The son of an Islamic preacher became the first Moroccan-born mayor of a Dutch city Monday, an appointment welcomed by his political friends and foes as a landmark in the successful integration of immigrants.
Ahmed Aboutaleb, a 47-year-old former journalist, has been compared to U.S. President-elect Barack Obama for breaching barriers that have long kept immigrants out of the Dutch corridors of power.
“I think it’s a turning point in Dutch history where integration has evolved to a level where people of Moroccan descent or Turkish descent are able to have the qualifications and the networks to become a mayor or a minister,” said Sadik Harchaoui, the head of Forum, an institute dedicated to promoting integration.
About 1 million of the country’s 16 million people are immigrants.
Jan Franssen, Dutch Queen Beatrix’s representative for South Holland province, played down the comparison with Obama.
“Obama on the Maas . . . is maybe going a bit far,” he said, referring to the river that bisects Rotterdam. “But the significance is great. This proves that there is no glass ceiling for immigrants in the Netherlands.”
Marco Pastors, who leads a Rotterdam political party faithful to Fortuyn’s [Pim Fortuyn, who was gunned down in 2002] teachings, grudgingly welcomed Aboutaleb’s appointment.
“He is morally upright and thinks immigrants must adapt to our Dutch values,” Pastors said. “He believes that they must take the chances the Netherlands offers and not sink into the role of victims. He can say what many do not dare say: ‘If you don’t like it here, then pack your bags.’”
Aboutaleb signaled he would tackle tensions between the city’s white Christian population and its growing Islamic immigrant community.
While Pastors praises that stance, he also challenged Aboutaleb, who has dual citizenship, to turn in his Moroccan passport as a sign of his commitment to the Netherlands. Aboutaleb refused to relinquish his passport when similar calls followed his appointment to Balkenende’s Cabinet.
Pastors presented the new mayor with a gift of an envelope addressed to the Moroccan king and urged him to use it to send back his Moroccan passport.
“Your position in this country brings this moral obligation with it,” he said.