The Netherlands has been a country that has welcomed many immigrants over the last 30 or so years. By the end of the sixties, we were in desperate need of extra hands, just like Iceland is now. Most men who came in the sixties brought their wives in the seventies and started a family. The third generation is now growing up, but not everyone seems to fit in, to put it politely. The recent murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh has demonstrated how great a divide may have been drawn between cultures. Now, as in England, the youngest generations are not considered Dutch because of the colour of their skin, and not completely Turkish or Moroccan either. My question is: what can Iceland do to avoid the errors committed with immigration?
I met with Salmann Tamini, chairman of the Muslim Association of Iceland, who has lived in Iceland over thirty years. In his opinion the Dutch problem was created by the government: “They considered the immigrants mainly as cheap labour, the politicians weren’t interested in helping them assimilate. The key thing should have been helping them learn the language. You should look upon the immigrant like a child, he needs to be helped.”
But does the Icelandic government help immigrants in that way?
“Well, you have to take an Icelandic language course, 160 hours to be exact, but it is not defined how to do that. And it is hard, because you cannot do it during work hours. If you have to work ten or twelve hours a day, and have to study Icelandic at night, you have to have a lot of energy. The test you have to take afterwards is a bit of a laugh though, everyone passes that.
“We need better language courses here, given by professional language teachers. But the Icelandic government isn’t very interested in that. In their opinion the foreigners are considered useful for the worst paid jobs, just like in the Netherlands.”
So could Iceland face the same problems as the Netherlands in maybe twenty years? Tamini rejects the idea, because of the small number of immigrants:
“There are about 20,000 foreigners in total, of which less than 1000 come here to stay. Most of them are here for a short period anyway, to study mostly. But there are more and more coming, and politicians don’t seem to realize that. With the EU it is so easy for people to come here. For example Turkish immigrants with a Dutch passport can move here. You cannot stop people from going over the world, you just have to stop segregation.”
There are now about 700 Muslims in Iceland, of which 350 are members of the Muslim Association. Tamini describes the group’s activities:
“We come together in Reykjavík, we have a place in the Intercultural Centre where we can practice our religion. It is a meeting point, we exchange ideas, help each other and try to tell people something about Islam.”
Tamini himself was one of the first Muslims in Iceland. Does he feel accepted here?
“What helped is that I learned Icelandic very quickly. Things were better 33 years ago. Everyone was poor, I had that in common with the Icelandic people. Now racism is on the rise in Iceland. I think that is because people don’t know enough about each other. I blame the media for that too.
“There hasn’t been anything positive in the newspapers about Islamic culture in a long time. I hope people change their opinion when they meet me. The main thing is that we respect each other. I feel that foreigners are not given a fair chance when it comes to work in Iceland, or anywhere else for that matter, a foreigner has to do better than his co-workers. But there is no real discrimination here in every day life. I think Iceland is the most peaceful country in the world.”
Although Tamini is a bit sceptical about the attitude of Icelanders when it comes to multiculturalism, the city of Reykjavík has made an effort to do the right thing. In 2003 a statement was made that said that Iceland was on the threshold of a new period. Iceland could either make the same mistakes as its neighbouring countries, or it would try harder to help immigrants get settled. Reykjavík chose to do the latter and proclaimed:
“That the people of Reykjavík will enjoy the benefits of a diverse community and culture where knowledge, tolerance, equal rights and mutual respect characterize the relations between people of different origins.”
The Intercultural Centre, or Alþjóðahúsið, which was founded in 2001 plays a big role in this. And it is also a fact that there have been more Icelandic language courses and translations available to foreigners the last few years.
Hazar Can came to Iceland this spring. Can was born the Netherlands, is of Turkish descent and came here to play professional football for Thor in Akureyri. He hasn’t had bad experiences in the Netherlands, although he noticed that the Dutch attitude has changed:
“I come from the town Nijmegen and there are not so many immigrants there. I think the situation is a bit more rough in the bigger towns, like Amsterdam. Of course, some people shout discriminatory language at the football pitch, but they do that at everyone. I must say that they don’t do that so much in Iceland. Or maybe I just don’t understand it… But the people in Iceland seem to be more friendly, open.
“There are not a lot of foreigners in Akureyri and people know I play for Thor. They just come up and talk to me. They are willing to help me and are interested in my religion. I was brought up a Muslim, but we didn’t do much about it. At home, I was brought up Dutch. But I’m sure that Thor would give me the space I needed if I wanted to pray.”
I ask Can if he can ever feel settled in Akureyri.
“It was hard the first couple of weeks, but I like it now. I haven’t been here in winter, so I can’t really say how that would be. I don’t feel isolated here, it’s a nice town and there are more foreigners in the team. Of course I won’t say no to a contract with a bigger, Reykjavík football team. Thor is a club with limited means, so I haven’t had the chance to learn Icelandic, for instance. There are no teachers here. I would like to learn more Icelandic if I get a contract for next year. I just ask people for the meaning of words. Yes, afram, I’ve been hearing that a lot.”