Muslims in Dutch Cabinet show progress for immigrants

Labor members Ahmed Aboutale and Nebahat Albayrak are the first Muslims to be sworn in as state secretaries; the Muslim Dutch still struggle to enter professional ranks.

By
February 21, 2007 15:06
Muslims praying.

muslims europe 88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

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 some stern advice: integrate or leave. On Thursday, Aboutaleb was to be sworn in as a state secretary, or junior minister, in the new Dutch Cabinet. So was Nebahat Albayrak, a Turkish-born lawyer and member of parliament from the age of 30. They are the first Muslims to reach the inner core of political power in the Netherlands, and among only a handful of immigrants to rise to these second-rung Cabinet positions anywhere in Western Europe. Albayrak and Aboutaleb are among those well adjusted immigrants who call themselves the "New Dutch." Many have worked their way upwards in politics or business at a time of ethnic upheavals in the Netherlands and doubts about the nation's ability to comfortably absorb its Muslim minority. They comprise a quiet counterpoint to the relentless spotlight on the alienated immigrant underclass in the Netherlands, the squalid suburbs ringing French cities, and the Muslim terror cells being uncovered throughout Europe. At the same time, their rarity at the top serves to highlight how hard it is to break into what some immigrants still see as an the 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, designated 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 intense scrutiny following the 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by a Muslim fanatic. 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, based in Utrecht. "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 cautioned 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. In Dutch municipal elections last year, the number of aldermen on city councils from Turkey and Morocco, the Muslim countries with the largest populations in the Netherlands, grew by 62 percent, to 223 from 139, according to figures collected by the center. Immigrants from those countries in the 150-seat national parliament rose to seven from five. Both Aboutaleb and Albayrak are members of the Labor Party, which draws a disproportionately large immigrant vote for national, as well as local elections. Albayrak, 38, came from Sivas, Turkey, with her six siblings when she was 18 months old. Her parents had moved to the Netherlands three years earlier to work, intending to return to Turkey after their children were educated. They never did. She joined the Labor Party in university, earned a degree in international law and was elected in 1998 to parliament, where she focused on women's issues. For last November's elections, she was placed second on the list of candidates after party leader Wouter Bos. Aboutaleb, 45, left his home in Morocco's Rif mountains 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 his ambition always was politics. "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. Aboutaleb came to national attention in November 2004 after the Van Gogh slaying. The radical 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 large Amsterdam mosque on mutual tolerance and the need to become part of Dutch society and accept its norms. "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 fellow councilman Lodewijk Asscher. "To them, it's a very important message that Ahmed Aboutaleb has made it to the national government." Aboutaleb had been expected to win a full ministry, and his appointment to the second tier was a result of coalition politics. The larger Christian Democratic Party was awarded the Social Affairs Ministry that Aboutaleb had hoped to get. Across Western Europe, it is still rare to find national politicians with Muslim backgrounds. France's equal opportunities minister, Azouz Begag, was born in France of an Algerian father. Sweden's Nyamko Sabuni, the minister for integration and gender equality, was born in Burundi of a Congolese father. Since the 2001 terror attacks in the United States and the fatal bombings in London in 2005 and Madrid in 2004, 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 _ without even the mainstream Europeans realizing it. Moroccan-born Khalid Boutachekourt, 33, is a management consultant advising corporations on recruitment and employment practices. He sees people of similar age and background moving up the hierarchy in corporations as businesses seek to reach out to a new client base of immigrants. "Diversity at the management level is increasing, and that's a good thing," said Boutachekourt. "You see people advance rapidly. They have the advantage of being the first in an establishment that needs new faces and new voices."


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