Immigrants, Muslims and “New Danes”

“Because it isn’t Denmark, and at least they’ve got Ibrahimovic [the Bosnian player]. How many Muslims or even immigrants do you see on the Danish team?”

THIS WAS THE REPLY when my friend complained that 11 out of the 12 Danish citizens of immigrant origins who were watching a football (soccer) match between Denmark and Sweden during the Euro 2004 competition supported Sweden. This example highlights a fundamental difference between Denmark, my country of birth, and Britain, my “adopted country.” When British Muslim friends traveled to Portugal to support the English team, my Danish friends supported teams that were either not Denmark or at least had immigrant players.

Norman Tebbit, a veteran British Conservative politician, is famous for devising “the cricket test” in 1990. He argued that Indians and Pakistanis in England who supported their “home” teams over the English could not be considered truly British.

However, the Danish support was not for their “home” countries, but for another European country, a failure of the “cricket test” taken to a new level.

Of course, there are second-generation immigrants in Denmark who would support the Danish team, but the above example is by no means uncommon and it sums up two important points regarding Muslims in Denmark:

1. A Jack of attachment is felt by even well-educated, second-generation immigrants, and

2. A very strong cross-cultural and cross-national bond is felt by immigrants and Muslims in particular.

This situation is the product of several factors that have made the Danish experience unique with respect to other European countries.

The first of these factors is the historical background and pretext for immigration. Although immigrants started arriving in the 1960s and 1970s, there was no massive influx from the country’s former colonies for the simple reason that Denmark never had any of importance. Therefore, the Danish immigrant and Muslim population is one of the most multiethnic in Europe, without dominant groups as seen in Britain, France and Germany

The absence of a significant colonial history meant that immigrants arrived without knowledge of Danish society or without the built-in admiration for European culture often found among immigrants from former British and French colonies. The absence also meant that there were few individuals in Denmark with knowledge of foreign cultures. When immigrants began to arrive, they found a country that was 99% Protestant and virtually ethnically homogenous. Now less than 40 years later, 6% of the Danish population is of “non- Western” origin; two thirds of these (4% of the total population) are Muslims. In a country with no tradition for ethnic diversity, this has been a significant change in a short span of time.


“Not all values are equally valid and our society is superior. Medieval Islamic culture can never be as valid as ours.” These are the words of Danish Cultural Minister Brian Mikkelsen in a recent speech regarding the ucultural battle” he sees between “Danish” and “Muslim” values. These views, far from being extreme, sum up the stance pushed by Danish politicians and opinion makers across the political spectrum. The Danish perception of nationhood and national identity is very different from an openly multicultural society such as Britain, or an immigrant country such as the United States.
To readers unfamiliar with Danish politics, Mikkelsen’s position may seem somewhat extreme. But quotes by various members of the Danish parliament over the last io years illustrate how deeply ingrained the view is that immigrants and their cultures are an inferior alien element:

“Many immigrants think that the Muslim culture is equal to the Danish, and expect us to accept this position.”

– KAREN JESPERSEN, former interior minister (Social Democrats)
“In 1900, they would not have been able to imagine that so many neighborhoods in Copenhagen would be inhabited by people from a lower level of civilization.”

– PIA KJAERSGAARD (head of the Danish People’s Party, which is anti-immigration)

“Denmark is not multiethnic and will not be multiethnic.”

– POUL NYRUP RASMUSSEN, former prime minister (Social Democrats)

“Muslims should be interned in camps, better to be safe than sorry.”

– INGE DAHL-SOERENSEN ( ‘Liberal Party )

“Muslim youth consider it a right to rape Danish girls . . . and are like a cancer that should be surgically removed. ”

– LOUISE FREVERT (Danish People’s Party)

It is worth noting that the Danish People’s Party is not a fringe party, but the third largest in parliament with 14% of the votes.

The Danish media backs these views and has contributed to the current climate. “Freedom of speech” is a value, cherished highly by the Danish media, and statements regarding Islam and Muslims, which would be considered in poor taste in other countries, regularly make it to print. According to a recent editorial in Jfyllands-Posten, the country’s secondlargest newspaper, “Islam and Christianity do not have the same God, as the Christian God is a loving God while the Muslim God is vengeful.”

