Looking to the future: Dutch and American students’ views of Islamic migration and immigration policies

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By Maddie Dimarco

As a university student in Southern California, I am a daily witness to the effects of racist immigration policies against Mexican and South American immigrants. Many Americans fear that their “American culture” will be lost amidst an influx of foreigners, and this fear is used as a reason for implementing harsh border control and deportation of undocumented immigrants. Immigration as a political topic is highly controversial because it engenders strong feelings of patriotism and national identity.  I have participated in rallies and large events both at my school and in my Los Angeles community, showing support and solidarity with immigrants and hearing personal stories.

My views on immigration are very liberal and I have watched the continuous criminalization and negative rhetoric by U.S. politicians towards immigrants, especially Mexican immigrants, with growing frustration. It can be an emotionally wrenching process for immigrants, who are balancing the desire to maintain their former culture while assimilating into the “American culture.” I have watched similar political rhetoric become more prevalent in recent years against Muslims in both the United States and in Europe. It is thus a pivotal time to start looking at what young people, who represent a country’s future, think about the topic and how they contextualize these issues.

For that reason, I have compared the ways in which youth in the U.S. and the Netherlands react towards Muslim immigrants. I want to look at how they express their thoughts, whether it is by joining specific political parties, protesting against immigrants or in support of them, or some other form of public expression. Islamophobia is a huge issue in America and I think, from my limited knowledge of Dutch politics, it has become a contested political concern here as well. I expect to see much stronger viewpoints in the Americans when it comes to immigration and integration into society because of the United States’ strong history of immigration, as well as any personal connections the respondents may have. I also predict that even though U.S. youth will have stronger reactions, they will seldom act on those reactions, whereas Dutch youth will act on their beliefs by seeking out more information or participating in political action. I imagine there will be some differences in the ways American and Dutch youth compare their viewpoints with their parents or grandparents. I think focusing on Muslim immigrants will help to narrow my topic and allow me to focus on the reasons for the youth reactions. Additionally, the great influx of Muslim refugees coming from Syria makes this a timely topic. The fear of radical Islamic groups, heightened by events like the recent attack in Paris, drives conversations by politicians and citizens over whether or not to allow Muslim refugees into their countries. Politicians like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Donald Trump (along with most of the other Republican presidential candidates) are constantly criticizing Muslims in their countries and calling for their expulsion.

This brings me to the following research question: How do U.S. and Dutch youth react towards Muslim immigrants in their country? I also included more specific questions within the subject such as: To what extent do the youth believe Muslim immigrants must assimilate into the culture of their new country? Do the youth share the same viewpoints as the older generations in their family (or think they have the same viewpoints)? What role do they believe freedom of speech (and hate speech) play in assisting or hurting the immigrants’ ability to assimilate?

Researching the status of immigrants

When framing viewpoints on immigration and specifically Muslim immigration, the main themes that occur in the literature are assimilation and the role of religion. Waldinger (2005) provides a useful framework for thinking about immigration and assimilation. He describes the many problems that can be associated with moving from one country to another with vastly different cultural standards. Immigrants must often choose between maintaining their former culture or assimilating into a new one in order to reap the benefits from society: “the effort to secure a better future – find a better job, a safer neighborhood, a higher quality school – confronts immigrants with the need to choose between strategies of an ‘ethnic’ or ‘mainstream’ sort” (Waldinger 2005: 3). It can become difficult to maintain one’s culture in a new society with new rules. Waldinger found in his studies that it is more common than not for immigrants to quickly assimilate into the new culture for the purpose of economic and social benefits. However, he also points out that the experiences of immigrants quite varied depending on where they come from: “While today’s immigrants don’t come from the same places as yesterday’s, the impact of national or ethnic origins is contingent and variable, which is why they don’t determine destinies” (Waldinger 3: 2005). For this reason, I think it is important to focus just on Muslim immigrants. Although they come from a variety of backgrounds (country of origin, class, race, gender, etc.) Muslim immigrants represent a unique identity because of their association with a religion that is heavily reviled in western societies.

