An interview with Umar Mirza, the 22-year-old chief editor of the Dutch website ‘We’re Here to Stay’.
Chandra Frank: The results of a TV opinion poll, released shortly after the Islamophobic Freedom Party (PvV) won record results in European parliamentary elections, indicated that a large proportion of Turkish and Moroccan migrants no longer felt welcome and would consider leaving the Netherlands. This makes the title of the website you edit, ‘We’re Here to Stay’ particularly pertinent. What’s behind the name?
Umar Mirza: ‘We’re Here to Stay’ means different things to different people. Against those who rather like the idea that Muslims should leave the Netherlands, there is a defiant message here. We are not leaving, we are here to stay. But ‘We’re Here to Stay’ should also be read as an invitation to young Muslims to write about their personal experiences; it provides a space for all those from an Islamic background to write about any subject they choose, as well as participate in online discussions. That is the beauty of the name. It allows more than 50,000 young people who visit our website each month a unique opportunity to interpret ‘We’re Here to Stay’ their own way.
But, incidentally, in relation to the poll you mentioned, that suggested that young educated Muslims wanted to leave the Netherlands and return to their country of origin, I find the opposite to be the case. Interviews for this particular survey were conducted mainly within the Turkish and Moroccan communities, which are a large part of the Muslim community in the Netherlands, and whose views are important. But the Dutch Muslim community is very diverse, and my experience is that more and more organisations are being established, to represent this diversity. Also, with the increase in the number of Muslim students entering higher education, has come a growth in Islamic associations and multicultural student groups such as MashriQ. Via the organisation Minhaj-ul-Quran I run a course on Islam at the University of Rotterdam,. When we started out we only had twenty students and now we have around seventy. My personal belief is that most young Muslim people are determined to remain in the Netherlands.
When you set up the website, was it your intention to create a space aimed specifically at young Muslims?
Umar Mirza:Yes, that was our intention when we set up the website four years ago (and by the way we have managed to survive all this time without any government subsidies, thanks to the work of volunteers). However, even when we set out, we were motivated by the desire to find out more about the problems and successes of young Muslims in society and by so doing promote more awareness amongst non-Muslims. When we started the website, we were using a lot of Islamic terminology. We assumed we were writing for people just like us, but that was not the case. Within the Muslim community, there is a great diversity, not just the Muslims who were born in the Netherlands, or the highly educated, but newer arrivals too, and there were also non-Muslims with strong opinions who were visiting the website and also wanted to share their opinions. They are welcome as well, as long as they are not racist or offensive. Our aim now is to reach out to this very diverse group of people.
There has recently been quite a bit of criticism about the way the Dutch media covers matters relating to Muslims, particularly the space they give Geert Wilders to express his Islamophobic views. Do you see the website as a kind of counter-protest to the mainstream media debate?
Umar Mirza: No, it wasn’t our intention to react to the media debate. The website was not set up as a reaction, a protest, it was more positive than that – an attempt to create an alternative space. It was a way of spreading a message through providing a stage upon which young Muslim voices could be heard. The mainstream is constantly talking about Muslims yet the voices of young Muslims are not heard. Of course while much of this is the fault of those in authority who do not give young Muslims a stage, we also have to be self-critical, and acknowledge that we are not always well-organised. The website also helps promote better communication by providing a space for readers to promote their activities, lectures and seminars.
But, indirectly, we do have an impact on the mainstream. For it is possible for us to be immediate, to respond more quickly to issues than the mainstream media. But none of this should imply that we are uncritical. For instance, if there is an Islamic school that performs badly it is also our task to be critical, and to ask why. We are not here to defend Muslims; we just want to adjust a certain image people have of Muslims. We try to highlight important issues and promote the right causes.
Why is the notion of giving young Muslims ‘a stage’ so important to you?
Umar Mirza: Well perhaps the answer has something to do with my upbringing. A while ago, I had a discussion with my parents because they wanted to go back to Pakistan. They thought their children would study in the Netherlands and after that go back to Pakistan and buy a piece of land. Nothing wrong with that, in principle, but the idea just didn’t appeal to me. That’s my holiday place, I know the language, I can speak, read and write it but I think in Dutch.
And then there were other pressures. During high school I noticed that people were constantly asking me questions, about Islam, Muslims, violence, but also about my opinions on homosexuality. I felt like I had to defend myself although I was not the one who was concerned about those issues. I thought to myself, it’s crazy that we are so far apart just because somebody looks different, or has a different set of beliefs.
I feel a great need to help all sides, to promote dialogue but particularly to reach out also to young religious Muslims who may have seen the film Fitna, and feel angry about the debate around it, but need to respond to the misinterpretation of Islam in a constructive way. I feel the most constructive approach here is a personal one, to get into conversations with young Muslims, particularly at the mosque. Young Muslims who follow the course I organise at the University of Rotterdam learn that Islam is in fact not against democracy and that men and women are equal human beings. The debates and projects the government organises can sometimes be useful, but personally I think that rather than have debates about non-issues it would be a lot more effective if there would be more interaction, if somebody would join a Muslim for food during Ramadan, for instance. The public debate is so often about non-issues, issues that people are afraid of but that will in fact never happen. For instance, throwing homosexuals from roofs just because an imam said something like that a few centuries ago, have you ever heard a single case of Muslims who throw homosexuals off roofs in the Netherlands or in Europe for that matter? It’s just very unrealistic to have these kinds of debates. Those people who are frightened about Islam, it seems to me, are constantly alluding to something that has not happened as yet. Maybe one or two mosques from the five hundred mosques in the Netherlands are in favour of implementing Sharia in the Netherlands, but that’s a really, really tiny proportion of the Muslims in the Netherlands. What we need to do is to ensure that the voices of the majority are heard and in this way people can isolate the voices of the unrepresentative smaller group.
Finally, could you tell us what you believe to be the unique features of the website?
Umar Mirza:Our website is open to everybody, there is no need for registration; it promotes itself, we have never had to have a PR campaign. And while the website has an Islamic identity, our readers are Muslims and non-Muslims. The website does not promote one communal view – all are welcome to voice an opinion. And in this way, the website actually creates a new consciousness amongst those that write and debate with us. Sometimes, I don’t agree with an article but I will publish it anyway because there should be room for different opinions on our stage. It can be hard to stay positive and optimistic all the time, but we have to try to light that spark in each other. It certainly helps to know that there are more and more committed young Muslims around.