If people treat you like a delinquent troublemaker, do you eventually start acting that way? Criminologist Abdessamad Bouabid spoke with dozens of young Moroccan-Dutch men to find out.Just to make things clear: boys with a Moroccan background don’t have a genetic or biological disposition to crime. Nor does the Moroccan culture incorporate criminogenic factors. Abdessamad Bouabid wants to go on record about that: “There’s no causal relationship. That’s never been proven.”

But it does seem that way, if you go by the coverage. Media discussions centre on ‘the problem with Moroccans’. Respectable politicians – even on the left side of the political spectrum – refer to an “ethnic monopoly on this kind of public nuisance”. And at a certain point, the phrase kut-Marokkaan (‘fucking Moroccan’) was considered so socially acceptable that it threatened ending up in the Van Dale dictionary. Enough for Abdessamad Bouabid (yes, he’s also Moroccan-Dutch) to wonder: ‘What kind of effect does this have on people?’.

In the feature section Cowboys in Science, Geert Maarse talks with researchers who take things a bit further than most of their colleagues. Criminologist Abdessamad Bouabid spoke with 38 young Moroccan-Dutch men – ranging from students to inmates – in connection with his doctoral research at Erasmus School of Law about the effects of stigmatisation.

Abdessamad Bouabid

What kind of boys and young men did you talk with?

“They’re aged between 15 and 35. They are a very diverse group in terms of background, job and level of education. Some of them are very religious; others not at all. They include guys who went to university and guys with a criminal record. Two of them were actually in detention when I spoke with them.”

How would you describe the commonly-held perception of these youngsters?

“They’re seen as Islamic extremists, criminals and troublemakers. That’s their take – but it also came to the fore in my analysis of the current public debate: the way in which the media and politicians talk about this group.”

To which extent is this a false representation?

“You only have to look into a few examples to conclude that the media blows things out of all proportions. The Slotervaart riots, for example, in which a group of 20 troublemakers was inflated to 1,500 rioters in no time at all. Or in 2008, when the mugging of a Connexxion bus driver in the neighbourhood of Overwei in Gouda created a nation-wide media frenzy. In scholarship, we usually call this a moral panic: a societal over-reaction to a minority group that differs from the dominant group in society in some respect.”

A well-known line of reasoning is that if people always talk about you in a particular way, you end up acting out their prejudices. Is this correct?

“In my dissertation, I distinguish a number of different coping strategies. In the literature, you find frequent mention of the ‘internalisation’ strategy: people see me this way or that, so I probably am. That would lead to radicalisation, criminal behaviour and social isolation: the ‘parallel societies’ that are often referred to in policy documents. But I didn’t come across anything like that. What you do see is that some fellows initially become defiant when they first encounter prejudices. With an aggressive response, for example. One of the boys I spoke with talked about a run-in with a teacher – who called him ‘damn Moroccan’ after which he pushed the teacher. This led him to be suspended, after which he missed out on a diploma. Now, almost ten years later, he says ‘I drew a few lessons from that’. He has his own company now, and when he’s calling on – I hate this phrase, but I have to use it here, unfortunately – ethnic-majority Dutch people, he still has to deal with remarks like ‘Hey, there’s Slabdullah’ every now and then. And his name isn’t even Abdullah. But then he acts as if he didn’t hear it.”

I would find it entirely understandable if you became angry about something like that.

“You see most people go through a kind of ‘career’ when it comes to dealing with prejudices and discrimination. In the beginning, for example, they become oppositional or they try to say something about it. Until they notice that this doesn’t really help. They then adapt – by remaining quiet about their Moroccan background, for example, or by not letting anyone notice at work that they are saying prayers, which you are required to do five times a day as a Muslim. But by far the most commonly-heard strategy for dealing with stigmas is: ignore them.”

Does this also apply to the guys with a criminal record?

“Of course, mapping out exactly why someone ends up a criminal is a very complicated matter. But when you ask these young men – including the ones who are in prison – they indicate that it isn’t due to the prejudices they are faced with. They offer a wide range of reasons, but the one I heard the most is the one that leads everyone to choose a life of crime: a desire to earn a lot of money, and earn it fast.”

What was the first time that you personally had to deal with prejudices about young Moroccan-Dutch men?

“I always ask my respondents that question too. But I wouldn’t know exactly. It happens to me all the time. The other day, I was walking down the street and there was a boy in front who was waving his arms around a bit – acting tough, you know. And his mother said: ‘Cut it out will you, you look like a Moroccan’. I walked by exactly while she was saying that, which gave them a big start and they quickly looked the other way. It’s small stuff like that. One of my respondents is always stopped by the police when he’s driving his car through a small, well-to-do town – like Wassenaar, say. And each time round, it’s a different officer. The officer asks him for his papers, and what he’s doing there. That happens to a lot of guys. Just like every Moroccan-Dutch guy knows the feeling of being monitored for just a bit longer than everyone else by the security guard. The thought’s constantly popping up: Is it because I’m Moroccan?’.”

What kind of effect does this have on you?

“It’s a kind of hyper-self-awareness. Some respondents, for example, told me that they never stay in the corner of a shop for too long. One of them always takes care to establish eye contact or chat with a store clerk. To basically tell them: ‘Don’t worry, I’m not a shoplifter.”

That seems pretty intense.

“Personally, I can say: it always hurts. Living with a stigma is living with a sense of being treated unfairly. You have this extreme sense of powerlessness: there’s nothing you can do to remove these prejudices. And that’s a nasty feeling. Yes, some guys become youth workers. Or you decide to study Criminology, like I did.”

What was your respondents’ reaction to you approaching them as a researcher?

“They all thought I was a very interesting case – an example of sorts. The fact that as a Moroccan, I was working for a university and pursuing my doctorate. And they were very happy that they could get some things off their chest. There’s a lot of frustration – particularly about how the media treats them.”

Do they discuss this problem among themselves?

“It’s brought up occasionally, on the football pitch or at the mosque. But it’s never discussed in depth. It hardly ever happens that you talk with someone for two or three hours about what kind of effect this has on you – the way they did with me.”

Wouldn’t it be a good idea if they did – in interviews with a psychologist, for example?

“Some scientists view this kind of social stigmatisation as a form of structural violence. So yes: I do think that a number of young people could benefit from support. But in my dissertation, I mainly focus on formulating concrete recommendations for journalists. Stop reporting that a suspect’s migrant background, for example. One of my respondents had a nice way of putting it. In a Moroccan’s case, they always include his origins; in the case of a native Dutchman, they don’t. And if it isn’t stated outright, a lot of people nevertheless think ‘It’s probably a Moroccan’.”

You recently became a father for a second time – of a son. How will you be advising him to deal with this issue?

“My academic knowledge allows me to view this in the right context. I don’t see stigmatisation as a battle between native Dutch and Moroccans but as a phenomenon that rears its head any time large groups of people live together. And it isn’t just limited to ethnicity and culture – people with a handicap or a psychological disorder also deal with stigmas. That’s what I would like to teach my child: it’s human nature for a dominant group to treat a non-dominant group differently. It’s the way of the world, and you can’t always do something about it. But what you should try to understand is that it’s not about you personally.”