In a city of immigrants, Rotterdam’s Muslim mayor leads by example

Born in Morocco, Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb stresses the opportunities for immigrants in his city while denouncing religious extremism. (EPA/BART MAAT/LANDOV)

ROTTERDAM, The Netherlands — After last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris, Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb was as angry as any European leader when he called for the “complete destruction” of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

But Aboutaleb’s reaction carried special meaning: Born in Morocco, he is the first Muslim and first immigrant to lead a major Dutch city. Aboutaleb has never shied from using this status to amplify his hard-line message against extremism. After the Charlie Hebdo attack in January, he told Dutch Muslims: “If you do not like it here because some humorists you don’t like are making a newspaper, may I then say you can f*** off.”

However, Aboutaleb remains uniquely positioned to drive a more nuanced discussion — both within Rotterdam’s sizeable Muslim community and across Europe. And that’s exactly what he’s been doing this week.

In a meeting with Muslim leaders in Rotterdam Saturday, he leaned on fellow Muslims to lead the fight against extremism and violence. “After Charlie Hebdo, it was relevant to say, if not as a justification: They are insulting our religion,” Aboutaleb said in an interview Sunday with the Dutch television show Buitenhof. “But this time there is no justification. It is barbarism. They gunned down everybody …. That needs a strong answer from the whole world, but certainly from the Muslim community.”

At the same time, he called for tolerance both in Rotterdam and beyond. “This is damaging for everybody, but most certainly for the 15 million Muslims in Europe. Their core identity is being threatened,” he told Buitenhof. “There must be a place for Islam in our free society. With our hearts and minds, we have to invite these people to participate in our society. It cannot be an ‘us versus them’ debate. My city is ready to show this to the world.”

It was the sort of message Aboutaleb has become known for in six years as Rotterdam’s mayor. He can be unusually direct for a politician. Since he is not elected (Dutch mayors are appointed by the central government) he can pretty much say what he thinks. But Aboutaleb’s strength is that he also stops to listen. In the Netherlands’ most international city, with 170 nationalities, this has helped him a lot in building a vision of what an inclusive city looks like.

Aboutaleb is just one of the many forces that has turned Rotterdam into one of Europe’s most dynamic cities. Long known as a working-class port and little brother to Amsterdam, this city of 600,000 is transforming its core with daring architecture, an entrepreneurial spirit and rich cultural vibe. Low rents (compared to Amsterdam) are attracting young and educated new residents. The city is becoming popular with tourists as well. Both Rough Guide and The New York Times have called Rotterdam a “must-see” city.

Rotterdam South is home to 200,000 people, many of them immigrants from Morocco and Turkey. (Hannah Anthonysz)

The visitors and newcomers mostly stay in the prosperous sections north of the River Maas. But Aboutaleb and other city leaders have come to see that the city’s future also depends on lifting fortunes south of the river. This is where some 200,000 people live, including many Muslims of Moroccan or Turkish origin as well as large communities from Suriname and the Dutch Antilles. About 16 percent of the families here live on welfare, twice as many as in other major Dutch cities.

Aboutaleb heads a program focused on creating housing, education and work opportunities in these communities. It’s doing important work, says Hedy van den Berk, CEO of the social housing corporation Havensteder, which has many tenants south of the river. “If we don’t do anything,” she says, “this part of town could turn into a kind of Detroit.”

A new confidence

When Aboutaleb, 54, first arrived in Rotterdam, some locals viewed him with skepticism. As a mayor from the Socialist Party, he would have to work with a council dominated by the right-wing party Leefbaar Rotterdam. At Aboutaleb’s inauguration, Marco Pastors, then the leader of Leefbaar Rotterdam, handed the new mayor an empty envelope addressed to the King of Morocco. It was a symbolic but loaded gesture, meant to suggest that Aboutaleb send back his Moroccan passport.

Aboutaleb got his start in politics as an alderman in Amsterdam — another thing some found  suspicious. Rotterdam is proud of its working-class heritage — the saying “Niet lullen, maar poetsen” (no waffling, but working) is in part a dig at Amsterdam intellectuals who are seen as talking a lot but not doing much. Aboutaleb also worked for the central government as the state secretary of social affairs before getting the Rotterdam mayoral appointment in 2009.

The new mayor quickly won people over. Born in a poor village in the Moroccan mountains, he relates easily to first and second generation immigrants. When he started his first term he would wander the streets, knocking on doors to ask people what they thought about their city. Van den Berk remembers a time when there was a fire near one of her properties. “Aboutaleb came straight away, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and talked to the people on the street who were hit by the fire,” she recalls. “If there were mayoral elections, I have no doubt he would win.”