Cesari (2006) tackles the issue of how Muslim immigrants are treated in Western Europe. The term Islamophobia, “a modern and secular anti-Islamic discourse” (Cesari 2006: 5) became prominent in Western societies in the 1990s but was popularized following the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Directly after the attacks, “both EUMC [European Monitoring Center on Xenophobia and Racism] reports state a marked rise in anti-Islamic attitudes and attacks in European countries for a short period of time engendered by the events of 9/11” (Cesari 2006: 7). She explains that Muslim immigrants face a unique situation because of the heavily discriminatory political rhetoric and general anti-Islamic tendency of politics in western European. Her approach is to look at the intersection of policies taken towards integrating Muslims into western culture and the instances of discrimination to get a holistic view of the experience of Muslim immigrants. My research takes this one step further in looking at how those policies and experiences are then ingrained into society and reproduced through non-Muslim students and the possible implications they could have on the future of policies and discrimination.

I interviewed three American and three Dutch students in order to gain enough insights from each group. I only interviewed University students for this study, so the groups are not representative of their population as a whole, however they had very interesting insights because they are more exposed to issues of immigration in an educational setting. Also, because all six respondents were University students, it is still possible to make some comparisons between the two groups. Two of the Americans I interviewed were female and one was male and two of the Dutch youth were male with one female. The first American I interviewed was Caroline (all names in this paper are fictional), a 21 year-old from Boston who attends an elite Ivy League school and studies business. Many of the views she holds were shaped by friends she met in college who came from other countries and broadened her knowledge and understanding of immigration by sharing their experiences with her. The second American female student I interviewed was Sarah, a 20 year-old from Washington D.C., who studies communications and media studies. She has very personal connections to the issue of immigration because her mother emigrated from France. The final American I interviewed was Brad, a 20 year-old from Southern California studying history. He has more conservative political views than Caroline and Sarah, but still had a very personal experience with immigration that made him much more accepting of it than other social policies in the United States.

The first Dutch student I interviewed was Frank, a 22 year-old from Amsterdam just finishing his bachelors in history, and specifically Dutch history. He was very thoughtful with all of his answers and often would counter with his own questions that would prompt further discussion between the two of us during the interview. The second Dutch student I interviewed was Mirjam, a 20 year-old from Amsterdam studying social sciences at the UvA. Her views were really shaped by one of her best childhood friends whose parents immigrated to the Netherlands from Morocco. My final interview was with Edwin, a 22 year-old finishing his bachelor in economics.

As some of the prompting questions to get started on the subject, especially for the Dutch students, I asked them about their opinions on the current Syrian refugee crisis and how they think their country should respond. I also asked about the Charlie Hebdo attacks and how they think the French government should have responded. This is also a good example of how this issue can relate back to Marcuse’s theory of Tolerance. From there we delved into their views of immigration policies in their country. We also talked about their thoughts on political issues that are specific to the Muslim immigrant population such as whether traditional wear like the hijab should be allowed or how they feel about politicians speaking out against Muslim immigrants in their country.

I also used examples of policies from the two countries to gauge their satisfaction and criticisms of their own government’s approach and the approach of the other country. This will also give concrete examples to directly compare the opinions of the youth since I talked about the same policies with each of them. I used specific policies dealing with immigration and assimilation in each of the countries as well as cases like the recent attacks in Paris to see how the interviewees frame the attackers in relation to the religion of Islam as a whole.

Personal connections

The first question I asked was how they first become aware of the concept of immigration (whether through a class, family, friend, etc.). I wanted to get an understanding of how it impacted them personally because that would influence the views that they now hold. For the most part, the two groups of students, Dutch and American, had very different first interactions with the concept of immigration. The two female American students discussed with their parents at a young age about which countries their families had immigrated from. They both identified strongly with their familial roots, even if they were separated by multiple generations from a particular heritage. Sarah’s mother immigrated from France, so she was able to identify with her mother’s culture, along with her American identity: “My mom moved to America as a student from France and then became a citizen after meeting my dad. So I really grew up thinking about immigration because of my mom.” She recognizes that this shaped the way that she thinks about immigration and especially how she is able to connect to immigrants’ struggles. While Caroline did not have a direct link with family members that had immigrated to the United States, she still discussed her heritage with her family and felt she could somewhat identify with it. At the age of 15, she went with her family to Ellis Island, where many immigrants were taken when they first arrived in the U.S.: “We spent a whole day looking for family members and tracing our lineage. So immigration was a really positive topic for me because of that experience.”

