Islam & Democracy


Fall in Denmark seemed darker than usual this year, even before the Scandinavian autumn fully gave up its light. In September, street riots broke out between motorcycle and immigrant gangs. On September 14, bullets struck two nonethnic Danes in the Nørrebro quarter of Copenhagen. Within minutes, a battle developed with more than fifty people summoned to the scene by text message. The next day, two moped riders fired three shots at a Hell’s Angels shop.

When the media reported the events, nonethnic Danes were invariably described as Indvandrer. But this Danish word does not conventionally refer to Canadian, American, Dutch, or other white immigrants. It is code for Muslim.

The recent gang wars suggest that Denmark might be on the edge of an ethnic race war. “Absolutely not,” says Adel Sadek, a board member of Democratic Muslims, a group of self-described moderate Danish Muslims. “This street violence is among criminals. They’ve been around for a long time, and this is just another turf war. It has nothing to do with religion.”

It was three years ago that Jyllands-Posten, Denmark’s largest daily newspaper, published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that resulted in Denmark’s most serious foreign-policy crisis since World War II. By the following March, 139 people had died in riots around the world and Danes were routinely described in Muslim countries as enemies of Islam. In January 2008, Danish police arrested a cell of extremists and accused them of planning the assassination of one of the offending cartoonists. Four months later, on June 2, suicide bombers attacked the Danish Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, injuring thirty and killing six. Al Qaeda took credit for the attack, claiming it was retaliation for the cartoons and for the stationing of seven hundred Danish troops in Afghanistan. Then, in September, Al Qaeda vowed new attacks against Danish citizens.

Muslims in Denmark number approximately 200,000 in a population of 5.3 million. Many have been in Denmark since the 1970s, when they emigrated from Turkey, Pakistan, and Morocco. Iranians and Iraqis arrived in the ’80s, along with Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank. In the ’90s, more Muslims arrived, primarily from Bosnia and Somalia. In reaction to a feared “Islamic takeover,” the anti-immigration Danish Peoples’ Party became the fastest-growing political party in the country. Its Web site trumpets its opposition to a multicultural society.

Last month, Hammad Khuershid, a Danish citizen of Pakistani origin, and Abdoulghani Tokhi, an Afghan living in Denmark, were convicted by a Danish court of planning a terrorist attack. Both had been secretly filmed mixing triacetone triperoxide, the type of explosive used in the July 7, 2005, London transit bombing. During the trial, prosecutors presented evidence that Khuershid had links to Al Qaeda. Investigators produced handwritten bomb-making manuals that Khuershid had allegedly copied while at the pro-Taliban Red Mosque in Islamabad.

Moderate Muslim organizations in Denmark responded by affirming their support for Danish democracy. “Any sign or evidence of radicalization in the Muslim community in Denmark worries us a great deal,” said Akmal Safwat, professor of medicine and a board member of Democratic Muslims. “We feel it is our duty to stand firm against radical ideas and violent tendencies, and to provide an alternative Islamic ideology that is open, tolerant, and modern.”

Prior to the cartoon crisis, traditionalist imams dominated integration politics in the Danish Muslim community. Moderate progressive Muslims had yet to find their voice. That has now changed.

When the offending cartoons first appeared, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen refused to meet with a Muslim delegation demanding an apology. Three months later, several frustrated imams set off for the Middle East to express their outrage and to gain allies. They carried with them a forty-three-page document, the so-called Akkari-Laban dossier. It was created by a group of Danish Muslim clerics from a variety of organizations who wished to make their case abroad and solicit support in the cartoon controversy. Major delegations went to Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. Smaller ones were sent to Turkey, Sudan, Morocco, Algeria, and Qatar. The delegations visited high-profile leaders who, they hoped, would respond with unqualified support.

It didn’t work out that way. Danish authorities who examined the Akkari-Laban dossier made public disclosures that discredited its legitimacy, and public sentiment quickly turned against the delegations. In Denmark itself, heated arguments about loyalty and security ensued, with many Danes concluding the imams had jeopardized national security by channeling the wrath of Muslim regimes and extremists against the nation.

The imams and traditional organizations, including Denmark’s leading Muslim group, the Community of Islamic Faith, lost credibility. To fill the vacuum, more moderate groups sought to establish themselves as the voice of Danish Muslims. The most influential was the newly created Democratic Muslims. It was given legitimacy when its members met with the prime minister in early 2006. Its leader, Syrian born politician Nasar Khader, remarked, “What is needed is an organization that protests the religious enveloping of the youth by fundamentalist imams, and ensures that moderate Muslims are heard in the debate about Islam.” Khader later proved to be too secular for some religious Muslims, making it hard for them to work with him.

But Democratic Muslims has survived. A visit to its Web site confirms the group’s allegiance to democracy and to universal human rights. Its respect for women is also a clear marker. Two members of the governing board are women, Sally Khallash Bengtsen and Fatima Zahra Bellaoui. They have encouraged their supporters to fight for their right to wear headscarfs. The group has decried wars of aggression and violence against women as contrary to the basic tenets of Islam. “The Prophet’s example demands forgiveness, indulgence, and tolerance,” the group declared, quoting the Qur’an. “It asks us to meet our opponents with the best and most beautiful arguments,” and concludes that “resorting to patience and forgiveness reflects a true strength of character.”

The presence of such moderate, community-based organizations that foster progressive politics indicates a maturation of Danish Muslim democracy. Some Danish Muslims are purely secular, while others are devout and practice their religion daily. But both groups accept the challenge of interpreting the Prophet’s word in contemporary Danish society and finding common ground with others who promote universal human rights. At a time in which Islamophobia is a threat to civil society, Danes can feel proud of this recent development.

Published in the 2008-11-21 issue: 

Nancy Graham Holm, who lives in Denmark, is writing a book about Islamic feminism.

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