An all-expenses-paid study trip to the US: that was the offer to a number of prominent Dutch Muslims following the killing of controversial filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004. Now WikiLeaks documents reveal that these trips were part of a concerted effort by Washington to win the hearts and minds of Dutch Muslims. Among them was the current Mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb.
Nordin Ghoudani was one of those fortunate enough to be offered such a trip after being invited for a number of conversations at the US Embassy. Now that he is aware of being a cog in the wheel of US policy, he tells Dutch broadcaster NOS that he looks back on the trip with mixed feelings.
“The knowledge that Washington, and former president George W Bush, insisted on these trips... yes, that puts things in a different perspective.”
On 2 November 2004, the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh at the hands of a radical Muslim sent shock waves through the Netherlands. Van Gogh had collaborated with politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the film Submission, a fierce indictment of the position of women in Islam. The US authorities examined the situation and came to the conclusion that the Netherlands was home to the most poorly integrated Muslim community in Europe.
The Dutch Muslims were described as strongly anti-American, an attitude that Washington was keen to change. Diplomats were ordered to seek contact with leading members of the Muslim community. They organised Ramadan dinners and offered study trips to the US for the select few. It was all done with the aim of cultivating greater understanding for the US and America’s views.
Nordin Ghoudani describes how it worked.
“I had a couple of discussions. We were invited, together with a number of Muslims. Eventually I was also selected to take part in a programme in the US, the Edward Murrow Programme. Yes, that took me to America for a couple of months.”
The programme Nordin Ghoudani refers to is an American study programme for foreign journalists. There the Muslims were courted by the Americans. One of the participants, Ahmed Larouz, praises the Americans’ egalitarian approach as something that might serve as an example to many Dutch politicians.
“I have to be honest: the conversations were always positive and took place on a very equal footing. I think they were better than some talks with other political parties in the Netherlands.”
One year after the launch of its charm offensive, the US Embassy in The Hague reported that the number of Muslim contacts being maintained had risen from 50 to 131. And diplomats say that number is still growing.
The most prominent of these contacts is Ahmed Aboutaleb, then Executive Councillor of Integration in Amsterdam and current Mayor of Rotterdam. Reporting on WikiLeaks documents, the NOS says Americans describe him as one of their best Muslim contacts. He too enjoyed an all-expenses-paid three-week study trip to the US.
Mr Aboutaleb told local Rotterdam station Radio Rijnmond that he was not a US informer. He explained that as Amsterdam alderman at the time of the Van Gogh murder he spoke to a wide range of people "from all over the world" about the integration of Muslims in the Dutch capital. "And I paid for the tickets to the US with my own money," Mr Aboutaleb added.