UPDATE, January 2011: This article was written during the very small window of time when Job Cohen – who as mayor of Amsterdam was internationally lauded for keeping a densely multiethnic city together during the post‑9/11 era – stepped into the frontrunner’s position in the race to become prime minister of the Netherlands. Even as I was finishing it, the situation was changing rapidly. As it happened, Cohen ran an abymsal campaign (Dutch mayors are not elected; note that it’s probably a bad idea to make your first political race the one to run a country); his Labor Party came a close second behind the Dutch Liberals (who are actually conservative). Cohen and his leftist colleagues also botched the negotiations to form a coalition government, with the result that Geert Wilders, the right-wing anti-Muslim mudslinger, whose party is not in the coalition, is in effect the most important political force in the country. As I hope this article shows, Cohen had done some remarkable things in his decade as mayor – things that could be used as a template in other parts of the world struggling with diversity issues. But he failed to capitalize.
WHILE SLOUCHING against a wall in a former cigarette factory in the industrial outskirts of The Hague one day last month, I was visited with the sudden realization that over the formative centuries of European history the two words that most succinctly signaled “other,” “foreign” or “enemy” were these: “Jew” and “Turk.” Crudely unpacking them, “Turk” meant Muslim, Arab, infidel, the threat from without; a Jew was the enemy within, someone who, even if born and raised in your hometown, was part of another political as well as religious entity; the Jews of a city were referred to not as a community but as “the Jewish nation.” “Jew” and “Turk” were in fact constructs Europeans used to help define their own identity: that which we are not.
What brought this to mind was the scene in front of me. The Labor Party in the Netherlands — which several weeks ago emerged from the endless gray muddle of the country’s multiparty system to take the lead in polls as the nation approaches an election on June 9 — was unveiling its candidates. On a makeshift stage, before banners bearing the party’s logo of a fist inside a rose, stood two people. At the top of the list of candidates — the man responsible for the recent shake-up of Dutch politics, who is making some people in Europe begin to wonder whether he represents a way for mainstream parties on the Continent to successfully combat the swelling tide of populist, anti-immigrant voices — was Job Cohen, who until March was the mayor of Amsterdam. Cohen was raised in a secular Jewish household in the hamlet of Heemstede, not far from Amsterdam; his parents spent World War II in hiding from the Nazis; his paternal grandparents died at Bergen-Belsen. At Cohen’s side, No. 2 on the candidate list, was Nebahat Albayrak, who was born in the central Anatolian region of Turkey and moved as a child to Rotterdam, where her father worked as a scaffold builder.
There is certainly some truth to the conventional wisdom about the immigration debate: that Europe lags far behind the United States in its ability to craft a truly multiethnic society, to turn newcomers into citizens. European countries, by this reckoning, are prisoners of their old racial or nationalistic identities. And the Netherlands has of late been a particular example of this; its right-wing, anti-immigrant standard-bearer, the golden-maned Geert Wilders, has steadily gained support since he formed his Freedom Party for the 2006 parliamentary elections. Earlier this year, Wilders’s party was leading in the polls. In municipal elections in early March, his party, riding on his virulent anti-Muslim rhetoric, won the city of Almere and came in second in The Hague itself — the seat of the Dutch government and home of the International Criminal Court. On a protest-filled visit to London afterward, Wilders — who is facing trial in a Dutch court for inciting hatred — boasted of becoming the next prime minister.
But shortly afterward, the political landscape was transformed by the surprise entry of Cohen into the race to lead the country. In an electorate split up across a dozen or so parties, the Labor Party doubled overnight, from 11 percent in the polls to 22 percent, while Wilders’s numbers have dropped in several straight polls. Some see in Cohen’s rise the possibility of a new Dutch society, and with it perhaps a hint of how new national identities could form in Europe. In what would be confirmation of the worst fears of a Wilders, the new identity prototype has an inclusiveness that inverts the centuries-old formula. As the Jew and the Turk stood side by side with their fellow candidates — which included a good mix of other ethnicities as well as native Dutch — Cohen proclaimed, “This is the Netherlands!”
