#HelloIamaMuslim – European action for understanding and empathy

Yesterday the European Milli Görüş organisations organized a public manifestation in several European countries. Milli Görüş is one of the largest European Muslim organisations and has strong ties to organisations in Turkey. They had a similar action last year ‘Allow me – I am Muslim’ distributing roses (but apples in Vienna) in several European cities.
#GestattenMuslim #HelloIamaMuslim #BuyrunBenMüslümanım #hallowijzijnmoslims

Rose and leaflet handed out in the Netherlands
Rose and leaflet handed out in the Netherlands

Allow me…
This report gives an impression of some of the conversations people had last year.:
European Street Action Day: Allow me – I am Muslim! | www.femyso.org

Usually the regional association taking part in this project distributed roses which is the symbol of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), but the regional association of Vienna in Austria endowed 250 kg of apples to visitors.
One student studying in Austria had a very nice conversation with an older couple. She complained about the lack of gentleness compared to Germany. In Germany she felt welcome by people surrounding her and was seen as a daughter but in Austria she unfortunately could not feel the same feelings. After the conversation, the elder couple said “Good Bye!” and were gone. After a few time they came back with coffee and cake to see her. Their statement was “now we know you and next time we see you we will welcome you as our daughter.

Another interesting happening is from Germany. An elder man came closer to a young man at the location and started to insult him by provoking with every kind of prejudice touching topics like terrorism, polygamy marriage etc. The elder man tried to challenge and deeply provoke the young man but failed after all in trying to see the young Muslim like a brutal one shown often in the media. His sentence later on was very strong: “I thought you do not mean it seriously by the things saying and representing your religion here. Now I know you are serious!”

All these stories and more than them happened on this street action day which shows how the society – Non-Muslims and Muslims – need to have a fair dialogue with each other. The invisible barriers between the citizens are bigger than expected and must be solve to reach at the end a society who comes closer to interact with each other and have a common sharing all day life.

This year the title changed slightly into ‘Hello, I am Muslim’. The following pictures give an impression of how it looked like:

The message

I had a brief talk with Mursel, a student at a Higher Vocational School in the south of the Netherlands. Clearly visible in his white jacket he is giving away flowers and talking to the public together with a few other young men in the centre of a Dutch provincial town in the south. According to him Muslims have become stigmatized because of all kind of incidents and with this action (which he is, he emphasized, European wide) they wanted to show a different side of Muslims.

The leaflet that was being distributed has a similar message. First of all it introduces IGMG and its participation in society. Secondly, it states that many people perceive Islam as threatening and that Muslims themselves are worried about the daily terror incidents, that most victims of terrorism are Muslims and that Muslims at the same time face prejudice. It is a development that tears up society and Muslims are part of society. Thirdly, although they see the rise in prejudice as caused by terrorism they state that the real reason of rejection has to do with the lack of contact between Muslims and non-Muslims. Fourthly, and concluding, this action is a sign and an invitation to engage in a conversation whereby non-Muslims can ask questions about Islam. Mutual understanding and empathy is a shared goal.

According to the leaflet the rose is a symbol of love, beauty and joy and symbolizes above all the prophet Muhammad in Islamic culture. While Muhammed is “a mercy for the world” the rose is the “queen of the flowers”.

Probably even more than the content of the leaflet and the symbolics of the flower, it is the visual presence of these young men that sends a strong message. In a friendly, smiling and open manner they try to engage with people which is the exact opposite of one of the many stigmas being imposed upon Muslims nowadays as intolerant, aggressive and imposing their convictions upon people without people having a say. Although I did hear one person afterwards saying that he still felt the presence of people who were visibly Muslim a violation of his desire to have a ‘religion-free’ public space, the appearance and presence of the Mursel and his friends was clearly there but in general they also held some distance in approaching people. Something I often see by the way in public manifestations like this from other Muslims (and in other countries) as well.


Mursel handing out roses
Mursel handing out roses

From the short period of time I observed the action the reaction of the general public appeared to be positive. Some people refused outright, but most of the people who were approached accepted the rose and the leaflet with a smile and engaged in a short conversation. When I walked away I heard several people walking in front of me discussing it. Some regretting such an action was necessary but appreciating it nevertheless.

The action shows that the traditional European Muslim organizations (or at least IGMG) are still able to mobilize a large of section of Muslims throughout Europe, in particular youth which to a certain extent nuances the often heard thesis that these organizations are irrelevant for Muslim youth in Europe.

Reactions among other Muslims we work with in our research were mixed. Many of them dismissed it for two reasons. First of all, as Muslims in the Netherlands are not responsible for violent actions, why should ‘we’ be engaging in action that is apologetic? According to them it was like other Muslims taking responsibility for actions of others. Second, since recently there have many attacks against Muslims and mosques (including even a fire bomb attack that is now being treated as a terror attack) why should ‘we’ be the ones showing a friendly face? In both cases people felt that with this action people are submitting to the stigmatizing frames being imposed upon Muslims and thought it was a useless thing to do anyway. Others however applauded the action and stated that it is a strong act of defiance to show love, empathy and understanding in times when one is being stigmatized and attacked. Several people also thought it to be a good sign of confident Muslims going out on the streets and reach out to people. Also many people appeared to appreciate this action because they are tired of the mutual prejudices and are longing for something positive. And of course many reactions that show a mix of the above.

Thanks to Mursel for the information, the rose and the leaflet.

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