This has been a very rewarding two weeks in England. After participating in a seminar on Monday 11 June I stayed for two more weeks. I wanted to do a follow up on my last visit to London, Birmingham and Leicester when I spoke with Muslims from the Netherlands who migrated to these cities. Read about that visit HERE and HERE. Short impression of this last visit follows below.
The seminar in London was meant to work on a proposal for a new research project on integration (yes another one). A few people already know what this will be about but it is in such a premature stadium that I cannot say too much about it, except that it will be innovative, topical and so on…of course.
I had several meetings with Salafi Muslims from the Netherlands (from different backgrounds). These meetings were in a friendly atmosphere; with a few people it was mostly catching up where we left last time and I also met a few new informants. The stories by these persons differ strongly from the other talks I had (see below). In this case it involved people who were already above 20 years old when they left the Netherlands, they left voluntarily between 2 and 10 years ago. Some travel back and forth to the Netherlands but all of them appear to have chosen for England although the idea of migrating to an Islamic country is cherished by them. Most important difference according to them with life in the Netherlands is that they all are relatively anonymous in England. Either they are not bothered by intra-salafi politics and quarrels or they do not feel bothered by what they perceive as an intolerant climate in the Netherlands in which all kinds of negative definitions of identity and Islam are imposed upon them. Or both. Since the Salafi movement is the main target of the Dutch counter-radicalization policy and so-called ‘orthodox’ (meaning radical) religion is regarded as a security issue here, their impression might not be that strange. As such they find life easier moreover because they encounter more Muslims and better established (Salafi) Muslim communities here and they feel that their life style and outward appearances does not raise eyebrows as much as it does in the Netherlands.
‘The Netherlands is paradise’
The Salafis I have spoken to did certainly not regard England as paradise; they see too many problems for that such as crime, alcohol abuse, dirty neighbourhoods and so on. The others I have spoken to did see the Netherlands as a utopia. People are nicer, social, know each other, and so on. This rather ideal image of the Netherlands has probably something to do with the fact that they migrated to England when they were around 8-12 years old; a few even thinking they would only go for a long holiday. Their parents decided to migrate to England because they believed England would give them much more opportunities than the Netherlands. And although this group has a lot of negative things to say about England and is mostly positive about the Netherlands, also among them the discourse of opportunities is very strong as I already indicated last time. This is very remarkable at times for example when they talk about education. They are very positive about education in the Netherlands which is much better: better teachers, higher level, schools also teaching norms and values and so on; England is seen as the opposite. But still they believe that also in English education (although it is framed by some as a system of dumbing down) they have more chances. This is partly seen as a feature of the British system that appears to be more open and because they did not feel appreciated and recognized in the Netherlands. England offers much more security when it comes to be guarded againt discrimination (a point also made by the Salafis).
The educational system is appears to be a real issue in England. I spoke to one person who is teaching about youth work and we talked a little bit about education in England and problems with youth work; the latter having been severely hit by the cutbacks. This will be one of the issues I will pursue further because it gives some perspective to the stories of those who complain so much about England and offers some insight into the institutional and social challenges they face.
Living the Muslim life
Where both groups ‘meet’ each other is when they talk about religious life in England. As said above they feel protected in the England while in particular the Salafis complain about the loss of the once so tolerant country the others also signal that things have changed in the Netherlands. Although both groups do recognise a strong exclusion based upon race in daily life in England they feel very confident about being protected against anti-Islam discrimination (notwithstanding the rise of organisations such as the English Defense League (EDL). According to most of my interlocutors because there are more Muslims and better established Muslim organisations there is more of a Muslim life here whereby they are not bothered by questions of loyalty or having to account for everything. It does appear that most of them live relatively isolated from non-Muslims certainly in areas such Small Heath in Birmingham.
Setting the research agenda
I have used my visit last year and this one to establish new contacts and re-affirm old relationships. Both were meant to explore the possibilities for research and most meetings were rather unstructured; there were issues that came up and I responded to that. Now having a sort of basic list of topics and themes the third visit (probably in October or November) will have more structured meetings with a clearer involvement by me meant to go a little deeper into a few themes; this has to lead up to an article for an academic journal for which I have a clear idea now. This will be preceeded maybe by an article in a Dutch magazine on Middle East and Islam (ZemZem).
So this will be continued. For now, I would like to say thanks to everyone who was willing to talk to me, take me into their city and show me something of their lives in England. Thanks for making my stay very pleasant, useful and inspiring. iA we meet again in October / November.