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Mayor and Muslim in the Netherlands, a Question of Loyalty?

Over 10 years ago, Ahmed Aboutaleb was inaugurated as the first ever Moroccan-born mayor of the Netherlands. During these years, Aboutaleb has received praise as a “successful immigrant” and has had his loyalty to the Netherlands openly questioned.

Rabat – Ahmed Aboutaleb, growing up as a young boy in the remote village of Beni Sedil, located in the northern Nador province of Morocco, would have found it difficult to imagine that he would one day don the mayoral chain of Rotterdam, one of the largest cities in the Netherlands.

Though the odds were against him, over the last 10 years Aboutaleb has proved an invaluable mayor of Rotterdam to both friend and foe.

During his recent trip to Morocco, Aboutaleb spoke to Morocco World News about the current debate revolving around dual-citizenship in Europe, what it means to be regarded as an example of “successful integration,” and whether he would like to exchange his mayorship one day for the office of prime minister.

An envelope for the King

As the first Moroccan-born mayor in the Netherlands, Aboutaleb’s inauguration made worldwide headlines back in 2009. In the wake of President Obama’s election, Aboutaleb was hailed as “the Obama on the Maas,” referring to the well-known river through which Rotterdam has asserted itself as the third-largest port city in the world, reported the Guardian.

“The son of an Islamic preacher became the first Moroccan-born mayor of a Dutch city,” the New York Times wrote.  The Moroccan’s appointment was groundbreaking in a country where almost 1 million people adhere to Islam.

But Aboutaleb’s inauguration put some noses out of joint as well. At the mayoral inauguration, Marco Pastors, a politician of the far-right, Rotterdam-based party “Leefbaar Rotterdam,” presented Aboutaleb with an envelope that was addressed to the King of Morocco. Pastors urged Aboutaleb to send his Moroccan passport back to Morocco, suggesting that, as a dual citizen, Aboutaleb’s loyalty to the Netherlands would waver.

Marco Pastors holding up a signed letter, adressed to the king of Morocco. Photo credit: NTR

“After having lived for 32 years in the Netherlands, I refuse to have my loyalty questioned,” Aboutaleb responded to the ploy by Leefbaar Rotterdam. But it was not the first time Aboutaleb’s loyalty was openly questioned.

Blond hair and a Swedish passport

“Before I became mayor of Rotterdam, I served as deputy minister at the Ministry of Social Affairs from 2007 until 2008. Doubt was cast about my loyalty, by far-right politician Geert Wilders who argued along the lines of ‘there is no place for a Muslim in the Dutch government,’” Aboutaleb told MWN.

When the new Dutch government was installed in early 2007, Wilders proposed a motion of no confidence on behalf of his Party for Freedom (PVV), expressing disdain for Aboutaleb’s appointment. Wilders argued that Aboutaleb’s Islamic background was not necessarily behind the move by stating, “If Mr. Aboutaleb would have had blond hair and a Swedish passport, I would be saying the same thing.”

Not easily provoked, but not insensitive to criticism either, Aboutaleb responded by stating: “If I were to discard my Moroccan passport, would I be considered more loyal to the Netherlands or will that suffice? Or should I burn the Qur’an after that as well?”

The hot-tempered discussions of dual-citizenship are not devoid of selective outrage, Aboutaleb points out. “Recently the discussion of dual-citizenship resurfaced, on account of Brexit. Several political parties in the Dutch parliament argued for Dutchmen who are working and living in the United Kingdom, to have a second passport. As you can understand, that made me smile a little,” Aboutaleb told MWN.

With the pending Brexit hanging over the heads of many expats working in the United Kingdom, a majority of the Dutch Parliament recently voted in favor of a legislative safety valve for the roughly 100,000 Dutchmen working and living in the United Kingdom. This safety valve would allow Dutchmen the right to hold on to their Dutch passport, in addition to a British one, since Parliament fears for the uncertain legal liabilities of Brexit.

The long arm of Rabat

Among the Moroccan diaspora, dual-citizenship can be a thorn in one’s side, however. In late September, a group of outspoken Dutch-Moroccans signed a manifesto, calling for the right to be free from the “Long arm of Rabat.”

“We, Dutch citizens with dual nationality, the Moroccan nationality, which we have not freely chosen, turn to Dutch society and the Dutch government to help us get rid of the fear and lack of freedom inevitably linked to our second nationality,” the manifesto states.

When asked about the manifesto, Aboutaleb commented on the manifesto to MWN by saying: “It’s unbefitting of a mayor to involve himself with the internal affairs of a country. Morocco has its own legislative bodies and as a Dutch mayor I have to respect that. Having said that, I do respect the desire of the signatories of the manifesto and their right to renounce their Moroccan identity.”

Ahmed Aboutaleb explaining the responsibilities of a Mayor in Rabat. Photo credit: Sanne Bakelaar

Nevertheless, Aboutaleb has become, along with other prominent Dutch-Moroccans such as Khadija Arib, speaker of the House of Representatives, and Hakim Ziyech, regarded as one of the best football players of the Netherlands, a shining example of “successful integration,” while having two passports.

But can you only be considered an example of successful integration when you have become mayor of a large Dutch city, have risen to the upper echelons of politics or grown up to be one of the best football players a country has to offer?

Aboutaleb understands the notion, but with a worn-out narrative in which dual-citizenship is often conflated with questionable loyalty or unwillingness to integrate, he does not mind being an often-called on example.

“The Netherlands can be rightfully proud of Dutch-Moroccans such as Arib and Ziyech. Personally, I do not find it tiresome to be an often-called example, ultimately someone has to be,” Aboutaleb explained to MWN.

Yes, prime minister?

After 10 years of serving as mayor of Rotterdam, Aboutaleb expresses great enthusiasm for his work. “In my professional capacity as a mayor, this is the best thing that has ever happened to me. I have given and received a great deal. With a lot of hardworking executive council members, cut out of varying political cloth, members of the municipality, and of course, thanks to the effort of many citizens, we have endeavored together to improve the city of Rotterdam.”

There was a time when his office of mayorship was rumored to be exchanged for the office of prime minister. When the Social Democratic Party was down in the polls in 2016, well-known pollster Maurice de Hond held a survey indicating 13% of the Dutch electorate would vote for the Social Democratic Party, provided Aboutaleb would serve as its new political leader.

And, if pitted against Prime Minister Mark Rutte during the elections of 2017, Aboutaleb would have won 18% more of the votes, according to the poll by de Hond.

Though Aboutaleb held down the fort during the elections of 2017 as mayor of Rotterdam, when asked by MWN if he would consider becoming prime minister in the future, Aboutaleb abstained from any soothsaying: “I do not have a glass ball to gaze into with which I can see the future. I consider myself very lucky with all that I have and I am very curious what life further has in store for me.”