Muslim Wire

Danish Context of Debates on Islam (Part 2)

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 21, 2009

In Part 1, Prof. Nielsen presented the burqa debate in Denmark in the context of a shift to the right by all Danish parties in terms of immigrants and minorities. In this part, he describes Denmark’s Islam-related debates as really driven by a widespread questioning of national identity. In the last two years, Denmark has seen a number of judgments by the European Court of Justice, which applies EU law. These judgments have overthrown key parts of the strict immigration law. Throughout, the Danish People’s Party and certain Danish politicians have called on the authorities to ignore such judgments or change the concerned EU laws and directives. None of the other 26 EU member states want to restart the complicated debates that led to these laws. The politicians know this, but they estimate that they can collect votes by making a noise.

Muslim Judges?

The burqa debate, which is the most recent “crisis” relating to Muslims in Denmark, follows a series of earlier ones. Last year, the government decided that judges should not be allowed to wear conspicuous religious symbols. The prime target was excluding the possibility of seeing veiled Muslim women setting as judges, although this is not likely to happen in at least the next 10 years, as Muslim women have only very recently started studying law.

National Identity vs. Islam

At a deeper level, the regularly returning debates on Islam and Muslims — first and foremost of which is the cartoon crisis of 2005 and 2006 — are really driven by a widespread sense of crisis of national identity. Through many generations, and up until the 1960s, Denmark became one of the most monocultural countries in Europe, a country where people, language, culture, law, and religion became monolithic. Denmark was thus different from other European countries where there was a tradition of several religions (especially Catholicism and Protestantism), often of various nationalities as in the United Kingdom, or even of several languages as in Switzerland.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the immigrants from Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran — together with the refugees, particularly from Lebanon, Somalia, and Iraq — upset this self-contained stability. Once a country of one culture, Denmark now suddenly started to find out how it is to be a society of many cultures. Without an imperial past like that of France or Britain, Denmark had no experience of how to live with differences.


At the same time, this was all happening as globalization was on the rise. In this period of rapid change, all the new things made many people nervous and uncertain. For Denmark, becoming part of the EU was a source of both optimism and instability. Globalization meant that events on the other side of the world or on the other side of the Mediterranean had threatening consequences that could not be understood or controlled.

Muslim immigrants and refugees easily became the visible symbol of that large threatening and alien world, especially in countries like Denmark where the ethnic minorities from outside Europe are almost exclusively Muslims.

Successful Support for Immigrants

In the public debates, it does not seem to be of interest that in the local communities in the cities and towns excellent work is often done with the aim of helping women and children adjust and integrate. Denmark has been among Europe’s most successful countries in finding work for the children of immigrants and in supporting their education and health needs.

It remains very difficult to pull single issues like the burqa back into a discussion of such facts and realities, so long as the underlying problem is really one of perceptions, images, and imaginings around Danes’ own identity.


Jorgen S. Nielsen is professor of Islamic studies and director of the Centre for European Islamic Thought, University of Copenhagen. Previously, at the University of Birmingham, UK, he researched Islam in Europe for more than 30 years. Prof. Nielsen is the editor in chief of the recent Yearbook of Muslims in Europe.
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