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Islam and integration

Mirca Ognisanti

Abstract (English)

Integration and mutual understanding between population groups are fostered by broad and open discussion. Therefore, the City of Rotterdam's Projectbureau Sociale Integratie (Project Bureau Social Integration) developed an action plan 'Islam and Integration' which, via expert meetings, internal debates within the Muslim communities in Rotterdam, and information meetings has led to a series of public debates about the most important subjects relating to the theme Islam & Integration.


Abstract (italiano)

L'integrazione e la comprensione reciproca tra i gruppi all’interno di una stessa società sono favorite da una discussione ampia e aperta. Di conseguenza, il Projectbureau Sociale Integratie (Progetto di integrazione sociale)della città di Rotterdam ha sviluppato un piano d'azione chiamato “Islam e integrazione” che, attraverso riunioni con esperti, dibattiti all'interno delle Comunità musulmane residenti a Rotterdam ed incontri informativi ha dato vita a una serie di dibattiti pubblici sui temi più importanti che riguardano l'Islam e l'integrazione.

1.The practice

1.1 Description of the project

The project envisaged the implementation of several meetings in order to enhance the understanding and to make the communication easier between Muslim communities, local population and the administration. The activities entailed:

  • expert meetings: the Project started with 25 expert meetings, between February and May 2004,in order to determine which subjects were the most important points of conflict. These need to be addressed through the debate as they form actual obstructions to social cohesion and integration. The meetings indicated how the debates should be conducted and decided on the structure of the project. Two important conclusions emerged from these meetings: a) a number of sensitive subjects did not yet lend themselves to open discussion between Muslims and non-Muslims; b) public debates must suffer as little as possible from mutual misconceptions, preconceptions, and ignorance.i
  • nternal debates (within Muslim communities): In October 2004 a series of "internal debates" took place between Muslims (mainly of Turkish, Moroccan and Somali origin). The purpose of these debates was twofold: firstly, to provide clarity with regard to the position of Muslims in Rotterdam society, what are their aims and ambitions, and - most importantly - whether they want to and, if so how, they can contribute to Rotterdam society; secondly to facilitate the discussion on subjects which Muslims consider sensitive. The series of eleven internal debates - in which more than 1,500 Rotterdam Muslims took part - was rounded off with a closing meeting on 1 December 2004. On the basis of the internal debates it was concluded that several actions were expected from the (native) non-Muslim community in Rotterdam. For example, that the interest of non-Muslims for the situation of Muslims in Rotterdam needs to be increased. Also, organizations and institutions in Rotterdam must be more open to Muslims. Particular reference was made to the broad discrimination experienced on the labour market. However, during all the internal debates, it became apparent that there was a willingness to seek out the causes of the ignorance among the non-Muslims and of the rift which had occurred, also within the Muslim community. For instance, the internal debates concluded that Muslims needed to distance themselves more clearly from some of the controversial ideas or customs that cannot be attributed to Islam, but rather to traditions from the countries of origin. It was also said that certain Muslim institutions, such as certain mosques, imams and self-organisations regarded by many Muslims as an obstacle to integration, must change. Another conclusion concerned the limited knowledge which many Muslims have of the Dutch language, making it difficult for them to participate fully in Rotterdam society. More effort needs to be invested in language improvement, in the first place by the Muslim community itself.
  • Information meetings: In the second phase of the project, 10 information meetings were held in January 2005, attended by around 1,500 people. The meetings were directed at all Rotterdammers and were intended as preparation for the public debate. They provided participants with access to the same knowledge and background information about the subject in order to prepare for a fair and open debate. The meetings provided information to Muslims and non-Muslims with regard to each other's situation and backgrounds in order to close the mutual knowledge gaps that exist particularly in relation to subjects in which preconceptions or misconceptions play a part. The main themes were the diversity of Islam in Rotterdam and Rotterdam as a modern diverse city. In the first phase, a series of "internal debates" took place between Muslims in Rotterdam, in which more than 1500 Rotterdam Muslims participated.
  • Public debates: It emerged from the expert meetings and the internal debates that it is expected that Muslims make a stronger and concerted effort to integrate into Rotterdam society. It is expected that non-Muslims regard Muslims as equal fellow citizens of Rotterdam and that they make an active effort to involve Muslims more.The series of nine public debates took place in February and March 2005. The central subjects of the debates were those which had been determined during the internal debates and expert meetings: us and them' feeling amongst Muslims and non-Muslims; values and norms in the constitutional state and Islam; position of women/equality of the sexes/homosexuality; Islam as new religion in Rotterdam / the Church and the State; education and economic situation; and safety and terror (added as a topical issue inter alia in connection with the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh).
    Characteristically - it sounds logical but it never actually happens - the debate was conducted between citizens. It was not a debate between experts, or with bureaucrats, but for and by Rotterdammers. Each meeting was therefore lively and interactive, focusing on the exchange of viewpoints. All Rotterdam natives were welcome and were invited to give their opinion. In the same period, 20 smaller scale debates were held in various neighbourhoods. Throughout the whole period of the city debates, it was also possible to join in the debates online.
    The final public debate was held on 6 April 2005. The central question for this debate was how agreements can be made with each other and how the social basis for this can be further broadened. During the debates, the people of Rotterdam developed the building blocks for a Rotterdam 'social charter'. These were prioritised and presented by the public during the closing meeting. Alongside the Mayor of Rotterdam, Ivo Opstelten, and the alderman for Social Integration, Leonard Geluk, speakers were the Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, and the Islam expert and philosopher Tariq Ramadan.