However, Brad did not feel he could strongly identify with his family heritage because he seemed so far removed from it, but did say he discussed his lineage with his parents when he was in primary school. He also had a powerful experience when he was 13 when he found out that his housekeeper, with whom he was very close, was an illegal immigrant: “Before finding out about her situation, I had no idea that illegal immigration was a real issue. It was my first hint at politics, so she really played a big role in shaping my views on immigration.” All three American students could trace their own family histories and described this experience as the first, or one of the first ways, in which they became aware of the concept of immigration. They all had a very positive image of immigration and immigrants, since they themselves were the product of families who had immigrated to the United States.

In contrast, none of the Dutch students had any first-hand experience with immigration that impacted them personally at a young age. However, all three Dutch students said that the first time they thought about immigration was through a friend or a classmate that was an immigrant or the child of immigrants. Mirjam had a very close childhood friend in her neighborhood whose parents emigrated from Morocco: “One of the first ways that I really started thinking about immigration was when I saw that my friend’s grandparents didn’t live here in the Netherlands with her. I felt so bad for her that they lived far away and she didn’t get to see them often.” It was a very humanizing experience for her to have such a close childhood connection with someone who came from a very different background. She said it definitely affected the way that she looks at immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants. She even went to several Islamic holiday gatherings with her friend that gave her much insight into the culture and beliefs.

Edwin and Frank’s connections with their friends who were the children of immigrants were not as strong as Mirjam’s, but they both identified their childhood as the point in their life that made them start thinking about immigration and what it meant for the people involved. Edwin talked about a Polish immigrant who was on his football team when he was around 10. The first thing he noticed was that his Dutch was not very good: “I guess I realized he was from a different background when I talked to him more and heard him speaking Dutch. I realized that there were different languages and cultures other than Dutch.” Frank talked less about specific interactions, and more about the diversity in his primary school. He said that many of his classmates were Moroccan or Turkish and “usually stuck together as a group, they didn’t really assimilate with the rest of the class, they just had their own subculture.” So overall, the American students had a more personal connection to immigration and saw how it played a role in shaping their family identity. The Dutch students had a more secondary connection to immigration through friends and classmates.

Policy, a matter of “judging character” 

Even though the American students had a more personal connection, they did not follow immigration policy very closely and it was not a big priority in their political beliefs. Due to the two-party political system present in the U.S., the American students all agreed that immigration was not an issue that was very high on their priorities because it was assumed that they would agree with the policies of their chosen party. They review the general immigration stance of a candidate, but said they would only be swayed to give up the support of a candidate in their party if the immigration policy was “extremely different” from their own.

Caroline explained that she used a candidate’s immigration stance as a way to “judge their character and weed out the racists.” Sarah came to a similar conclusion; but added, “it is only a small piece of political decision making.” Beyond knowing a candidate’s general immigration stance, all three Americans said they did not closely monitor a candidate’s immigration policy. Similarly, they all agreed they do not follow current legislation on immigration unless it is “a big deal” and all over the news. Brad said that he sees immigration as “a black and white issue and the grey area is not discussed much,” meaning that as long as he agrees with the general ideology of a candidate or legislative order, he does not pay much attention to the smaller details.

The Dutch students, however, were marginally more likely to follow immigration policy more closely and see it as an important part of politics. All three Dutch students said that immigration is a significant piece of a party’s political platform, and thus they felt they were aware of the immigration policy of different parties. Edwin explained that it was “a big influence in my political beliefs, but not the most important piece. I look more closely at things that affect me and my family like employment and schools.” But like the Americans, all three Dutch students said they looked more towards the general attitude of parties/candidates and did not look as much at the specifics. Mirjam said she used the immigration policies of candidates in a similar way to the Americans; she used it more as a way of judging character and looking for overall tolerance in a party or candidate, rather than closely analyzing the specifics of the policy.

