Amsterdam, El Hema

After the fantastic MSLM magazine a new joint Arab – Dutch project has been launched that aims at integration and emancipation of Muslims in the Netherlands. El HEMA – an Islamic version of the Ur Dutch retailer HEMA – is a witty and irresistibly charming exhibition. Nonetheless, despite the quality and efforts, the project leaves the most important questions unanswered.

This week a copy of a HEMA establishment opened underneath the Amsterdam City Art Museum. It sells typical Dutch products in an Islamic version: a halal version of a Dutch sausage, Chocolate letters (candy for a Dutch feast) in Islamic typefaces, complemented with a fashion line by Arab designers, and a modern Arab typeface design.

Hema is a stylistic icon, their designs have won many prizes around the world. Their image is emblematic for Dutch identity: unpretentious, simple, unexotic and steady. I must say that it seems for me to be a leap of faith to use this image as a context for an Islamic identity. And herein lies the problem of the project. It is very successful in creating a recognizable modern Arabic typeface and fashion line, however, the mould in which they are casted is unarguably ‘Made in Holland’.

Now I don’t want to burn down the whole thing. Art, design and fashion have the possibility for social experimenting. Which is exactly the kind of creativity we need to solve problems of integration and Islamofobia. The one thing currently missing in the Netherlands is a model for living together; for being integrated without losing the Islamic identity; for being Dutch without the fear of losing identity and such tacit things as feeling security and selfconfidence. The quality of El Hema is its joint effort of Islamic and Dutch staff (almost thirty in total!) and creating a feeling of togetherness as such.

Nevertheless, the problem remains that it concerns a Dutch model, superimposed on Islamic culture. A Western avant-garde concept of breaking with traditions and social-political critique, applied to a problem which is only partially Western. The issue of identity should begin with a simple question: What is being Islamic today? Then followed by the question what being Islamic in Europe means.

The models for dealing with this identity-issue that I see in the news are either extremism or the withdrawel in ones own community. Both models are an answer to integration by simply ignoring it. They avoid the difficult task of inventing a model that allows Muslims to both maintain their identity and to participate in a Western society.

This is an issue that needs to come ‘from within’; it’s a question of emancipation. El Hema is a very respectable Dutch proposal to what integration could be, but still, one side of the story. The other side is where work needs to be done: an Islamic proposal of what integration could be. One that comes truly from the Islamic soul, respects their identity and attempts to place it within the European community.

I very eagerly look out for an art project that will manage to do some social experimenting from that point of view.


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