Sunday

22nd Apr 2018

Interview

Rotterdam mayor: Muslim migrants must respect EU laws

  • 'Mini-Ban Ki Moon' has high approval ratings, at same time as Wilders leads polls (Photo: Maand van de Geschiedenis)

Ahmed Aboutaleb, the Moroccan mayor of Rotterdam, has a simple message for migrants in the wake of the Cologne sex attacks and the Paris murders: respect the law in your host state, or go home.

Speaking to press in the Dutch port city last Friday (8 January), he said: “If you want to pick up a Dutch passport just to travel without a visa then give it up. I’m not giving you a passport. I’m giving you an identity.”

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  • Rotterdam, Europe's biggest port, is home to 174 nationalities (Photo: Andre Skibinski)

He drew a distinction between personal values, based, for instance, on Islam, his own religion, and between respect for Dutch law.

Values are a “complex” issue, he noted.

“If we meet in the street and I refuse to shake your hand, according to my religion, is it because I think you are worth less than me, or is it, in fact, a gesture of respect?” he said.

“To what extent I’m a Muslim in my private space - that’s personal. I’m also a human being and I have the right to have my own truth.”

But respect for the law is simple, he added: “People think they might have the truth in the teaching of their religion. But outside, in a public space, in my city, I’m the boss. I represent the law and in this space there’s only one truth and that’s the law."

He said people can’t cherry-pick articles from the Dutch charter - claiming equality on the one hand, for example, while not respecting other people’s right to free speech.

“The law and the constitution are non-negotiable,” Aboutaleb noted.

Born in 1961 in the Rif region of Morocco - an area which is, today, associated with lawlessness and radical Islam - the 54-year old 's popularity is so high there's talk he might, one day, run for national office.

But Europe’s refugee crisis has split Dutch society, with the anti-immigrant PVV party of Geert Wilders, who chants for “fewer!” Moroccans at rallies, also coming top in polls.

Referring to the Cologne New Year’s Eve sex assaults, Aboutaleb criticised “shouting in the media” before there was hard evidence the attacks were carried out by Muslim migrants.

He also warned against “mixing up” refugees and terrorists in loose talk.

But he said it’s unhealthy for the EU debate to skirt round taboos. “What makes a city more resilient, what makes you become stronger, is if you dare to open a debate about really sensitive issues,” he said.

Last year, following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, he was even more outspoken.

“If you don’t like it here because of humourists you don’t like make a newspaper, may I then say: 'You can bugger off',” he told Dutch TV.

The mayor jokes he’s a “mini-Ban Ki Moon”, referring to the UN chief, because Rotterdam, a city of some 620,000 people, contains 174 nationalities, including some 100,000 Moroccan and Turkish Muslims.

Foreign fighters

It’s doing better than Brussels on integration.

Rif-region Moroccans in the EU capital are the principal group among the hundreds of Belgians who went to join Islamic State.

But "foreign fighters" from Rotterdam can be counted “on the fingers of one hand,” according to Aboutaleb’s office.

The Netherlands is to take in 9,261 people under EU migrant relocation schemes, with 600 due in Rotterdam as the initiative gets off the ground.

According to the SER, a Dutch consultative body of employers, trade unions, and academics, the situation isn't ideal.

Bart van Riel, an SER economist, said in The Hague last week that 10 years after coming to The Netherlands, the majority of Iraqi and Sudanese refugees are still on welfare.

He cited language barriers and delays with asylum paperwork as issues, noting “the problem, in the past, wasn’t pressing enough” for Dutch authorities to reform the system.

For Aboutaleb the “basic condition of integration is participation” - in schools and the workplace.

History and memory

SER studies, like others in Europe, say migrant workers are good for the Dutch economy. But for the mayor of Rotterdam, history and morality are also part of the story.

He said Rotterdam people are welcoming because they remember World War II and because they live six metres below sea level, at risk of flooding.

“Poles, Russians, Canadians came to liberate this city. Thousands of Canadians died to liberate this country. This city knows what it is to be at war, to get the support of other people, who don’t have a Dutch identity,” he said.

“People are fleeing because they’re insecure, in the same way that we’d have to flee if one of the [North Sea] dykes breaks.”

“This city, from its own history, knows its obligations,” he added.

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