Family talk

One major difference between the American and Dutch students’ views on immigration was how their opinions related to their parents’ views. All six respondents said that they did have similar views on immigration, as well as on most political topics, with their parents. However, all three American students explained that they don’t talk to their parents about politics very much, especially in formal settings like dinner. Sarah discussed how she and her parents rarely talk about political and social issues: “My family is very liberal and very pro-immigration, and they definitely had an influence on my opinions growing up, but as I got older we started talking about the issues less.” I found this very interesting since Sarah conveyed such strong feelings about immigration through the interview, yet it is something that she is not able to discuss in depth with her parents. Caroline and Brad had very similar stories about their discussions with their parents, saying, “it’s not a normal practice in my household to talk about controversial issues, even if we know everyone has the same views” (Caroline).

The Dutch students had very different responses to this question. “We frequently have political debates during dinner. So I know that we generally have similar beliefs, and the times when our opinions are different it is because of my youthful idealism and my parents’ pragmatism” (Frank). I think this is a great summation of how all three Dutch students talked about their relationships with their parents. Mirjam similarly explained her family’s practice of talking about politics while eating dinner. She said that when she was young, she completely agreed with her parents and took their word as truth, but now that she is older she can form her own opinions and engage in debates and discussions about some of the more nuanced parts of politics. However, Edwin had a slightly different experience, saying that he talks to his brother a lot about politics, but not as much with his parents. And specifically regarding immigration, “I talk about it with my brother, but not that often because it isn’t relevant to our lives. I can talk about politics with my parents about other topics that are more relevant to them” (Edwin).

Overall, Dutch students tend to converse more with their parents about immigration (and politics in general) and know more about immigration policies than the Americans. It is possible then that Dutch students are more interested in learning more about policies because they are discussing and debating with parents as a normal part of their routine, whereas the Americans are not as motivated to look into immigration policy because they are not discussing it on a frequent basis.

Assimilation?

Next, the interviews moved to the question to what extent immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, need to assimilate into their new society. Before asking my respondents about their thoughts on assimilation and the ability of immigrants to hold on to their former culture and integrate into society, I found some insight from scholars on the subject matter in each country. In the United States, Muslim immigrants are not forced to assimilate, but moving up in employment and social status does require integration and at least some loss of culture: “Insofar as the better future is found in a place where out-group contacts are more plentiful than in the neighborhoods or workplaces where the newcomers begin, the new Americans are likely to select ‘mainstream strategies’ – and thereby progress toward assimilation, whether wanted or not” (Waldinger 2005: 3). Therefore it is common for immigrants in the United States to adjust to their new surroundings in order to gain more mobility in their new country. So, although there is no direct pressure on immigrants to assimilate, it is a pivotal step to achieving better social and economic standing.

In the Netherlands, there is pressure from society for Muslim immigrants to change their culture somewhat and to modify the way that they live to more adequately adapt to their new society: “Muslim citizens are called upon to re-invent their religiosity in the new environment, and to abandon customary practices that are perceived as conservative and archaic” (Cesari 2006: 100). Starting in the 1980’s, there was a shift in Dutch policies around immigrants. Before, most policies concentrated on ‘guest workers’, or people expected to be living in the country for only a short period, but now, with many of the migrants staying in the country, policies became more focused on permanent settlers. “Integration with the maintenance of cultural identity” (Cesari 2006: 114) was a common phrase in the political sphere to describe a space where it was possible for both the Dutch culture and the culture of an immigrant’s former country to exist cohesively. However this was not very successful and left people feeling like they had no true culture. Whether integration while maintaining culture is actually possible is one of the questions I discussed with the students.

