The cultural production of The Muslim – Identity Talk and Homogenizing 'Us' and Excluding 'Them'

Recently, albeit certainly not new, we have seen a new wave of identity debates in Europe. What does it mean to French, German, Dutch or, for that matter, European? During the 1990s with the culturalization of citizenship, migration and integration became increasingly politicized, resulting in a gradual awakening of a public that had been silent or felt unable to speak out on these topics. Throughout the 1990s a paradoxical development occurred in the Netherlands. On the one hand ethnicity and religion became increasingly seen as private matters instead of issues the state has to deal with. At the other hand the limits of religious and cultural difference related to the conditions for social cohesion and integration were questioned in a broad political spectrum ranging from ultra-left to ultra-right, socialist and liberal parties, and religious parties. The private matter became the centre of the public debate. Politicization of the debate took a new turn with Fortuyn in 2001 and 2002 who effectively manipulated already existing frustrations of native citizens on issues concerning migration and integration. He was in particular adamant in defending freedom of speech and sexual freedoms for gays against Islamic traditions. His appearance, and after him Hirsi Ali and Wilders, led to a stronger confrontational style. This was fuelled by dramatic events such as the attacks of 9/11, the murder of Fortuyn in 2002 and in 2004 the murder of Theo van Gogh, (columnist and TV director who often expressed harsh and even foul criticism on Islam), by a Moroccan-Dutch Muslim. Also transgressions of Muslim youth (such as threatening outspoken Islam critics) and Salafi imams (publicly exposed on television) contributed to further politicization.

After 9/11, the focus in the media and in politics on integration shifted almost entirely to Islam and Muslims and their alleged threat to Dutch society . Instead of pacifying Islam, several opinion leaders such as Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali argued for a more confrontational style in the public Islam debate, for example by claiming the right to insult Muslims’ religious convictions and feelings. This so called ‘new realist’ (Prins 2002) discourse, emphasizing the inevitability of problems resulting from cultural difference, became widespread and, in line with the culturalization of citizenship, focuses in particular on sexual freedoms and freedom of speech as typical for Dutch culture. Nowadays the ‘new realist’ discourse with compelling rude and harsh comments on multi-culturalism, Islam and migrants, is part of mainstream political discourse forcing other politicians to engage with it. This led to a growing ’Islamization’ of the public debate about migrants; people from Moroccan or Turkish descent were increasingly categorized as Muslims and the degree of maintaining Islamic beliefs and practices became the standard to measure integration. Islam is not only perceived as the ‘ultimate cultural other’, Islam is also perceived as a cultural system and Muslims, as believers, are constructed as an immutable category. The confrontational style strengthens the paradox of integration since the culture of migrants is denounced in more derogatory ways, putting the burden of adjustment on the migrants who have become more visible as different and therefore not adjusted. Its emphasis on ‘calling problems by name’ in order to have a more compelling pressure on Muslims to assimilate and to reduce cultural and religious diversity, strengthens the perception of unbridgeable cultural differences. Notwithstanding improving rates of participation of Muslims in education and on the labour market, there has been an increased perception of growing cultural differences (Entzinger and Dourleijn 2008; De Koning 2008).

The focus on values is part of a trend emerged in the Netherlands and throughout Europe during 1990s as argued by Stolcke (1995). Stolcke (1995: 7-12), focusing on new rhetoric of exclusion and inclusion based upon cultural essentialism (a rhetoric she calls ‘cultural fundamentalism’) shows how in the process of building nation-states, national belonging and identity are interpreted as cultural singularity.

Europe’s identity crisis yields a lot of debate about the particularities of national identities. Usually this is so superficial and vague that it amounts to nation branding we can find in touristic brochures and websites. It can be seen as an attempt to harmonize or homogenize national policies, values and behaviors of citizens, education, public outlook and so on. Or in other words to impose a particular identity upon one’s citizens by the state. A completely open and free debate about a country’s identity is usually a dead end because people may share particular symbols (the flag, particular freedoms) but do not necessarily share its meanings. More often than not, debates about a shared identity (meant to find a common ground) reveals significant fault lines and turns into more public divisions and controversy than before. The most easiest thing to do then is not to discuss what ‘we’ are but to a find an outsider, discuss what ‘they’ are and make clear that ‘we’ are different from them. While in the Netherlands the time of pillarization (and before) nationalism was in part based upon belonging to a religious or ideological community (and vice versa), now belonging to the Dutch moral community seems to be more and more based upon the idea of a ‘shared culture’ in which sexual freedoms, emancipation of women and the freedom of expression are believed to be the hallmark. It is in particular Muslims who are feared because of the alleged opposition against these freedoms and because of the idea of their strong religiosity.

Internal differences are homogenized (for example by citizens’ handbooks) and cultural identity and sameness become the prerequisite to access to citizenship rights (for example through citizenship courses). With this interpretation of citizenship, the need for migrants to accept a country’s ‘norms and values’ becomes central. Therefore the need to educate and mould migrants into assimilated citizens arises. Migrants should abide by the same ideas of virtuous citizenship and a good life as native Dutch citizens are believed to hold in high regard (see: Tonkens, Hurenkamp, and Duyvendak 2008; Verkaaik 2008; Mepschen 2009). The rhetoric of culture produces a homogenized and idealized vision of the national moral community and exclusion of migrants (Butler 2008). More in particular in produces an image of over-religious Muslims possessed by a religion that is fundamentally at odds with European/Western/Dutch culture and identity; an images that can be conveniently attacked by so-called islam-critics, integration policies and counter-radicalization policies and inter-religious dialogues but that do not necessarily have anything to do with the daily lives of most Muslims as Sunier recently argued in his inaugural lecture.

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