A street festival is in full swing in Amsterdam's Slotervaart neighborhood. The occasion is the dedication of a new community center for Christians and Muslims designed to foster interaction between the two groups.
As the crowd listens to music, munches on fish snacks and Arab pastries and drinks fruit juice, Ahmed Marcouch, the district's 38-year-old mayor, holds a speech. He talks about progress and mutual understanding between different ethnic communities. At the end of his talk, Marcouch poses for pictures with an attractive young woman wearing a headscarf.
The festival and the speech are nice gestures, but atypical. Normally life in Slotervaart isn't nearly as convivial as the speakers paint it. Crime and unemployment are significantly higher than the national average, and one in three of the neighborhood's young people are high-school dropouts.
Ahmed Marcouch grew up in this environment, but he has since made a better life for himself. He was illiterate when he came to the Netherlands from Morocco at the age of 10, but he was lucky enough to encounter a teacher at a progressive Montessori school who helped him get on track.
A Different World
There is little evidence of Amsterdam's typical charm in Slotervaart, a neighborhood where bleak concrete apartment blocks cluster around a futuristic-looking town hall. Almost half of Slotervaart's 45,000 residents are foreign immigrants, and it is not uncommon to see eight-member families living in cramped, 50-square-meter (540-square-foot) apartments. And it's perhaps no coincidence that the police station is across the street from the mosque.
Immigrants from Turkey or the former Dutch colony of Suriname are not the ones that keep the police on their toes. The "problem" immigrants in Slotervaart come from Morocco, not from major cities but from villages in the High Atlas and Rif Mountains. They live here in their own world, eating couscous with lamb's brain salad, watching Al-Jazeera and attending the mosque on Fridays. There is little pressure to conform to Dutch customs and lifestyles.
This parallel world of immigrants is relatively apolitical. Nevertheless, living together with other ethnic groups has proven to be a challenge for Slotervaart's Moroccan immigrants. But for Hassan al-Maghroubi, originally from the town of Oujda near the Algerian border, all the talk about ethnic tensions is nothing but unfounded agitation. "What are we doing that's so dangerous?" he asks. "Sometimes we stuff potatoes in our neighbors' exhaust pipes, or we steal oranges from some street trader. But otherwise we don't bother anyone here."
Hassan is one of what the Dutch call "hangjongeren" ("guys who hang out") -- unemployed men with no prospects of getting jobs. Nevertheless, he says, he feels at home here. "Dit is mijn landje, ik ben een rasechte Nederlander," he says in Dutch: "This is my country. I'm a purebred Dutchman."
A Shift in Mood
Slotervaart's most prominent son is former Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok, who can sometimes be spotted in the morning riding his bike down to the train station along Pieter Calandlaan. Kok, a member of the left-learning Labor Party (PvdA), lives here because he wanted to set an example. But his political adversaries on the right call it a pointless experiment in multiculturalism. The neighborhood, they argue, is contaminated beyond repair.
Mohammed Bouyeri, the murderer of eccentric filmmaker and provocateur Theo van Gogh, lived in Overtoomse Veld, not far from Kok's house. Bouyeri was born in Amsterdam, a second-generation immigrant. Like many Dutchmen, he rode his bicycle and loved to eat traditional Dutch stews. He couldn't have been more Dutch, but he got caught up in the radical Islamist movement nonetheless.
Van Gogh's murder marked a turning point in Holland's warm and fuzzy take on democracy. Until then, the Dutch were accustomed to looking generously the other way when it came to a wide range of abuses. The approach even had a name: the gedogen principle. The untranslatable word gedogen refers to the Dutch practice of turning a blind eye to things which are officially illegal but tolerated, such as soft drugs and euthanasia. Under the gedogen principle, anything went. The fact that some Muslim men beat their wives was tolerated, as was the selling of polemic texts -- which encouraged believers to stone women who committed adultery and throw homosexuals from tall buildings -- at the Al Tawheed Mosque on Jan Hanzenstraat.
Taking a Hard Line
But since the Van Gogh murder, the gedogen principle no longer applies -- at least in Slotervaart, a change that is in no small part due to the mayor's efforts. Marcouch, a former police officer, experienced at first hand the unrest that followed the Van Gogh murder. He wasn't a softie like some of his colleagues, who routinely looked the other way when rowdy mobs swaggered through the streets. He took a hard line when he believed it was necessary, which was the case more often than not. And a tougher police approach is suddenly popular with the no-longer-quite-so-relaxed Dutch.
The government of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende insists that it will fight lawlessness in the suburbs and will no longer tolerate foreign-born hate preachers in the country's mosques. But it has done little so far to make good on its promises.
Marcouch, on the other hand, is doing something. He has instructed his officials to conduct one-on-one interviews with young unemployed residents to help them find ways to make a fresh start. Especially tough cases are referred directly to Marcouch.
Although he has no authority over the Amsterdam police force, Marcouch has set up a rapid response team of social workers which constantly patrols the streets on bicycles to defuse hostilities and catch young criminals red-handed.
Marcouch's brief tenure to date has already left its mark in Slotervaart, where the crime rate has dropped and there is significantly less trash on the streets. "When there's a lack of cooperation, we have to give them a bit of a push -- with force, if necessary," he says.
Making a Deal
A Moroccan mother paid Marcouch a visit last week. The story she told was heartbreaking. Her son, she said, was completely out of control, constantly getting into fights and stealing, with no prospects of landing a job. He had become too much to handle, she told Marcouch.
The mayor had the boy brought to his office. Towering in front of him like some drill sergeant facing an unruly recruit, he shouted: "We're going to make a deal, my friend. I find you an apprenticeship, and you become a decent citizen. If you don't shape up, you'll find yourself in jail. You give me a headache and I'll show you what a headache is."
Marcouch says that he wants to use educational methods to help reintegrate young offenders back into society. Part of his plan is to provide them with job training in prison. Those who complete the training courses successfully are released early, while those who fail the course must serve their entire sentence.
When his tough cop approach doesn't work, Marcouch attempts to convince the Moroccan immigrants to abandon their self-imposed isolation. "Look at me," he tells them. "I am a Muslim, but I am also a Dutchman. This country is your home, too. You have a good life here, and you have freedom." The son of immigrants himself, all Marcouch wants from the children of other immigrants is that they accept Dutch culture. For Marcouch, tolerance is a two-way street: Just as the majority accept the minority, the minority should also tolerate the majority.
In addition to his mayoral duties, Marcouch serves as the district chairman of the PvdA. The position is unlikely to represent the high-water mark of his political career: Eight out of ten citizens in the Netherlands believe that there is a place in Dutch politics for people like Marcouch.
But not a few of Marcouch's fellow Moroccans in the area, which is known locally as Little Morocco, consider the mayor a turncoat. Two 11-year-old boys recently accosted him as he was walking through his community, calling him a "chaïn" -- Arabic for "traitor."
Marcouch was furious. When he managed to catch one of the boys, he took hold of his chin and pulled the boy towards him, glaring at him and barking in Dutch, "sukkel" -- "loser."
He refused to admonish the children for calling him a "traitor," considering it beneath him. But it didn't mean the insult didn't hurt.