Underrated: Ahmed Aboutaleb

Ahmed Aboutaleb, Mayor of Rotterdam, has the courage to tackle Islamic integration and extremism head-on

Underrated
(ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL DALEY)

Mayors matter in the modern metropolis, and Muslim mayors matter more than most. There are still very few of them in the West, but one stands out for his courage: Ahmed Aboutaleb, Mayor of Rotterdam since 2009. The first Muslim immigrant to lead a major city in the Netherlands, the Moroccan-born Aboutaleb has since made himself the most popular politician in a country plagued by populists. At home he is deservedly admired for his deeds, but what made him a hero abroad was a four-letter word.

Aboutaleb’s mayoral record is certainly remarkable. He has devoted his life to reintegrating Holland’s badly divided second city, in which some 400,000 mainly prosperous, white and Christian residents living north of the River Maas seem to inhabit a different universe from the 200,000 mainly poor, dark-skinned and Muslim inhabitants of the urban ghetto on the south bank. Aboutaleb has worked miracles in transforming a once-decaying port into a fashionable tourist destination. But he is the first to point out that too many Moroccan, Turkish and other Muslim families still live on welfare. Rightly, he insists that the Protestant work ethic isn’t just for Protestants.

Europe’s largest port still has plenty of poor white voters too, and before his arrival municipal politics was dominated by the right-wing populist party Leefbaar Rotterdam. At his inauguration, Leefbaar’s leader handed the new mayor an empty envelope addressed to the King of Morocco, indicating that he should send back his Moroccan passport. Aboutaleb refused to renounce his dual citizenship, but he had a clear message for his fellow Muslims: they should stop seeing themselves as victims: “And if you don’t want to integrate, leave.” He has since proved his patriotism sufficiently to be voted Dutchman of the Year. Rotterdam has mercifully been spared terrorism so far, but the mayor knows just how precarious that success is.

His notoriety dates from January 2015, when the grisly IS-inspired massacre in Paris of 17 Charlie Hebdo journalists and Jewish shoppers at a kosher supermarket sent shockwaves across Europe. Islamist apologists sought to justify the unjustifiable on the grounds that the satirical magazine had published blasphemous cartoons of Muhammad. Moderate Muslims hesitated to speak out. Aboutaleb not only denounced the terrorists but all those Muslims who refused to integrate into what he likes to call the “We Society” — Holland’s open, tolerant and uncensored culture. “If you don’t like this freedom, for heaven’s sake, pack your bags and leave,” the mayor declared on television. “Vanish from the Netherlands if you cannot find your place here. And if you don’t like it here because some humourists you dislike are producing a newspaper, then — if I may say so — just f*** off.”

Aboutaleb was using his privileged position as a practising Muslim to voice an opinion that was widely held but that no other mainstream politician dared to utter. Dutch Muslims might despise Geert Wilders as a demagogue, but they could not so easily ignore the son of an imam, defending the values of the land in which he had settled at the age of 15. By using demotic language to outline the choice facing his  fellow-Muslims, Aboutaleb cut through the Dutch debate about immigration and Islam, which had become increasingly toxic since the murders of two mavericks: the gay politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and the filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004.

The mayor has repeated his message, ever more uncompromisingly, after each major European outrage by IS-inspired terrorists. He explains to young Muslims that freedom of speech and the press, including the right to offend others, is actually for their benefit: “The fact that this right is embedded in our constitution works in favour of minorities.” Earlier this year, however, he found himself forced to draw the line between free speech and incitement when Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried to radicalise the Turkish minority in the Netherlands as part of a referendum campaign to authorise sweeping new presidential powers. Fearing violence, the Dutch government refused to allow Erdogan’s ministers to campaign. When protests erupted outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam, with one of Erdogan’s ministers present, Aboutaleb not only ordered police to disarm her paramilitary “bodyguards” but gave permission for them to shoot if necessary. This Muslim mayor had no trouble standing up to a powerful Muslim head of state who accused his non-Muslim countrymen of behaving like Nazis: “I am,” he said, “the mayor of a city that was bombed by the Nazis.”

Ahmed Aboutaleb is an outstanding role model for Muslim leadership in the West. Other mayors, of all faiths and none, have been slow to follow his example. Boris Johnson praised Aboutaleb as his hero yet, despite his own Turkish ancestor, never dared to be as plainspoken with London’s disaffected Islamists as his counterpart in Rotterdam. Will Boris’s Muslim successor be bolder? Don’t hold your breath.