Hedy van den Berk, CEO of the social housing corporation Havensteder, which has many tenants in Rotterdam South. “If we don’t do anything,” she says, “this part of town could turn into a kind of Detroit.” (Havensteder)

Aboutaleb connects just as easily with international business executives, whom he spends much of his time marketing Rotterdam to. He also invests in developing relationships with other mayors around the world. A fan of Benjamin Barber’s idea that mayors, not national leaders, are the true focal points of public policy, Aboutaleb is talking with Shanghai about cyber security in the port and with New York about water management.​

The global connections are paying off. The Cambridge Innovation Center, a chain of start-up incubators, recently opened its first European office in Rotterdam. A grand new central railway station, opened last year, is bringing fast rail service to Amsterdam’s international airport. New developments include the Markthal, a spectacular food market whose ceiling is like a modern-art version of the Sistine Chapel.

“More people are visiting the city, it becomes a more attractive place to work and live, there are more bars, shops and restaurants, which again makes the city more lively for tourists,” says Sander de Iongh, a manager at Rotterdam Partners, a local economic development agency. “It is difficult to tell where the circle starts, because one development strengthens the other.”

Rotterdam has always had a somewhat freewheeling style when it comes to job creation. That’s an attitude Aboutaleb didn’t start but which he has continued. New ideas are welcomed and there is a close cooperation between the city, entrepreneurs, institutions and the people. “In this city we learn by doing,” says van den Berk. She cites the example of an empty office building that was made available to young creative entrepreneurs. “We wait and see what happens and then we start thinking if we need official policies.”

Among the many new developments in Rotterdam is the Markthal food market. (Ossip van Duivenbode/Rotterdam Image Bank)

One focus of experimentation is public space. Much of Rotterdam was rebuilt after World War II with broad car-friendly streets and mostly drab office buildings in the inner city. Since 2008, a project called City Lounge has been turning more room over to pedestrians and bicyclists. It’s also created a recognizable style for boardwalks, benches and lighting in the city center and given restaurant owners guidelines for how to set up outdoor seating to connect it to activity on the street.  

We want “to make the city more friendly, more hospitable and more ‘cuddly,’ says Astrid Sanson, Rotterdam’s director of inner city and urban quality. “At first, entrepreneurs protested, but in the end, sales have gone up in this area.”

Sanson believes all these changes have given Rotterdam a new sense of civic confidence. “The people in Rotterdam have always been very proud of their city, but dare not show it to people from outside,” she says. “Up until a few years ago, when an alderman had to inaugurate a new bridge or building, he would say, ‘and soon Rotterdam will be worthwhile’. Now they finally say, ‘Rotterdam is worthwhile’.”

Integration is critical

Aboutaleb’s biggest challenge is making sure that this new confidence extends south of the River Maas as well.

Early this year, Aboutaleb became president of National Program Rotterdam South. It’s a long-term collaboration bringing together the efforts of the national and local governments, as well as schools, housing associations, businesses and residents. The goal is to improve education, housing and job opportunities in the area.

Ironically, the position has Aboutaleb working closely with his former adversary, Marco Pastors, who is director of the program. Politically, Pastors and Aboutaleb come from very different backgrounds. But they are on the same page in their attention to the needs of the city’s less well-off residents. Pastors likes the way Aboutaleb speaks out. “He is not afraid of directly addressing the youngsters in the area to take responsibility for their lives,” Pastors says.

In Aboutaleb’s view, integration is critical — a point that allows him to use his own life story as an example to others. He disdains it when he hears young immigrants blame personal problems on society. Instead, he urges them to seize the opportunities they have by being here. He likes to say: “You become someone by integrating into society. Integration means participating.”

Pastors is the first to admit that they’re facing an extremely difficult task. “We have children here with multiple problems and we are doing everything to give them a good future. That takes time.” Improving education is the first priority. The program is investing in additional instruction time each week for students. It’s been slow getting all the schools on board, but all are now involved and test scores have improved significantly.

Marco Pastors was an early critic of Aboutaleb but now works closely with him on improving education, housing and job opportunities in Rotterdam South. (Roni Marguiles)

The real bottleneck is work. Pastors says businesses have offered 360 guaranteed jobs for students who start a mid-level technical education, but only 90 students have applied. “They think businesses that pay well will not hire them,” Pastors says. “Or worse, they lack motivation to put in the effort, because it’s easier to make a few euros by selling drugs. So we try to pave the way to a good education as best as we can, and at the same time, act firmly if they violate the law.”

Some worry that Aboutaleb’s strong statements, such as his January comments after the Charlie Hebdo attack, may leave some youths feeling stigmatized — many Muslims here say they get tired of being addressed according to their religion. But Aboutaleb feels that he has both the moral authority and responsibility to speak directly. In a recent interview in the Dutch newspaper NRC he said: “It sometimes helps if a leader takes a clear stance and without any doubt expresses his thoughts.”

But Aboutaleb is not only about strong soundbites. He is always looking for opportunities to enter into a dialogue. In the same interview he went on to say: “I talk a lot to Muslim youths. I notice that they understand very well that when I say ‘Je suis Charlie’, I am not saying anything about the content of the magazine. I explain that I was referring to the right to say and write what you want. The fact that this right is embedded in our constitution works in favor of minorities.”

“Of course, a magazine can be offensive, but there is no right to protect you against feeling offended. You can keep quiet, respond or go to court, but using violence is never an option.”

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