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Why isn’t there a European Obama?

January 20, 2009
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I know this is a catchy topic. My excuses for all readers in advance. But this is a question which has been in the media a lot, both in Europe and in US papers–Slate and the International Herald Tribune had nasty pieces on this, if my memory is correct–. And I believe that it is a question which directly relates to the Maghreb.

Let’s face it, the equivalent of the Afro-American community in several European countries is the Maghreb community (“les personnes d’origine maghrébine“, as French media put it). They are heavily discriminated in most EU countries, often feared, nearly always despised, and always treated as “special citizens”. And, believe me, special has here no positive meaning. There are places where it is worse than others–the treatment of Moroccans in the Netherlands is frankly disgusting–but the general situation is the one I described. Needless to say that, just like in the US’ case, they are a very significant part of the population, often the first or second minority, depending on the country. In these conditions, the appearance of a Maghreb originated European Obama is very unlikely. Clearly, very few people from North Africa are graduating from elite schools like Obama did, even the ones born in Western Europe, or from the much vaunted third or now fourth generation: Even less are populating the benches of European Parliaments.

Is this to say that there is no hope for a “European Obama” from the Maghreb? I wouldn’t go that far. People like Rachida Dati in France, although more interestingly, Ahmed Aboutaleb of the Netherlands, have shown that there might be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Still such exceptional personalities are subjected to disgusting attacks from the right side of the political fence, but also, maybe more surprisingly for the uninitiated, from the left as well. They have to fight twice as hard as the others; they have to win more. Often, they are seen by some in their own original community as traitors (it is true, in part, for both of them). For them, there is little of the incredible hope generated in his community by Obama’s ascension.

I suspect that this has much to do with the difference in position: there is a huge perceived gap between a French Minister or the Mayor of Rotterdam and the Presidency of a great nation. However, it has also a lot to do with the perception of the community itself. I would welcome comments from readers about this aspect–regardless of the obvious discrimination from what Dutch media call “autochtones”–against the Maghreb “allochtones”, what is, according to you, the impact of the community itself?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. ibnkafka permalink
    January 21, 2009 21:50

    I see a sea of difference between Rachida Dati and Ahmed Aboutaleb. While the latter has climbed the ladder of the ordinary politicians – party functions, elected mandates, and then on to power positions – Dati came from nowhere, and got where she got exclusively on account of a mix of opportunism, ambition and sycophancy. Nero (or was it Caligula) named his horse a senator, Sarkozy named Dati a minister. Fadela Amara, a lowly secrétaire d’Etat, had the advantage of having a political career of sorts, but at a very low level: local councillor for the PS in Clermont Ferrand, she gained national notoriety as a frontperson for Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS), an organisation close to the PS. Funnily enough, NPNS stood for, and still stands for, total assimilation, in accordance with l’idéologie républicaine, and vociferously supported the ban on the hijab in state schools; whereas Amara in her current position makes quite some traction out of her ethnicity, in order of course to justify reinforce her position, especially since Dati has run out of Sarkozy’s favor…

    Malek Boutih, still in the PS and a former chairman of PS satellite SOS Racisme (PS hotshot Julien Dray was behind both SOS Racisme and NPNS), has run into the same quandary: on the one hand, he’s vociferous in his calls for total assimilation and in his hostility to any form of tangible muslim identity; on the other hand, his only value is as a representative of those whose identity he wishes to obliterate.

    I think that countries such as Sweden, the UK and Belgium are those to look more closely at – though since they are monarchies, a head of state called Hussein is not on the cards…

  2. January 25, 2009 22:22

    Dear Alphast
    Some comment from Holland.
    The comparison between the African American community in the USA, with a past of slavery, and the Maghrebian in Europe, who were no slaves, is not very accurate.

    There are places where it is worse than others–the treatment of Moroccans in the Netherlands is frankly disgusting– .. Could you give an example of this? What exactly do you mean? How much worse is Holland ? Why?

