Why you should care
Because as Islamophobia divides Europe, a Muslim is uniting this city.
Ahmed Aboutaleb’s appointment in 2008 as mayor of Rotterdam raised eyebrows. He was the first Muslim mayor of a major European city, the first immigrant mayor in the Netherlands. Even thornier: Aboutaleb was an Amsterdamer, having spent his entire political career prior to 2008 in Rotterdam’s rival city. He was even a supporter of Amsterdam’s soccer team, AFC Ajax.
The Netherlands’ second-largest city was already at the forefront of a European political revolution, as the home of the late far-right leader Pim Fortuyn’s anti-Islam movement. Tensions surrounding migrant integration have swelled support for the Leefbaar Rotterdam (Livable Rotterdam) party, still a dominant force in the municipal government after it unseated the Labour Party (PvdA) in city elections for the first time in over 50 years in 2002. It was into this fractured political community that PvdA member Aboutaleb took office.
But the 55-year-old political outsider has slowly won over critics. “I was skeptical, I had my questions,” says Rinus van Schendelen, professor of politics at Erasmus University Rotterdam, but have “rapidly changed my mind. He acted superbly, very prudently,” in his first years in office. From Day One, Aboutaleb, who could not be reached for an interview, was a regular at citizens’ doors, knocking, chatting, seeking feedback. After being appointed for a second six-year term starting in 2015, he turned down the chance to lead the PvdA as its prime ministerial candidate for this month’s general election, in which the far-right Geert Wilders is now poised to make historic gains. Aboutaleb has been described by local political commentators as “the most popular politician in the country,” though as the mayor is an appointed, not elected, position, no polling is available. As for his future? Western Europe could even get its first Muslim prime minister in Aboutaleb, thinks van Schendelen. Watch out for him in 2021, when the Dutch national election may well coincide with the end of his second term as mayor.
The son of an Imam, Aboutaleb was born in a small mountain town in Morocco before immigrating to the Netherlands at 15. What is “really remarkable” about his personal story is how late he migrated, says sociologist Maurice Crul, director of an EU-funded research project that studies migrant integration in Europe. “All research shows that’s a particularly difficult time to come.” After learning Dutch and completing his education, Aboutaleb fought to suppress his Moroccan accent. “Now when you hear him speak, it’s hard to imagine he came to the Netherlands at such a late age,” says Crul. He remains devoutly religious in private, “but he has created a perfect split between his private life and his public life,” says van Schendelen. Speaking five languages fluently, the trained engineer has also published translations of classic Arabic texts into Dutch.
While Aboutaleb was serving as the director of a multiculturalism-focused think tank, Fortuyn’s anti-immigrant party briefly courted Aboutaleb while searching for ministerial appointees after a shock electoral success in 2002. Aboutaleb didn’t sign on, soon becoming a PvdA councilor in Amsterdam. After a brief stint in a low-level national cabinet position, he decided to put his name forward for the Rotterdam gig. On the day of his inauguration, Marco Pastors, then-leader of Leefbaar Rotterdam, handed Aboutaleb an empty envelope addressed to the king of Morocco. The implication? That Aboutaleb should rescind his dual citizenship and mail his Moroccan passport back to his homeland. He didn’t.
“He says a lot of the same things that the so-called Islamophobic people also say.”
Marco Pastors, Aboutaleb’s former political rival
But today, Pastors praises the mayor of the “Gateway to Europe” port city as a get-things-done guy — quite the compliment in Rotterdam, where “no words, but actions” is somewhat of an unofficial city motto. In 2011, Aboutaleb’s administration, in conjunction with the Dutch national government, established the National Program for South Rotterdam to tackle stubborn poverty in the south of the city, the Netherlands’ most deprived large urban area, housing a majority-immigrant population. The program has an abnormal level of collaboration from the national government on usually local issues of crime, education and jobs: an extra six to 10 hours of schooling per week, vocational training for high schoolers, urban regeneration. Aboutaleb appointed Pastors, his political rival, to run the program; Pastors left party politics to accept the position. This type of gesture above party politics is typical of Aboutaleb’s mayorship.
“What makes him so popular even for [supporters of Leefbaar Rotterdam] is he’s very strong on crime, he’s very strong on the misuse of social benefits,” says Crul, positions that have helped Aboutaleb build consensus between the city’s opposing parties. Under Rotterdam’s “work first” welfare program, the unemployed must give back to the city by sweeping the streets or delivering groceries to the elderly before receiving benefits. The elected municipal government — not Aboutaleb, as appointed mayor — sets these policies, but it’s the mayor’s job to achieve consensus behind closed doors.
With the port’s industrial jobs under threat from automation and international competition, Rotterdam has the highest unemployment rate among major Dutch cities, making conditions ripe for political disenchantment. And the far right has successfully capitalized on bubbling fear in this city housing thousands of Surinamese, Turkish and Moroccan immigrants, with Leefbaar Rotterdam again winning control of the city council in 2014, and the city proving a hub of support for populist Wilders’ national campaign this year.
But it helps that Aboutaleb is comfortable taking strong stances that don’t always align with progressive political correctness. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, Aboutaleb told Dutch Muslims on live television that “if you do not like it here because some humorists you don’t like are making a newspaper, then, if I may say so, you can fuck off.” That sort of rhetoric is unique in the PvdA, which has struggled with wresting a strong stance on immigration from the right while maintaining a progressive stance on integration and tolerance, a dilemma facing center-left parties across Europe. “He says a lot of the same things that the so-called Islamophobic people also say,” says Pastors, but “because he is a Muslim, you can’t say he’s Islamophobic.”