Arabic in the Netherlands: Mosques fill state vacuum

Many Arab immigrants in the Netherlands only hold provisional permits. They want to ensure their children speak Arabic in case they have to leave one day.

In part 2 of a three-part series, Al Majalla examines how Arab immigrants in the Netherlands have increasingly turned to mosques to teach their children Arabic and why, for some, this is not ideal.
Aliaa Abou Khaddour
In part 2 of a three-part series, Al Majalla examines how Arab immigrants in the Netherlands have increasingly turned to mosques to teach their children Arabic and why, for some, this is not ideal.

Arabic in the Netherlands: Mosques fill state vacuum

Teaching Arabic to immigrant communities has become a hot-button issue in many European countries, even in the Netherlands, which has a comparatively smaller immigrant Arab community.

In 2016, the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant featured a report on newly arrived Syrian immigrant families organising weekend Arabic language courses for their children through private initiatives.

Schools permitted the use of classrooms for these courses, which also included teaching some aspects of Islamic religious education. The initiative, mainly led by volunteer Syrian immigrants, typically enrolled between 20 to 100 children per class.

But the headline of the report—Arabic Language Lessons on Weekends, Do They Hinder the Integration of Syrian Children?—suggested that this was somehow a bad thing.

This is the context in which the topic of teaching Arabic has developed in Holland, which has marginalised parents' wishes to ensure their children don't lose touch with their culture and can speak their native tongue.

In this article, Al Majalla gives them a voice.

Small but diverse

In the Netherlands, Syrian immigrants and refugees mentioned in the Volkskrant article form the second-largest and most recent community among Arab migrants.

Moroccans comprise the largest and most established group; Iraqi immigrants rank third in terms of population size, followed by Egyptians. Meanwhile, the number of immigrants and refugees from Yemen and Sudan has recently risen.

Arab communities live alongside other immigrant groups, like Surinamese people from South America, Indonesians from Southeast Asia, as well as communities of Chinese and black African people—mostly in urban areas.

This makes for a diverse, multi-cultural society in cities, including Amsterdam, blending in alongside the native white Dutch population.

Aliaa Abou Khaddour

Read more: Amsterdam’s welcome embrace of immigrants

Historically, the Netherlands hasn't harboured nationalist tendencies, but this is clearly changing, as demonstrated by the victory of the far right in elections, where immigration emerged as a key issue.

Fears were stoked among white Dutch citizens over rising numbers of immigrants and refugees, many of whom are Muslims.

This fits in with the wider pattern in Europe, exacerbated by the arrival of huge numbers of Syrian refugees in the past ten years. It has since evolved into full-blown Islamophobia across the continent.

Read more: Why teaching Arabic is the latest hot-button issue in Germany

It was against this backdrop that Volkskrant questioned the motives of parents teaching their children Arabic.

On their part, parents speaking with Al Majalla had multiple reasons for wanting to ensure their children can speak their mother tongue.

They explained that many only held provisional permits to stay in the country, which made them feel insecure about the permanency of their residency. They wanted to ensure their children spoke Arabic should they be forced back to the Middle East in the future.

Plentiful benefits

However, the report did include expert opinions that said the teaching of Arabic and Islam did not impede the integration of youth into society.

It even went so far as to say that the cultural detachment of immigrant children from their native language and homeland could cause psychological harm and make them more susceptible to recruitment from terrorist groups.

Indeed, extremist groups like the Islamic State (IS) often targeted second or third-generation Muslim immigrants in Europe who felt marginalised by society and did not have a strong sense of identity.

Arab immigrant parents in the Netherlands who hold provisional permits want to ensure their children speak Arabic in case they are not granted citizenship.

Aside from being a means of communication and cultural expression, Arabic holds profound significance as the language of prayer and religious expression for Muslims.

Proper instruction opens up a rich cultural, social, and historical world rarely paralleled by any other contemporary language. A correct understanding of Islam helps shield people from falling susceptible to extremism.

Mosques fill education gap

However, teaching Arabic lacks official support from the authorities, making it harder to sustain and afford. Therefore, mosques and Islamic association centres have emerged to fill the gap with accessible and nearly cost-free alternatives for Arabic language instruction.

