First Moroccan mayor takes helm in Rotterdam

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Ahmed Aboutaleb was inaugurated on Monday as the Netherlands’ first immigrant mayor.

THE HAGUE – Moroccan-born politician Ahmed Aboutaleb was sworn in Monday as the Netherlands' first immigrant mayor, taking charge of the city of Rotterdam which a few years ago led a national anti-immigrant drive.

As he formally took the reins, the former deputy social affairs minister conceded there was much distrust and fear among the residents of the country's second-largest city.

"Many people are feeling very unsure in a world where everything is changing," Aboutaleb told guests at his swearing-in ceremony, broadcast over the Internet.

"Churches are disappearing, and mosques appearing. That is making people uncomfortable. We must not play down these feelings of fear and uncertainty, and I certainly won't do that."

Aboutaleb, a member of the leftist Labour party, called for an honest debate over the country's democratic, constitutional foundations - freedom of speech and religion, gender and gay equality; issues at the heart of the conflict between the traditionally liberal Dutch and the growing Muslim population.

Such a discussion was essential for bridge-building, said the new mayor.

"Trust is an ingredient of social cohesion, but it is also the lubricant of our economy. To work on building trust is an investment in economic growth. A society in which people trust each other, is stronger."

Born in Beni Sidel in Morocco in 1961, Aboutaleb moved to the Netherlands at the age of 14. He worked as a journalist and later as a ministry spokesman before serving as city councillor in Amsterdam and The Hague.

Aboutaleb sharply rejected any aspersions on his loyalty because of his dual Dutch-Moroccan nationality.

"I have physically and mentally chosen for the Netherlands," he said.

The Moroccan government does not allow its citizens to give up their passports.

Analysts and the media have described Aboutaleb's appointment as a step in the right direction for a city that six years ago gave massive electoral support to the anti-immigration politics of right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn, assassinated in May 2002.

Dutch news agency ANP reported that a group of Fortuyn supporters protested outside the city hall ahead of Monday's swearing-in.

One placard, ANP said, read: "Pim Fortuyn would not have liked what is playing in this theatre today."

Moroccans make up one of the largest immigrant populations in the Netherlands, with an estimated 350,000 people out of a population of 16 million.

There has in recent years been growing tension between the Dutch and people of Moroccan origin, who are regarded as disproportionately responsible for crime.

The interior minister recently proposed registering the ethnicity of criminals, while last month a Dutch lawmaker suggested in parliament that Moroccan "problem youths" be encouraged to emigrate.

[AFP / Expatica]

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