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Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen
questioned by an international audience

City Mayors invited those who participated in World Mayor 2006 to put questions to Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen, runner-up in World Mayor 2006. From the questions received, a representative selection was forwarded to the Mayor. Below, he replies in detail, as well as with candour and thoughtfulness.

Questions & Answers
From Hein, The Hague
Question: For many years, the Netherlands has been famous for its tolerance. However, in the last decade this sense of tolerance seems to be declining. Nonetheless, Amsterdam manages to keep the image of a very tolerant city: multicultural, gay friendly and safe. How did you achieve this?

Job Cohen replies:
In the weeks after the murder of Theo van Gogh, which was a terrible confrontation between different cultures, almost all politicians in Amsterdam (aldermen, members of the city council, also those working in the neighbourhoods or ‘stadsdelen’), came out into the streets to talk to the people, to participate in debates throughout Amsterdam. This was necessary to fight anger – on all sides.

In the weeks after this murder many incidents took place in the Netherlands: arson in several mosques and in an Islamic primary school. However, in Amsterdam such incidents did not occur, perhaps because we acted immediately. Of course, we have seen harsh debates and there were insulting statements, but in Amsterdam we continued talking to one another. Even better, Amsterdam displayed an outburst of positive energy and a willingness to cope with fear and unrest in society.

Since then in the past two years we’ve taken the next step: instead of merely tolerating one another, the City of Amsterdam is initiating and supporting programmes and projects facilitating and encouraging people to interact with one another. We took a strong stand against all sorts of discrimination - against Jews, Muslims and homosexuals. We started a successful project to counter discrimination at the entrance of dance clubs, where in some instances Moroccan males were systematically refused admittance.

This process causes confrontations between various communities within our city, but we managed relatively well. Everything we did, I would like to emphasise, was a common effort by many people in the city – by politicians, civil servants as well as citizens. Furthermore it was not done overnight. But it was successful in the end. This may be the reason why Amsterdam rightfully maintains its reputation as a tolerant city.

From Moustapha B., Amsterdam
Question: After the murder of Theo van Gogh, Mayor Cohen played a crucial role in keeping the city and the people together. Looking at this experience and leadership my question is this: What kind of skills are needed for leaders around the world to build a society which is inclusive rather than exclusive?

Job Cohen replies: In my opinion a leader desiring to build an inclusive society requires two important skills: the ability to listen to people and the ability to use inclusive language. That is why my motto is ‘audi et alteram partem’: ‘listen also to the other side’, with emphasis on ‘also’.

I am convinced that a firm and repressive reaction to incidents concerning radicalisation, anti-integrative speech etc, is not always the best way, since this does not help to create a climate of understanding – which is all the more important because most of the hostile acts against other groups are inspired by fear of, and unfamiliarity with, the other group’s culture and habits. Of course this does not imply that breaking the law will be tolerated – on the contrary. Everyone has the right to be protected by the government within the framework of the law.

All the same, a leader should know why such incidents occur and what he or she can do about it. In order to keep the city and its people together, a leader therefore should listen carefully to all communities living in the city. People must be able to recognise themselves in their leaders. Therefore, leaders should be very careful with the trust that is given them.

From Marianne A., Den Dolder
Question: How, as a Dutch mayor, can you contribute to international affairs and share some of your experience with mayors all over the world?

Job Cohen replies: In fact, it is very difficult for a mayor to contribute to international affairs, since all decisions are made by the national government or, as in our case, by European institutions. But a specific way of dealing with problems by a city becomes known rather quickly thanks to a whole range of networks and contacts all over the world – where the internet is an enormously useful tool. In some cases politicians and civil servants from Amsterdam go to see for themselves how things are approached elsewhere as soon as they hear about it. And conversely, many politicians, civil servants and others visit Amsterdam to find out how we are dealing with our problems.

