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(ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL DALEY)


Mayors matter in the modern metropolis, and Muslim mayors matter more than most. There are still very few of them in the West, but one stands out for his courage: Ahmed Aboutaleb, Mayor of Rotterdam since 2009. The first Muslim immigrant to lead a major city in the Netherlands, the Moroccan-born Aboutaleb has since made himself the most popular politician in a country plagued by populists. At home he is deservedly admired for his deeds, but what made him a hero abroad was a four-letter word.

Aboutaleb’s mayoral record is certainly remarkable. He has devoted his life to reintegrating Holland’s badly divided second city, in which some 400,000 mainly prosperous, white and Christian residents living north of the River Maas seem to inhabit a different universe from the 200,000 mainly poor, dark-skinned and Muslim inhabitants of the urban ghetto on the south bank. Aboutaleb has worked miracles in transforming a once-decaying port into a fashionable tourist destination. But he is the first to point out that too many Moroccan, Turkish and other Muslim families still live on welfare. Rightly, he insists that the Protestant work ethic isn’t just for Protestants.

Europe’s largest port still has plenty of poor white voters too, and before his arrival municipal politics was dominated by the right-wing populist party Leefbaar Rotterdam. At his inauguration, Leefbaar’s leader handed the new mayor an empty envelope addressed to the King of Morocco, indicating that he should send back his Moroccan passport. Aboutaleb refused to renounce his dual citizenship, but he had a clear message for his fellow Muslims: they should stop seeing themselves as victims: “And if you don’t want to integrate, leave.” He has since proved his patriotism sufficiently to be voted Dutchman of the Year. Rotterdam has mercifully been spared terrorism so far, but the mayor knows just how precarious that success is.

His notoriety dates from January 2015, when the grisly IS-inspired massacre in Paris of 17 Charlie Hebdo journalists and Jewish shoppers at a kosher supermarket sent shockwaves across Europe. Islamist apologists sought to justify the unjustifiable on the grounds that the satirical magazine had published blasphemous cartoons of Muhammad. Moderate Muslims hesitated to speak out. Aboutaleb not only denounced the terrorists but all those Muslims who refused to integrate into what he likes to call the “We Society” — Holland’s open, tolerant and uncensored culture. “If you don’t like this freedom, for heaven’s sake, pack your bags and leave,” the mayor declared on television. “Vanish from the Netherlands if you cannot find your place here. And if you don’t like it here because some humourists you dislike are producing a newspaper, then — if I may say so — just f*** off.”

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