September 11 in Holland’s largest Muslim city


It’s fifteen years today since four terrorist teams composed of mainly Saudi citizens under orders from Al Qaeda attacked America with her own planes.

I decided to spend this day in Rotterdam, the most multicultural of Dutch cities, where the native Dutch population constitutes a bare majority of 52 per cent of its 600,000-plus people. Over the years I’ve seen great many, often wild, estimates of Rotterdam’s Muslim population – half, 40 per cent, 24 per cent, 13 per cent – the most accurate current number seems to be around 20 per cent. The overwhelming majority of them come from two countries: Morocco and Turkey. Rotterdam’s “United Colours of Benetton” ethnic mix reflects in part the city’s long history as one of Europe’s busiest ports and an entry point to the continent, including for people from former Dutch colonies, including Indonesia, Suriname and Dutch West Indies. Large Muslim presence is a newer addition to the city’s make-up, reflecting numerous recent push and pull factors, including work and welfare opportunities in one of Europe’s most prosperous and open countries.


In truth there are two Rotterdams. I’ve spent hours walking around the more central parts of the city, Delfshaven, Centrum and Noord, all bustling with Sunday crowds, seeing very few Muslim Rotterdamers, a handful of head-coverings, and no burqas or long beards at all. Far from a scientific study, I know, but an anecdotal indication that not all of the city’s 630,000 residents share the same spaces yet. To find Rotterdam’s “missing” 20 per cent, one has to travel to the city’s outer ring of suburbs; Charlois and Feijenoord (the home of Rotterdam’s famous soccer team as well as one of Europe’s largest mosques, Essalam) south of the river Maas, Middelland and Spangen in the east, and Rubroek in the north-west.


Rotterdam’s Lord Mayor is a Moroccan-born practising Muslim, and the sort of a guy we need a lot more of in positions of leadership. Ahmoud Aboutaleb, first elected eight years ago as the first migrant mayor in the Netherlands (as well as the first Muslim mayor of a major European city) is famous for not mincing words. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris last year, he said in an interview:

It is incomprehensible that you can turn against freedom. But if you don’t like freedom, for heaven’s sake pack your bags and leave. If you do not like it here because some humourists you don’t like are making a newspaper, may I then say you can f*** off.

One can only say amen. Following the Paris attacks later last year Aboutaleb opined:

I am no military strategist, but as a manger I say it is time to wipe out the 40,000 to 50,000 people who have joined ISIS.

Aboutaleb has also compared ISIS’ actions in Syria and Iraq to the Holocaust, and broke with his party’s (Labour) policy, saying that the wannabe Dutch jihadis should not be allowed to come back to Holland: “If you think this society is depraved, then go. But there is no way back. Hand over your passport and risk getting bombed.”

The Mayor has this message to cultural relativists and multiculturalism fetishists:

What makes a city more resilient, what makes you become stronger, is if you dare to open a debate about really sensitive issues… People think they might have the truth in the teaching of their religion. But outside, in a public space, in my city, I’m the boss. I represent the law and in this space there’s only one truth and that’s the law… The law and the constitution are non-negotiable.

For some reasons these messages seem to resonate. Comparatively few Dutch Muslims have gone over to Syria to fight with ISIS. The largest European jihadi exporters by far are France, Great Britain, Germany, Belgium, Austria and Sweden, with Belgium topping the list on the jihadi per capita basis. Rotterdam’s city hall says that the number of ISIS fighters from among the city’s 20 per cent Muslim population can be counted on one hand (significantly higher numbers of foreign fighters originate in the nearby Hague and Delft). Interestingly, while hundreds of Moroccans from Brussels have gone to fight in Syria, Moroccans in Rotterdam are staying home. The city of Erasmus must be doing something right, something that the rest of Europe would be wise to investigate. They could start with the “Join In Or Get Left Behind” anti-radicalisation program, which by most accounts seems to be quite successful in early identification and prevention.


Europe is widely seen as a troubled continent, but the actual situation on the ground varies widely between the countries, regions and cities. While places like Paris and Brussels often bring the worst tidings of “Eurabia”, others, like Rotterdam, offer hope that there are other and better futures possible.

(all photos by Arthur Chrenkoff)