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More than Arab-Wannabes: Conversations with Denmark's New Muslim Women on the Development of a Danish Muslim Identity

 

A tall Danish woman dressed in white pants and a short flowered dress walks confidently into the school courtyard pushing her son's stroller.  She pauses at the bathroom to wash her hands and check her make-up. Yet what sounds like a typical scene is far from the norm in Denmark.  The woman's blonde hair is hidden beneath a white hijab, and she is here not so that her son can play in the school's playground, but to attend Friday prayers in Danish.  

Fatima is one of Denmark's New Muslims, ethnic Danes who have converted to Islam. She was introduced to Islam while dating the bouncer, a Muslim of Pakistani descent, at the club where she was working as a bartender.  Though she jokes about the Danish stereotype of the 'she did it for him' conversion, Fatima was far from open to her boyfriend's religion, and actually began studying Islam to find problems with it in order to persuade him to abandon Islam. Her friendship with his sister, however, persuaded her to take a more serious look at Islam, and she chose to convert.  What follows are the stories of the journeys of Fatima and six other Danish women into Islam and an understanding of what it means to be a Danish Muslim, and how their growing Danish Muslim identity can counteract the growth of Islamophobia in Denmark. 

Islam in Denmark 

Islam did not a have a significant presence in Denmark prior to three waves of Muslim immigration beginning in the 1960's. In 1967 young Muslim men primarily from Turkey came to fill a labor shortage. The second wave of immigration consisted of refugees arriving in the 1980's. These first generations of Muslim immigrants practiced what researcher at Department of History of Religion at the University of Copenhagen; Kate Østergaard calls 'defensive Islam'. They did not see Denmark as their permanent home, and focused on the maintenance of their cultural and religious heritage rather than integration into Danish society. The third wave of Muslim immigration has emerged from this desire to remain separate from Danish society, and is composed of spouses brought from the countries of origin for the Danish descendants of first-generation immigrants. The mosques and Islamic associations founded by the first generation have maintained strong ethnic traditions, and Denmark's Muslim populations have remained isolated linguistically and culturally from each other and the majority Danish society.  

In 2002 there were 170,000 - 200,000 Muslims in Denmark, making up three pct. of the total population.  Their position within Danish society has become increasingly tenuous in the last decade due to Danish secularism and a negative perception of Islam specifically.  Despite the maintenance of the Danish Folk Church as part of the state, Denmark is one of the world's most secularized countries and few Danes practice any religion.  To the Danes, religion is a matter of personal belief and should be kept out of the public sphere.  The outward practice of religious rituals is thus viewed as extreme, and even 'un-Danish'. 

Danish ambivalence towards the public demonstration of religious belief has been compounded by the negative depiction of Islam in the Danish media and political debate in recent years. In 2001 the right-wing Danish People's Party became a part of the governing coalition on an anti-immigration platform.  Their rhetoric is anti-Islamic, and has, combined with the negative portrayal of Islam in the media since 9/11, created a perception in Danish society that Islam is contrary to Danish values and culture.  Islam is associated with fundamentalism and fanaticism, terrorism, and the oppression of women.  The 'defensive Islam' approach of the born Muslim community, which has been reluctant to enter the public debate, has allowed Islam to be defined by the media and politicians rather than defining itself in the public debate.  This negative public debate has resulted in Islamophobia and a dichotomy in the Danish consciousness: that one cannot be both a Muslim and a Dane.  

Denmark's New Muslims 

It is ironic that increased negative attention to Islam in the public debate has actually seen a surge in the number of Danes converting to Islam. New Muslims represent only three pct. of the Muslim population (4,000-5,000). When we asked for his estimate, imam Abdul Wahid Pedersen (himself a Dane who converted in 1982) proudly pulled out a thick green binder. The binder contains the conversion certificates of the Danish converts who have come to him in the last two years. Thought it is only June, the number of converts from 2007 already exceeds the total from 2006.  Abdul Wahid estimates that there is an average of at least one new convert each day in the whole of Denmark.  

These New Muslims tend to have two common features: they are from urban areas, and most are in their twenties when they convert. While there are relatively equal numbers of men and women converts, we chose to focus on New Muslim women because of their visibility in society when wearing the headscarf.  We conducted interviews with seven ethnically Danish women who have been Muslims for between six months and twenty-five years and range in age from early twenties to late forties.  

Post-conversion Experiences 

After conversion, the women’s stories tend to follow a pattern of cultural and religious adaptation. Our interviews confirmed the work of Senior Researcher at Chr. Michelsen Institute Anne-Sofie Roald, who identifies three stages in the post-conversion experiences of New Muslims.  The first stage is a period of 'love', in which many converts, in their eagerness to embrace their new religion become nearly fanatical and immediately adopt a variety of strict Muslim practices. Many also undertake serious study of Arabic and the Koran and other Islamic sources to learn more about Islam.  

