The First Muslim Mayor in the Netherlands

Ahmed Marcouch - A Man of Action

Over a year ago Ahmed Marcouch became the first Muslim mayor of the Amsterdam district of Slotervaart. A Social Democrat, he is a man of action, resolutely pushing through tough measures – something that doesn't always win him friends. Kerstin Schweighöfer spoke to him

Ahmed Marcouch, Muslim mayor of the Amsterdam district of Slotervaart (Photo: &copywwwslotervaart.amsterdam.nl)
Many sociologists and philosophers are encouraged by what Ahmed Marcouch, Muslim mayor of the Amsterdam district of Slotervaart, is doing

​​August Allebé Square in Slotervaart, Amsterdam: women in long clothes carrying bags full of shopping walk by and disappear into grey blocks of flats. The façades are dotted with satellite dishes. On the balconies, washing flutters in the wind.

Most of Slotervaart's 45,000 inhabitants are immigrants, largely from Morocco. Slotervaart became well-known because several members of the Islamist terror organisation, the "Hofstadgroep", grew up there, as did Mohammed Bouyeri, murderer of the Dutch film director Theo van Gogh.

At the last local elections in March 2006, Ahmed Marcouch was elected mayor of Slotervaart. Since then, the forty-one-year-old Social Democrat has consistently made headline news. He cannot stand the authorities' typically Dutch softly-softly approach – well meaning, but mostly all talk and no trousers. Marcouch is a man of action who resolutely pushes through tough measures, something that does not always win him friends.

"He's trying to do us down."

A noisy group of Moroccan youths stands in front of a Turkish vegetable shop during their school break. They stick together, having little contact with Dutch children their age. "Once Moroccan, always Moroccan!" says one of them. They have nothing good to say about their new mayor.

Ahmed Marcouch is Moroccan from birth. One of his first actions as mayor was to summon the fathers of Moroccan problem children to the town hall to have a serious talk with them, from Muslim to Muslim, as it were. "He's trying to do us down. He's no longer a Moroccan; he's Dutch, and that makes him a traitor!" say the young people.

Marcouch is used to this kind of reaction. The forty-one-year-old is seen as a model immigrant: after jobbing as a nurse, a carpenter, and a factory worker, he trained to be a policeman and patrolled the streets of Amsterdam for ten years.

Rejuvenating Slotervaart

Now he is trying his hand at politics. His goal is to restore quality of life to the Slotervaart district, which is run down and has fallen into disrepute. "Of course there are citizens who see me as a threat," says Marcouch, "both among Dutch residents and among immigrants. They have wished terrible diseases on me and called me a traitor." However, he says, he has also received plenty of compliments. Many Muslims are proud of him; he gives them a feeling of belonging.

With his dynamic manner, firm handshake, his assertive look, and dark, scrutinizing eyes, there is no doubt that Marcouch is nobody's fool, as the young Moroccan criminals he used to deal with as a policeman soon discovered. Together with six other Muslim police officers he was given the task of re-establishing the contact with the Muslim population that his colleagues had completely lost.

Help from an "anti-radicalization expert"

Marcouch forged personal links not just with many of these youths, but also with their parents. Now as then he believes in dialogue with parents and imams: "Imams and parents play a key role. They must learn to take responsibility. It's already very late and it will still take decades to sort this community out, but imams and parents have to show young Muslims the way. This will stop them being poisoned by hatred."

In order to protect them from Islamist fundamentalists, Slotervaart has become the first Dutch municipality to employ a so-called anti-radicalization professional, an expert on Islam who functions as a mediator between Muslim citizens and the authorities.

The expert educates social workers and attempts to break down taboos so that Muslim citizens feel able to talk to Dutch social authorities about their problems. Thanks to this expert, the imam in the Slotervaart mosque now preaches in Dutch.

The need for decent schools

The same mosque also hosts discussions for young Muslims to which Christians are invited. The hope is that these discussions will help young Muslims to learn to think independently and engage in debate. "Then they will no longer be an easy target for radical fundamentalists," says the mayor, "and young Muslims in Slotervaart will grow up to be Dutch Muslims."

But Marcouch is adamant that the council must do its homework too. This means tackling seemingly banal things like providing an adequate rubbish-collection system. Since he became mayor, broken streetlamps and rubbish bins have been repaired immediately. He has also invested in a programme of urban regeneration; whole streets are currently being restored.

Says Marcouch: "We also need decent schools. This is often the only chance for children from poor families. If, on top of everything else, they end up in one of the worst schools in the country, we shouldn't be surprised if an underclass emerges."

A symbol of toughness

Many sociologists and philosophers are encouraged by what Marcouch is doing. The fact that a Muslim immigrant mayor is dedicated to improving a neighbourhood's quality of life shows that integration policies in the Netherlands are on the way to creating a new equilibrium.

The Amsterdam cultural philosopher Ad Verbrugge shares this belief: "Ultimately the developments that have taken place since the assassination of Theo van Gogh have resulted in something positive. The Muslim community had been passive for far too long and saw itself as a victim. Now increasing numbers of Muslims realize that they too have to make a contribution to integration and become more active. Marcouch is one of them. This is the only way to bridge the gulf between the Dutch population and the immigrants."

This cannot succeed, however, without a new form of toughness, of which Marcouch is also a symbol. Verbrugge is convinced that the time to be non-committal is over once and for all: "This is the only way to offer young people in districts like Slotervaart a future. This is the only way we can confront the immense social problems there – problems that the whole of Europe is fighting! And we are doing well in comparison!" Many European cities, such as Paris, he says, have districts where life is much tougher than in Slotervaart.

Kerstin Schweighöfer

© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Steph Morris

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