This is the same newspaper that recently invited artists to draw cartoon images of the Prophet Muhammad, one of which depicted him with a bomb in his turban and another with an entourage of women in the background. This has achieved its aim and sparked the expected response from the Muslim community and a debate about “freedom of speech” and “Muslim sensitivities,” which has been going on for a couple of months now.
In recent years, the concept “Christian foundations of the nation” has made a remarkable appearance in Danish politics despite the fact that Denmark is one of the most secular countries in Europe, with the majority of the population being self-confessed agnostic or atheist. Right-wing parties have seized upon their Christian heritage and cynics note that the Christian declaration of faith seems to have been reduced to “I am not a Muslim.”

Not surprisingly, this climate has led to Muslims’ ingrained mistrust of the media and the political process, which many Muslims now completely boycott. However, for those Muslims who did have political aspirations, political parties have been incapable of accommodating them.

Participation in politics at the parliamentary and even local levels has been off-limits to those Muslims who are not perceived to entirely adhere to “Danish values.” There have been a number of high-profile cases in which Muslims were forced to leave political parties because they viewed the Shari’a as an inseparable part of Islam, despite the fact that these views had no direct bearing on Danish politics. Their protests that they did not seek to implement the Shari’a were deemed irrelevant.

The Danish parliament does have three members of Muslim origin. However, to put things in perspective, one of them, Kamal Qureishi, is a proponent of homosexual couples’ right to adopt, while another, Nasser Khader, wrote Honor and Shame, a highly slanderous book about Islamic culture that ridicules Muslims as being backward and contains more than a hundred factual errors about Islam, including that the Prophet Muhammad had written the Qur’an, or that Muslims today believe that the earth is flat. These are the examples and standards by which other Muslim politicians are judged.

In addition to an obsession with the Shari’a, there is deep aversion toward public manifestations of Islam, including all Islamic symbols and visible practices. Muslim gatherings that have separate seating arrangements for men and women are routinely called archaic, the Muslim dress is seen with alarm bells, and requests for days off for Eid as well as prayer rooms in the universities or workplace have been discussed in parliament as being counterproductive to integration. The absence of a developed Muslim infrastructure (e.g. no purpose-built mosques, structures that were designed and built as mosques), despite the presence of almost 200,000 Muslims, displays a lack of physical roots, a metaphor for the absence of emotional roots for many young Muslims.

Politicians seem to be more occupied with fighting cultural battles than focusing on integration despite high levels of unemployment, even for Muslims educated in Denmark. The Danish parliament has recently adopted laws widely seen as being directed toward curbing the number of Muslims in Denmark, including a law banning Danish citizens (as well as residents) from getting married to people from abroad until both parties are at least 24 years old, and a law enabling the deportation of Danes to the country their parents immigrated from as a punishment for crimes. The parliament recently debated the mandatory spreading of immigrant students across schools to have fewer in each class. The main benefit envisaged was not academic progress but rather that teachers would have an easier time teaching subjects such as history and social studies, which “Highly politicized Muslim students usually sabotaged!”


“New Dane is an insult! We’re not Danes, at all!” – A common response to the politicians’ effort to replace the phrase “second-generation immigrants” with “New Danes.”

With the prevailing hostile attitude toward immigrant cultures and Islam, it is little wonder then that the youth have developed a relatively strong “non-Danish” or even “antiDanish” immigrant identity (including non-Muslim immigrants), espousing a sense of isolation and a cult of victimization. This has fostered a relatively strong and vocal reactionary minority culture – what Tariq Ramadan terms a ghetto mentality. “Perker” (racist slang for a brown person) and “guest worker” are words routinely used by secondgeneration minority youth as a badge of honor. There is a lot of pride associated with being “immigrant” to the extent that when “New Danes” was coined as a politically correct term, it was widely ridiculed because it contained the word “Danes.” Although Muslims are dominant in the immigrant subculture, it is by no means an exclusively Muslim phenomenon and it has built strong bridges between Muslim and non-Muslim immigrants, which is not the feature of most European countries.

Contrary to common prejudice, the dominant culture of the youth is not exactly an eastern culture, but rather it is a Western culture with eastern elements. It is based on the American Black and Latino minority cultures but with additional Islamic elements, manifesting itself in clothes, music, sports and attitude. Despite not having endured 400 years of slavery, the Danish society’s attitude has led its youth to readily identify with Black American culture and many have the same feeling of being oppressed by “the white man.” This feeling of perpetual victimization (though sometimes justified) is a major hindrance to progress, as it is an excuse for Muslim youth to avoid responsibility.