To further confound the identity puzzle, one of the voting blocs most animated by Cohen’s entry into the race for prime minister is the country’s Moroccan population, which, of course, is mostly Muslim. (Muslims account for 5 percent of the population, according to the Dutch government.) “Moroccans will absolutely vote for Job Cohen, even though his party isn’t very popular among them,” says Nadia Bouras, who researches Moroccans in the Netherlands at the University of Amsterdam. “He’s beloved in the Moroccan community. He’s of Jewish descent, but he calls himself a secular Jew. A lot of Moroccans can relate to that — being an outsider but a part of society.”
Cohen does not have a lock on the premiership. The polls have tightened in recent days, with the Liberal Party (which is actually mostly conservative) making gains. That seems largely a function of the economy, which has become a major worry, and many voters perceive the Liberals as having the soundest economic plan. But even political opponents frankly acknowledge the altered dynamics since Cohen entered the race. “Many people who thought they would never vote for Labor now say they will vote for Cohen,” said Frits Bolkestein, a former minister of defense and former leader of the Liberal Party. Hans Hoogervorst, another prominent member of the Liberal Party and a former finance minister, said of Cohen: “He has a natural authority, and he has the capability of giving some reassurance. And that is what people want.”
The Cohen candidacy has intrigued not only Dutch voters but others in Europe as well. “In France our own left is in shambles,” says Sabine Cessou, who covers the Netherlands for the left-leaning French newspaper Libération. “People want to know if it’s possible for the left to recover, to gain trust and gain votes.” Before travel plans were scrapped because of the Icelandic volcano cloud, Cohen was to be the keynote speaker in Berlin last month at a gala of the German Social Democrats, who have been historically aligned with the Dutch Labor Party and likewise are wondering if he represents a new force toward what he calls “a decent society.”
Among the many remarkable features of Cohen’s candidacy is that it is a real candidacy. In Dutch politics, one votes for a party and its platform; the American-style focus on personalities is unusual. Yet as an indication of the hero worship that has lately been rippling through this small and normally downbeat country, a Facebook page devoted to the new leader of the Labor Party, which had more than 12,000 members the week after it was started, is called Yes We Cohen.
JOB COHEN IS an unlikely figure to generate a political cult of personality. He is an old-fashioned man, quiet and courteous. He is tall, stooped, with an angular face and intense eyes. At 62, he hardly fits the paradigm of an upstart. He seems always to be calm. There is an air of sadness about him.
Cohen began his time as the mayor of Amsterdam, all the way back in 2001, by doing the sorts of things you would expect a mayor of Amsterdam to do. The moment a national bill to legalize gay marriage became law — at midnight on April 1 that year — he made sure that there were four same-sex couples standing at the ready at City Hall, so that he became the first government official anywhere to perform a gay marriage. In those long-ago days, trumpeting a liberal city’s expansion of its historic ideals of liberalism and tolerance seemed a serious priority.
Several months later — round about 3 p.m. on Sept. 11, when the first images came from the United States of airplanes striking the World Trade Center towers — those priorities changed in an instant. Historically, Amsterdam’s famed tolerance came hand in hand with its position as a cultural crossroads; in the 17th century, British travelers wrote letters home marveling at seeing exotic dark skin, flowing Eastern robes and turbans on the Dam, the central square of the city. Three years ago, Amsterdam ranked first in a count of cities with the most nationalities; its 177 distinct groups outpaced even New York, despite its being about one-tenth the size. So as news filtered in about the nature of the attacks in the U.S., the new mayor wanted information about what was happening in his city of immigrants. There were reports of Moroccan youths chanting pro-Osama Bin Laden messages; how might things escalate? “I remember I asked the vice-mayor, ‘What kind of contact do you have with all the different Muslim communities?’ ” Cohen told me recently. “And his answer was, ‘Well, actually, we don’t have any.’ ”
The Dutch are a straightforward people, and the strategy that Cohen and Maureen Sarucco, his director of public order, came up with for gathering information could not have been more low-tech. They wanted to avoid using the police department. So the city’s civil leaders themselves — from aldermen to district leaders and school principals, several hundred people in all — walked through neighborhoods, talking and listening. As it happened, the city was relatively quiet. Nevertheless, Amsterdam, like much of the rest of the world, was now on the alert; the sidewalk approach was formalized into a plan for getting the pulse of the city in a time of crisis, which was called the peace script.
