European Minorities Torn Between Worlds

Jamey Keaten and Palma Benczenleitner, AP, Nov. 25, 2006

Nacera Berrouba, a young Algerian in Paris, says she couldn’t get the job she dreamed of until she dyed her hair blond.

Karima Ramani, who calls herself “addicted to freedom,” says the Dutch love her hip black jeans and bright red nails but can’t accept her Moroccan mind.

Straight-A student Gokboru Ozturk was born in Germany and waved the German flag during last summer’s soccer World Cup tournament, but wants to be buried in Turkey because “as much as I feel German, I cannot be buried here.” Meanwhile, his mother jokes he should change his name to Schmidt to boost his job prospects.

As Europe goes through a wrenching debate over integrating immigrant populations—and at a deeper level about what it means to be European in a globalized age—the children of those immigrants also find themselves grappling with issues of identity in an environment where tensions are complicated by the scarcity of jobs and distorted by the fear of terrorism.

The wave of riots that engulfed impoverished, largely Muslim French suburbs around this time last year awakened many people to the reality that something was fundamentally broken in one prominent European model of assimilation.

Terror attacks in Madrid and London, the slaying of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, menacing protests over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad—a series of crises since Sept. 11, 2001, involving young homegrown Muslims has given urgency to the debate on integration.

The effort to assimilate the younger generation and separate it from the terrorist minority in its midst is one of Europe’s biggest 21st century challenges. But how deep and widespread is the disaffection? How do minority youths cope with the sometimes conflicting expectations of society and family? What safety valves kick in when the stresses become too intense?

Interviews with more than four dozen minority youths in six European capitals—Paris, Berlin, London, Amsterdam, Madrid and Rome—present a multifaceted picture of dynamic young people dreaming of success and love, and finding ingenious ways to cope with the double lives many feel they are leading.

There is one recurrent theme: A sense of “otherness.”

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Many of the tensions spring from family life—when the tight-knit network brought from their ancestral homelands conflicts with the looser family structures of the West.

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Many youths said that deep down their strongest attachments were to their family homeland.

Amira Tellissi, a 21-year-old Tunisian university student, grew up in the countryside outside Rome where her mother works at a riding stable. She is thinking about applying for Italian citizenship, has never mastered reading and writing Arabic, and says that if she ever left Italy she would miss mozzarella cheese and the subway.

But her heart is in Tunisia.

In Italy, “I can explain my thoughts; in Tunisia I can explain my feelings. Here I have friends; there I have brothers,” she said.

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Mohammed Mazahaf, a 23-year-old Moroccan student who runs a youth center in Amsterdam, feels deep discomfort with Europe’s abundance of choice.

“I don’t want the freedom of Europe—to drink, tell my sister to go out and have free sex before marriage. I want to have rules,” he said. “I accept the rules of democracy, but I’m living the rules of Islam.”

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“I consider myself a coconut: brown on the outside, and white on the inside,” said Shereen Sally, a 19-year-old university student from Greenhithe, southeast of London, whose parents are Sri Lankan. “I never have been typically Asian.”

With a Catholic mother and Muslim father, Sally navigates her cultures with agility. “I have been baptized and had Holy Communion, but I do Ramadan as well,” she said.

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“I used to think it was bad the way Asians segregated themselves but coming to university has opened my eyes. You go to your own kind because you feel comfortable with them,” she said.

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Indeed, Europe’s soul-searching runs from discussions about how to change mind-sets to the question of what Muslims should be allowed to wear or eat. After 20 years of eagerly promoting multiculturalism, some prominent Europeans have swung the other way.

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Perceptions that Muslim Europeans are halfhearted in condemning terrorism—or even try to justify it—have swung much of public opinion against the Islamic minority and caused people to question whether its values are compatible with the West’s. The fact most of the perpetrators of last year’s London transit attacks were homegrown Muslims has fueled the backlash against cultural tolerance.

Many views once limited to the far-right have become mainstream. In the Netherlands, a strict new immigration law requires people seeking citizenship to undergo assimilation training and pass a test on Dutch culture and language. In France, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the center-right’s leading presidential candidate, seemed to echo the extreme-right National Front’s love-it-or-leave-it rhetoric last month when he declared his country “doesn’t want those who don’t love it.”

A Dutch poll released in June found that half of Dutch people dislike Muslims, though the numbers shrink sharply when the questions get specific—only 10 percent consider themselves smarter than immigrants, while 17 percent said immigrants tend to be criminals, rude and lazy.

Experiences of racism were widespread among the young people interviewed for this story—and the strategy of most is stoicism.

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In Germany, a law took effect in August outlawing discrimination based on gender, age and religious affiliation in the workplace.

Paris’ elite Sciences Po political university is actively recruiting immigrant youths while Sarkozy, despite his hard-line stance on illegal immigration, has implemented a pilot affirmative-action program in the police force.

Across the European Union, several countries have been working to implement EU guidelines against discrimination.

Europeans say their societies are not a U.S.-style melting pot, and their citizenships are inherited and not easily acquired by naturalization. And most of the young people interviewed didn’t seem keen on the melting-pot idea either, expressing a preference for marrying within their own ethnic background and religion.

Ozturk, a Muslim, recently broke up with a Catholic Peruvian girlfriend; he is now dating a Muslim Turk.

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