Many see themselves not only as “immigrants” before being Danes, but also see themselves as immigrants (and, in the last five years, increasingly as Muslims) before being Pakistanis, Turks, Arabs, etc. The conversations among second-generation immigrants are almost entirely in Danish as they are made up of so many different nationalities. There is also a very high level of intermarriage between Muslims from different ethnic groups; researchers have been surprised to note that intermarriage between non-Muslim Danes and the second generation is much lower than intermarriage across ethnic Muslim groups within the second generation. This phenomenon indicates that Muslim youth still marry primarily “within their group,” but that this group is wider than in most other European countries where it is usually restricted to the immigrants’ nationalities or related nationalities.

As the youth culture gravitates toward Islam, there are complaints that the public sphere is becoming increasingly Islamicized, a comment aimed primarily at how Muslim women dress. Girls wearing black jilbabs while listening to rap music is not an uncommon sight. Ten years ago, it would have been difficult to find a non-Arab or a young Arab wearing a jilbab or even the hijab (head covering). But it has now become the default clothing of religious and even semireligious girls. This is partly because of the immense success of Salafism and Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT), which consider wearing the jilbab an obligation. But perhaps even more importantly, it has become a signal of defiance because it is a garment that Danish society hates. As Muslim immigrants are increasingly being seen as Muslims by Danish society, they adopt the same view themselves. Apart from the rising practice of Islam by many Muslims (which the Danes also consider alarming), there is an increased feeling of loyalty among Muslims, and the Islamic language and symbols are being adopted by Muslims who are generally not considered “practicing.” For example, it is not uncommon to hear semi-religious Muslims defend owning guns by saying “It’s Sunna to be strapped!”

The glorification of “thug life,” imported from American minority cultures, and a mistrust of Danish authorities have unfortunately contributed to Muslims, even religious ones, being highly tolerant of Muslim criminals. Some openly display pride in “achievements” such as gangs of “Muslim” youth increasingly moving into territories once the exclusive domain of fearsome Danish biker gangs. Muslims also “run” several jails, only possible because they sadly account for more than a third of the prison population in Copenhagen.

This tolerant attitude and even pride in crime comes from mistrusting authorities. The police are considered institutionally racist and the judiciary is seen as biased, as may be evidenced by the contrasting punishments given to immigrant and Danish criminals for similar crimes. The law enabling the deportation of criminals born and raised in Denmark has increased mistrust of authorities instead of acting as a deterrent. Uncompromising loyalty is a highly regarded virtue among the youth, making it virtually impossible for the police to recruit a sizeable number of Muslim or immigrant officers. A stigma is attached to being in the police, which is commonly viewed as treason!

The “immigrant” culture in general has become more synonymous with being Muslim, as evidenced by the skyrocketing number of “brown” converts of partial or non-Danish origin. One of the largest groups of converts is in fact youth who have Muslim fathers but were raised by non-Muslim mothers. It is increasingly common to see these youth gravitate first toward immigrants, then eventually toward Islam as they get older. There also are many converted Iranians and Bosnians who were raised atheists.

Conversions in general have risen dramatically since 9/11, with several hundred a year especially among the white youth who grew up with Muslims in the “ghettoes.” They seem to be integrating well with the multiethnic Muslim community, and it is extremely rare to find two converts married to each other as most wish to join the wider Muslim (immigrant) community rather than set themselves apart.


“There is no such thing as a Danish Islam – Islam is One.”

– A common view among Muslims in Denmark.

The relative success of different Muslim groups is clearly correlated with the attitude of the establishment. Uncompromising and increasingly nationalistic tones have provided opponents of integration with ammunition, and with Denmark participating in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many Danish Muslims see the ideological struggle in Denmark and abroad as one and the same – stemming from the Western belief in the superiority of its values over those of Muslims.

The groups with the most following have combined an uncompromising stance and a mastering of Arabic terminology (seen as a sign of empowerment) while using the Danish language as a medium of instruction. Khutbas, which tend not to be in Danish, are poorly attended while lectures in Danish, which take place independently of the mosques, are packed. Due to the immigrants’ multiethnic identity, the youth seek environments in which ali their friends fit in regardless of ethnic origin. Multiethnic groups have also been extremely popular with converts who don’t want to be a third wheel in immigrant groups, but also have an aversion toward organizing themselves in “white Muslim societies,” as was the case with some older Danish male converts.

In general there has been a great shift from the first to the second generation. “Immigrant” Islam is perceived as nonauthentic, having lost out to more international or “Arab” versions, whether it be in the shape of Salafism, HT or “traditional scholarship,” with the last trailing the first two.

