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Moderate Muslim becomes mayor of Dutch city

by Brad A. Greenberg

January 5, 2009 | 11:54 am

The Netherlands are still trying to figure out how to handle the “Islamization” of society. Moving to ban burkas on college campuses was, I would say, a bad idea. But today’s installation of a Moroccan-born Muslim moderate as mayor of Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest port city, represented a more significant step:

Ahmed Aboutaleb, who has dual Dutch-Moroccan citizenship, is the first Moroccan-born immigrant to be appointed a Dutch mayor. Some have compared his achievement to that of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama.

“Obama on the Maas … is maybe going a bit far,” said Jan Franssen, the Dutch queen’s representative for South Holland province, referring to the river that runs through Rotterdam. “But the significance is great. This proves that there is no glass ceiling for immigrants in the Netherlands.”

Accepting his new position, Aboutaleb immediately signaled he would work to tackle tensions between the city’s historically white Christian population and its growing Islamic immigrant community.

“Many people feel insecure in a world in which everything is changing,” Aboutaleb told aldermen at City Hall.

“There are no more jobs for life. Money can evaporate, churches disappear, mosques appear,” he said. “We must not make light of these feelings of fear and insecurity. I certainly won’t.”

Aboutaleb, a 47-year-old former journalist, resigned as deputy minister for social affairs in Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende’s government to take over in Rotterdam, which with 585,000 people has the largest proportion of immigrants of any major Dutch city.

It also was the power base of firebrand politician Pim Fortuyn, who rose to prominence on the back of his fierce criticism of Islam and was murdered in 2002 on the eve of national elections.

Before joining the national government in 2007, Aboutaleb was an alderman in Amsterdam, where he made his mark in the tumultuous aftermath of another murder — the brutal 2004 slaying of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamist extremist.

With tensions soaring and anger toward the city’s large Moroccan and Turkish immigrant populations rising, Aboutaleb went to one of the city’s most prominent mosques with a blunt message for worshippers: integrate or leave.

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