Back in January, in the wake of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the mayor of Rotterdam in the Netherlands had a simple message for immigrants in the Netherlands.
It is incomprehensible that you can turn against freedom,’ Mayor Aboutaleb told Dutch current affairs program Nieuwsuur (Newshour).
‘But if you don’t like freedom, for heaven’s sake pack your bags and leave.
‘If you do not like it here because some humorists you don’t like are making a newspaper, may I then say you can f*** off.
‘This is stupid, this so incomprehensible. Vanish from the Netherlands if you cannot find your place here. All those well-meaning Muslims here will now be stared at’.
He was recently a guest on CNN International where he doubled down on those comments.
Michael Holmes: Mr. Mayor, your speech was a powerful one, coming from a Moroccan immigrant in particular and a practicing Muslim. How was it received in Rotterdam and also the Netherlands?
Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb: Well, my speech after the attack of Paris has been well received by, really I think, 160 million people in the Netherlands. I received really thousands of emails from all over the world from people supporting the speech and the content of it.
Michael Holmes: It’s fine to say let’s share these values. It’s much harder, isn’t it, to impose them on others? I mean, even things like gay marriage, which, of course, is legal in the Netherlands, would not be acceptable to most Muslims traditionally. What do you say to those who say, well, you can’t put all of the Netherlands’ liberal traditions onto immigrants?
Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb: You know, the Dutch constitution but also the Dutch society is constructed in very, very interesting basic value and that is tolerance and acceptance. So the moment you come to the Netherlands, wherever from all over the world and you get a citizenship then you have to at least underline and embrace the constitution and the values of the country. We are a diverse country; my city is 154 nationalities. And that means that the rule of law is above everyone. Whatever your conviction is, whatever your religion is, whatever your sexual behavior, the acceptance and tolerance is really a very important thing.
Michael Holmes: If you don’t like it here, leave, which was the real line that stuck out, of course. It resonates with many people. But could it be seen as a little superficial and unrealistic? If you don’t like it, just go.
Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb: Well, what I say to people is there are two things: when you become a member of our society and I said when I give passport to new citizens, 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. And there are — there is also a lot of variety in it. But if you reject the society, you don’t want to be member of what I call the we community and you reject the constitution and you reject the quality between people and you reject the freedoms, then it’s up to you to examine whether you want to be with us.There is also another choice and that is not to be with us and to leave — to leave our society. You are not forced to be with us. It’s a choice. And that’s what I said to people. I’m not forcing anyone to get out of the we society. It’s a free choice. Be with us; work with us together to construct a we society. But if you want to send out of the we community, you threaten us, you go to Yemen to learn how to use a Kalashnikov and to come back to citizen society, well, you are not part of my we society; you’d better leave.
Michael Holmes: I understand, of course, why your message stands out so much is because you are Muslim. You are Moroccan. You didn’t even go to the Netherlands until you were 15. How did your family integrate, move to accept that liberal nature of life in the Netherlands?
Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb: Mr. Holmes, I’m one of the people who knows how it is to live in poverty. I spent 15 years in Morocco of my life on one meal a day, walking without shoes. Go to the Netherlands without a coat to protect myself. So I know how it is to be a product of poverty. And I cannot accept that poverty leads to terrorism. Poverty must lead to a seek to knowledge, to sciences, to be better, to climb on the social ladder. So I know how it is. 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’m not only a mayor of a city, but I’m 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.
Michael Holmes: Is there room for maintaining different cultures in your mind, having parallel Muslim and traditional Dutch values? Or is it all or nothing?
Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb: No, there is a lot of space to combine a lot of things. My city comprises 154 nationalities. We have all religions in the Netherlands, in my city, too. There are mosques and synagogues and churches from all denominations. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s even OK if you have radical opinions as long as you act within the borders of the law, there is nothing wrong with that. You may have also the reason to believe that you have the truth of the all too — the ultimate truth in religion between your ears, nothing wrong with that. But as long as you go to the outside world, then there is the rule of law and then you may accept the constitution and the rule of law. And those things, if you bring that together, there must be a balance that is possible. And my case, it shows that it is possible.