THE HAGUE, Netherlands: One of the first two Muslims appointed to a Dutch Cabinet post, Ahmed Aboutaleb calls himself a “foot soldier” in the cause of immigrant integration. And as a foot soldier, he expects to be a target, he said Wednesday.
Since being sworn in last month as junior minister for social affairs, Aboutaleb and fellow Muslim Cabinet minister Nebahat Albayrak have come under sustained political fire over their dual nationalities.
Anti-immigration lawmaker Geert Wilders, whose Freedom Party won nine seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament in elections last November, claims their dual passports — Aboutaleb has Moroccan and Dutch nationality, Albayrak Turkish and Dutch — mean they also have split loyalties.
Aboutaleb rejects the idea, pointing out that Dutch citizens who collaborated with their country’s Nazi occupiers during World War II only had one passport.
A motion of no confidence in Aboutaleb and Albayrak filed by Wilders earlier this month was overwhelmingly rejected and Aboutaleb said he has a framed copy on his office wall “because it was saying ‘I distrust these people not because of what they do, but because of what they are,’ and that is unique in Dutch politics.”
But Wilders’ popularity and polls suggesting one third of voters support his stand underscore a continuing rift in Dutch society over the place of around 1 million Muslims in this nation of 16 million.
“In his head, it’s a racial issue in which Muslims are seen as by definition untrustworthy people you should not have in the Netherlands,” Aboutaleb said during an interview with foreign correspondents in The Hague. “That means Dutch society generally should form an opinion on whether Muslims belong here or not.”
Wilders denies that allegation, saying when he filed the motion that he would have done so even if Aboutaleb had “blond hair and a Swedish passport.”
But in the same speech Wilders warned of a “rising tide” of Islam sweeping over the Netherlands and accused the incoming centrist government of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende of doing nothing to counter it.
Aboutaleb conceded that Muslims had triggered distrust in the Netherlands and overseas through violence in conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan and high profile murders and terror plots in the Netherlands.
“New Netherlanders have given people a stick with which to beat them,” he said.
Aboutaleb, the son of a Moroccan clergyman, made his name as a city alderman, helping immigrants to find jobs, put their children through school and learn Dutch. Now he is seen as a figurehead for the Muslim community and an example of how much they can achieve if they integrate.
“For the last 10 years or so I have become more or less a symbol — I’ve never applied for that job — of the new Netherlanders and Mrs. Albayrak has too,” Aboutaleb said.
“And therefore we are a kind of foot soldier. I emphasize that term because foot soldiers run the risk of getting hit, you don’t always have somebody covering your back,” he added. “And you can see it happening — the debate over double passports is intended to hit me … it’s a personal attack.”
He added that such attacks have in recent years crossed the line from verbal barbs to genuine bullets — an apparent reference to the 2004 murder by an Islamic extremist of film maker Theo van Gogh, and a string of arson attacks on mosques in its wake.
Aboutaleb has in the past received death threats from both right wing extremists and radical Muslims, but he warned against any sort of appeasement toward Wilders and other far right groups.
“If I were to tear up my passport here in front of cameras, it still would not be finished,” he said. “The next chapter is that Aboutaleb has to publicly burn the Quran.”