Wall Street Journal NALIN PEKGUL January 30, 2006
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When I was 13 years old my family had to flee from Turkey for political reasons. My father fought for the Kurdish peoples’ human rights.
We came to Sweden in 1980 and, like many other Muslim immigrants, settled down in Tensta, a Stockholm suburb. In those days Tensta was either poetically described as a celebration of the multicultural society or defamed by others as a ghetto where young people are doomed to fail because of drugs, unemployment and crime. Neither of these images painted a complete picture. Yes, we had unemployment and prejudices that led to ethnic tensions. But we also had happy children and ambitious young people with bright hopes for the future.
I stayed in Tensta as an adult, even though I could have afforded to move to a more prosperous neighborhood. This led to accusations that I lived there just because it’s “politically correct.” I never chose to live in Tensta to improve my image. The only reason I didn’t want to leave was that for 25 years Tensta was my home. Many of my closest friends live there. If my children got sick and we didn’t have any medicine at home, there were always so many families around us to ask for help. This gave me an enormous feeling of security — a feeling most people who choose to live where their roots are probably know.
Unfortunately, the neighborhood I called my home for so many years has changed. It’s no longer the familiar place it used to be and, most importantly, I no longer feel safe in Tensta. The influence of Islamic fundamentalists has grown so much over the years that it is now impossible for me and my family to live there anymore. I’m tired of being expected to speak badly of Christians and Jews just because I’m Muslim. I’m tired of the hate preachers. I’m tired of seeing women condemned for the way they dress. I don’t want my daughter to be exposed to this type of aggression in the future. So I will soon have to leave Tensta.
As I look back at the history of my family, which for generations has fought for progress and modernization in Kurdish provinces, I’m astonished by the recent developments here in Sweden. Many years ago my grandfather, living as an imam in Turkey, decided to take his children out of Quranic school and send them to Latin school. That was in the 1950s. During the 1980s, my husband was active in the Kurdish-Turkish student movement and fought for the rights of women. I never imagined that in the new millennium, and in Sweden of all places, my five-year-old son would have to defend and explain in his day-care center why his mother doesn’t wear a head scarf.
Muslim fundamentalists have focused on strengthening their position in Europe for many years now. The first time I ever met Muslim fundamentalists was in 1993. I had read in Turkish newspapers that Saudi Wahabbists were trying to set up organizations in Europe in order to isolate the European Muslims from the rest of the population. These young men I then met in Tensta were educated but also full of hate against the West. I didn’t take them seriously back then.
But today I must admit that they have succeeded. The Muslim fundamentalists are now getting stronger by the day. When the Islamists complain how the Europeans don’t show any respect for the Muslim way of life, you get the impression that all they want is that we all make small, little adjustments out of consideration to their customs. But when have Islamists ever shown any consideration or respect for other people’s way of life?
When you have seen Islamists throw acid in the faces of women because they don’t wear head scarfs, then there is no room for compromise. They want to impose their ideology on the rest of society.
One important explanation for the growing Islamic fundamentalism is that young Muslims feel like outsiders in the Swedish and European society. Fundamentalists exploit the very real discrimination that affects Muslims on the labor and housing markets and especially within the judicial system to recruit new followers.
The Islamists’ solution to the discrimination is for Muslims to distance themselves even further from the European society. Influenced by the fundamentalists’ propaganda, the young men begin to mold their identity exclusively around one central theme — that of being offended and injured Muslims. This was also a contributing factor for the riots in the French suburbs.
All this puts the large majority of moderate Muslims in a particularly difficult position. Ever since the terrorist attacks in Madrid and London, people are afraid of Muslims. For millions of us in Europe, life has become very difficult due to ignorance, prejudice and pure racism.
At the same time, though, we moderate Muslims know better than the rest of the population in Europe what type of threat Muslim fundamentalists are. Moderate Muslims — who already have experienced oppression by fundamentalists in their home countries — want to be able to live as faithful Muslims in a modern European society.
This is a two-front struggle for secular Muslims. On the one hand we must fight the prejudice Europeans have about us as Muslims. On the other hand we must continue the struggle against the Muslim fundamentalists who reject society’s democratic values. We need all the democratic forces to work together in this struggle.
Ms. Pekgul is a former member of the Swedish parliament and currently chairman of Sweden’s National Federation of Social Democratic Women.