Let me give an example: a few weeks ago the King of Jordan honoured Amsterdam with a visit. He was received in Amsterdam City Hall, where he delivered an important speech about the way people from different faiths should live in harmony. He praised Amsterdam for its inclusive policy concerning the Muslim communities. So in this respect one could say Amsterdam contributes to international affairs.

From Rick B., Amsterdam
As a mayor in The Netherlands, you are nominated by the city council and appointed by the Queen. Would being directly elected by the people give your office more authority?

Job Cohen replies: Being elected by the inhabitants of the city would not give a mayor more authority – it would provide him with more powers because he would have obtained a mandate by the majority to execute his political programme. Power, however, is not the same as authority. Power is formal, authority informal. Someone with authority is someone who is trusted, someone people think is the right person in the right place, who will mostly take the right decisions.

From Francy, London
Question: I am a Dutch citizen living in the UK. I am very proud to be Dutch and very happy that I am able to marry my female partner in my home country (planned for next year). It was fantastic that you performed the first gay wedding! My question for you is this: How do you plan to tackle the increase of homophobic violence, especially coming from the young, male, Muslim community?

Job Cohen replies: While the issue of homosexuality certainly encounters some severe difficulties within the Muslim communities, it would be wrong to portray all Muslim youth as being aggressively intolerant on this question. And we should as well bear in mind that in other (religious and non-religious) parts of Dutch society the acceptance of homosexuality still is a comparable matter of concern.

However, within our general strategy that aims at promoting tolerance and at countering intolerance (see my reply to the first question), we do have a specific policy against homophobic behaviour. In close cooperation with secondary schools, we have developed a series of educational projects. These schools are predominantly ethnically mixed and thus we are able to reach all kinds of youngsters. Apart from this, we support local organisations in the gay community engaged in all sorts of tolerance promoting activities. We have, in addition, been training our police force over the past few years to handle discrimination offences, including violence against homosexuals. And finally, a safe house has been created, specifically to protect homosexuals with an ethnic background against harassment from within their communities.

From: Marie-Louise M., Amsterdam
Question: Until now people from Turkey and Morocco are often buried in their former homelands. As a manager of an Amsterdam cemetery, I think that this should not be the solution. How can people mourn when their loved ones are buried in another country? I would like to know your opinion on this matter.

Job Cohen replies: I think everyone is essentially free in his or her decision where to be buried - whether in a country of origin, as in this case, or here, in the Netherlands. This is a very personal issue. It is a fact that many of the first generation migrants are still strongly attached to the regions where they were born and grew up. However, it is understandable that the second or third or following generations, those born in Amsterdam, do not have that same attachment. We have been conducting research which indicated that indeed the coming Muslim generations seem to be more interested in the possibility of a burial in Holland. In my opinion it is most important that everyone at least has the opportunity of being buried in Holland under Islamic tradition, which means that their graves will never be disturbed. It is precisely for this reason that we are working together with different Muslim communities (Turkish, Moroccan, Surinam and Iranian) in order to establish an Islamic graveyard in Amsterdam.

From: Christine, Amsterdam
Several Amsterdam districts have become dominated by a sole cultural or ethnic group. For example, white North Europeans occupy the centre and the new neighbourhoods on the east side of the city. Somalis settle in what is called the New West, Turks in East Amsterdam and Moroccans in West Amsterdam. Do you believe this kind of segregation is a positive development and, if not, what tools do you have to work towards multicultural communities?

Job Cohen replies: Social scientists, and citizens, hold different opinions on this issue. Some argue that the social cohesion in neighbourhoods with a dominant ethnicity is much higher than in ethnically mixed neighbourhoods. In this respect, they say, the best thing to do is to simply disregard the ethnicity and make sure all neighbourhoods are well looked after, with clean streets and good services.

In principle, I prefer Amsterdam to develop and grow without districts becoming too much ethnically segregated. There is proof people tend to develop a more positive attitude towards other ethnic groups if they have been engaged in personal contacts with members from other communities.

In Amsterdam we think the issue of segregation is at least partly related to general income levels, and not only to ethnic backgrounds. Amongst migrants the income levels are comparatively lower. Hence families from these communities tend to live in areas where they can find cheaper housing.