1.2 Time, structure and steps of the project

The Project started with 25 expert meetings, between February and May 2004, when the municipalità began to think about the need to develop a serious debite about islam. The role of Islam in Rotterdam and the integration of Muslims are given special attention, since tensions exist between Muslims and non-Mus-lims. These tensions lead in practice to a rift between these population groups. The sometimes heated debate mixes abstract subjects (for example the separation of Church and State and the equality between men and women) with concrete controversies around the low degree of participation of women at various levels, domestic violence, the headscarf debate or the nuisance caused by young people parking near the mosque. These discussions generally take place behind closed doors, and shape majority attitudes towards Muslims. The city administration began to think that it is not wise to allow these discussions to keep simmering under the surface; thus the City considered instead they should be held openly so that the rift can heal.

1.3 Place and context

Rotterdam has a population almost half of which has foreign roots and which is rich in variety. There are big differences in skin colour, looks, ideas, religion, customs, behaviour and history. Rotterdam is an important destination for immigrants. The reception and integration of migrants however imply several challenges. On the one hand, the diverse population requires and provides new services, different shops and reform of the cultural life. The strengthening of these aspects and making use of the talents of foreignborn Rotterdammers are important for the social, cultural and economic climate in the city. On the other hand, the differences put pressure on community relations on the streets and in the neighbourhoods. This applies to values and norms and especially to behaviour in public areas.
Social integration Office therefore ranks high on the political agenda in Rotterdam. The City is working hard to strengthen the bond of Rotterdammers with each other and with the city. Yet, it is not simple to restore social cohesion. The city authorities cannot foster a cohesive social fabric by themselves but it is the citizen who plays the decisive role in this endeavour. Citizens must see, get and use opportunities for contacts outside their own group. They must learn to relate constructively to the heterogeneity of their street, their neighbourhood, their city and a modern society. For this reason all investments in mutual knowledge and understanding 'social integration' are directed at the advancement of active citizenship of all the population groups.

1.4 Target

Muslim communities, Rotterdam citizens.

1.5 Methodology

The Project aimed at promoting social cohesion and active citizenship throughout the organisation of debates and the creation of a public arena where urgent and delicate topics could be discussed.
The initiatives tried to enhance integration between Muslims and non-Muslims, throughout the creation of opportunities for dialogue. The methodology of the Project is based on the assumption that the dialogue is the instrument for the generation of knowledge on a specific culture. As a consequence the deeper knowledge of Muslim communities living in Rotterdam, allow Rotterdam native citizens to interact with Muslim on the basis of knowledge, by avoiding prejudice. The effort produced by the Project is linked to the willing of generating knowledge by dialogue and not by formal education or training activities.
In order to let understand deeper the method chosen, it can be useful to report the assumptions of the project listed in the final report:
“A better society calls for active citizenship by all Rotterdammers. Citizens must accept responsibility and participate in society.
There must be acceptance of the fact that Muslims (Islam) form part of, and will continue to form part of, Rotterdam society.
There must be respect for the differences between people. Rotterdam is made up of a large collection of cultures, which all deserve a place in Rotterdam society.
The Constitution forms the legal framework within which people must shape their own lives. Both Muslims and non-Muslims must respect the Dutch constitutional state.”

1.6 Authors, Financing and networks

Municipality of Rotterdam, Social Integration Project Bureau, Cooperation with Muslim communities (Moroccan, Turkish, Somali) is at the basis of the Project.


2. Hints for an evaluation