In 1971, Syrian writer Fahmy al-Majid moved to Denmark. Today, he is a published author, with several books and articles about Islam and Muslim integration in Denmark.
He now lives in a comfortable home in Copenhagen with his Danish wife. Inside, the décor is a mix of Bedouin tent carpets and IKEA-style Western furniture. On the walls hang a mixture of religious symbols, ranging from an adorned crescent to a smiling Buddha. Majid said he emphasises a variety of religions because he wanted his children to learn tolerance at an early age and be familiar with both their parents’ cultures.
“I’m Muslim and my wife is Christian,” Majid said. “All my children speak Arabic and are familiar with their origins. Religion and nationality have never been an issue in this house.”
Turn of events
Majid said he regrets that the same is not true throughout Denmark since the September 11 attacks on the US. After the event, Majid said he collected news reports on attacks on Muslims in Denmark and counted more than 70 incidents. When compared to the population of Denmark, this is a higher percentage than the attacks against Muslims in the US, he said.
Muslims in Denmark comprise about 4 percent of the country. The number of Syrians among them – or in the country’s Christian and other communities – totals 4,000 according to Christina Markus Lassen, Danish ambassador to Syria. Most arrived in the 1970s, in hope of better living conditions, and in the early 1980s and 1990s, seeking political asylum, Bilal Asaad, financial manager of the Scandinavian Waqf (an Islamic trust), said.
According to Naser Khader, a Syrian-Palestinian member of the Danish parliament, assaults on his community were exascerbated because it is small and insular.
“There are only 200,000 Muslims in Denmark, which has a population of 5m. Some Danes have never seen a Muslim,” Khader, who was the first Danish of Arab descent to join the parliament, explained. “They only see Muslims in the news. They see Muslim terrorists taking hostages and this causes Islamophobia.”
Latifa, a 26-year-old woman who wears the hijab and studied economics at university said she faced seclusion in both social and employment settings.
“Danes are open with you as long as you are not a practicing Muslim,” she said. “But if you are religious, as I am, then you feel excluded.”
A meeting held following September 11 by Hizb al-Tahrir (The Liberation Party) – an Islamic political organization that seeks to unite all Muslims in a caliphate whose Denmark branch was legally established in the Middle of the 1990s– to announce its support for Osama bin Laden only further strengthened the image of Muslims as terrorist. The group is considered radical and fringe and most Muslims take pains to distance themselves from it.
Propaganda against Islam
Majid said the Danish media helps to perpetuate misinformation and prejudice against the country’s Muslims. He said the press blames Muslim immigrants for economic problems and disproportionately covers extremist Islamic groups such as Hizb al-Tahrir, which openly supports Osama bin Laden.
Danish journalist and writer Kare Bluitgen disputed this claim, saying that the media distinguish between Muslim extremists and ordinary people.
“Most people say that’s ok. We know terrorists from Western Europe too. We used to have them, we have them. I don’t think the media is as bad as it’s common to say,” Bluitgen said. “You always find mistakes. I think in general they do a good job. You have to tell your audience that we are not talking about Muslims, we are talking about a very little minority inside the minority of Muslims in Denmark.”
According to Soren Espersen, a member of the right-wing Dansk Folkspartei and supporter of Denmark’s current conservative government, it is political Islam that he and his allies consider threatening, not all Muslims. But his party holds some of its own extreme views. It has called for a ban on all Arab satellite channels, which he claimed call for viewers to “hate the Western world”. It also voted to ban the niqab face veil in Denmark. Most extreme was his party’s proposal that Muslim immigrants be shown video footage of women’s bare breasts before allowing them into the country to make sure they are “moderate”.
Such prejudicial proposals have a deep effect on second-generation Muslim children, Asaad, the Waqf financial manager, said. “[Children] feel they are refused by the only society they know.”
To help the children better adapt, the organisation has created integration courses for 7- to 12-year-old children.
“Many Muslim immigrant children in Denmark feel torn and don’t know whether they are Danish, Syrian or Muslim,” He explained. “We are trying to help them work out that they are all three.”
Any discussion about relations between Muslims and the wider Danish community must address the notorious cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, published by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005.
I interviewed Kare Bluitgen, whose failed search for an illustrator to draw the prophet for his children’s book The Koran and the Life of the Prophet Mohammad prompted the newspaper to publish the cartoons.
He said that Muslims in Denmark used peaceful demonstrations in the aftermath of the images’ publication. The event also prompted debate and better understanding of Islam, he added.
“The majority of Muslims were very calm,” Bluitgen said. “They just said don’t buy that stupid paper.”
Likewise, he added, other than some rogue politicians and journalists, average Danes are not prejudiced towards the country’s Muslim community. “”In Copenhagen every third of the pupils is Muslim. My daughter has almost only Muslim friends today. Daily life is different from politics,” he said.
Andreas Kamm, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council also believes people’s approach to Muslims is changing. “Statistics show that the number of Muslims who feel discriminated against is going down,” Kamm said. “It is a private matter if you have one or another religion. If you have this kind of clothes or another kind of clothes. Who cares? I would say 75 percent of the Danes do not care.”
Further, the cartoon crisis helped increase employment from 47 percent to 70 percent among Danes of Muslim origin, Syrian-Danish MP Khader said.
“I know an employer who before the cartoons never hired Muslims. For him a Muslim equals trouble. But after the crisis he realised that Muslims here are democratic people who respect freedom,” Khader said. “After the cartoon crisis Danish people realized that there are different types of Muslims. Before the cartoon crisis they only knew one type, the extremist one.”
In Syria, however, the Danish and Norwegian embassies were burned down by angry protestors, and the governments of both countries condemned Syria for what they called “failing its international obligations” to stop the arsen. According to Espersen from the right-wing party, however, the Syrian government was “a great help” at the time of the crisis.
“The government in Syria was not engaged in the boycotting of Danish products as they were in Saudi Arabia, for example,” Espersen said. “They [the Syrians] realized this is something that the Danish government or the parliament can do nothing about. That was a very difficult task to explain to many governments in the Muslim world but never to Syria. They knew if our prime minister had said these cartoons are now forbidden he’d be finished.”
While Syria restored calm towards Denmark internally, Asaad from Waqf said that it should do more to change the view of Syria and Islam abroad.
“A country like Syria should direct its cultural office in the embassy to organise lectures to try to bring points-of-view closer to each other and explain why Muslims reacted this way,” Asaad said, referring to the burning of the embassies. “All Arab countries neglected their duty to change the stereotype of our countries as a big desert filled with terrorists. Denmark is the one that made a move to change its image and better understand Muslims.”
Today, Denmark and Syria collaborate mainly on environmental and humanitarian issues. Denmark provides important support for Iraqi and Palestinian refugees in Syria and the Danish Red Cross and Refugee Council are active throughout the country.
Though Majid said he feels second-generation immigrants from Muslim-majority countries such as Syria still face discrimination, he believes Denmark is his children’s home country.
“I’m Syrian and no matter how long I live in Denmark I’ll still be primarily Syrian and then Danish,” Majid said. “But my children were born in Denmark and they will always be Danish first and Syrian second.”
A shorter version of this article was published in Syria Today magazine.