I found the interviewees’ views on assimilation and integration very interesting because, for the most part, they reflected the general atmosphere of each country. The Americans generally thought that it was very possible for Muslims to be able to assimilate into a country and be a functioning member of society while still hanging onto the culture of their former home. Brad had the strongest opinion on this:“People should be able to fully keep their culture. Obviously people are going to be discriminated against in the beginning and it is going to take time to get rid of that discrimination, but it will happen.” He discussed the trend he has noticed in the United States that whenever there is an influx of many immigrants from the same background, people are very hostile towards them, but if they just continue to be upstanding citizens, eventually society will meet them halfway and the discrimination will end. So he thinks that Muslims in the United States should not have to assimilate into the “American culture” but rather that eventually society will accept them. This theme of society meeting the immigrants halfway was common with Sarah and Caroline’s answers as well. Caroline said that no one should be forced to give up their culture when they move to a new country, “but they should respect the new culture they are entering into. They should learn about their new country, but their new country should also respect their culture… It is definitely possible to hold on to your culture and assimilate into a new one.” Similarly, Sarah said that “both societies have to come together” in order to make a smooth transition for all immigrants.

I think the answers by the Americans are very reflective of the values of the nation. America is always called “a country of immigrants” because, with the exception of Native Americans, everyone’s family came from another country originally. Thus, the American students all talked about tracing their own family heritage at one time or another to discover their family’s origins. Both Sarah and Caroline, and Brad to a lesser extent, also described feeling some kind of connection with their families’ origins and culture, so it makes sense that they would think it is possible to hold on to a former culture and assimilate into a new one because they saw first hand how their families were able to do it.

However, the Dutch students were much more skeptical of how someone would be able to both hold on to their former culture and assimilate into a new one. Frank had very strong feelings about this idea. He said that he doesn’t think there really is a cohesive “Dutch identity” into which one must assimilate when they immigrate to the Netherlands, but it is impossible for someone to completely hold on to their culture because “culture isn’t fixed, it changes. And it will change regardless of whether or not you attempt to change it.” Mirjam’s opinions lined up with Frank’s, but she also talked about watching her close friends from Morocco try to navigate the two cultures. She watched some of her friends rebel from their former culture and try to take up what they saw as a Dutch identity while others tried to hold onto their culture. But she said that all of them at one point felt they did not fit into either culture because they were trying to navigate the two different worlds. She concluded that “you will always have to give up your original culture. But the place you move to also has to adjust.” However, Edwin was more positive about the possibility of maintaining the original culture than the other two students: “You should know the values of the country you are entering… But I think you can adopt the values and hold onto your culture a little bit.” He followed up with saying that ultimately “it is rude not to know and respect the values of a new society,” indicating that it should be placed ahead of cultural maintenance.

The Dutch students’ answers reflected the findings by Waldinger and Cesari, while the American students held on to an idealistic notion of culture, seeing it as more concrete and able to maintain even in a changing environment. This was also exemplified in the answers about a specific case of assimilation law in the Netherlands. I asked the respondents about their opinion on the Dutch law that says Muslim women are not allowed to cover their face while wearing the hijab. All three American students saw this is as too far encroaching on the rights of the individuals. But the three Dutch students felt it was an understandable law that would help the immigrants further assimilate into Dutch society. The Dutch students were much more willing to argue in favor of the loss of an immigrant’s culture in order to maintain a consistent Dutch society, whereas the Americans thought that the two could coexist without causing too much tension.

Understanding Islam: Unconscious or Critical Consumption of Media?

Next, I directed the conversation towards their understanding of Islam as a religion. The background knowledge for most respondents, both Dutch and American, came from similar places, such as topics in classes in secondary school and University, and brief exposés in the news. This way, the Dutch and American students did not differ in what kind of information they consumed about Islam. The difference was apparent in the way they consumed that information. While both groups discussed gaining knowledge from news sources, the three Dutch students stated that they were weary of what they learned from the news in general, and specifically about Islam. Edwin explained that he “doesn’t trust the media about Islam because it is sensational. I use it for background information but the news doesn’t really reflect situations or cultural things well.” The three Dutch students are more critical about the news they consume, which is perhaps reflected in their tolerance towards Islam and an ability to separate radical Islam from Islam as a whole. Of all my respondents, though, only Mirjam had more personal knowledge of Islam and how it functioned in everyday life because she had many Muslim friends growing up, including her childhood friend who has remained her best friend:. “I celebrated Islamic holidays with my friends starting at age 4 so it seemed very normal for me. I got to know about what it was like personally and not just hearing about it in school or the media.”

