As a city councilman, Ahmed Aboutaleb, the son of a Moroccan clergyman, helped immigrants find jobs, put their toddlers in school to learn Dutch and doled out stern advice: integrate or leave.
On Thursday, Aboutaleb is being sworn in as a junior minister in the Dutch Cabinet. Joining him will be Nebahat Albayrak, a Turkish-born member of parliament. They are the first Muslims to reach the inner core of political power in the Netherlands, and are among only a few immigrants to rise to even second-rung Cabinet positions in Western Europe.
Albayrak and Aboutaleb are among immigrants who call themselves the “New Dutch.” Many have worked their way up in politics or business at a time when some doubt the Netherlands can comfortably absorb its Muslim minority.
They comprise a counterpoint to the alienated immigrant underclass in the Netherlands, the squalid neighborhoods ringing French cities and the Muslim terror cells being uncovered throughout Europe.
At the same time, their rarity highlights how hard it is to break into what some immigrants see as an exclusive network of the native elite.
About 1 million of Holland’s 16 million people are from families of Muslim background, and they still struggle to enter the professional ranks.
Aboutaleb, the incoming deputy minister for social affairs, and Albayrak, the deputy minister of justice, are among the most visible successes in a nation troubled by failures in its vaunted system of multiculturalism — which came under scrutiny after Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim in 2004.
‘The new Europe’
But others have risen to less high-profile positions in local politics and to middle management jobs in business.
“This is the new Europe, and the Netherlands is setting the example,” said Sadik Harchaoui, a Moroccan who heads the national Institute of Multicultural Development.
“This is the moment when Dutch citizens of migrant backgrounds can take these kind of jobs, not only in government but in business,” he said.
But he said there is a long way to go. “In 15 to 20 years it will be a normal thing.”
While statistics are difficult to come by, Muslim integration does appear to be happening in many areas of the Netherlands.
In Dutch municipal elections last year, the number of city council members from Turkey and Morocco, the Muslim countries with the largest populations in the Netherlands, grew by 62 percent, to 223 from 139, according to a Dutch research group. Immigrants from those countries in the 150-seat national parliament rose to seven from five.
Aboutaleb and Albayrak belong to the Labor Party, which draws a disproportionately large immigrant vote in national and local elections.
A long way from Turkey
Albayrak, 38, came from Turkey with her six siblings when she was 18 months old. Her parents moved to the Netherlands to work and intended to return to Turkey after their children were educated. They never did.
She joined the Labor Party while a university student, earned a degree in international law and was elected to parliament in 1998. In last November’s elections, she was placed second on the list of candidates after the party leader.
Aboutaleb, 45, left Morocco at age 15 with his mother and brothers to join his father, who had come to the Netherlands several years earlier. He studied telecommunications and worked as a news broadcaster, but always had political ambitions.
“The frame of reference I left behind was a small house without electricity or running water; a cow, a donkey and a few rocks,” he says.
The Van Gogh incident
Aboutaleb gained attention in 2004 after the Van Gogh slaying. The Amsterdam-born assailant, Mohammed Bouyeri, believed the filmmaker had insulted Islam in his work. Bouyeri pegged a five-page diatribe into Van Gogh’s chest with a knife threatening other Dutch leaders, including Aboutaleb, who now has 24-hour police protection.
The day after the murder, Aboutaleb spoke at a mosque about the need for Muslims to become part of Dutch society. “Anyone who doesn’t share these values would be wise to draw their conclusions and leave,” he said.
Swift outreach by Aboutaleb and Amsterdam’s Jewish mayor, Job Cohen, to the city’s Muslims was credited with keeping a lid on ethnic tensions, which flared in other Dutch cities.
“A lot of people who have trouble finding a job, who have difficulty adapting to this society, think they’re not accepted. And sometimes that is the case,” said Amsterdam councilman Lodewijk Asscher. “To them, it’s a very important message that Ahmed Aboutaleb has made it to the national government.”
Talk of a clash of cultures
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and deadly bombings in London and Madrid, studies have focused on an intensifying clash between Europeans and a flood of immigrants who hold fast to their own cultures. But some say a new reality is emerging, even though many Europeans do not realize it.
Moroccan-born Khalid Boutachekourt, 33, advises corporations on employment practices. He sees people of his age and background moving up as businesses reach out to a new client base of immigrants.
“Diversity at the management level is increasing, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “You see people advance rapidly. They have the advantage of being the first in an establishment that needs new faces and new voices.”