The great crisis of Cohen’s mayoralty — and the event that would begin to reshape his countrymen’s ideas about immigration, identity and their own future — came on the morning of Nov. 2, 2004, when the most relentlessly and outrageously vocal Dutch critic of immigrants, and of Muslims in particular, the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, was murdered in the streets of Amsterdam while he was bicycling to work. The attack was vicious (he was nearly decapitated) and a calculatedly horrific warning flare: a rambling Islamist-fueled letter was stuck to the dead man’s chest by a knife. The letter was a death threat that singled out, among others, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born women’s rights activist who, as a member of the Dutch Parliament, was an outspoken critic of Islam, and Cohen himself, who it said was part of a Jewish cabal that dominated Dutch politics with an aim to humiliate Islam. It was only one murder, yet it convulsed the city and the nation, and it sent shock waves across Europe, for in those times of high anxiety it seemed to fit the portent of impending culture clash.
Depending on whom you talk to, Cohen’s response to the murder either helped bring about the beginnings of a new idea of society or it has amounted to misguided appeasement of dangerous forces. He initiated the peace script; the on-the-streets information-gathering indicated that Muslim areas of the city were radicalizing. He held a series of public meetings with ethnic and religious communities, and in these he made use of the city’s Moroccan alderman, Ahmed Aboutaleb. “We operated as a kind of couple,” Aboutaleb told me recently. “It was a kind of city therapy.”
Aboutaleb played the heavy in a good cop/bad cop routine. While Cohen pushed the awareness that Van Gogh’s killer — a Moroccan who grew up in the city — had operated on his own and did not represent Muslims as a whole or the city’s Moroccan community, Aboutaleb focused on Muslims who were using the occasion to stir unrest. When Aboutaleb declared in a speech in a mosque, “Whoever doesn’t want to go along with Dutch society and its achievements can pack his bags,” it hit in a way it would surely not have had Cohen said it. As an indication of how this one murder and the response to it has propelled Dutch society, Aboutaleb is today the mayor of Rotterdam, the first Muslim mayor of a major Dutch city.
Cohen was criticized from all sides in the days after the murder, but a year later he was being widely praised for his handling of the crisis. Time magazine named Cohen a “European hero” and dubbed him a “hate buster.” In 2006 he was runner-up in a contest for the “World Mayor” award. (The winner was the mayor of Melbourne.)
Nevertheless, the murder continued to shake Dutch society, precisely because it kept the question of national identity — “Who are we as a people?” — in the forefront. When, in 2007, Wilders called for the Koran to be banned in the country, it caused outrage, but at the same time his underlying message — that, as he has declared, “we are heading for the end of European and Dutch civilization as we know it” — reflected a widespread feeling that the country’s way of handling immigration was a disaster.
That way, in a word, was multiculturalism, the reigning dogma of the Dutch left in the 1980s and 1990s. By its logic, the government, far from insisting that newcomers integrate, actually provided money so that immigrant communities could keep up the traditions and language of their homelands, maintaining little Moroccos and Turkeys within the Dutch borders, largely disconnected from the wider society. If multiculturalism had failed, did Wilders represent the only alternative?
