Islamic cultural centre coming to the Netherlands

Four districts in the western part of Amsterdam are joining forces to create an Islamic cultural institute. If all goes according to plan, the first activities should take place towards the end of this year.

Amsterdam initiative

The city initiative was taken by a group of public figures from indigenous Dutch and immigrant Muslim backgrounds. Two of them represent large national Muslim organisations: Haci Karacaer is director of the Turkish group Milli Goöroös and Ahmed Marcouch is from the Union of Moroccan Mosques in the Netherlands.

The men describe their project as a reaction to negative publicity in the Netherlands – and particularly in Amsterdam – for the Islamic religion and the wider Muslim community.

Based on a French example

The centre will be modelled on the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, a joint project between France’s government and the Arab League. Since it was established in 1987, the Institut has become a successful place for the French and Arab worlds to meet. Like its French counterpart, the Amsterdam institute intends to provide a space for exhibitions and education, arranged in conjunction with museums from all over the Muslim world.

Educate and inform

It will also be a place for debate, say the founders, who plan a “free space for discussion in favour of the emancipation of Muslims in the Netherlands.” International speakers will be invited to debate many subjects: the development of Islam in the future, for instance.

The first talks are scheduled to take place in September at a temporary location. The organisers hope to find a permanent base for the institute before the end of next year, preferably in Amsterdam West, home to many of the city’s Muslims.

The educational element of the project will consist mainly of informing young Muslims about different ideological trends within Islam. Hans Luiten, another of the scheme’s organisers, speaks of an “enormous hunger for knowledge” among young Muslims. He says there is considerable support for the initiative from the Muslim community and also from Amsterdam’s mayor, Job Cohen.

Co-founder Mustapha Baba thinks that the building should capture the right atmosphere using architecture with Moorish influences. “But don’t worry,” he says, “not with 26 minarets on the roof.”

Original idea

The initiative has also come in response to an earlier invitation by the Dutch government. At the beginning of June, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende suggested that a cultural institute would encourage the integration of immigrants with an Arabic background.

Mr Balkenende’s suggestion, in turn, was inspired by Henk Propper, former director of the Dutch cultural institute in Paris. While there, Mr Propper became a fan of the Institut du Monde Arabe, and when he returned to his home country he managed to mobilise policymakers into supporting his idea for a similar establishment here:
“It was after 11 September and the tensions between communities in the Netherlands were rising. An institute seemed a good way to initiate dialogue between indigenous and immigrant communities in the Netherlands and between the Netherlands and the Islamic world.”

In June of this year, the Foreign Affairs and Education, Science & Culture Ministries began investigating whether a project of this kind would be feasible. It was agreed that immigrant communities in the Netherlands should initiate and partly finance the institute, and that the Dutch government would merely support it.

The present initiative, however, is not the only response to the authorities’ invitation. Henk Propper says that similar plans are afoot in Utrecht and Rotterdam, and so he is asking for cooperation between the different schemes, but he leaves open the question of location. Mustapha Baba does not rule out cooperation, but is worried that the Rotterdam group wants to take the project away with them: “We think the Institute should be in Amsterdam.”

Disputed identity

Another unresolved controversy concerns what identity the institute should have. Although nothing is as yet resolved, one thing is clear: it should not be a small-scale copy of the Paris endeavour. A purely Arabic institute would not reflect the composition of the immigrant population; many Dutch Muslims do not have roots in Arab countries, but in Turkey and Surinam. Meanwhile, the largest immigrant community from an Arabic country – Moroccans – mainly come from a non-Arab Berber background.

For this reason, Mustapha Baba thinks an Islamic Institute would be more appropriate:

“It will not be an Arab Institute because there are hardly any Arabs in the Netherlands. For the time being we’re call it an Islamic Centre.”

Others, however, fear that Islam as a common denominator would confirm precisely the ‘clash of civilizations’ worldview that the institute is seeking to offset. Therefore, some people suggest it should become a ‘Mediterranean’ institute. Henk Propper is among those who are not in favour of a strong emphasis on the Islamic identity of the institute: “I hope the Netherlands will establish a large institute with an international orientation, directed towards Turks and Moroccan Berbers, not to Arabs or Muslims.”

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