CAIRO: In a bid to bridge differences and bolster cultural dialogue between the Netherlands and the Muslim World, a delegation of seven ethnic minority scholars and experts, both Muslims and non-Muslims, were invited to Egypt to hold a series of meetings with religious and government bodies.
The delegation met with Sheikh Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa as well as with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, all in an effort to initiate a forum for future collaboration between Egypt and Holland’s Muslim minority.
The four-day tip was organized by the Dutch embassy in Cairo in collaboration with Forum, a Dutch institute for multi-cultural affairs.
Holland is home for 907,000 Muslims, making up 6 percent of its population. While most are of Turkish and Moroccan descent, many are Iraqis, Somalis, Afghans, Surinamese, among more.
“Many regard Holland as a hell for Muslims, and that’s not true,” member of the delegation Halim Madkoury told journalists at a press conference Wednesday.
“It’s not heaven, but it embodies all essential freedoms, freedom of religion and freedom of expression,” Madkoury said, adding that much of the media coverage is exaggerated.
In recent years, the position of Muslims in the Netherlands garnered much attention, both in local and international media.
In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim after he released a documentary that criticized the treatment of women in Islam. The murder is believed to have been a hate crime.
Four years after, Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders released a short film titled “Fitna,” which is Arabic for “Division of People,” to much controversy. The 17-minute movie depicts Islam as a religion that advocates violence, anti-Semitism and violence against women.
Wilders is facing trial later this year on charges of inciting murder and discrimination.
Although Freedom Party, which Wilders heads, secured an unexpected win in a national vote last month, critics say it is unlikely to take part in a coalition government. His views are regarded controversial both inside and outside of the Netherlands.
“Muslims are under the spotlight because they are the most religious in a country where most citizens aren’t,” Madkoury explained. He said that of 450 mosques in Holland, only four are considered problematic.
“Muslims in Holland exercise a lot more freedoms than they would in many Arab countries,” he added.
Madkoury said that although Wilders’s beliefs are regarded as controversial by the current Dutch government, “they cannot take away his right of expressing what he believes in.”
Madkoury is a Dutch literary scholar and an expert in cultural dialogue, with a particular interest in Islam and its position in society.
Mohamed Amezian, a Dutch journalist of Moroccan origin who is accompanying the delegation, has recently won a seat in his local municipality.
“This is proof that opportunities in Holland are available to everyone, without specific constraints,” said Amezian.
Madkoury pointed to several government sponsored initiatives that aim at redirecting hatred that is a result of current Dutch affairs.
One such initiative is Polder mosque, a two-year old establishment in Amsterdam that acts both as a religious and cultural center.
Yassmine Elksaihi, a Dutch Muslim and member of the delegation, is the chairwoman of Ponder, the first and only female head of a mosque in Europe.
“The mosque brings in youth, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, to take part in a number of social and religious activities,” Elkasihi said.
She explained that second and third generation Muslims in Holland find it difficult to combine Dutch culture, Islam teachings and their ethnic background all at once, a concern which is at the heart of the mosque’s activities.
Each mosque in Holland represents a certain ethnicity. While Elkasihi is not the mosque’s imam, her responsibilities are that of a head of an organization. She explained that imams in Holland were previously elected by the mosque’s board. Now, however, each mosque invites an imam from the country it represents.
New imams are required to study the language and learn about the Dutch society “in order to contextualize their Friday sermons,” added Madkoury.
Answering a question by Daily News Egypt on their meetings with officials in Cairo, Anne Aardening, member of the delegation who also works at Forum, said: “Officials are eager to cooperate and bridge this gap on a grass-roots level despite people in Holland believing otherwise.”
Similarly, Faisal Mirza, another member, said, “It’s not that they do not want to understand, it’s that they can’t.” He explained that the absence of a platform for communication hindered the possibility of a constructive dialogue between Holland and the Muslim world.
Elkasihi added that plans to send imams from Holland to be trained in Al-Azhar were among the issues discussed with Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb.
“The goal of this trip was social diplomacy, and we achieved it,” said Marloes Kuijer, board member of Polder mosque.
“I really believe in starting small. We take [what we learnt] to our own life and workplace,” she said.