A Jew and a Muslim douse Dutch fires

Haroon Siddiqui interviews Job Cohen, mayor of Amsterdam, and Muslim councillor Ahmed Aboutaleb.

A Jew and a Muslim douse Dutch fires

Toronto Star, 18 June 2006

AMSTERDAM—If Christians are lobbing rhetorical bombs at Muslims, who better to tamp down tensions than a soft-spoken Jewish intellectual? Job Cohen has done so as mayor of this city of 800,000, 1 in 8 of whom is a Muslim.

No sooner had the long-time Labour politician and former deputy minister of justice settled into the job in 2001 — the mayor is appointed by the federal cabinet while the council is elected — than he found himself dealing with the fallout of 9/11.

Anti-Muslim anger was fanned to dangerous levels by gay politician Pim Fortuyn (murdered in 2002 by an animal rights activist), filmmaker Theo van Gogh (murdered in 2004 by a Muslim), and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the “ex-Muslim” poster girl of Islamophobes (forced to resign recently as an MP for having lied on her citizenship application).

Amid all the hysteria, Cohen kept his cool.

First, he led street protests to condemn the Van Gogh murder. He then made a point of publicly meeting Muslims, especially clerics, considering them the key to influencing Muslims.

He told the Muslims: “You are much needed in this country. You are the hope of this country.” He told everyone else: “Islam is here to stay. We have to get along with each other.”

Cohen cracked down on petty crime, especially among young Dutch-Moroccans. But he also went after the disco owners discriminating against them.

His partner in peace has been a Muslim councillor.

Moroccan-born Ahmed Aboutaleb warned the Dutch against the debilitating effects of discriminatory immigration policies. He told the Muslims who were bemoaning the decadence of the Dutch that they were free to take a flight to Casablanca.

I talked to both Cohen and Aboutaleb here at city hall, overlooking the Amstel River.

Cohen said the Fortuyn and Van Gogh murders “unbalanced the people of the Netherlands in an enormous way,” unleashing a wave of blame.

“First it was, `a little group of Moroccans are causing problems.’ Then, after Van Gogh, it was, `the Muslims are causing a lot of trouble.’

“Voices were raised against fundamentalist Islam and then it became a discussion about Islam itself. But nobody knew much about Islam.”

What did the Hirsi Ali phenomenon say about Holland?

“It said that Holland is not the stable county that people outside of the Netherlands thought it was … And it is still unstable.

“Also, the Netherlands does not have a strong identity” — and is struggling with it.

Cohen put his mediating skills to reducing tensions between Jews and Muslims as well.

Noting that “there’s a lot of anger against Israel” over its treatment of Palestinians, he tried to separate that sentiment from anti-Semitism.

When kippa-wearing Jews complained that they were being harassed by “some people, especially people of Moroccan background, though those were not the only ones doing it,” he brought the two sides together.

The Moroccans said they faced discrimination all the time.

That proved “an eye-opener.” The two sides realized that “`we both belong to the group that’s discriminated against. How can we do things together?'”

A joint delegation of about 20 Jews and Muslims went to Morocco last month, “especially to the Jewish communities there, and had a good week.”

Aboutaleb said the worst thing about the recent past has been the “total double standards” used against Muslims.

People complained about Islamic opposition to homosexuality. But “what about the Torah or the Bible re homosexuality?”

On terrorism, too, “it’s not Islam you should discuss, but the behaviour of Muslims. The Bible has been abused by Christians. Slavery was justified with the Bible. So was apartheid — a Dutch word. The conflict in Ireland was carried out in the name of religion,” said Aboutaleb.

Cohen and Aboutaleb have had an effect. The Anne Frank Centre, which tracks racism, said that of the 106 incidents of arson and other acts of retaliation against mosques following the Van Gogh murder, only one was in this city.

In the municipal elections in March, the 45-year-old Aboutaleb topped the polls, drawing 10,000 more votes than the local Labour leader on the proportional representation ballot.

And, according to national polls, the 59-year-old Cohen is the most popular Labour politician in Holland, a future party candidate for prime minister.

This lets him take comfort that his so-called soft politics works.

“Yes, I belong to the softies. I am glad I belong to the softies. I think that’s the only way you can handle issues like this.”