Communicatie, Informatie, Educatie


Does a Turkish Diaspora still exist? Turkish immigrants in Belgium,

between Europe and Turkey*.

Meryem Kanmaz

First I would like to congratulate the organisers with their initiative and the organisation of the conference ‘Christianity, Islam and Judaism: how to conquer the barriers to intercultural dialogue?’ It is very unfortunate that Prof
. Serif MARDIN cannot join us today. Replacing the most renowned sociologist of religion in Turkey is of course impossible, and I won’t pretend that I can. But I will try to take part in the debate from my own point of view and from my own research and field experience.

I am currently working for the Centre of Islam in Europe at Ghent University whose main research subject is the Muslim community in general and in Flanders in particular. We take a special interest in the social role of mosques, which is of increasing importance. As some fifty percent of the Muslim community in Flanders consists of individuals of Turkish descent, they constitute an important part of our research. 

One can of course question the relevance of speaking about Islam and Muslims in relation to the debate on Turkey’s prospective membership of the European Union, in view of the fact that Islam is often cited as a possible obstacle for Turkey’s integration in Europe. Some leading Christian-Democrats especially, like Valérie Giscard D’Estaing and Edmund Stoiber see the European Union mostly as a Christian club. The idea of the existence of a Christian Europe is a construction that has evolved in a definite context. The development of the European nation-states and of European unity has long been construed in relation to the Islam as Europe’s “Other”. From the Renaissance onwards, the European idea has been formulated in terms of notions about modernity and universalism, rather than in terms of geographical boundaries. The West became synonymous for democracy, tolerance and freedom, in relation to the rest of the world which was depicted as characterised by despotism, barbarism and slavery. Europe’s “Other” was in the first instance Islam partly because it was the religion of neighbouring people and partly because it was also until the 16th century, Europe’s major military, economic and political competitor. Nowadays, authors like Huntington and Kaplan reinforce this idea when they describe a “clash of civilisations”. Events such as 9 September 2001, the Iraq war, the conflict in Palestine, and the recent electoral victory of the Islamic inspired AK party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) of Recep Tayyib Erdoğan in Turkey add fuel to this debate.

In reality of course, Islam has long an integral been part of European history, irrespective of the fact whether Turkey will or will not join the European Union one day. From the 7th until the 17th century, there were Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula, during the Al-Andalus reign. In the 17th century Moriscos (Muslims who where forced to convert to Christianity) were deported outside the frontiers of Christian Europe. Under the Ottoman Empire, there was a flourishing Muslim culture in the Balkan region. Nowadays, some 12 Muslims live within the EU of whom some 3.5 million are of Turkish origin.

There an estimated 350,000 to 400,000 Muslims in Belgium, of whom some 100,000 are of Turkish and 200,000 of Moroccan descent. Geographically, half of the Muslim community is located in the region of Brussels, with the others living in Flanders and Wallonia. Half of all Turkish immigrants and their descendants live in the Flemish provinces of Limburg, Antwerp and East-Flanders, whereas 25% lives in Brussels and 25% in Wallonia.


How do Belgian Turks relate to these developments, and how are they perceived by Belgium?

This year, the Belgian Turkish community commemorates the 40th anniversary of their migration to Belgium.

Traditionally, the relationship between the Turkish communities in Europe and their home country is perceived in terms of a Diaspora. These communities are characterised by strong internal cohesion and strong links with their home-country. This has to do with the specific migration history of Turks to Europe: it is mainly a chain migration in a family context from specific, mostly rural regions. These families migrated to specific regions in Belgium. Most Turks in Ghent, for instance, are from Emirdağ in central Anatoly. The conservation of Turkish as main language, the family networks and the development of self-organisations, cafés, shops and mosques, contributes to the fact that the Turkish community is largely self-focused and aims at being self-contained. Diasporic self-organisations and political oppositions were long based on political and ideological cleavages in Turkey, from the left-right opposition to the religious versus secular cleavage. It was therefore possible to analyse the Turkish community in Belgium or in Europe as a mirror image of developments in Turkey. Thus, left-wing organisations differed distinctively from more nationalistically inspired right-wing organisations. The rise of the politically inspired Islam in Turkey had repercussions in the European Diaspora: from the 1980s onwards, new mosques linked to Refah and Milli Görüş were established. These distanced themselves of a kind of Turkish Islam spread by the Turkish Presidium of Religious Affairs, the Diyanet İşler Başkanlığı, which previously had had no Turkish competitors.