    Ahmed Aboutaleb has in my opinion a very different career compared to Obama. Ahmed is not chosen but appointed. Ahmed Aboutaleb is, in my humble opinion, a keyplayer in the Dutch defense against aggression from Moroccan circles.
    But this you can not understand if you don’t recognize the simple fact Maghrebians are not simple to be seen as victims of Europeans like the enslaved African peoples in the USA have been.

  3. January 26, 2009 12:31

    Dear Meneer van Kaas,

    I never said that Maghrebi in Europe were enslaved. But they have often been severely exploited, either by the colonial powers such as France, Spain, the UK or Italy, or by companies in today’s Western Europe. So there is, if you prefer, a similar (although not identical) psychological complex, involving envy, resentment but also more positive feelings such as emulation and the will to show the positive aspects of the culture of origin.

    OK, I need to explain a little bit why I find the treatment of Moroccans in the Netherlands particularly bad. This has to do with the general way they are perceived. It is not so much institutional than social (although the way communautarism is handled in the Netherlands does not help). Moroccans are depicted in the mainstream media as criminals, islamists, trouble makers and generally ungrateful. Even amongst otherwise fairly open minded Dutch, I have noticed some kind of negative “exception” that is not shared, for instance, for the Turkish or Surinamese communities. The only other group which gets about as much flak is the Antillean community (especially around Rotterdam).

    This struck me because I was used with the way Moroccans are generally positively perceived in France, in comparison with other Maghrebine communities. I am of course aware of the fact that History and more recent events have everything to do with these perceptions. In France, the Algerian independence war created long lasting scars and hatred between Algerian and French communities, both inside France and outside. In the Netherlands, the recent assassination of Theo van Gogh by an extremist from Morocco, as well as the fairly different demographic group formed by Moroccan immigrants, has caused a mutual aversion.

    As for Aboutaleb, yes, he was appointed (just like Rachida Dati). But he has run in elections before and was elected in Amsterdam, if I am correct. And I really don’t think he is “a key player in the Dutch defense against aggression from Moroccan circles”, because such aggression exists only in the minds of some Dutch people.

  4. aaronetic permalink
    January 26, 2009 15:09

    2 Alphas:

    I took a bit of interest in your article, and in a week or two I will try to put up an article that corresponds with the premise of your article. There are in-depth field studies on this matter of acculturation within the diasporic maghreb community, and how it affects their children–mostly in France.

  5. January 26, 2009 21:36

    Dear Alphast,

    It was not my intention to suggest you said that Maghrebi in Europe were enslaved. Surely this did happen, but in very old times; and also Europeans have been enslaved in the Maghreb, maybe more, but these ancient events have little to do with the situation today.
    On the other hand, the issue of slavery is very much alive in the minds of the African American people. That is why Obama’s election is so important to them. It is the cream on the cake of their mouvement emancipatoire if I may express myself in this way.
    The suggestion of a similar movement in Holland of oppressed Maghrebi of which Ahmed Aboutaleb is a leader is wrong. Mr. Aboutaleb is a member of a political party and has a career in politics. His Moroccan roots are of some importance ofcourse, but the comparison of Ahmed with Obama sounds a bit ridiculous to me. Holland is not the USA. The comparison of the problems of Moroccans in Holland with the struggle of African Americans is a underestimation of the situation in the USA, to my opinion.

    Anyway, a movement for the emancipation of Maghrebian people should make the Western Sahara issue a top priority.

  6. Sarah permalink
    February 13, 2009 23:16

    Honestly, I think that asking for a European Obama is wishful thinking. I don’t know much about the political climate in Europe, but I do know that Barack Obama is an extraordinary man with a very unique approach to US politics. To make a clone of him seems impossible, but it would be nice to see more people in the world like him.

