On November 11th, 2017, the Polish Independence Day, many far-right demonstrators went out on the streets of Warsaw to call for a "white Europe of brotherly nations," "clean blood," or, even, "an Islamic Holocaust." This was the biggest gathering of far-right activists in Europe in recent years.
Poland is an extreme example of how Muslims in Europe are seen as a major problem at best, and a threat at worst. But a study performed by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) that surveyed more than 10,000 Muslims living in 15 European Union countries found that Muslims in Europe felt a strong attachment to their country of residence, showed a higher level of trust in political institutions than the general population, and were generally well integrated into the mainstream culture. Nine out of 10 respondents said they were comfortable having neighbors from different cultures, races, and religions. By comparison, only 79 percent of Germans felt the same way.
"What my father first did was, he made Dutch friends. He asked people which schools were the best. He celebrated Christmas. He told us, 'Try to be invisible,'" says Hanane Abaydi, whose parents immigrated from Morocco to the Netherlands in the 1960s. Abaydi was born in the Netherlands 20 years later.
Abaydi says she hasn't experienced religious discrimination herself. When she decided to start wearing a hijab in 2011, she did not notice a change in people's behavior, but she ascribes that to Amsterdam's highly international atmosphere. "Amsterdam is an island, people in Amsterdam are used to adapting," she tells me. In fact, any discrimination she experienced was more because of her gender rather than her religion.
The FRA study, however, showed that Muslims repeatedly experienced discrimination because of their religion, especially when it comes to areas such as housing and employment. According to the FRA study, 39 percent of Muslims were discriminated against in the five years before the survey, and some of them experienced discrimination more than five times a year.
Basma Alrawi is an Iraqi woman who has been living in the Netherlands for six years and is working with international organizations to help refugees. Before she came to the Netherlands, she lived in the United Kingdom, Jordan, Dubai, and Oman.
"There are people who have strong feelings about other nations. That's normal. But to demonstrate, calling for killings, that is frightening," she says about the events in Poland, adding that "my main fear is that this is something growing." Her son refuses to use Arabic to her in school or in front of his friends because they consider it a "terrorist language."
At 8 percent, the Netherlands had the highest number of Muslims who felt completely unattached to their country of residence, with second-generation immigrants from Muslim countries tending to be slightly less attached than their parents.
Alrawi remembers one incident in particular: She was sitting at a café with a friend when a random passerby told them he preferred people from the Netherlands, and added that they should go back where they came from. "We were raised not to be rude; we didn't reply," Alrawi says.
To counter that ignorance, Alrawi helped organize school trips to a Christian church, a Mosque, and a Sikh temple, for what she called "breaking the eyes"—making people more comfortable with other religions and customs. She also speaks out about the way the media treats terrorist attacks, portraying white shooters as lone wolves or mentally disturbed individuals, but automatically blaming all Muslims for single acts of terrorism. "One incident will make people scared. And if you're afraid you'll do anything to protect yourself," she says.
There was also a difference in how various nationalities—and their reasons for moving to Europe—were perceived. Turks and Moroccans have been living in the Netherlands for decades and arrived here as workers, but Syrians and Iraqis are new arrivals who had to leave their countries because of war.
"They are not regular immigrants. They have been under fire. Syrians are really scared," Alrawi says.
She says she feels at home in the Netherlands. "We have our shops, we can find spices and ingredients from the Middle East, we have our traditional food. It's not just for me," she says. "Everyone can go there." Certain Dutch supermarkets, such as Hoogvliet, have also introduced a halal section. Albert Heijn, the biggest supermarket chain in the Netherlands, offers Middle Eastern products such as labneh and Lebanese bread, and also offers recipe suggestions for Iftar, the evening meal eaten to end the fast during Ramadan.
"It makes us feel more comfortable; it's a welcome sign," Alrawi says.
A study performed by the Bertelsmann Foundation this year found that the majority of Muslims felt well-integrated into European society by the second generation at the latest, and that almost half of them learned the national language in childhood.
Recently, the Hague opened an anti-discrimination bureau called Den Haag meldt (which translates to "the Hague Reports"), where citizens can report cases of discrimination. Den Haag meldt says that European Muslims reported the fifth-most frequent instances of discrimination, accounting for 5.7 percent of reported hate crimes. Sadly, that specific form of discrimination seems to be increasing. In 2015, there were 446 reported cases, compared to 142 the year before.
This seems to mirror the way society treats Muslims in the Netherlands, a country that nonetheless prizes itself of being tolerant.
"We have to actively defend our values against those who refuse to integrate or act anti-socially. Behave normally or go away," said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte shortly before the elections in March of 2017. When, around that time, an eye-opening study showed that someone named Mohammed had fewer chances of finding a job than a person named Jan, Rutte responded: "The solution lies with Mohammed."
In many European countries, there is the feeling that Muslims create parallel societies, don't learn the language, and build their own cultural niches that don't interact with the mainstream culture. This is a misconception and entirely untrue. In fact, the Bertelsmann Foundation study showed that religious affiliation did not deter integration in any way. In some countries in Europe, such as Germany and Switzerland, the employment level of Muslims does not differ from that of the general population.
On its website, the foundation quotes Stephan Vopel, its expert on social cohesion: "When integration stalls, the state framework conditions are usually the reason." In other words, it's not Islamic cultural disparities, but rather the lack of support and acceptance that is to blame for the issues Muslims are facing in Europe.
"People can be so judgmental," Abaydi says. "It makes you miss a lot in life."