In Amsterdam, Cohen kept to his own agenda, at some remove from the national debate. Management of his intensely multiethnic city in the post‑9/11 period led him to alter his traditional Dutch liberalism. Immigrants, he held, needed to become part of society, and that included learning the language and respecting the laws, and appreciating what he considers the paramount Dutch value, freedom. Newcomers, he told me, should study a Dutch canon of important historical events and figures. Cohen’s idea seems to have been to move away from the multicultural extreme while also avoiding the anti-immigrant extreme, to fashion a practical inclusiveness. He has repeatedly said that “Keeping Things Together” was his motto for governing the city. “I think he would be the first to say that keeping things together is more a strategy than a philosophy,” says Paul Scheffer, a Dutch sociologist who is one of the leading thinkers of the Labor Party but who has also been critical of Cohen. “What’s behind it is experience. He understands that the relationships between groups in our time are fragile. He has a modest ambition.”
At the same time, after the Van Gogh murder, Cohen realized he needed a guiding theory or doctrine. He sought out Jean Tillie, a professor at the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies at the University of Amsterdam, who had been influenced by the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, and in particular his understanding of social capital. Putnam had studied the breakdown of community and the increasing individual isolation that modern society engenders, most famously described in his 2000 book, “Bowling Alone.” In 2006, Tillie led a study of the city’s immigrant groups, focusing on what made certain Muslim communities turn toward a violent, radical philosophy, and he issued a report. For the first time, it quantified the threat: about 2 percent of Amsterdam’s Muslim population — 1,400 people in all — were potentially becoming radicalized. The report made certain recommendations. Cohen’s City Hall formalized an antiradicalization plan that has since been copied by several other European cities. “Maybe the most important result of the study was that it showed that radicalization results from social isolation,” Tillie says. “Therefore, building networks in the city among ethnic and religious organizations was an important recommendation.”
Social networks, in this reckoning, come in two types: weak and strong. Business relationships are examples of weak networks, in which people communicate with one another infrequently. An ethnic community in a neighborhood, by contrast, might constitute a strong network, in which participants see and exchange ideas with one another on a daily basis. It may be logical to think that such a strong, localized network would shun the wider society and so be a potential breeding ground for radicalization, so that an antiradicalization plan might seek to weaken it. But according to Tillie, the paradox is that if a strong network is given support, its members will become active participants in society. Thus came the most contentious feature of Cohen’s tenure as mayor of Amsterdam: his decision to give a sympathetic ear even to insular and orthodox Muslim communities. “Drinking tea in mosques” became a term of derision used by those convinced this was exactly the wrong tack. When, in March, Cohen announced his intention to take over his party — and in effect to go straight at Geert Wilders in the coming election — Wilders castigated him as “tea-drinking, multiculti-coddling Cohen.”
That criticism doesn’t seem to bother Cohen’s supporters. “Tea drinking was actually a policy recommendation,” Tillie told me. “We did not really write ‘drink tea,’ but we did say you should talk to people who think the system is not legitimate, and work together with religious organizations.” The city has given support to a variety of immigrant and community organizations, including conservative mosques, with the idea of working together to fight radicalization. As Cohen told me: “The approach is geared toward the individual. You hear that one of these kids has changed in the past few months. Is there someone who knows him, who can talk to him? You put questions: Why don’t you go to school? Should I look for a job for you? If you think life is better in Morocco, go and see for yourself.” Pieter Jan van Slooten, a policy adviser who works on the antiradicalization program, told me that his office now works hand in hand with mosques as well as schools and community groups to determine when young Muslims show signs of falling prey to radicalism.
This approach has outraged more people than just Geert Wilders (who declined to be interviewed for this article). “Cohen and the Labor Party have bent over backward to please the Muslim minority in Amsterdam,” said Frits Bolkestein, the former leader of the Liberal Party. “His coddling of orthodox Muslims is counterproductive. It’s also a waste of money, and it infringes on the doctrine of the separation of church and state.”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali — from her position at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative U.S. policy center at which she became a fellow after she fled the Netherlands — criticizes Cohen’s approach using the same dire language about Islam that put her at the center of the Dutch political and social debate. “I don’t think the plan works,” she told me. “The problem is that it assumes you are dealing with European peoples. The most essential factor is that Islam is a conquering philosophy. It’s interesting that the only identity that Muslims have in Amsterdam, and in other European places, is as a vulnerable population. And because of that people feel they have to understand them, respect their idiosyncrasies, support them with state money and all will be well. It will not.”
