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Integration and the Politics of Mosque Construction: A Case Study of the Surinamese Muslim Community in The Netherlands



We met Nasr Joemman Bakker, secretary-general of the World Islamic Mission Netherlands, at the half-complete Surinamese mosque in Utrecht Overvecht. At present, one can only recognize the structure as a mosque because of the unfinished minarets that loom overhead. It does not yet bear the typical motifs of mosque decoration. Taking us through the central prayer hall on the second floor, he announced with great excitement that within a few months this vast room—now covered with plastic pipes, aluminium sheets, and at least a centimetre of sawdust—will be pristine and consecrated space. We spoke with him at length in a small and inconspicuous room tucked away at the back of the building, soon realizing that this room now serves as a temporary mosque within a mosque, as it were, a blue, half-unfurled carpet being the only thing distinguishing this room from the others.

“We are lucky to be Dutch.”

Islam has been aptly called a uniquely “portable” religion (Eickelman and Piscatori 1989). While a mosque with a mihrab (1) is the most ideal space for worship and prayer, a clean prayer rug, which can be easily carried and placed anywhere, will suffice for practicing salat. (2) So why is the Surinamese Muslim community in The Netherlands investing so much time and money into building new mosques? Nasr Joemman is quick to articulate his vision for the mosque in Utrecht Overvecht: Besides serving the spiritual needs of the local Surinamese Muslims, it will also be a community center where Muslims and even non-Muslims can gather for civic meetings or to vote or just to play pool and relax. The increasingly important role of the mosque as a locus of dialogue between Muslims and the surrounding community is clear in his vision.

In the last two decades, most saliently since 11 September 2001, some elements of Dutch society have regarded Islam within its borders with increasing suspicion and mistrust.

In general the Surinamese believe they are better integrated into Dutch society than other ethnic groups, and there are compelling reasons for this. A product of the colonial relationship between Surinam and Holland, their intimate knowledge of Dutch language, laws, institutions, history and values has aided their transition into Dutch society. (3) However, in the last two decades, most saliently since 11 September 2001, some elements of Dutch society have regarded Islam within its borders with increasing suspicion and mistrust. It is therefore pertinent to ask how Surinamese Muslims negotiate these two conflicting trends in their daily lives. An inquiry into the politics of constructing new mosques will shed light on this conflict.

“The greater the number of Muslims, the more diversified the basis of its religious organization may become.”

During the years before and after Surinam’s independence from The Netherlands was declared in 1975, an influx of Surinamese migrants arrived on its shores. By 1995, there were approximately 296,000 persons of Surinamese background in The Netherlands, including at least 26,000 Muslims (Strijp 1997, 405). Most of these are of Hindustani descent. Nasr Joemman suggests the number of Surinamese Muslims in The Netherlands may now be as high as 40,000.

During the late 1970s many Muslims began to move into urban areas from small, isolated prayer halls, gradually institutionalizing the faith in the form of mosques, Islamic schools, and halal (4) markets that are usually divided along lines of ethnicity and national origin. As W. A. Shadid and P. S. van Koningsveld report, “With rare exceptions…multi-ethnic places of worship are to be found in smaller towns or villages with no more than one mosque or prayer-hall. In towns with two mosques or prayer-halls one usually finds a splitting up of the Muslims along ethnic lines. In larger communities a further step in the splitting up-process according to doctrinal ‘denominations’ within a single ethnic group becomes…feasible.” In short, “The greater the number of Muslims, the more diversified the basis of its religious organization may become” (Shadid and Koningsveld 1991, 90). The growth of these monoethnic institutions coincided with the reunification of Muslim migrants with their wives and children from abroad, a direct result of the Dutch government’s program in the early 1970s to recognize Muslim migrants as permanent members of Dutch society rather than mere guest-workers, culminating in the Minorities Bill of 1983 in which the “fiction of temporality was declared outdated” (Penninx 1996, 191). Surinamese who settled in The Netherlands usually arrived together with their families and, in contrast with the migrant workers from Morocco and Turkey, established themselves from the beginning, which further augmented their gradual integration into Dutch society (Shadid and Koningsveld 1991, 90-91).