The language lessons offered by these courses tend to be within religious frameworks designed to back a specific Islamic doctrine. This approach is embraced by the majority of parents of immigrant children, be they Moroccan, Syrian, or other Arab Muslims.

But there are no alternative options available for those who would rather their children learn the language away from mosques and religious associations.  

The title of a recent study at the University of Amsterdam – What Are Children Taught in Mosques? – revealed a general sense of anxiety in Dutch society over the issue and an unease at the religious undertones of this form of language teaching.

Recent work at Utrecht University looked into why society was so fearful and cited the role the media plays in negatively portraying Arab and Muslim immigrants as extremists.

Decline in quality

A researcher of Arab origin at the University of Amsterdam who asked to remain anonymous – said that Arabic proficiency among faculty members in departments such as Arab Cultural Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, and Islamic Studies has deteriorated.

Additionally, students pursuing political sociology and humanities studies in the Middle East region rarely prioritise learning Arabic.

As a result, the calibre of graduates from these departments has deteriorated, and so has the depth of their knowledge of the Middle East.

A Muslim family walks on Dam Square. There are an estimated 1.2 million Muslims in the Netherlands, equivalent to about 6% of the country's population.

A Moroccan woman who has lived in the Netherlands for 30 years, wears traditional Islamic attire and devoutly practices her faith invited Al Majalla to accompany her to an Islamic centre and mosque where her daughters receive instruction in the Arabic language and Islamic teachings.

She believes Arabic and Islam are intertwined, and she wants her daughters to speak Arabic so they can understand their faith properly, which is the more important aspect in her view.

"It's important to us that our children receive Islamic education, even if it is not in Arabic. The priority is that they grasp the faith, even if it's taught in Dutch," she says.

An inside look

Inside the mosque, two classrooms were bustling with girls, predominantly aged between ten and 14. They donned loose, floor-length robes covering their hair, referred to as "prayer robes," which were the mandatory attire of school.

Several girls were tidying up the classrooms, while one used a vacuum cleaner to tidy a side room, identified as a prayer area.

The centre's secretary—a veiled woman who stated that she speaks colloquial Moroccan Arabic rather than classical Arabic—summoned its director, the mosque's imam, to speak to Al Majalla.

A specialist in Islamic studies and a graduate of the prestigious Leiden University, he explained that the school taught Islamic studies and Arabic language, accommodating 1,100 male and female students distributed among 13 male and 14 female classes. An additional 670 students were on the waiting list.

In this school, the Arabic language is not essential in the teaching programme; it is used in worship and for reading skills, aiming to enable children to read the Quran. The focus is on learning Islam, so it is largely taught in Dutch.

The director said that education primarily aims to connect children with their Islamic identity, which precedes the Arab identity. The institution's curriculum includes lessons in biography, jurisprudence, monotheism, and educational sessions using simplified books.

There is also a free online platform for those who wish to learn, including courses for parents.

Utrecht University looked at why society feared Arabs and Muslims and linked it to their negative portrayal in the media.

Parents say learning Islamic and Arabic helps link families together and build community around a shared heritage.

"I want my children to understand my jokes so we can share laughter. And I want them to sing along with me when I play the guitar. I don't want language to become a barrier that separates us," one father who spoke to Al Majalla said.

But others are not thrilled about the religious focus. A young Arab mother married to a Dutchman shared her concern:  "I really want my children to learn Arabic as it is our mother tongue and an integral component of our identity and cultural legacy," she explains.

"But I haven't enrolled my children yet because I'm not keen on the religious focus of most of these institutions," she explained, adding that Arab Christians also wish to teach their children the language, but do not send their children for the same reason.

"I view religion as a very personal issue, and despite being Muslim, I believe in allowing my children the autonomy to choose their own religious path. I prefer to impart beliefs and values to them in a manner aligned with my own perspective and vision."


Next: In the final installment, Al Majalla looks at the challenges Arab immigrants in France face when trying to hold onto their native tongue and culture.

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