The Moroccan-born Muslim mayor of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, told CNN’s Michael Holmes on Wednesday that Europe has no place for extremists who are not willing to live within the bounds of its norms.
“You are not forced to be with us, it’s a choice,” Ahmed Aboutaleb said. “Work with us together to construct a ‘we society.’”
“But if you want to stand out of the ‘we community,’ you threaten us, you go to Yemen to learn how to use a Kalashnikov and to come back to threaten the society, well you are not part of my ‘we society,’ you better leave.”
The fight against ISIS is not only a physical war and it is not only taking place on the frontlines of Syria and Iraq – it is also in the west, a war of ideology, on the streets of sedate European cities like Rotterdam.
Aboutaleb drew headlines around the world in the wake of last month’s attack on the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, when he said, “if you don’t like it here because you don’t like that humorists who make a newspaper – yeah, if I can say it like this, get lost!”
He more than most has authority to speak on the subject. He migrated to the Netherlands when he was fifteen, eventually working as a television journalist and then working his way up through the Dutch Labor Party.
“I am one of the people who knows how it is to live in poverty. I spent fifteen years in Morocco of my life on one meal a day, walking without shoes, going to the Netherlands without a coat to protect myself.”
“I cannot accept that poverty leads to terrorism.”
It must lead to knowledge, to better oneself, he said.
“It’s about investing in yourself, first of all. And by doing that you invest in society. And that’s the message I try to give to these people.”
“Yes, indeed, I am not only a mayor of a city, but I am also Muslim. And that gives me maybe the additional authority to say these things that maybe other colleagues of mine in Europe and maybe in the U.S. are not maybe authorized to say.”
The Netherlands is renowned for its liberal values – be it towards gay marriage (the first country in the world to legalize it), prostitution, or indeed marijuana.
Many Dutch politicians, past and present, have couched their controversial views in a defense of liberal values, which they see as incompatible with orthodox Islam.
Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, himself gay, was in many was the genesis of this trend; he was killed by a radical animal rights activist in 2002, who was angry with Fortuyn anti-immigration stance.
The controversial filmmaker Theo van Gogh was killed in Amsterdam by a Moroccan-born Dutch man in 2004 having just completed a film about Fortuyn.
And Geert Wilders, who leads a far-right party in the Netherlands, has taken anti-immigrant sentiment to the extreme, going so far as to say that Moroccans should leave the country.
“The Dutch constitution, but also the Dutch society, is constructed on a very, very intrinsic basic value, and that is tolerance and acceptance,” Aboutaleb said. “So the moment you come to the Netherlands…and you get a citizenship then you have to at least underline and embrace the constitution and the values of the country.”
When he speaks to new citizens, he told Holmes, he emphasizes the symbolism of the passport they will soon receive.
“That is not only a travel document, that is an identity. Then we request you and there is also a duty upon you to accept society as a whole.”
In Rotterdam, he said, “there are mosques and synagogues and churches from all denominations.”
“It’s even okay if you have radical opinions as long as you act within the borders of the law.”
Nonetheless, Aboutaleb remains an anomaly in much of Europe – a minority immigrant in a position of government power.
“The migration to the Netherlands is a very young migration of forty years.”
“So we have a lot of work to do also to have a right representation from all minorities in European governments.”
“We have miles to go and we just left meters behind us.”