The principal organization of Surinamese Muslims in The Netherlands is the World Islamic Mission (WIM), founded in 1972 as an international organization for advancing the interests of Muslims from India and Pakistan in non-Muslim countries. In 1975, the Dutch branch was founded by Surinamese Muslims. The motives behind its creation, according to Nasr Joemman, stemmed from the absence of financial support from foreign institutions that contribute money to the construction of mosques in Europe, such as the Saudi Arabia-based Muslim World League or the Turkish Department of Religious Affairs. WIM needed money to fund its various projects, which include, among 63 Integration and the Politics of Mosque Construction: A Case Study of the Surinamese Muslim Community in The Netherlands Brannon Ingram and Bas Kurvers other things, advocating for Muslims in prisons and hospitals. Joemman regards this situation with ambivalence: it results in less money for building mosques, yet offers more independence from foreign political groups who often may be unaware of the intricacies of Muslim life in Holland.

“Leaders of the community are stressing education in Surinamese languages and culture as well as better awareness about our Indian ancestry.”

Given their limited resources, it is impressive that WIM is currently in charge of constructing seven new mosques in Holland, though S. Billar and Mohammed Maksoedan, whose work we discuss below, both question the efficacy of WIM in aiding the creation of their own mosques. Joemman credits the new enthusiasm for building Surinamese mosques with a resurgence of interest in teaching Surinamese and South Asian languages and culture to children. Hence there are now more children studying Urdu and Arabic. “Leaders of the community are stressing education in Surinamese languages and culture as well as better awareness about our Indian ancestry,” he explains. This is important because “it will help Surinamese stand out from other Muslims and people will recognize the Surinamese as a distinct group with distinct values.” Therefore, recognizing problems in the way Dutch society has grouped together all Muslims en masse as a potential threat after 9-11 and effaced the rich diversity within the Muslim population, Nasr wants to accentuate the distinctive features of Surinamese Muslims. He believes that 95% of law in The Netherlands is nearly identical to 95% of Islamic Shari’a, (5) and insists that integration is principally about bridging the gap left over by the remaining 5%. (6) However, few people realize this. He laments that “in the street, most Dutch see Surinamese as part of the whole ‘Muslim problem.’”

As of 2001 there were 35 mosques in Rotterdam.

One of the Surinamese mosques under construction is in Rotterdam, where the suspicion of Islam that Joemman described in Utrecht is amplified fourfold. S. Billar, Vice-Chairman of Stichting Platform Islamitische Organisaties Rotterdam (SPIOR), (7) has been active in the process of building a mosque in Rotterdam since 1998. During this time, he has worked as one of the foremost spokespersons for Surinamese Muslims there, working out of Shaan E Islam mosque on Aleidisstraat. As of 2001 there were 35 mosques in Rotterdam according to a study, “Geloven in Rotterdam.” (8) Muslims of Turkish or Moroccan descent frequent well over half of these. Surinamese Muslims, a minority within a minority, currently occupy three of these.

In 1992 the city government announced that they would support the construction of a new mosque for the entire Surinamese community of Rotterdam because of the congestion and traffic caused by having several smaller mosques tucked away in residential areas. In 1993 during that same year, Shaan E Islam mosque asked the local government of Ysselmonde for a location. After surveying various potential sites, they proposed to occupy an old church and convert it into a mosque. However, local church boards were upset by what they viewed as the symbolic significance of turning a church into a mosque and called strongly for a less sensitive proposal. After arguing for six more years, in 1999 Shaan E Islam finally managed to reserve a spot at Kreekhuizenlaan in Ysselmonde, even though the question of when to begin construction remained unsettled. In addition, heated protest of the locals began when the Centrumplan of Ysselmonde revealed plans for building a mosque (“Huisvesting van Moskeeën” 2002, 21). Billar took over the project in 1998. Plans for building the mosque were finalized by the beginning of 2003 and have been delivered to the Welstandcommisie, (9) but Billar does not expect approval to begin construction during the next year.

In 2001 Billar and his group were asked to defend their plans before a council of the Dutch residents of the neighborhood. “In this meeting, I experienced all kinds of responses, except for Dutch sobriety,” he recalls. “They feared that the property value would decrease, that traffic and congestion would increase, that there would be less green space.” How then does Billar navigate through all of these demands and requirements to achieve real results for the Surinamese Muslims of Rotterdam? “If you’re going to build a mosque in a neighborhood here, you must bridge the gap between the locals and the mosque to lessen the fear between both groups, and to insure your own safety … Building a mosque is a process that takes much time and effort; besides negotiating with the local government, it is essential to build rapport with the locals as well.” First, one must convince the local political officials of the importance of the mosque. Secondly, one must submit all the necessary forms and blueprints for constructing the mosque. Thirdly, one must exert continuous effort to mobilize support and “keep the conversation going,” says Billar.