In addition, the Islam that appears confident and proud is also attracting more adherents at the expense of those who are perceived as compromising and subservient, as Muslims in Denmark generally take immense pride in being Muslim (even if not practicing). Salafis and HT are seen as being very true to their principles and are widely admired even by non-religious youth.

There is widespread contempt for Muslims who seem to compromise their religion in the hope of obtaining favors from the very politicians who routinely humiliate Muslims. HT, apart from being the first group to teach in Danish, has had success rates in reforming Muslim criminals that social workers could only dream of. Its greatest selling point, however, has been the notion of a khilaj’a (caliphate). The concept strikes a chord with many Muslims in Denmark: one nation (not Denmark) in which they and all their friends would be countrymen is seen as ideal. HT also has a very large number of converts and about 20% of its members and supporters are Danish, a feat unrivalled by any group.

Although Salafi thoughts are becoming increasingly dominant among the youth, this is mainly because of the literature available rather than organizational prowess. Hardcore Salafis are numerically insignificant as compared with Britain, but Salafi thought, such as opposition to schools of thought and Sufism, are widespread.

“Moderate” Islam (though not moderate enough for Denmark) is represented by a group known as Muslims in Dialogue (MID). The core group is made up of the former youth wing of Minhaj-ul-Qur’an (MUQ) that broke away from the main group in 2003. But MID has since distanced itself from its former Pakistani Barelvi image and has adopted a more multi-ethnic outlook to have a broader appeal. As opposed to HT, MID’s focus is more on Denmark and less on the “Umma.” In Denmark, as opposed to Britain, enthusiasm for a Danish Islam is found primarily among non-Muslims, while many younger Muslims consider the term almost an obscenity. Muslims who do push for a Danish Islam, such as MID to some extent, mainly do so to remove their “immigrant religion” tag. Interestingly, very few younger Danish converts support this idea, as opposed to older Danish converts and some second-generation Pakistanis.

Over the last 10 years, one can find very few examples of meaningful dialogue. Muslims have become increasingly mistrusting of the establishment, and the politicians and media are increasingly mistrusting of Muslims.

Sociologists’ predictions that second-generation Muslims would adopt Western values en masse and break with their backgrounds have not materialized. Although many have broken with their ethnic backgrounds, this has not meant an increased sense of Danishness; rather, the vacuum has been filled with religion and an almost tribal multiethnic immigrant identity.

The feeling of having been scorned is hard to miss in the rhetoric of Danish politicians and opinion-makers. The fact that poor Third World people are allowed into the paradise that was Denmark and could have the audacity to take pride in an “archaic faith and medieval culture” has been hard to stomach. The government’s insistence on sidelining religious figures and speaking only to representatives of secular and ethnic organizations also has been counter-productive. The argument is that by speaking to the imams, one gets the impression that religion, or Islam, has a legitimate role to play in politics, something inconceivable! It is fair to conclude that this perpetual humiliation of imams has not exactly diminished the appeal of the Islam that flourishes outside the mosques.

In the wake of the July bombings in London, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen for the first time arranged a meeting with leading Danish imams to discuss how they could help the government monitor (“dangerous”) currents among the Muslims. A similar meeting was arranged between the Danish Intelligence and the imams.

It seems that the government has only just realized that if it wants to weaken the “radical” elements among Muslims, it must be seen to be speaking with at least some Muslims. The imams who accepted the government’s invitation also find themselves between a rock and a hard place, as accusations of treason and “selling out” are already being made.

One could argue that Muslims have only been in Denmark for 40 years and that it takes time for integration, which has only just begun. However, the situation has far from improved in the past decade. Denmark is getting increasingly involved militarily against Muslims abroad and the peculiar combination of secular fundamentalism and “nationalist Christianity” is growing. But, the Muslims are still being talked about, not to.

It’s not all bad in Denmark. Both the unique level of cohesiveness between born and convert Muslims – which has not been seen in many European countries – and the strong sense of pride in Islam can ensure dynamism and vibrancy in the Muslim community. Despite the stigmatization of Muslims, the number of converts seems to grow exponentially. However, to progress from here, the Danish establishment needs to at least accept the reality and be willing to engage with those Muslims who do want to participate in society but are not willing to give up their religion. It does not seem like the blinkers are going to come off anytime soon, so it may be a while before a group of 12 football-loving friends will be wholeheartedly cheering the Danish team as their team.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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