generation Americans. Had they been born in Denmark, they’d be called second generation immigrants. In the Netherlands, they would be known as allochtoon (foreign) to distinguish them from the autochtoon (native) Dutch of usually Caucasian descent. Similar reminders of their immigrant roots would follow them throughout other parts of Western Europe. That, in a nutshell, explains the difference in attitude and the struggles over the slippery concept of identity in the United States and in Europe. So, how refreshing to be invited to speak on a panel called Global Citizens at the Ramadan Festival in the Netherlands last week, and to discuss what it means to be a global citizen in a country convulsing with questions over identity. Those questions centre on a concept familiar to those of us who have emigrated to the United States: the hyphenated existence. I moved to the U.S. from Egypt in 2000, and I’m now eligible for citizenship. A U.S. passport would seal a description I often hear of myself as an Egyptian-American writer, or a Muslim-American commentator. There have been no agonizing discussions over American identity and whether I too can claim it. That hyphen is a bridge that I happily walk across. So I went to the Netherlands in search of that hyphen and happily found it in my hosts and fellow panelists. The Ramadan Festival is the brainchild of MEX-IT, a consulting firm that works to overcome cultural barriers and promote successful integration of immigrant communities in Europe. Its founders, Dutch-Moroccan entrepreneurs Ahmed Larouz and Mohamed Baba, are quintessential examples of the successful use of that hyphen. They launched the Ramadan Festival three years ago to reduce tension between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities in the Netherlands — after a young Muslim man murdered filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. It brought together the two communities to discuss, debate, and to break the fast together. As Ramadan Festival project coordinator Bastiaan Verberne said, Those who fear the other usually have never sat down and shared a meal with them. A convert to Islam who is married to a Dutch-Moroccan woman, he, too, comfortably embraces his hyphenated existence. This year the festival was held in 40 cities in the Netherlands, and 7 cities in Belgium. My fellow panelists at the event at Erasmus University in Rotterdam were examples of both the successful hyphenated identity, and also the changing status of some of the children of immigrants to the continent. The fathers of the panel moderator and two of my fellow panelists moved their families from Morocco to France and from Pakistan to the United Kingdom to work in car factories. Their children are now professionals and stellar role models. Our moderator was Malika Lahnait, a French-Moroccan lawyer in Paris whose questions about multiple identities formed the heart of our discussion. Her sister Fatima spoke of life as a high-school teacher in a Paris suburb full of immigrants, their children and the rage and alienation of those who don’t feel a right to that hyphenated existence. She was optimistic that just by being there every day, she was a positive role model for her students. British-Pakistani journalist and broadcaster Sarfraz Manzoor passionately decried growing segregation in British schools. His paean to the hyphenated existence was to insist that he was a third British, a third Pakistani and a third Muslim. There was no need to choose. Add many drops of American culture to that mix too — Sarfraz recently published a book about how Bruce Springsteen saved his life. The hyphen in Europe today is a blinking Exit sign promising a way out of futile arguments over identity. The only winners are the right wing — on both sides. A growing vocal and violent political right wing has been on the ascendancy in Europe for years, preying on fears of the other. In Denmark it’s the Danish People’s Party, which has seats in parliament. Switzerland’s most powerful party is the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, which wants to expel foreign nationals who commit crimes. Its poster for that campaign shows three white sheep kicking out a black one. It has been copied by Germany’s neo-Nazi NDP Party. Dutch right wing politicians have made a similar argument for expelling foreign criminals and one has even questioned the loyalty of two junior ministers in the Dutch cabinet because they are dual nationals. There is a dangerously virulent right wing among Europe’s various Muslim communities that also preys on fear of the other. or rather the infidel. Its disciples killed 191 people in Madrid train attacks in March, 2004. The Muslim man who killed Van Gogh in November 2004 in Amsterdam was another disciple. That Muslim right wing targeted London in July 2005 when British-born terrorists blew up Underground stations and a bus. It was there again in the attack on Glasgow airport and the failed car bombings in London earlier this year. Over the past few months, the Muslim right wing was behind various alleged terrorist attacks thwarted by arrests in Germany, Denmark and Sweden. The antidotes to those two rights wings are the Europeans who happily live the hyphenated life. The Dutch government’s scientific research council said as much in its recent report, Identification with the Netherlands, which advised that having two passports wasn’t a problem, urged the scrapping of the terms allochtoon and autochtoon as counterproductive, called on the Dutch government to support role models, and encourage children of different ethnic groups to school together. The organizers of the Ramadan Festival and my fellow panelists in Rotterdam were the embodiment of that WRR report. The hyphenated identity is the victory of diversity over the reductionism of the immigration debate in Europe. Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.

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