“Am I or am I not a part of this society? After 9-11, we suddenly felt less Dutch…”

The attacks of 11 September 2001, according to Billar, made Dutch residents more apprehensive about the presence of a mosque. In response, speaking on behalf of all Surinamese Dutch Muslims, he asks, “Am I or am I not a part of this society? After 9-11, we suddenly felt less Dutch and became more aware of our religious and cultural background. People are now much more aware that they are Muslim and are looked upon in a certain way. I will never lose the stigma of being a Muslim.” Referring to the strenuous task of repeating his condemnation of terrorism, for example, Billar adds, “It is extremely tiring having to explain my position again and again.” Though he does not believe that the Muslim community has become closer since 9-11, he does believe they are more aware of the fact that they are Muslim and that it plays a greater role in their lives.

We asked Billar to tell us the secret of Surinamese integration in The Netherlands. “We Surinamese have an adaptation gene in our blood. It is part of our heritage. We adapted to Surinam when we came there [from India, Java, Africa and elsewhere] and we have adapted again here in Holland … If you really want people to integrate, you must make sure 64 that they feel welcome … Integration is successful, in my opinion, when a migrant group wants to be buried in The Netherlands.” In fact, a study of Muslim integration in Holland states that the Surinamese are most likely to bury their dead in Holland, in contrast to Moroccans and Turks (Shadid and Koningsveld 1991, 111). At first glance, it may seem intuitive that if a mosque strives to recreate the ambience and atmosphere of the country of origin, its efforts are antithetical to true integration. Yet Billar suggests the opposite. “At Mevlana [a prominent Turkish mosque in Rotterdam] one can feel the spirituality of the place right away. One feels that he is home. This is a sign of a well-integrated group: by recreating their home here in a permanent way, they can eventually let go of the longing to return to Turkey. At our current prayer-hall on Aleidisstraat, we will never have that spiritual feeling,” which is a principal reason why Billar is building a mosque in Ysselmonde.

Derwisj Maddoe had similar intentions with his newly constructed Surinamese mosque in The Hague, Noerol Islam, which opened in 2001. In a candid and straightforward manner, he refers to Noerol Islam as a “dialogue center and mosque.” Maddoe is also president of the Nederlandse Moslim Raad (NMR), (10) which owns the broadcasting rights for all Muslims on Dutch National Television. The Nederlandse Moslim Omroep (NMO) (11) is the broadcast channel that is affiliated with the NMR. Amidst all these other obligations, Maddoe spent eighteen years of his career to establish this mosque but believes in retrospect that it was worth the arduous effort. When he proposed the new mosque, he recalls having all the same difficulties and receiving all the same responses as Billar; local residents worried about noise, traffic, property value, and the like.

In recent memory, the most significant threat to these achievements of integration in recent memory was the assassination of Pim Fortuyn.

Like Billar, Maddoe ran the gauntlet of protests and bureaucratic red tape as he finalized the plans to erect Noerol Islam. Despite the successes of the Surinamese Muslims in integrating into Dutch society in the Hague, Maddoe declares, the hostility towards Muslims in The Netherlands can be traced back at least as far as the Salman Rushdie affair, when some Muslims in The Hague participated in the worldwide protests and book-burnings of Rushdie’s Satanic Versesafter a fatwa was issued against him on 6 March 1989. But in recent memory, the most significant threat to these achievements of integration in recent memory was the assassination of Pim Fortuyn. “Right after the murder of Pim Fortuyn I found myself in a terrifying situation,” says Maddoe. “My fax machine was overwhelmed by press agencies from all over the world who were asking me for a reaction, an explanation. All I could ask them was: Do you know who did it? I felt somewhat relieved that the murderer was not a Muslim, and that we did not get the blame for that as well.”

