Trouble in Europe
Issue 72 September 2010
I was on my way to northern Europe and decided to go by train. It amazes me every time I travel on the Eurostar how ingenious we humans are, by God’s grace. A 25 mile long tunnel beneath the seabed is not a small achievement.
In Brussels I had a meeting with a group of upcoming Muslim leaders to talk about how to train and develop the youth to face 21st century challenges. I have been running a Europe-wide training programme targeting 18-30 year old Muslims called “Learning to be a Peacemaker”. Belgium has a vibrant yet disconnected North African Muslim population, mainly running small shops and minding their own business. Their youth in large numbers are totally disengaged from the political process and far away from Islam. The conflict between culture and religion has repelled them from Islam. One of the young leaders said, “The biggest conflict is are they Moroccan Muslims living in Belgium or are they Belgian Muslims with Moroccan roots?” This is not a new debate for many of us, but those who are growing up and in their teens now are still being taught strange contradictions that only muddy further the already fractious identity debate. One of the leaders commented with utter resignation in her voice, “What is the point of all this? Unless problems in the Muslim world are solved, young Muslims in Europe will remain angry and may choose to disengage.”
I then travelled to Rotterdam. I had breakfast with a group of local elders, followed by a meeting with some young Dutch Muslims after the Friday prayers, but I wasn’t expecting to hear a Friday sermon in a mosque in the centre of the Hague in Malay! “For God sake, give the sermon in Dutch,” I said. My hosts were visibly embarrassed and didn’t know what to say. What is the point of a sermon if no one understands it?
The youth were eager to discuss politics with me. In the recent elections the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders had won many seats and was posed to become part of a coalition government. Wilders wanted to ban the Qur’an, send Muslims back to their countries of origin and those who stayed would be taxed extra if their women chose to wear the head scarf. “The irony is,” remarked one of the young Muslims who had converted to Islam, “Wilders proposes freedom for all except the Muslims.”
I then went to Dusseldorf, a German city that did not inspire me at all. My destination was a small town called Uppatal. My contact had arranged a meeting with the local mosque and a few other interested individuals. The man running the mosque was of Turkish origin and was under strict orders from the Turkish government not to involve himself with political activities, which suited me fine as I was proposing a training programme for the youth to become peacemakers. Nothing political about that.
I met a few Muslims from Ghana, Gambia and other African countries. Strangely, they did not show much interest in my proposal. Maybe they had come to Europe with other priorities. It was interesting to note that the Turkish Muslims were very comfortable with their lifestyle in Germany. They were able to inhabit both worlds: live and work in Germany; enjoy life in Turkey.
My next stop was Paris. Standing at the Gare du Nord train station I saw people of all shades and colours converge under one roof, yet no one took a moment to say hello to the next person. I had a meeting arranged with young French Muslims to discuss the Peacemaker programme, but they had something else in mind. They were still smarting from the burqa ban. The vast majority of French Muslim women do not wear any face covering, but they are in solidarity with women who do. For them it is a matter of principle. “And why should the state interfere! Does Sarkozy moan at topless pictures of his wife?” “Double standards,” exclaimed one of the Muslim youth. “The French State and many French people are simply racist,” another said.
On my way back to the railway station some of the young people accompanied me. As we were walking beside the Seine, I heard some shouting at the young women in our group. An older French woman had scoffed at them for wearing the hijab. “There is no room for you in our country; why don’t you go back to where you came from.” I ran after the woman and spoke to her in no uncertain terms. “Wake up and smell the coffee! We Muslims are here to stay. This is our home too. You may not want to accept that, but you should not be rude and racist.” She just walked off. I told the young Muslims they should never accept such intolerance and to always fight back. “But how can we fight a State, its media and its people?” asked a distraught young Muslim woman.
Words by Ajmal Masroor