Even though the Dutch students viewed the news more critically, all six respondents were very clear about their understanding of the difference between radical Islam and Islam as a whole, as well as how they framed terror attacks committed by radical Islamic groups. I asked each of the respondents how they identified or framed their thoughts about the people who committed the acts of terror in Paris against the Charlie Hebdo publisher as well as the recent civilian attacks. Caroline said that she did associate them with Islam, “but not Islam in general; they are religious extremists. And it is a problem because it closes people off from the religion as a whole; It can become very easy for the scared, uneducated public to not distinguish between the religion and extremists within the religion.” Caroline was very thoughtful in this response, trying to understand those that have a different viewpoint from her own. Brad and Sarah agreed, saying “I associate it with specifically radical Islam, Jihad and Sharia law, but not with Islam as a whole” (Brad), and “media makes me want to associate it with the religion as a whole, but I know it is just a small, radical section” (Sarah). Frank had very similar thoughts as the Americans, explaining that “Islam is used to radicalize, but it is not the same as the mainstream views. Religion is a fluid concept and radicalized religion is not the view held by most, but it is still faith based.”

But Mirjam and Edwin held even stronger opinions disassociating radical Islam with the religion as a whole. Mirjam talked specifically about the Islamic State and said it was “a place for people lost in society. They take religion as a way to be a part of something and something they believe in. It could have been something else they got involved in, just as long as it is something bigger than themselves.” I found this opinion striking because it goes against the common understanding that the violence comes from religious extremism. Perhaps her close connection with her Muslim friends made her more defensive of the religion and more willing to disassociate it from the religion. Edwin also didn’t associate the terror attacks with Islam because he doesn’t see the people as Muslims, rather they are “brainwashed by IS to scare people; they are crazy people. Everyone has something good in them, but because these people are brainwashed they can commit these horrible crimes.” Edwin took a very strong stance on this opinion, removing all connection with religion just like Mirjam, although he did not have a personal connection with Islam like Mirjam.

Limits on Freedom of Speech?

When looking at how tolerant both countries are of new cultures and religions, it is helpful to look at the way they frame the concept of freedom of speech. Often, when new cultures and groups of people enter society, they are the targets of hateful speech, and Muslims are currently a target in both the United States and the Netherlands. To explain how this relates to tolerance and the possibility for an easy integration into society, I will look at Herbert Marcuse’s theory of Repressive and Liberating Tolerance. Marcuse wrote this theory in 1965 as a response to what he viewed as the repressive nature of free speech and how hate speech is merely a precursor for hateful actions. Total Free Speech, Marcuse argues, is inherently repressive because it allows for hate speech and threatening speech. It allows people to regurgitate negative statements they hear from politicians, family, and friends without thinking about the implications of those words. Marcuse also argues that because any kind of hate speech is allowed in a society built around total freedom of speech, it will inevitably lead to violent actions because there is no dialogue around hateful words, it is just easily acceptable. To solve the problem, he says we must adopt a new way of thinking about tolerance: Liberating Tolerance. This form of tolerance outlaws public hate speech in an attempt to create dialogue about what is acceptable and to prevent violent words from becoming violent actions. He said, at the time of writing this, there was no society that successfully implemented this kind of policy that was intolerant of intolerance. But if one were to exist, it would create a safer environment for all members of the society.

