Breaking Through

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TRAILBLAZER: Dutch attorney Arslan was mistaken for a cleaner on her first day in a new job. Now she has her own law practice in the Hague

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It follows that for many European Muslims, professional success means compromise. Some have to deal with open prejudice. "We want nothing to do with Islam or Muslims," one law firm told Dutch attorney Arslan during her three-year job search. Particularly after terror attacks, stereotypes tend to bubble to the surface. French computer-systems analyst Mourad Latrech recalls huddling around a TV with his colleagues on 9/11. "What are those bastards doing?" said one, as the World Trade Center collapsed. "Oh ... Sorry, Mourad, I didn't see you standing there." Being lumped in with terrorists has become one of the great work-related hazards for Europe's Muslims. "It's not outright discrimination," says Kamal Halawa, a Palestinian surgeon, who has lived in Spain for 40 years. "It's more like mistrust. You notice it in the way your [work] superiors treat you. You have to be continually demonstrating, day after day, that you are the same as everyone else."

The Pressure to Conform
Many Muslims make daily choices to blend into mainstream office culture. Consider the Dutch marketing consultant who drinks wine at client lunches. Or the British computer-graphics expert who says he's popping out for a sandwich rather than admit he's going to the mosque. Or Arslan, who had to jettison her cultural values to argue for a raise: "Modesty is an Islamic virtue, but if you're modest, you don't get anywhere in Europe." Just as working mothers do, Europe's Muslim professionals raise issues about white-collar workplace culture and its demands. Those who refuse to compromise — like the female Muslim doctors or dentists who decide to stay at home rather than treat male patients — explode old notions of what it means to be a professional. "If you're calling yourself a professional, you're saying you have a skill set that makes you competitive, valuable and a contributor," says one young Muslim art curator. "But how much are you contributing if you're ghettoizing yourself? How valuable are you if you're not prepared to embrace the culture of an organization?"

Nowhere is the tension between work and faith more pronounced than in France. There, laïcité, or secularism, dictates that religion should be confined to the private sphere. Though the 1978 Islamic Revolution in Iran shattered the long-cherished view that modernization inevitably pushes people away from faith and toward secularism, French Muslim professionals say they often face the assumption from their colleagues that career success will have this effect. "If you're doing well, they assume you're one of them, and so you're secular," says Parisian Muslim Zoubeir Ben Terdeyet, a consultant with an international accounting firm. "Factories have prayer rooms, but for a professional to ask for time off work to go and pray? That shocks them."

Ben Terdeyet is more confident at work than many Muslims. He's not afraid to speak Arabic on the office phone. He doesn't feign illness when he's fasting for Ramadan, or beg off wine at lunch by claiming a headache. He founded the networking club Les Dérouilleurs because he wanted to prove that "it was possible to be a success in France without abandoning your Islamic principles." There's still a way to go, he says. He's envious of tales from London-based Muslims about company-sanctioned prayer breaks. "Ooh, la la," he says, rolling his eyes skyward, the very picture of Gallic consternation. "If I were to ask if I could go pray, the answer would be, 'Why should I do you a favor? Why are you so different from everyone else?' "

Increasingly, however, influential French voices see "diversity as an opportunity, not a problem," says Hakim El-Karoui, who along with Rachida Dati — President Nicolas Sarkozy's Justice Minister — founded the 21st Century Club for minority movers and shakers. A former speechwriter for Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, El-Karoui recalls working lunches during Ramadan when he'd cover his plate with his notebook, so Raffarin wouldn't notice he wasn't eating. Occasionally, he'd face the prejudice of exceptionalism: colleagues would refer to him as "a good Muslim," adding that "not all of them are like him." Now an investment banker at the Rothschild banking group in Paris, he finds his current work culture reassuringly cosmopolitan. "Since the Rothschild family is Jewish, they know better than anyone about respect for minorities," he says. "Diversity is a given for them."

Not so for many French employers. It's difference — particularly visible difference — that challenges laïcité. "The central issue for us is visibility," says Mohammed Colin, co-founder of SaphirNews, a French Muslim news and networking site. It would be "unthinkable," says Colin, to have a veiled Muslim woman in a French ad — and rare to see one at work. Those who can get jobs tend to work in back offices. As CEO of the French communications group CS, Yazid Sabeg is perhaps France's most prominent French-Arab businessman and the author of a study on workplace discrimination. Asked if any of his 4,000 employees wear the hijab, he says he remembers one who did, but adds that she wouldn't have had contact with clients: "I'm against wearing the hijab at work. Shows of religion just result in antagonism between the majority culture and minorities." Recruiters often ask Boujema Hadri, owner of the Paris-based employment agency Very Important Training, if a candidate with an Arab name wears the veil. "They know it doesn't affect women's job performance," he says, "but they're scared." Employers recruit in their own image, he shrugs: "France wants clones — people who look like them."

That said, there's evidence suggesting the evolution of a French hijab economy. "I'll tell recruiters, 'Take a veiled woman — it's cheaper,'" says Hadri. In a country with 8% unemployment — and over double that if you're young and have an Arab name — it's hardly surprising, he says, that "the women don't care. They just want to work." Zeenath Simozrag is a Sorbonne-educated lawyer with two master's degrees and three languages, but it still took her six months to find a job, a fact she attributes to her wearing a head scarf. She now works in a small firm, earning $1,100 for a three-day week — less than half the going rate for someone with her qualifications. When her boss has French-Arab clients, Simozrag is introduced as a colleague, but she says she's not introduced to white clients. Like many professional French Muslims, she has thought about leaving — for Dubai, Malaysia, the U.S. or England, somewhere where she won't be forced to choose between a head scarf and a career.

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