When segregation occurs, our reaction is twofold. First, we make arrangements with housing corporations to provide for housing for lower, middle as well as higher income levels in the very neighbourhoods where low income households concentrate. This process takes time, but we aim to develop more differentiated districts. In some neighbourhoods the restructuring is well underway and indeed the results are encouraging.

Secondly, we try to avoid segregated primary and secondary education, with white and dark children in separate schools. These arrangements, however, are based upon voluntary cooperation with parents and schools, who share the idea that in a diverse society schools should be mixed.

From: Nanny de J., Amsterdam
Question: One of the big issues in Amsterdam is the education and employment of young people of non-Dutch origin. Thousands of them are educated at ROC (a type of school where they learn professions such as hairdressers, carers of the elderly etc). Of these youngsters, 50 per cent do not finish their education and leave school without qualifications. They are in danger of being permanently unemployed. Amsterdam has taken several measures but these have not been very successful. How are you planning to solve this problem?

Job Cohen replies: This is an important question. What to do? Ahmed Aboutaleb, the alderman for education and social security, switched to a strategy of confrontation and close guidance of youngsters. People under the age of 27 are no longer automatically entitled to social security benefits, in order to make it more unattractive to leave school unqualified and without a job. (Background: The rule was introduced to discourage young people from sitting back and doing nothing while waiting for a ‘dream’ job to come along. People under 27 who lose their jobs or fall ill qualify for social security benefit.)

But if they do, they are contacted immediately by community officers who try to send them back to school or to find them another, more appropriate course of education, training or apprenticeship, or a job. Nonetheless, too many seem to slip through the net. We are therefore intensifying this approach. What is new in this respect is that participation in these programmes will no longer be optional, but compulsory. Furthermore, we will demand more discipline from parents, teachers and, of course, the youngsters themselves.

From: Alexander V., Dublin
Question: As you might know, Dublin has a strict policy regarding smoking in public places. I have heard that the Dutch government is planning similar policies in the not too distant future. What kind of affect will they have on the ‘coffee shop’ culture of Amsterdam?

Job Cohen replies: To start with, the no smoking in public places policy is being introduced by the national government, which means that a mayor has no jurisdiction whatsoever regarding this issue. Smoking in government buildings is already forbidden. At the moment banning smoking in public non-governmental places is optional - that is, in bars, restaurants, and so on. They are expected to regulate the issue themselves. But if this self-regulation in non-governmental public places is found not to be working out well, in due course smoking might be banned in all public places. But this is not the case yet. We will deal with the problem as and when it arises.

From Quierine, Amsterdam
How is Amsterdam going to cope with rising sea levels?

Job Cohen replies: I’ll be frank: Amsterdam is completely dependent on the national government concerning rising sea levels.

From Melvin M., Amsterdam
What are your plans to turn Amsterdam into a ‘connected’ city and adopt new internet technologies?

Job Cohen replies: For Amsterdam, ‘connectedness’ is at the heart of our strategy to sustain and further develop a dynamic and inclusive metropolitan economy. Amsterdam is home to the world’s largest internet hub, the Amsterdam Internet Exchange (capable of distributing 200 gigabits per second, that is about 250 million e-mails per second). The city of Amsterdam is involved in a public-private partnership developing a broadband ‘fibre-to-the-home’ network throughout the entire city, and connecting it to neighbouring cities.

Because the production of digital services and content is one of the main strengths of Amsterdam’s creative industries, we have set up a fund to stimulate innovative start-up companies. At the invitation of the Bill Clinton Global Initiative Foundation, Amsterdam is working together with Cisco Systems to use innovative ICT to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions - for example, through dynamic traffic management. And last, but not, least Amsterdam is working with research institutes and universities to support the development of super high bandwidth ‘grids’ to exchange very large quantities of data.