But Jean Tillie insists the results are self-evident: “What we know is that since 2004, nothing has happened in the city.” While incidents of racial and religious violence occurred around the country in the aftermath of the Van Gogh murder, Amsterdam remained quiet.
At the same time, many who broadly support Cohen say he took the city too far in strengthening the social well-being of orthodox groups in order to stabilize and integrate them. “The city of Amsterdam and the Dutch government were subsidizing schools and organizations that were totally retrograde, that were teaching that women aren’t the equal of men and that Jews should be burned,” says Deborah Scroggins, an American journalist who is writing a book on Muslim women in the West. Paul Scheffer, the prominent Labor Party thinker, agrees. “The vision Cohen projects about the Netherlands, the inclusive idea, that’s definitely something we need,” he says. “But he should point out to certain parts of the Muslim community the obligations that religious freedom brings with it.”
In practice, and surely also to broaden his appeal on the right, Cohen linked his inclusiveness efforts to crime-fighting and quality-of-life issues. “You can’t feel at home if you don’t feel safe,” he told me. “Look at the banlieues of Paris.” He cleaned up areas of Amsterdam and gave the police more authority. At the same time, he stresses that as mayor of the most famously liberal city in the world, he was in a unique position. Political forces that support the liberal image remain very strong, and Cohen counts himself one of them. “People come here because they feel you can do whatever you want here,” he says, approvingly. He says the city went too far, however, and was naïve in promoting its tolerance. He says he still believes in the philosophy that decriminalized prostitution and soft drugs, but that is has long been clear that, with international organized crime lurking behind both, more aggressive regulation is necessary. As with immigration, his guiding principle is an unrepentant tolerance, but one tempered by experience.
FOR ALL THE INTEREST Job Cohen has stirred among the Dutch, there is also a widespread feeling that the man himself is an enigma. People refer to him as “the sphinx” or “Saint Job” for the way he seems to float above the political fray. Paul Scheffer told me he has known Job Cohen since 1997 but feels he doesn’t really get him. So here is a curiosity: people are turning to this man to answer what has become the pressing question of national identity, Who are we? Yet nobody seems to know who he is.
On an evening in early April, with the weather alternating between gusts of winter and inhalations of spring and the streetlamps casting an orange glow on the oily surface of the canals, I cycled across the center of Amsterdam and came to a stop before a 17th-century house on the city’s most famous canal. I had been to the mayor’s residence several times before, but always at official events, with waiters serving wine, the glow of lights and clink of glasses. Now I was buzzed in to a dark, seemingly empty building and led to a formal drawing room upstairs, its walls covered in gold and yellow striped wallpaper, nearly all its space filled by a conference table. High windows looked out onto the canal. The house was silent.
After a long pause, a side door opened. Job Cohen himself stood there in the darkened hall, dressed as he always is in a suit and tie. He maneuvered a wheelchair into the room. To my surprise, he had brought his wife, Lidie, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, to the interview. He asked about drinks, then disappeared for maybe four minutes. There was a distant clatter, and I realized he was getting the drinks himself. He returned carrying a wooden tray and glasses. I was reminded of the days, shortly after I first came to Amsterdam nearly five years ago, when I used to see him in the local supermarket, doing the family shopping. If Cohen is inscrutable, it is not because he surrounds himself with handlers.
We began talking about his early years. The shadow of the Holocaust hovered over the period, but he insisted he had a happy childhood — that his parents were determined to shield their children from the awful past and used the cool, rationalizing tendencies common among some European intellectuals of the day to talk about it. He became interested in politics very early. John F. Kennedy was a hero. His mother was a member of the local City Council, and he would go to the meetings. “I was a little man of 11 or 12,” he said, “sitting there listening intently.”
