THE HAGUE, Netherlands – A Moroccan immigrant was installed Monday as mayor of Rotterdam, the Netherlands' second largest city, in a move hailed as a significant step for the integration of minorities in the European Union nation.
Ahmed Aboutaleb, who has dual Dutch-Moroccan citizenship, is the first Moroccan-born immigrant to be appointed a Dutch mayor. Some have compared his achievement to that of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama.
"Obama on the Maas ... is maybe going a bit far," said Jan Franssen, the Dutch queen's representative for South Holland province, referring to the river that runs through Rotterdam. "But the significance is great. This proves that there is no glass ceiling for immigrants in the Netherlands."
Accepting his new position, Aboutaleb immediately signaled he would work to tackle tensions between the city's historically white Christian population and its growing Islamic immigrant community.
"Many people feel insecure in a world in which everything is changing," Aboutaleb told aldermen at City Hall.
"There are no more jobs for life. Money can evaporate, churches disappear, mosques appear," he said. "We must not make light of these feelings of fear and insecurity. I certainly won't."
Aboutaleb, a 47-year-old former journalist, resigned as deputy minister for social affairs in Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's government to take over in Rotterdam, which with 585,000 people has the largest proportion of immigrants of any major Dutch city.
It also was the power base of firebrand politician Pim Fortuyn, who rose to prominence on the back of his fierce criticism of Islam and was murdered in 2002 on the eve of national elections.
Before joining the national government in 2007, Aboutaleb was an alderman in Amsterdam, where he made his mark in the tumultuous aftermath of another murder — the brutal 2004 slaying of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamist extremist.
With tensions soaring and anger toward the city's large Moroccan and Turkish immigrant populations rising, Aboutaleb went to one of the city's most prominent mosques with a blunt message for worshippers: integrate or leave.
Grudgingly welcoming Aboutaleb, Marco Pastors, who leads a party loyal to Fortuyn's policies, said the new mayor should carry that line forward in his new job.
"As an immigrant and Muslim ... he can say what many do not dare say: 'If you don't like it here, then pack your bags,"' Pastors said.