Monday 20 January 2014

Islam has since long been present in Western societies. Since the great migration waves took place in the second part of the 20th century the numbers of Islamic European citizens increased notably. At first these people were relatively welcome in Europe, but things changed after the major economic crisis of the 1980s. Muslims became visible as Muslims and as such were considered to be Others, who refused to integrate or take part in free Western societies.

At the dawn of 21st century, the Netherlands have ended up in a cultural crisis since it realized it had to define their national prevailing values and principles; at first as a result of the feeling of being gulped down by the European Union, and second because the country deals with a vast minority of Muslim migrants, who reunited their families, and now produced a fairly fresh authentic indigenous Muslim generation.

The most significant change in attitude towards Muslims in Western societies took place after a series of salient happenings in the recent history of the West. The two most important ones to this research are 9/11 and the murder on Theo van Gogh. The two atrocities sparked some sort of dormant xenophobia that might even be called Islamophobia, and tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims grew visibly. Islam is generally linked to fundamentalism, terrorism, and the suppression of women, and Muslims are looked upon within these stereotypes, created for the biggest part by mass media.

A group of Muslims that’s not really taken any notion of, is the Shiite community. Even though, according to our findings, this group has a greater representation within these countries than usually assumed. Because the major immigrant groups are Turks and Moroccans, which are predominantly Sunnite, less attention is paid to the Shiites as research subject and no efforts have been taken so far to explicitly map this group. To our understanding, this fairly significant group is numerically underestimated while it seems worthy to further investigate. Other reasons to have a deeper look at this group are: their reasons to come to western countries; the bond they have with their clerics; and their current position in society.

This research deals with mapping Shiites in the Low Countries, to get a first idea of their numbers and what Shiism is. Secondly, after having defined both demography and normative Shiism, we will take a more thorough look at what their identit(y)(ies) look like, and how and by what aspects it is formed. This group, although significantly present in these two societies, has not received much scholarly attention because the absolute majority of the Muslims in Europe is of the Sunnite denomination. The amount of Shiite Muslims is nonetheless quite large, as will be argued in the thesis.

The three factors that we distinguish as most important and interesting concerning the identity construction among young Shiites are religion, ethnicity and citizenship – in a further random order. The theories of identity construction that we use to describe the influence of these elements, are generally coming from Maykel Verkuyten, Wasif Shadid and Erik Erikson. The three elements of religion, ethnicity, and citizenship appear most important because the participants/subjects of this research cling to several different parts of these elements: they are Muslims, something that comes with clear rules and a distinct moral compass; they, or their parents, were born elsewhere, in countries with different constitutions and approaches towards Islam; they are Dutch or Belgian citizens with their futures in these countries. The primary question that is raised in this research is, then: What does the identity of (young) Shiites (of the first and/or second generation) look like in the Low Countries at the dawn of the 21st century?

To be able to answer this question, we will first delineate what Shia Islam is – because this is the unanimous trait to all different ethnic backgrounds and nationalities -, before moving on to a new approach concerning the numbers of Muslims, and specifically Shiite Muslims, in the Netherlands and Flanders. These two paragraphs will form the theoretical framework. The questions of imaging and of identity construction will provide background information on the quantitative and qualitative research that will be presented.

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