From Klaas, Delfzijl
In 2002 you had the ambition to become Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Is there any chance that you will try for this position again, or do you have altered ambitions in order to focus on Amsterdam, or maybe on an international position, at the UN for instance?

Job Cohen replies: In 2002 the situation was very different. Then the leader of the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA), Wouter Bos, had announced before the elections that he would not be leaving Parliament to become prime minister (as you know the Netherlands has a political system in which members of the government are not allowed to be members of parliament). So he had to find someone to preside over the cabinet of ministers should the PvdA win the 2002 elections, and he chose me. But that was then. And the labour party ended in opposition anyway.

Now, in 2006, Wouter Bos, still being the Dutch labour party leader, never said he would stay in Parliament, on the contrary. In 2002 I was willing to help out, now I am not. First of all, it is no longer necessary: the PvdA Labour party has an excellent candidate - Wouter Bos himself.

Furthermore, I’ve just been reinstated for a new six-year term of office as mayor of Amsterdam, which is, to my mind, the greatest job in the Netherlands. My focus is completely on Amsterdam and I have no intention whatsoever to accept any other office at the moment.

From Marije van den B., Leiden
Question: Which mayors from across the world do you admire and why?

Job Cohen replies: I have always admired the late Amsterdam mayor Wim Polak of most of all the mayors I know or have known. This has nothing to do with the fact that he, also, was mayor of Amsterdam – though I am in a better position to judge – but to do with his ability to stand firm in difficult times purely by keeping to his policies not yielding to the temptation to use force, which would have been the easy, short-term solution. Amsterdam still benefits from his approach to the conflicts of those days.

Another mayor I admire is former mayor of Barcelona, Joan Clos, who played an important role in the ongoing development of his beautiful city. He was the initiator of the 2004 Universal Forum of Cultures, a five months long meeting where citizens of the world addressed key issues such as global warming, economic development and religious tolerance. The event attracted a record number of three million visitors. Clos and his city council were also responsible for introducing a new and stricter civic behaviour code to make the city centre a better, safer and more attractive place.

And finally, Willy Brandt, the former mayor of Berlin during the early years of the separation of Berlin. I was a child at that time, and I remember him vividly.

Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen ranked second in World Mayor 2006

Job Cohen
The mayor of the Dutch capital can point to an enviable record in national and city politics, academia and broadcasting, with plaudits from a range of opinion makers for his inclusive approach to politics and city life. Appointed mayor in 2001, he was named one of Time magazine’s ‘European Heroes’ in 2005, In 2006 Job Cohen was included among the top ten mayors in the annual World Mayor project.

Cohen was born in 1947 in the neighbouring city of Haarlem to liberal Jewish parents. He attended the gymnasium in Haarlem before studying law at the University of Groningen, where he graduated with a law degree in 1971 and married the following year. Aged 20 he joined the PvDA (Labour Party). After graduation, Cohen took up a research position at Leiden University, where he remained until 1981. He then commenced teaching at Maastricht University, becoming professor in 1983 and then rector magnificus in 1991.

In 1993, Cohen was appointed to serve in the third cabinet of Ruud Lubbers, the longest-serving Dutch prime minister (1982-1994) noted for his Thatcherite policies in an otherwise consensual political system. Having served as Deputy Minister for Education, Cohen returned to his academic post after one year, though remaining a member of the Dutch upper house (Eerste Kamer). In 1998 he was appointed to serve as the interim director of the liberal VRPO television station before resigning from the Eerste Kamer to serve in the third cabinet of Labour prime minister Wim Kok as Deputy Minister for Justice with responsibility for immigration. Here Cohen was responsible for overhauling the Netherlands’ immigration law, an area which remains contentious in Dutch politics today.

Cohen resigned from the cabinet at the end of 2000 and was appointed Mayor of Amsterdam in January 2001. Mayors of Dutch cities are appointed by the cabinet in the name of the monarch. One of Cohen’s first notable acts as mayor was to officiate over the first ever same-sex legal marriage, having piloted the legislation required only months earlier while in the Ministry of Justice. More