By NRC Handelsblad Staff
Ahmed Aboutaleb is set to become the first Muslim mayor of a major Dutch city.
Rotterdam is set to become one of the first major European cities to appoint a Muslim immigrant as its mayor. Last Thursday, the Rotterdam city council made the historic decision to select Ahmed Aboutaleb, who has Moroccan as well as Dutch citizenship, to run Holland's second largest city, also home to Europe's biggest port.
Abtouleb himself told Dutch news agency ANP that he was very pleased with his nomination as mayor of a "really nice city, with a special population and a great history."
Nonetheless, his appointment has also come under criticism from Leefbaar Rotterdam, the party once led by right-populist politician Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated in 2002 by an animal rights activist. The party's current leader, Ronald Sorenson, is vehemently opposed to Aboutaleb's appointment. "He comes from Amsterdam (the two cities are traditional rivals) and supports (Amsterdam football club) Ajax, but even worse is the fact that he has two passports," he says.
Wouter Bos, Dutch finance minister and national Labour Party leader, described Aboutaleb -- who currently serves as the Netherlands deputy social affairs minister -- as "the prototype of the modern Social Democrat: firm with a sense of justice."
But Aboutaleb remained on the sidelines in parliament and took little part in political debates. His colleague in the Labour Party, Rob Oudkerk, whom Aboutaleb succeeded as a member of the Amsterdam city council, believes the Dutch-Moroccan politician is better suited to the position of mayor than his current post as deputy minister. "He is a man of action who is good at solving concrete problems. He's better at that than drafting legislation," Oudkerk said.
From Outsider to Political Insider
Aboutaleb's political rise has been a major immigrant success story in a country where the debate over the integration of migrants has divided many in recent years.
Often described as a "model non-Western immigrant," Aboutaleb was born in the town of Beni Sidel in Morocco's Rif mountain region in 1961, the son of an imam. In 1976, Aboutaleb, his mother and siblings moved to the Netherlands to join his father, who was already working in the country.
In 1987 Aboutaleb graduated from a technical school where he had studied electrical engineering. He later worked as a journalist and then as a public relations officer before becoming director of the Institute for Multicultural Development Forum, a non-governmental organization focused on integration policy.
It wasn't until Aboutaleb became a member of the Amsterdam city council for the Labour Party that he became a household name. He served as councillor responsible for social affairs, education and integration from 2004 until his appointment as deputy social affairs minister in February 2007. After moving on to national politics, many believed his profile diminished.
The criticism volleyed at him by Leefbaar Rotterdam isn't the first time in Aboutaleb's career that politicians have tried to attract negative attention to his immigrant background, his religion and his dual citizenship.
Aboutaleb's loyalty to the Netherlands was called into question in national parliament, too, when Geert Wilders, head of the anti-immigrant populist PVV party, submitted a motion of no confidence against him in 2007. As a holder of a Moroccan passport, Wilders alleged his loyalty was still to the Moroccan king rather than the Netherlands.
Aboutaleb, however, reacted stoically and just smiled and waved his Dutch passport at journalists. He later hung a framed copy of the rejected motion in his study.
Aboutaleb is intelligent, he comes across well in the media, has finely tuned political antennae and knows exactly when to be tough. As a councillor in Amsterdam he did not hesitate to use unorthodox methods, such as visiting welfare recipients at home to see if they were genuine claimants.
He also knows what kind of tone to use when it comes to the sensitive issue of integration. In his now famous speech in the Alkabir mosque in Amsterdam on the day after the killing of film-maker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist, Aboutaleb said that those who do not share the core values of Dutch society should leave on the next plane.
Though he may not be shy with words, he still faces a tough job in Rotterdam. Prominent as Holland's second city, Rotterdam also has the largest number of economically deprived neighborhoods in the country. Nearly half of the population (47 percent) is of foreign origin.
City council member Dries Mosch of Leefbaar Rotterdam asked last week if Aboutaleb was the right man to lead the city. "Aboutaleb is a Muslim and he has two passports," he said. "Should he, of all people, be in charge of a city where the majority of the immigrant population refuses to integrate?"
Political Power Blocks
Once a Labour Party bastion, Rotterdam now has two directly opposing political power blocs -- Labour, which holds 18 of the city council's 45 seats and populist Leefbaar Rotterdam, which has 14 seats.
Leefbaar Rotterdam, led at the time by Fortuyn, won the council elections in early 2002. But the party lost seats to Labour after municipal elections in March 2006, making it the city's second most powerful party on the city council.
Although he will likely get the backing of the national government, which must approve his political appointment as mayor, Aboutaleb will have to move quickly to find allies who share his views after he takes office in politically turbulent Rotterdam.
"Ahmed has an awful lot to do if he wants to win the hearts of the 600,000 citizens of Rotterdam," said local Labour leader Peter van Heemst.
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