The debate about the ‘Other’

5 minutes to read
Noura Yacoubi

The debate about the 'Other' and the Islam in particular seems endless.  Many people just 'give up', but that is the exact opposite of what we should do. 

Us and the other

With all the news in recent years about refugees, foreigners and many other designations that are made into dirty words, we need (more) individuals who make sure that their voice is heard. Academics should not only examine but interfere in that debate. And citizens should speak up about what is happening when newcomers and native people come into contact. Especially individuals who understand, because they are part of the dynamics between Islam and Western perceptions.

The media attention on diversity of the last few years has not been as intensive as before. Many people have tuned out, but culture, religion, (home) language and ethnicity are still the predominant perspectives in this debate. They are the diacritics in the construction of Us and Them. The fact that the debate seems calmer is not an indication that it is losing power; instead it shows us that it is hegemonic. An exploration of Knowledge Platform Integration & Society (2017) shows that municipalities must deal with citizens who are angry about the impact of the multicultural society. Often these municipalities do not know how to respond to the growth and cultivation of us versus them feelings. The theme of refugees creates disunity in the public debate (Social and Cultural Planning Office, 2016) and in society in general. There are (sometimes fierce) opponents who fear negative effects of the arrival of refugees. And there are supporters of the acceptation and reception of refugees who fear the rejection of others. Islam plays a considerable role in this debate.

The focus on Islam

Where does this focus on Islam come from? Since 1989, what is called a period of dislocation in the professional literature (think of the opening of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Soviet Union, which ended the bipolar world), the demand for new frameworks that can give guidance has increased. The old world disappeared and there was a need to redefine the world (Maly, 2009). In that timeframe, we saw a new paradigm develop, a paradigm in which Islam became a focal point. This focus was not a coincidence, it was carefully constructed by influential politicians, intellectuals and think tanks (Maly, e.d. 2007 & 2009).


The first Gulf War and the associated spread of constructed frameworks were soon reproduced on a global scale. It was the first test case of a new framework. Saddam Hussein was the irrational demon, we were the enlightened democrats waging a clean surgical war (Lakoff, 1991). The media sold propaganda as 'reality' to its consumers. These frameworks contain information about the ‘Other' and the ‘culture’ of the ‘Other’ (Maly, 2009). Slowly but surely the world, at least in the dominant discourses, transformed back to what it was before the fall of the Soviet Union; a division between us and them, their values versus our values, and more concretely: Islam versus the West. 

Such discourses became dominant in the nineties and discursively seperated the West from the rest of the world. The historical model is recognizable, with the West portrayed as superior and the rest of the world as degraded under the heading of the ‘Other'. The ‘Other’ lies behind, and it is the duty of the 'superior' West to civilize the ‘Other'. These discourses also had a local impact in the West.

The categorization of ‘the Other’

The ‘Other,’ and the Islam in particular, is a hot topic in the so-called 'integration' discussion, the political and social debates about diversity. The categorization as the ‘Other’ can be found in all kinds of discourses that refer to refugees, migrants, foreigners, asylum seekers etc. 

The assumption from which most of these debates start, is that diversity is inherently problematic and abnormal (Blommaert and Verschueren, 1998). 

In these debates, there is a tendency to make the ‘Other' as such abnormal and even a danger. 'The Other' is constructed as completely different from 'us': they are imagined to have a completely different 'culture', 'mentality' and 'character’. Their presence alone, plus the fact that one imagines 'the Other' to be completely different, is seen as an existential threat to society (Blommaert & Verschueren, 1998). 

Hence the necessity of what is called 'integration', a term used in an ordinary way. The aim is making the ‘other’ one of us, so it is assimilation that is demanded rather than having the ‘Other’ ‘integrated’. This process of making the ‘Other’ one of us represents a political process instead of only a decrease of cultural difference (Wimmer, 2007). It is part of a nationalistic agenda that imagines the nation to be an ethnocultural and homogenous nation. The main factors shaping boundaries between groups are the institutional frameworks. 

The construction of differences and boundaries is a game of power. And it is that powerplay that determines the level of separation, the categories with which to define groups and discriminate others (Wimmer, 2007). The boundaries between groups increase if there is no critical look at the interpretative frameworks that are created by the ones in power.

Further, let us not see culture as a static driving force responsible for all events happening between people. In times of superdiversity, digitalization and globalization, it is a fiction to talk about 'the Dutch culture' or 'the Islam' as if they are homogenous and fixed. Culture and identity production in the 21st century is a very complex, and in many cases layered, polycentric and transnational phenomenon. Cultures and societies do not develop in isolation. Unfortunately, categorical distinctions are maintained regardless. 

The ‘Other’ as a public intellectual

Heeding the need to listen to (more) individuals who experience(d) being categorized as the ‘Other’ while finding a way to function in society, might be of great value. These individuals from all parts of society can contribute to the discussion by speaking about the dynamics between the Dutch/Western society and the Islamic identity. 

If we want to build a society where democracy, freedom, and equality is not only mobilized to exclude the other, we need their voices. 

They have to turn themselves into public intellectuals who contribute to the public dialogue. They have the (sometimes frustrating task) of communicating the things that truly matter, that culture is not the driving force of all problems, that it’s being misused. 

Also, a voice should be given to those who are treated as the ‘Other’ in an extreme way, and whose voice doesn’t stand out. Even though social media may not be the most influential forum for public intellectuals, it is at least one forum that new public intellectuals can use to stand out, to have a voice. So even though the voice of the public intellectual is trapped in a bubble on Facebook, its importance should not be completely undermined. At the very least, it can become a space where one learns to get the voice out, where one debates and educates the 'own church'. The smaller bubbles in which people operate is why having more public intellectuals, especially on issues dealing with minorities, is essential. And hopefully, their voices, once heard, will resonate on a larger scale. 

It is a challenging task given that wide societal debates such as these tend to be ruled by the ones in power, especially in a small society like ours (Blommaert & Verschueren, 1998). But the voices of those not in power are valuable in our changing times. The ‘Other’ has a lot to say, but will not be heard as long as the discussion is only from the perspective of the majority.


Berkhout, B., Louwes, K., Wismans, J., & Zwaveling, E. (2017). Evaluatie Kennisplatform Integratie en Samenleving. 

Blommaert, J., & Verschueren, J. (1998). debating diversity. London, Great Britain: Routledge.

Maly, I. (2009). De beschavingsmachine. Antwerpen, Belgie: EPO.

Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau. (2016, June 30). Nederlanders verdeeld over vluchtelingen. 

Wimmer, A. (2007). How (not) to think about ethnicity in immigrant societies: A boundary making perspective.