On November 2nd, Theo Van Gogh was shot and fatally stabbed in the streets of Amsterdam.
Van Gogh was a newspaper columnist and a filmmaker. He was a supporter of Pym Fortuyn, the anti-Muslim and anti-migrant politician who was murdered by an ethnic Dutch animal- rights activist. Fortuyn had once said “This is a full country. I think 16 million Dutchmen are about enough. The killer was not a Muslim. He was not an immigrant.
Van Gogh,s own murder came after the television screening of his controversial short film, “Submission, a film critical of the treatment of women in Islam. His voice was silenced forever. A twenty-six year old Dutch-born Muslim of Moroccan origin was arrested.
Like the case of Pym Fortuyn, Van Gogh,s killer was not an immigrant. One Dutch murdered another. But the killings are followed by widespread anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim feelings in the Netherlands and in Europe.
Muslim primary schools were destroyed by arson. Mosques were firebombed. The Helden Islamic Mosque Foundation in the southern province of Limburg was set ablaze. Many Muslim buildings were vandalized or attacked. In Sinsheim, Germany, a mosque was damaged in an overnight attack with a Molotov cocktail.
Muslim migrants became suspected terrorists. Calls were made for stricter migration policy and harsher antiterrorist laws: the arrest and interrogation of suspected migrants, Muslims in particular. A member of the Dutch Parliament said: “It’s better to have 10 possibly innocent people temporarily in jail than one with a bomb on the street.”
Muslims migrants, a large community, became stigmatized and criminalized for the crimes of a handful of individuals.
A similar reaction to Muslim migrants occurred after the attack on the World Trade Center. Immediately after September 11, scores of Muslims were arrested across the United States. They were detained”many for months”without any charges having brought against them. In most cases, the families of the detainees were not informed. The Muslims simply disappeared.
In the United States and elsewhere stopping illegal migration and combating terrorism coincided. Muslim migrants became a threat to national security. They faced collective punishment.
Affected by these developments, I left New York City on September 1, 2002 on a personal mission, and a quest, following Muslim . migrants in their search for a home in the West. I met men and women from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Sudan, and Somalia in their epic journey through Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, and other countries in Europe.
They were from different backgrounds. Some escaped war. Others fled political persecution. Among them were young boys and girls who lost their family in the bombing of their homes in Iraq and Afghanistan; they were orphans, Muslim orphans, searching for a new home. There were women from Iran and the Sudan who were fleeing religious fundamentalism and their treatment as second class citizens in their places of birth. There were young men and women seeking normality, hoping to live a life like the others in the West, a life free of fundamentalism, a life free of humiliation, a life free of war.
I met Muslims who crossed the oceans and snow-covered mountains, navigated rough seas on small floats and fishing boats, got assaulted by border guards, spent time in prison and detention camps, and continued their voyage for a new life, a life they are were deprived of at home. . We met in different stops on the journey”: camps, prisons, the ghettos and the underworld of Istanbul, the squat homes in Athens, the tent city in the ports in Greece, the city parks in Paris, and the woods in nNorthern France. These were Iraqi Kurds living in temporary homes made of plastic and cardboard, in the woods near Calais. . In Istanbul, I spent long weeks and months with mothers traveling with their infants or young babies, and those who were trapped in safe houses with no money and jobs, still hoping to cross and make it to a safe place in Europe.
I photographed teenagers whose bones were broken by the Greek police when they attempted to leave the country for Italy, men whose teeth were popped out, and those whose ribs were broken under the kicks and punches of the coastguards. And those attacked by the border dogs and the guards in Bulgaria. They told me tales of violence, beatings, and death in the hands of the guards.
Like the Irish, the Italian, and the others who came to America in the turn of the last century for a new life, the Muslim migrants are leaving their places of birth for a new home, a place that would embrace them as equals. They are men and women with dissimilar conditions. But, all have similar dreams. They long for normality. They hope for a day they could work with dignity, raise a family, get old, and see their grandchildren play. But, as they proceed on their journey, they face new walls.
They are not welcome. The gates are closed.
BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN is the author of the forthcoming book entitled Embracing the Infidel: The Secret World of Muslim Migrant (Bantam/Dell random House, 2005). He can be reached at email@example.com