Europe's Muslims Treated as Outsiders

Moroccan Family Seeks Acceptance

By Keith B. Richburg

Washington Post Foreign Service

Thursday, November 27, 2003; Page A01

UTRECHT, Netherlands -- Fatima Yaakoub, 24 years old,

born in Morocco, living in the Netherlands since she

was 12, says she wants nothing more than to fit in.

She works hard, cleaning offices in the early

mornings, going to college during the day, taking

English classes on weekends -- trying to get ahead,

trying to do what is expected of a good citizen in her

adopted homeland.

But three years ago, she began wearing a head scarf,

the sign of a devout Muslim woman, and got a rapid

education on how much of an outsider she remains.

Whenever she left her largely Muslim immigrant

neighborhood, she discovered that the scarf, known in

Arabic as a hijab, marked her as a subjugated Muslim

woman, a foreigner, or buitenlander in Dutch. And

since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the

discovery of al Qaeda cells among Western Europe's 15

million Muslims, Yaakoub has found that the scarf

raises suspicions among native Dutch that she is a

terrorist, a threat.

"They treat me like trash," Yaakoub said.

In the pharmacy where she worked, some customers saw

the scarf and said, "I want to be treated by a Dutch

girl." Her co-workers were no better, she recalled,

laughing at her hijab, calling her names. She recalls

hiding alone most days in the bathroom to cry. She

switched to another pharmacy, and then to another. But

the abuse continued.

She gave up studying to be a pharmacist, and switched

to a course in administration -- a career, she said,

that would require less contact with the public.

Yaakoub's experience offers a glimpse into the

conflict between Europe's historically Christian,

increasingly secular societies and the large -- and

often alienated -- Muslim populations.

Many of the Muslims were invited here three decades

ago as cheap temporary workers who would one day go

home. But they stayed on and became an integral part

of European society, making Islam the continent's

second-largest religion. Today it is common to see a

mosque near a medieval church; Arab restaurants and

food stores abound on inner-city streets.

Muslims represent the fastest growing-group in Europe,

a boom fueled by high birth rates as much as

immigration. But on average they remain far behind the

traditional populations economically and socially.

In France, North Africans often live in bleak housing

developments where crime and rape are depressingly

common. Here in the Netherlands, government statistics

show that the percentage of low-income households is

three times higher among immigrants than native Dutch.

At the same time, some of Europe's Muslims have

prospered and found a place in society, running for

public office, intermarrying. But the more common

existence is as a minority, separate and apart, as

revealed by a look at one Muslim household in one town

in the center of the Netherlands.

One Family's Story

The Yaakoub family consists of father, mother and

eight children -- four boys and four girls. The older

children have married and moved away. Remaining

together are Fatima, her parents and three younger

brothers, who live in a large, eight-room home in a

working-class neighborhood of Utrecht.

The sitting room is in traditional Moroccan style --

it is long, and sofas with triangular cushions covered

in blue and gold line the walls. Verses from the Koran

hang prominently on the wall in gold-colored frames.

Beneath one verse is a Sony television, and atop the

set the remote control sits next to a string of brown

wooden prayer beads. The TV, connected to a satellite

dish, is usually tuned to al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based

network that is the family's connection to the

Arabic-speaking world.

  The patriarch is Mohand Yaakoub, 67. He passes the

time tending fruit trees in his back yard, looked

after by his wife, who like many traditional Muslim

women stays out of sight when male visitors call.

Mohand came to the Netherlands in 1957 after answering

an ad in a newspaper in Morocco. "I thought, okay,

I'll go to Holland for two or three years," he said,

reaching up to stroke his white whiskers. "I came here

as a young guy," he added, "and now I'm old."

His was a typical story of those early immigrants. He

put in long hours running plastics and metal equipment

in a succession of factories that eventually numbered

14. In between, he got odd jobs repairing vacuum

cleaners and washing machines. He never got a chance

for formal education or even language classes; the

Dutch he speaks was picked up in the factories.

Still, he feels he was treated well in those days.

"The people were so kind," he recalled of those early

days. "There was only a little racism."

He took money back to Morocco during vacations, but it

was never enough for a family that continued to grow.

"I only saw him for six weeks during his vacation,"

Fatima said. "For me, it was really hard. I needed his

love. . . . We always needed money. We always needed

food. And we had to wait for my father to send it."

Eventually Mohand brought his family to the

Netherlands under a unification program, as many

Muslims did. His story was typical in another way: The

back-breaking labor took a toll on his health, and he

now has multiple ailments.

His children's experience has been different. While

Mohand came as an adult and viewed the Netherlands as

a place to make money, Fatima arrived as an excited

youngster knowing she would make her life here.

She enrolled in public schools, learned the language

and made Dutch friends. For many years, she recalled,

"I was just like a Dutch girl, with the clothes, and

my hair down." She graduated from high school and

entered college, with her eye on becoming a


But she had spent her first 12 years in an Islamic

society, and some of its customs stayed with her. As

she grew older, she began to feel uncomfortable with

Dutch practices concerning men and women. "I always

got the wrong attention," she recalled. Men often

looked at her, or tried to talk to her, to compliment

her on her appearance.

Three years ago, during the holy month of Ramadan,

Fatima said, "I went to a lot of mosques, and heard a

lot of things." She heard that the head scarf is for

protection of women against unwanted male attention.