When comparing the U.S. and the Netherlands, I wanted to see whether they leaned towards repressive or liberating tolerance in relation to Marcuse’s theory. I found that America is as close to a repressive tolerance model as possible. With its idealistic focus on freedom of speech, there is little to no limitation on hate speech. The first Amendment of the Constitution of the United States specifically states: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” The value of freedom of speech is ingrained in American society and thus it is very difficult to limit it, even for just causes like preventing hate speech. Another factor that leaves freedom of speech untouched is the concept of “political hyperbole.” When politicians use aggressive, or even threatening language towards a group of people, it does not count as a viable threat and punishable by law (“Threats of Violence Against Individuals”). However in the Netherlands, there are more restrictive laws when it comes to hate speech. “When you have a group together, i.e. an extreme-right group, and when you attract young people, you are dangerous…I think a lot of people are, in fact, defenseless because they are not able to think critically” (Snijders & Wood 2000). The two countries take very different stances on freedom of speech, but is this also reflected in the way youth think about it?

To gain insight into this question, I asked my respondents directly. I did not explain Marcuse’s theory to them so as not to bias their opinion. Since Marcuse’s theory revolves around the assumption that total freedom of speech is repressive, and this may be something that would change their opinion in the moment, I purposefully omitted it. I merely asked about their thoughts on freedom of speech, if they think hate speech should be outlawed and to what extent, and whether they believe hate speech leads to hate action. This discussion is where I saw the most dramatic differences between Dutch and American students. In general, the Dutch students were more willing to negotiate restrictions on freedom of speech in order to protect specific populations, including Muslims. However, the Americans drew the line at physical violence and saw no issue with hate speech as long as it did not become physical.

Brad had the clearest opinion on this issue of freedom of speech: “Freedom of speech should stay that way. Everyone should be able to express their opinion, even if others don’t agree or like it… Social consequences alone are bad enough to stop people from saying negative things.” Brad allowed how he did see the possibility for hate speech leading to hateful actions, but he believes that it is not enough to limit a person’s right to freedom of speech. Sarah agreed with this opinion, not because she sees it as a right, but because she believes it would be too difficult to monitor and create legislation around specific rights: “Free speech is fine. It would be too hard to be nit-picky about freedom of speech and what is allowed and what is not… Hate speech is ok and shouldn’t be regulated until you cross the physical line. You can walk away from hate speech, you can’t always walk away from violence.” It makes sense that this would be the opinion of the American students because freedom of speech is one of the founding principals of the country and is mentioned frequently in the media and political rhetoric. Caroline caught on to this idea in her own explanation of why she thinks there shouldn’t be limits on freedom of speech: “It’s shitty, but it’s what we’re based on. The people who do hate speech are such a small minority, you don’t advertise it in public. There is a self-regulating mechanism in society, civil society will balance out right and wrong.” The American students believed that society socially punishes perpetrators of hate speech, so laws are not necessary and are too restrictive.

The Dutch students, however, without the strong, ingrained rhetoric of the power of freedom of speech, were much more willing to punish hate speech because it can lead to hateful action. Frank had the strongest opinion on this, saying that “the things you say and write have consequences… there should be laws in place, you can’t incite violence.” He saw a clear link between speech and action and thought the response should be legal, not just through civil society. Edwin and Mirjam were more reserved in their response to hate speech, they thought that if it was just rhetoric, it would be acceptable, but once there was a call for violence it should be punished. “It is a grey area, and hard to see where to draw the line,” said Mirjam, “but I don’t think it should be allowed to call for violence.” Edwin similarly stated that “opinions are okay as long as they aren’t stated as fact, but threatening speech should be illegal.” Although they thought hate speech in general could not really be punished, once it incited violence and promoted action, it should be stopped immediately.

Along the topic of freedom of speech, I talked to all of the respondents about politicians in their own country who were speaking out against Muslims, and even calling for specific action against them. The main difference in their responses came in the way that the students framed their leaders’ negative speech. The Americans were generally not as critical of their politicians because they view their intolerance as “comedic” (Brad) and they couldn’t take them seriously, said Sarah, “because the things they say are just outrageous, especially Donald Trump. There is no way he can get elected, so why would I give him my attention?” These are curious responses, and seem consistent with the Americans’ responses about not following politics in general very much. But they are also potentially problematic opinions because there are many people in the United States that do take the political rhetoric against Muslims very seriously, and if those that do not agree don’t speak up, how will it ever stop?