Derwisj Maddoe, unlike Nasr Joemman, believes resolutely that Surinamese Muslims must participate as much as possible in the wider Muslim community in order to reclaim common ground in the wake of 9-11 and the death of Fortuyn. “I am against having a mosque for each ethnic origin. We are all Muslims and Islam preaches unity. There is a huge lack of unity among Muslims in The Netherlands.” To this end, he purposefully decorated his mosque with Moroccan carpet, Turkish painting styles, and a Surinamese minbar. (12) “Our mosque is called a dialogue center for a good reason. Islam says that one has to respect and accept the laws and rules of the county one lives in. We work here, we live here … One cannot stand with one leg in the country of origin and stand with the other leg in The Netherlands.”

The Hague, like Rotterdam, had a long legacy of de facto segregation.

The Hague, like Rotterdam, had a long legacy of de facto segregation. When Turks and Moroccans came as temporary guest-workers in the 1960s, they tended to live together to maintain the distinctive facets of their culture. Their lack of Dutch language prevented them from integrating into other neighborhoods. The government exacerbated the isolation of these small, closely-knit communities with its idea of “terugkeergedachte”, the notion that workers would return to their countries of origin after a number of years. It enacted policies of putting the workers in temporary, low-wage pension housing and failed to offer programs for learning Dutch. Such isolation perpetuates itself through generations, says Mohammed Maksoedan, Secretary-general of Stichting Al-Raza in Almere. “The problem is relatively simple … If Turkish fathers can’t speak Dutch, they can’t teach Dutch to their children either.”

Maksoedan maintains that Almere is, in contrast to Rotterdam and The Hague, a unique community. Founded on the Flevopolder, the city sprung into existence almost overnight in the mid 1970s. It had no heavy industry to attract laborers from abroad, and whites, Turks, Moroccans and Surinamese became interspersed throughout the city. “Integration is about living together,” Maksoedan explains. “Being integrated culturally follows from being integrated physically.”

This ability to converse openly with Dutch government and residents was rigorously tested in 1999 when Maksoedan and two of his colleagues established Stichting Al-Raza to raise money for a Surinamese mosque in Almere.

Offering an example to illustrate his concept of integration, Maksoedan relates how Muslims typically celebrate the commemoration of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac with the ritual slaughter of a sheep. Before amendments in 1982 to the European Treaty Regarding the Protection of Slaughter Cattle added legal provisions for Islamic ritual slaughtering, Turkish and Moroccan Muslims felt more comfortable celebrating this occasion in their own neighborhoods, fearing that this practice might offend or upset non-Muslim residents (Shadid and Koningsveld 1991, 108). Today Dutch law only permits the ritual halal slaughtering of animals within a legal butchery. Maksoedan believes that a more acute knowledge of Dutch language and laws among Surinamese has enabled them to abide by regulations such as these. Of course, it is not the case that other Muslim groups willingly ignore such prescriptions, he urges; it is simply the case that Surinamese have traditionally been able to communicate better with local authorities. A recent report affirms this with reference to the 65 large proportion of Surinamese politicians in Dutch government (Fennema 2001 142-44).

This ability to converse openly with Dutch government and residents was rigorously tested in 1999 when Maksoedan and two of his colleagues established Stichting Al-Raza to raise money for a Surinamese mosque in Almere. In March 2002 the government reserved a spot for the construction of the mosque. Meetings with the neighbors began soon afterwards. Like construction projects elsewhere, neighbors voiced several complaints, claiming that a mosque amidst their residences would create noise and traffic. They also protested that the government did not follow the proper procedure and ignored zoning regulations. Perhaps these complaints are a symptom of a deeper hostility; after 9-11, someone attempted to burn the Moroccan mosque in Almere, and the Surinamese mosque experienced significant vandalism. Though Almere is not immune to such violence, he believes strongly that such incidents are the isolated work of a few fanatics and do not reflect Dutch sentiment as a whole. Nevertheless, it is telling that both S. Billar and Mohammed Maksoedan referred to a lack of the famed Dutch sobriety, nuchterheid, in their negotiations with residents.