She heard that it denotes modesty and adherence to


Many people in the Netherlands believe that Muslims

like Fatima are forced to wear the head scarf by their

families. In her case, she said, she was the one who


The scarf deflected male advances, but it also brought

another, unwanted type of attention -- abuse, insults

or just quiet looks that communicated suspicion.

Sometimes at the pharmacy, where she was serving the

equivalent of an internship, the workers would sit

together during breaks. She recalled the conversations

shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the

United States. "I'm a Muslim. I don't have a bomb

under my head scarf," she told her colleagues. "I also

don't endorse what those people did to the twin

towers, because that is against Islam." But all they

said was "Muslims this" and "Muslims that."

At home at night, she talked to her father. 

 "Try to hold on," he told his daughter. "And if they

continue to treat you this way, you can take off your

head scarf." But Fatima was stubborn. "I do this for

my belief," she said. "I love Islam. Islam for me is

everything. Allah for me is everything. I couldn't

give it up."

Besides, "even if I get rid of my hijab, I'm still

Moroccan. They still see my black hair. They still see

my brown eyes. So why bother?" she said. She

eventually quit her pharmaceutical studies.

Fatima said she worries about how life here is

affecting her youngest brother, Ahmed, a high school

student who also works odd jobs, such as in fast-food


Like many teenagers, he likes to go to clubs for

dancing. But a young Moroccan in the Netherlands knows

it is likely that he will be refused admission at the

door. Sometimes they tell him it's too crowded. Once,

they told him it was because of his haircut. "Of

course, it's because I'm Moroccan," said Ahmed, a

quiet, stocky youth.

He said he likes to hang out with friends in the park.

But he knows the police will tell a group of young

Moroccan men to move along, or fine them for

loitering. Sometimes he talks with girls in Internet

chat rooms, has good conversations, "and then they

find out you're Moroccan, and that's it."

At the house, Ahmed recounted these stories in a

matter-of-fact tone; facing discrimination is a fact

of life for him. But Fatima is concerned. "He's really

angry," she said, after he left the room to go off

with a friend. "He's 18, and that's a difficult age.

And he goes to discos and he can't get in, and he

comes home and I can see the anger."

Legal Conflicts

While Europe is slowly moving away from its Christian

roots, with church attendance in decline, many of its

Muslims cling strongly to their faith and are

asserting their right to live openly according to

their religious beliefs. For governments that hold

that religion and government must be separate, this

can bring important policy challenges and accusations

of favoritism.

In France, which has Europe's largest Muslim

population -- more than 5 million -- the government is

considering a law that would ban students from wearing

head scarves in schools, saying it threatens the

foundation of the French secular state. There is no

such law banning crosses or other Christian symbols.

In Germany, with 3.5 million Muslims, a woman was

refused a job as a teacher because she wore a head

scarf. When she sued in court and won in September,

most German states initiated legislation to ban head

scarves from public schools.

In Italy, a court stirred controversy in October by

ruling in favor of a Muslim father who contended that

a small-town school could not display a crucifix in

class, a common practice for generations in Italian


At the same time, concern about crime in cities that

have large Muslim populations has helped fuel the rise

of anti-immigrant politicians, notably Jean-Marie Le

Pen in France and Pim Fortuyn here. Fortuyn was

assassinated in 2002, and both his and Le Pen's

parties lost national elections that year. But in both

countries, left-wing governments that many citizens

considered too soft on crime and immigration were

replaced with right-of-center ones promising a tougher


For many practicing Muslim families in Europe, like

Fatima Yaakoub's, a parallel clash is the one within

-- that is, how to maintain adherence to Islam while

living in Europe's open societies.

The challenge is particularly acute in the

Netherlands, with its tradition of tolerance, whether

it is prostitution or use of soft drugs. At the same

time, head scarves have become common on the streets

of some towns and cities; they are often seen next to

bare midriffs or billboards openly using sexuality for


The Netherlands is home to nearly a million Muslims,

more than 5.7 percent of the total population, and

Muslims now outnumber Calvinists. But the country

remains sharply divided. People talk openly of "black

schools" and "black zones," meaning schools and

neighborhoods where nonwhites are in the majority.

Said Brenda Hassell, a social worker who has frequent

contact with Muslims in a predominantly immigrant

neighborhood of Utrecht, "As much as we are called a

multicultural city, we are living next to each other,

and not with each other."

Now Fatima Yaakoub has made another decision that will

change her life; she has become engaged. "I thought,

okay, I'm 24 -- I'll marry in about two or three


She plans to marry a young man she met in Morocco, a

Muslim, so they can have a family based on Islam. She

had met a young Dutch man at school who was willing to

convert to marry her, she said, but "if he wants to be

a Muslim, he has to do it for himself."

Now she is waiting for her fiance to arrive, which she

hopes will happen before the end of this year. She

feels most comfortable marrying someone from her

homeland, yet at the same time, she is so far removed

from Morocco that she would not feel comfortable

living there.

She feels neither Dutch nor Moroccan, but something in


"Actually, I don't have an identity," she said.

"Because when I'm in Morocco, people say, 'That's the

girl who lives in Holland.' And here, I'm not a Dutch

girl. So I don't have a place."

"At the moment, I'm nothing," she said. "I'm only



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