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Young Muslims in Switzerland struggle to fit in, author says

Muslim children in Switzerland attend prayer meetings like these children in Lebanon

(Keystone Archive)

Muslim teenagers say integrating into Swiss society is troublesome not just because of the prejudice they face but also because of the issues they confront about their identity, according to a new book by Swiss journalist, Philipp Dreyer.

In his book "Allah's children speak Swiss-German", Dreyer attempts to understand Muslim teenagers' struggle to identify with both their religion and the reality of living in Switzerland.

Switzerland's Muslim community stands out in this predominantly Christian country. Although they practice their religion to differing degrees, the culture of Islam separates them markedly from their Swiss neighbours.

"If a woman wears a headscarf, then it's very clear that she is Muslim," Dreyer told swissinfo, "And I suppose sometimes it's very difficult because then she is open to, and confronted by, discrimination."

Six months of interviews

Dreyer spent six months interviewing 23 Muslim teenagers, and found that ignorance of Islam and the Muslim culture is a fundamental barrier to fostering better relations between the Swiss and the 200,000 Muslims who live in the country.

"I think that if Swiss people wanted to meet Muslims then the barriers would be much lower. And I am convinced that the Muslim community in Switzerland is very open to meet their Swiss neighbours and share their views," Dreyer said.

Muslim youngsters told Dreyer that another major barrier to integration is prejudice. "One girl said she was very open and didn't look like an Iranian. Yet if she told her friends where she came from, they'd ask if she'd read the book 'Not without my daughter'."

The book tells the true story of one woman's bitter struggle to retrieve her daughter from an oppressive Muslim husband who had returned to Iran.

Dreyer says Muslims feel they always need to defend themselves and explain that they have the same impressions, feelings and doubts in life as their Swiss peers.

Islam has come under fire across the globe in the wake of the attacks on Washington and New York on September 11. The United States' government has named the Islamic militant, Osama bin Laden, as the prime suspect.

Backlash sows fear

The backlash against the Muslim community has sown fear and a feeling of heightened misrepresentation among them. Dreyer notes that there is cause for concern, especially if Muslims are confused with Islamic fundamentalism.

"I am convinced all of the 23 would condemn the attacks in the US," Dreyer said. "Many people in Switzerland can't differentiate between fundamentalists, terrorists and Islam and that's very sad."

Although proud of their cultural and religious heritage, under the current climate Muslim youngsters increasingly feel the need to defend themselves.

The Swiss will be disappointed if they are expecting the young to abandon their traditional dress, food or language to fit in with Swiss society. Dreyer says they are proud to be Muslim, and wish to continue their customs.

"There are those who refuse to change their habits and have the strong belief that Swiss people need to respect that," Dreyer noted.

Dual nationality

But many Muslims have dual nationality and feel disorientated as they fall between two cultures.

One young Iranian featured in Dreyer's book explains his dilemma upon receiving a Swiss passport. "He had real doubts about who he was -- Iranian or Swiss - especially since he could speak fluent Swiss-German. So I suppose it is a matter of identity," Dreyer said.

Those with Swiss nationality are active citizens and take every opportunity to vote, Dreyer says, and they are proud to live in a democratic country.

The teenagers are happy to study in Switzerland, despite the ties they may feel to their home country or the nation their parents come from. It is then their choice whether they return to their country of origin.

Perhaps a bigger question Dreyer raises in his book is that of the marriage partner.

Question of marriage

"They told me that it was possible to marry a Christian Swiss but ideally they would prefer to have their life's partner convert to Islam." The affinity of a shared culture, they argued, would help them to get along better and understand one another.

Then there is the question of nationality. Would a girl from Bosnia want to marry someone from Saudi Arabia?

With a clear commitment to Islam and their culture, are these young people ensuring that they will remain outsiders? Again, the answer is not so simple.

"A Turkish girl told me that at weekends when she is surrounded by her family and talks in her mother tongue, then she feels very Turkish. But in daily life in school, she said she felt very Swiss. So there is no absolute answer."

The kinds of dilemmas the Muslim youngsters face are not too dissimilar from their Jewish peers. In 1999, Dreyer published a book entitled "Between the Star of David and a Swiss passport" which studied Jewish youth in the country.

"They told me they understood Israel to be the mother country although they didn't agree with the politics. Even so, many saw Switzerland as home.

"Just like Muslim teenagers, some were confronted with prejudices like Jews are rich ... and sometimes it was tough - especially for those wearing a kippah," Dreyer continued.

Interestingly, he found both of Jews and Muslims to be very open to other minorities.

by Samantha Tonkin


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