Mahinur Ozdemir is a young Belgian Parliamentarian of Turkish heritage who fought incredible opposition to become the only member of any European parliament to wear the hijab. She also observes her five prayers, speaks five languages and has achieved an impeccable academic record. Today Mihnur is more popular than ever and has been an inspiration to a whole generation of Muslim women across the western hemisphere to wear the hijab and to also seek an education.

Ozdemir has defined the absence of an Islamic culture containing European elements as one of the main causes triggering xenophobia and Islamophobia, especially against the Muslim minority living in Europe, and has urged European Muslims to embrace the societies where they live which she thinks will accelerate the integration of Muslim immigrants in Europe.

“That would also pave the way for non-Muslim Europeans to have a closer look at Islam and get to know European Muslims better,” Özdemir told Today’s Zaman of Turkey in an exclusive interview. She also expressed her hope that such an initiative accompanied by the expansion of tolerance in Europe would decrease the risk of religious confrontation “because it would result in providing people who have prejudices against Islam with a greater knowledge of the subject,” she emphasized. Özdemir underlined that just as Islamic principles have been introduced into different societies, some cultural aspects of these societies which do not contradict the basic pillars of the religion have also had an effect on how Muslims interpret Islam.

A Belgian Muslim of Turkish origin, Özdemir said that she has encountered many Christian deputies in parliament who are keen to find answers to their questions on Islam and has had several conversations with her non-Muslim colleagues on the matter. “As a devout Muslim, which is visible because of my headscarf, they ask me questions about Islam,” she said, defining these conversations as a humble platform for cultural and religious dialogue.

Özdemir was the first headscarved deputy of any of the parliaments in Europe and was elected to the Brussels regional capital parliament in June 2009, an event which kicked off a controversial debate on secularism, the Muslim minority’s political rights and the political engagement of European Turks.

This is all from a girl from an immigrant family who dared to dream, who valued and excelled in her education, who is proud of her faith and who views the hijab as a symbol of liberation and not oppression. This is not written to encourage us to all become parliamentarians but rather it’s to motivate us all regardless of race, belief or gender to have a go, to put in the hard work and to make a difference.

Mahinur is not in parliament to exclusively serve any minority group but seeks to serve all Belgians. In Australia there are a number of Muslim parliamentarians in different states including one Muslim member of the Federal parliament. Like Mahinur they all serve all Australians and all are a voice of tolerance and reason. Despite the fear mongering the election of Muslims to parliaments across Europe, Australia, Canada and the US Congress has not led to upheaval or rebellion. Instead it as a remarkable example of integration by Muslims and acceptance by the societies in which they live. In this spirit in almost all 57 countries in the Muslim world once can also find many non Muslims represented in their respective parliaments.

I am an optimist with tremendous faith in the triumph of the human spirit and this will not be hijacked by those who seek to bring violence and discord regardless of who they are.

Mihnur’s is a very real story of commitment, perseverance and courage. I leave you with one of her quotes.

“I will work against unemployment and towards allowing the Hijab to be worn in the workplace and in schools. I would like to point out that with or without Hijab, my view of the problems in this country and finding solutions to them and helping others will be the same. I cover my hair, but not my ideas, and the Islamic headscarf will in no way be an obstacle to my political activity. It should not be a controversial issue and I would advise those criticizing the Hijab to do away with the injustice that obscures their vision. Efficiency alone is what matters, not the Hijab!”

Mahinur Ozdemir

MP, Brussels