The Dutch students were more critical of their politicians and their negative statements. All three students brought up Geert Wilders as the biggest perpetrator of hate speech. They took his statements seriously and saw that he does have a strong political following and “he shouldn’t be ignored” (Frank). Edwin and Mirjam both talked about the possibility of taking away the platform for politicians to say such negative things, but weren’t sure how to accomplish that.“You shouldn’t give them a voice,” Edwin said, “They shouldn’t have a platform if they are doing hate speech.” He said that there shouldn’t necessarily be legal repercussions for politicians using hateful speech, but they shouldn’t be provided media attention. Mirjam thinks that “politicians are personally responsible for their actions,” and that they should be held accountable for their negative statements.

Concluding thoughts

This research project really stretched me out of my comfort zone. I had never conducted interviews before, and it seemed like a big task to start off since I was talking about such controversial topics with my respondents. I had to make them feel comfortable enough with me to reveal their thoughts without fear that I would judge them. I had to make sure my own biases weren’t revealed in the interviews so as not to influence their opinions. But once I completed my first interview, I felt much more confident and was able to have really enlightening discussions with all of the respondents, with the shortest interview lasting an hour and the longest two hours. I felt the students challenge my own opinions and expectations about what differences I would find. Once I moved to the analysis portion of the research after concluding the interviews, I felt my assumptions being questioned even further. It really forced me to think critically about what the respondents were saying. It also forced me to think about the big picture, or as my high school history teacher taught me: the “so what.” I had to think critically about what this string of responses and comparisons really meant and why it was important.

In looking for the big picture, I realized I had to look at why I was so interested in such a specific topic in the first place. The world is in the midst of a migrant crisis with millions of people displaced and few solutions put into action. It is scary to think about what will happen to all of these people and where they will go. The fear of Islam is so deeply rooted that it dissuades whole countries from accepting refugees. And this fear and compliance with the negative political rhetoric will either continue or lessen with the next generation. Looking at the answers of the two groups of students there is a significant difference in how they think about assimilation and tolerance, and whether one, both, or none of the approaches will be helpful in combating Islamophobia will be seen in time.

The Americans generally argued for the right to maintain one’s former culture while integrating into their new society, but did not think hate speech or negative political rhetoric against those people was a problem. The Dutch students were the opposite, arguing that it is necessary to give up at least some culture or cultural practices in order to assimilate into a new society while fighting hate speech and threatening speech with legal action. As it stands right now, both countries have issues with immigration policy, especially in regards to Muslim immigrants. The future of those policies lies in the opinions of the educated youth that may one day become the decision makers.

When watching what happens in the future of both countries, it will be imperative to keep the opinions of youth in mind, since they will be the ones shaping policy and public opinion. Personally, I believe that when it comes to combating Islamophobia the best approach includes helping people assimilate into the country so as not to cause a divide, even if that means giving up some culture. I also think being ‘intolerant of intolerance’ is very powerful in shutting down negative thinking and speech, as Marcuse theorizes. But time will only tell what will actually be effective in creating more unified and open societies for Muslim immigrants.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)

References

Calamur, Krishnadev (2015). The U.S. Response to Syria’s Refugee Crisis. The Atlantic, 10 September 2015.

Cesari, Jocelyne (2006). Secularization and Religious Divides in Europe: Muslims in Western Europe After 9/11 and Why the Term Islamopohbia Is More a Predicament than an Explanation. Thesis, GSRL-Paris and Harvard University.

Ernst, Carl W. (2013). Islamophobia in America: The Anatomy of Intolerance. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Kelly, Andrew (2015). Dutch PM Condemns Attack on Shelter for Syrian Refugees. Thomas Reuters, 10 October 2015.

Kingsley, Patrick (20115). Syrian Refugee Crisis: Why Has It Become so Bad? The Guardian, 4 September 2015.

Marcuse, Herbert (1968). Repressive Tolerance. Berkeley, Cal.: Berkeley Commune.

Snijders, Hadewina & Ruth Wood (2000). The Criminalization of Hate Speech in the Netherlands. Humanity In Action.

Waldinger, Roger David (2015). The Cross-Border Connection: Immigrants, Emigrants, and Their Homelands. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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