The Diasporic identity remains a constant in the Turkish community, certainly in comparison with the other Muslim communities in Europe. Muslims of Moroccan origin are more inclined to detach themselves from Muslim traditions in the home country and develop a European Islam. Some authors even discern the establishment of a European Muslim identity, which bears no relationship to Muslims’ country of origin. Although it is true that Diasporic Turkish communities develop their European dynamics, there is no pure Islamic-European identity that overrides the sense of being Turkish. Only people affiliated with the former Milli Görüş, currently organised in the Belgian Islamic Federation (the Belçika İslam Federasyonu), plead for the promotion of a European-focused Muslim identity. Even they, however, are in favour of an hyphenated identity, which is both Muslim and Turkish.

Turks’ abiding identification with Turkey is reflected in their current religious organisation in Flanders. While mosques of Muslims with different origins (predominantly Moroccans, but also Pakistani, Bosnians and even Chechens) are grouped in provincial organisations of mosques and Muslim associations, Turkish mosques are grouped in national Turkish federations. It seems that in the final resort, Turkish as a language remains the decisive factor.

However, it is not the case that Turkish communities in Europe are and remain predominantly Turkish. They have long ceased to be simply “transplanted” communities. The birth of new generations and the European context bring along different needs and call for different accents. Living in contemporary, multicultural Europe brings new challenges that require new answers that can no longer be formulated within an exclusive Turkish framework. Compared to Turkey, the public sphere in Europe is relatively open and as they become used to cultural and religious tolerance, Belgian Turks’ perspective on their home-country changes. In Turkey, the headscarf debate is completely polarised and doesn’t allow for any dialogue between layikler and dinci. The former defend Turkish secularity while the latter defend the wearing of the scarf on the grounds of religious freedom. The fact that Belgium recognises different religions and admits the expressions of these religions in the public space, gives the opportunity to Turkish individuals in Belgium to discuss this theme from the perspective of a democratic right of freedom of religion, and with this to contribute to the democratisation process of Turkey.

This concludes the part on the influence of the Turkish diaspora on Turkey. Now, how is this expressed within the Belgian perspective? Here, the Turkish diaspora identity seems to have the perverse effect that the Turkish community seems to be less visible in the public space and in the public and political debate. The minority debate, the different interventions in media and politics concerning the so-called ‘failure of the integration’, the headscarf affair and Muslims and Islam in general in Belgium and in Flanders is predominantly a North-African affair. It seems as if the Turkish people are not involved, as if they are not Muslims, nor a minority, nor citizens. The feature by excellence, the group and community building of Turkish people, that made it possible to rely on own networks and structures, and to survive within this new context, now seems to work contra-productive by isolating them from the environment. The way the Turkish community did not take part in recent debates on integration, racism, and the association of Islam with terrorism, as if it did not concern them as Turkish Muslims, but was only about others, is a missed opportunity to contribute as active citizens of this society to the creation of a really multicultural and multi-religious Belgium.


* September 19, 2003. International Summer Seminar 'Christianity, Islam and Judaism: How to Conquer the Barriers to Intercultural Dialogue?' - Evening Session, Friday September 19th, 'Turkey and the European Union'. Org.: vzw Universitair Centrum Sint-Ignatius Antwerpen.

[25/05/2011] PhD Meryem Kanmaz is werkzaam binnen MANAvzw, Expertisecentrum voor Islamitische Culturen in Vlaanderen, Zij verzorgt de hoofdredactie van het tijdschrift MANAzine. Contact:

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