  7. Shaheen permalink
    February 14, 2009 01:21

    very few people from North Africa are graduating from elite schools like Obama did

    This, is not true btw. In disciplines which require little social skills (technology, hard sciences, etc.), they’re sometimes even more numerous than non Maghrebis. Check any PhD program in France, Maghrebis are plenty.

    In discplines requiring social skills though, it seems like they’re almost totally absent.

    Politics, media, tend to require the latter.

  8. Eike permalink
    February 18, 2009 00:21

    I think the USA is less racist than most European countries. Domestic racism seems to be part of the public debate in the US, while people in Europe are usually convinced that there is no problem with racism in their country.

    The US has affirmative action unlike European countries. There exist some regulations to achieve gender equality in Europe (good jobs in big Norwegian companies, deputies of leftist German political parties), but there is not even a discussion to reserve a percentage of good jobs or deputy positions to members of Turkish or Arab minorities. Instead racism is frequently used as a tool in politics (Polish plumbers who take away jobs in Germany, female Muslim teachers with headscarves who subvert German schools, criminal Romanians in Italy, hatred against Gypsies in most Eastern European countries, Muslims who are all potential terrorists).

    However there is a significant difference between the European Obama, that you and me have in mind, and the real Obama: The European Obama would be member of the Turkish/Arabic minority, with Tukish/Arabic as his/her mother tongue. US President Obama is culturally a member of the white elite, he only has dark skin. He spent most of his youth with his rich white grandparents.

  9. AntiquatedTory permalink
    February 18, 2009 21:20

    van Kass or yourself may correct me, but I thought the Moroccan presence in the Netherlands was from a particularly rural and impoverished background, who would be considered a bit gauche in Casablanca or Rabat, much less Amsterdam. I don’t know if this is true or how it differs to Moroccans in France or Turks in NL.
    I have a Dutch friend of an elite background and normally quite leftish politics who has always disliked Moroccans, partially because groups of young Moroccan men in Utrecht have always struck him as uncouth, but partly from seeing some disturbing things while escorting a friend of his who works for the social services through her visits in the Moroccan neighborhoods. It should be added that he is quite anti-Islam in the first place, as an extension of his belief that anyone who actually practices and believes in a religion is by definition insane.
    I have another white friend from Utrecht who thinks my first friend is absolutely full of it, and puts the whole anti-Moroccan sentiment down mostly to class issues. He adds that a lot of stereotypically bad Moroccan behavior (violence, etc) can be found among working-class white Dutchmen.
    I have to say that my first friend’s complaints about Moroccans, as well as my Belgian friends’ complaints, remind me a great deal of what “native” Americans felt about the Irish and Italian immigrants when they showed up. It has to be said that those communities, too, were largely peasant in origin, developed criminal gangs, and were members of a mistrusted religion.

  10. February 21, 2009 22:51

    Hi AntiquatedTory,

    the Moroccan presence in the Netherlands is in majority from the Rif area. So the majority is not Arabic but Amazigh.
    The ‘anti-Moroccan sentiment’, as you call it, is part of a bigger mix of anti-immigration, anti-Islam and anti-streetgang sentiments. Things are a bit confused since a lot of “anti-Moroccan” sentiment is caused by policies of the Arabic-Moroccan government itself and these feelings are fueled by Dutch Amazigh people from Morocco who have problems with that government. Anti-Islam sentiment is notably fueled by supporters of Israël, like mr. Wilders who is a some sort of christian zionist, but also by outspoken Persian refugees. The religous inspired murder of van Gogh, and Islamic pecularities as female genital mutilation and “murders for honour” ofcourse are fundamental for the sentiment.
    Anti-islam and anti-immigration sentiments combine into fear for the colonisation of working class urban areas among people who have seen the neighbourhoods they used to live in change into a community of foreigners they are afraid of.
    The combination in the case of Morocco is striking for the history of Islam in Morocco is a tale of a religion that has been used as a vehicle for colonial expansion, is’nt it?

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