Cohen studied law, worked in academia and became a university administrator before entering politics as deputy minister of education, the first of several ministry positions he would hold. Then he was appointed mayor of Amsterdam — in the Netherlands the mayor is not an elected official. That means that while he has spent time in the hot seat, he has not had to pander, to court, to kiss babies as another politician might. And as mayor, he has spent nearly a decade away from the center of the country’s politics in The Hague. He was in a sense put out to pasture, an old-guard lefty given an interesting but tangential perch. Meanwhile, Wouter Bos, the leader of his party until recently, was supposed to be the young gun who would bring it back to relevance. But things didn’t work out that way. The recent shake-up began in February, when Bos, fed up over the country’s continued military presence in Afghanistan, pulled his party out of the coalition government, which brought about its collapse and set up the June 9 election. Then, in March, rather than mounting a run to lead the country himself, the 46-year-old Bos surprised the nation by announcing his retirement from politics. Cohen stepped forward to take his place.
Cohen remains in many ways a traditional European leftist. He favors substantial government support of the arts and sees abortion as a woman’s right; he wants to remove tax rebates for the wealthy and to get Dutch troops out of Afghanistan by December. What makes him different, besides the approach toward immigration that he pioneered in Amsterdam, is the aloof persona he has forged, which led one national newspaper to declare (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that the nation now looks to him as “the savior.”
Cohen has a number of challenges before him. The European debt crisis has persuaded many Dutch voters to see the economy as the most important issue, and he is not strong on economics. He also presided over the digging of a subway line through the heart of Amsterdam that is now financially and structurally threatening the city. Such issues, plus the fact that he has never before campaigned for office, could make the final days of the campaign a minefield for him. During a recent national television interview, he was caught off guard by that old trick of journalists, the pop quiz. He got the price of a loaf of bread right but didn’t know the current unemployment figures and squirmed in handling a question about mortgage rates. To some, Saint Job has started to look mortal. He would prefer to talk about immigration and integration matters, which allows for the matchup many observers want to see: Cohen versus Wilders, with all of Europe awaiting the outcome. “I would hope that my approach would work elsewhere in Europe,” Cohen said.
His approach — Amsterdam’s apparent evolution in the past few years from multiculturalism toward integration — may be personified by a 41-year-old man named Ahmed Marcouch, who as a small child emigrated from Morocco to the Netherlands with his parents and eight brothers and sisters. At the time of the Van Gogh murder, Marcouch found himself in the role of spokesman for the city’s Moroccan mosques, trying to interpret his community’s perspective to the wider Dutch society. Later, he entered local politics and became the leader of Slotervaart, one of the city’s troubled districts, from which Van Gogh’s killer came.
There, with Job Cohen’s blessing, he both pressed Moroccans to take up civic responsibility and pushed the city to crack down on street crime committed by Moroccan youths. When he asked the police in the district to retaliate when street kids threw stones to taunt them, he ran up against the extreme anti-police-brutality policies put into place in the 1980s and 1990s. “The police said they thought they had to make friends, to try to say, ‘Salaam aleikum,’ ” Marcouch told me. “They said, ‘If we use force, things will escalate.’ I said so what? If it escalates, it escalates, but I will not accept that our police will not do their job in our neighborhood.”
Marcouch represents an interesting possibility for the European future — one that might mirror the American immigrant story in some ways — in which newcomers internalize the ways of their adopted land and apply them with an intensity that natives may have lost. He told me he believes the problems in the Netherlands today mostly stem from the fact that the Dutch don’t read their own history and aren’t aware of their traditions, including both pioneering the notion of tolerance and trying to define its appropriate limits. If they did understand, he says, they would apply their own laws. “The police must be responsible for protecting society,” he says. “And the Dutch must learn their own history. That’s the way to eliminate Wilders.” Ahmed Marcouch is now running for Parliament — on the ticket of Job Cohen.