Maksoedan maintains that “there is less of a need for mosques in the Surinamese Muslim community” insofar as mosques are agents of integration. One might conclude that Surinamese in Holland have integrated well precisely because of their diverse ethnic makeup: without a common ethnic and ideological thread to tie the community together like the Turks and Moroccans, the Surinamese have avoided that de facto isolationism which precludes thorough integration among these other communities. Furthermore, Turks and Moroccans rely heavily on outside sources of funding, keeping them closely linked to the interests of their overseas benefactors. By contrast, Surinamese build their mosques using local resources almost exclusively, reflected in the fact that they were the first Muslim community to establish a Dutch school for the education of imams. And as Thijl Sunier suggests in his study of Muslim integration in Holland, the ability to fund a mosque with little or no external support is the surest sign of a well integrated group (Sunier 1994 43). These advantages are, in turn, a consequence of the vagaries of history: the Dutch happened to give Manhattan over to the British in exchange for Surinam in 1667 with the Treaty of Breda. So what then is the secret of Surinamese integration? “We were lucky to be a colony of The Netherlands,” explains Mohammed Maksoedan, laughing out loud. “We are lucky to be Dutch.”


Books and Articles

Eickelman, Dale and James Piscatori. “Muslim travellers pilgrimage, migration and the religious imagination”. Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori, eds. Berkeley. University of California Press, 1990.

Fennema, Meindert, Jean Tillie, et al. “De politieke integratie van etnische minderheden in Nederland.” Migrantenstudies. 3 (2001). 142-57.

“Huisvesting van moskeeën: Eindrapport Rotterdams moskeebeleid.” Rotterdam: Gemeente Rotterdam, January 2002.

Martens, E. P. and A. O. Verweij. “Surinamers in Nederland.” Rotterdam: Instituut voor Sociologisch-Economisch Onderzoek, 1997.

“Nederland als een islamitische staat.” Trouw. 11 June 2003.

Penninx, Rinus. “Immigration, Minorities Policy and Multiculturalism in Dutch Society.” The Challenge of Diversity: Integration and Pluralism in Societies of Immigration. Ranier Baubock, Agnes Heller, et al. eds. Aldershot, England: Avebury, 1996.

Shadid, W. A. and P. S. van Koningsveld. “Institutionalization and Integration of Islam in The Netherlands.” The Integration of Islam and Hinduism in Western Europe. W. A. Shadid and P. S. van Koningsveld, eds. The Hague: Kok Pharos Publishing House, 1991.

Strijp, Ruud. “Moslims in Nederland en Belgie.”In Het huis van de islam. Henk Driessen, redactie. Uitgeverij SUN, Nijmegen, 1997.

Sunier, Thijl. “Moslims in Nederland, Nederlandse moslims: Social integratie in de sfeer van de religie.” Sferen van integratie. Godfried Engbersen and Rene Gabriels, eds. Amsterdam: Boom, 1994.

Vroegindeweij, Rien. “Geloven in Rotterdam”. Dienst Stedebouw en Volkshuisvesting. Rotterdam: Koppeluitgeverij, 2001.

Interviews Nasr Joemman Bakker, Secretary-general for World Islamic Mission (WIM) in The Netherlands

S. Billar, Vice-chairman of Stichting Platform Islamitische Organisaties Rotterdam (SPIOR)

Derwisj A. Maddoe, President of Nederlandse Moslim Raad (NMR), Chairman of the Dutch Muslim Broadcasting Corporation (NMO), and President of Noerol Islam mosque in The Hague

Mohammed Maksoedan, Secretary-general for Stichting Al-Raza in Almere

  1. A recess in the wall of the mosque facing the direction of Mecca
  2. One of the five pillars of Islamic faith and practice, a set of vocal prayers performed five times daily
  3. E. P. Martens and A. O. Verweij’s “Surinamers in Nederland” provides statistics on language usage, social networks, marriage trends, ethnic makeup, and geographical distribution, showing the extent of their participation in Dutch society.
  4. That which is lawful or permitted in Islam, in this context referring to rules for slaughtering animals
  5. Islamic law based on the Qur’an and the sunnah (example) of Muhammad
  6. This opinion is echoed in a recent editorial in “Trouw” by Hanan Nhass, who quotes Maurice Berger, proclaiming that “De sjaria komt voor 98 procent overeen met het Nederlands recht” (“The shari’a conforms to Dutch Law by 98 percent.”) in “Nederland als een islamitische staat” (“The Netherlands as an Islamic State.”) “Trouw”. 11 June 2003.
  7. Platform Foundation for Islamic Organizations of Rotterdam
  8. Religious Belief in Rotterdam
  9. Welfare Committee
  10. Netherlands Muslim Society
  11. Netherlands Muslim Broadcasting Corporation
  12. A pulpit, used by the imam to deliver the Friday khutba (sermon)