During this initial post-conversion period the women reported the loss of some of their cultural and individual identity. The character of their early Muslim life corresponded with the cultural expression of Islam of the Muslims involved in their conversion. All of the women we interviewed married Muslim men with immigrant backgrounds within a year or two of their conversions, and the cultures that these men came from exerted significant influence on their early practice of Islam and on their own cultural identity.  Many of the women observe that in their efforts to establish themselves as 'real Muslims', they were trying to become Arab, Turkish or Pakistani. In Fatima’s words, “It was like I converted to Pakistani, not Islam. I lost myself in it" (Interview with Fatima).  Sumaya, whose husband is Turkish, characterizes her husband's culture as 'dominant'.  She now speaks fluent Turkish, and although she comes from the Faeroe Islands, she says she feels more Turkish than Faeronese or Danish. 

Roald characterizes the second post-conversion phase as a time of disappointment. Like most westerners, converts enter Islam with the perception that it is a single, unified religion.  While there are a core set of beliefs and practices common to Muslims worldwide, the reality is that there is a plurality of expressions of Islam due to the diversity of belief and culture present in the Muslim world.  As imam Abdul Wahid Pedersen notes, converts expect to enter a single religion and instead find a hundreds of culturally-oriented expressions of Islam. 

New Muslim’s position as both well-educated insiders and cultural outsiders can cause difficulties in their interactions with born Muslim communities.  They report being warmly adopted by born Muslim communities, but Fatima describes the underlying messages by saying that, "... they praise you and thank God that you've converted - just as long as you don't marry their son!" (Interview with Fatima). At the same time, New Muslims often end up being much more disciplined in their adherence to Muslim rituals than many born Muslims. Two of the women we interviewed actually ended their romantic relationships with the Muslim men who had originally introduced them to Islam because the mens' practice of Islam was not as rigorous as their own.  

In this process of criticism, New Muslims begin to differentiate between Islam and what Muslims do.  They learn to discriminate between the cultural elements of the practice of Islam and the essentials of the religion. This leads them to Roald's third and final stage; that of maturity.  In this phase, New Muslims are able to successfully practice Islam in a way that is informed by their own culture and personality rather than trying to fit themselves into a non-Danish cultural model.  It is at this stage that a 'Danish Muslim' identity emerges, a theme we will explore later. 

The Response of Danish society to New Muslims 

Throughout their post-conversion lives, New Muslims must negotiate a new relationship with the Danish society which now identifies them as the 'other'. This is particularly relevant to the experiences of women who chose to wear the headscarf, as it makes their religious convictions public. The responses of the New Muslims' families and of Danish society to their conversion often reveal the extent to which being Danish and Muslim are held to incompatible by majority Danes. 

Most of the women expressed initial reluctance to inform their families of their conversion, and in many cases their fears were justified. Many family members refuse to accept the new converts at first, and over time adopt the attitude that they "will not accept her choice, but they will respect it".  Several of the women mentioned the efforts of their families to distance themselves from them, refusing to be seen in public with their daughters/sisters. However, some of the women spoke of family members who, once they understood that they were serious about Islam and saw the positive impact it had on their lives, even began defending them before more critical relatives. The reactions of the women's families to their conversions thus varied widely. 

The attitude of majority Danish society towards the New Muslims can be identified because the headscarf provides a public declaration of religious affiliation.  All of the women we interviewed have chosen to wear the hijab, and all wished to emphasize to us that wearing the headscarf was a personal choice made freely. They sought to counteract the association in the mind of many Danes between the headscarf and the oppression of women.  "Wearing the headscarf for me was an individual choice", Sumaya explains, "... and I'm so sick of how wearing the hijab is portrayed in the media. First of all the journalists don't even bother to use the right words for different types of head scarfs and second, the narrow focus on the oppressed and constrained Muslim women makes us all look bad".   

Most of the converts can tell personal stories of very negative reactions from non-Muslim Danes hissing, cursing, or spitting at them on the street. When Sumaya got a new bus pass with her picture on it, the man who was printing her information wrote 'Dog' in the space for 'Adult' or 'child'.  The women also know stories of other Muslim women who have been attacked or have had their headscarf pulled off by groups of young Danish men. Ironically, though the headscarf is depicted as a symbol of the oppression of women in the Danish media, Danish society reacts to these alleged victims of oppression with aggression and hostility.

The women stressed, however, that such overt hostility was the exception rather than the rule. On a more regular basis the women deal with feelings of discomfort in different neighbourhoods. Bettina describes the variation in acceptance of her headscarf along a single bus line. While she feels inconspicuous and comfortable near her home at Nørrebro, she feels out of place and unwelcome just a few stops away at Østerbro where she grew up.  Areas with high immigrant populations were identified as headscarf-friendly, while Copenhagen's wealthier neighborhoods and small rural town can be less welcoming. 

While born Muslim women from non-Danish ethnic backgrounds also receive negative attention from the Danish public for wearing the hijab, the ethnic Danes we spoke with were often specifically targeted for being converts and accused of being traitors. Sumaya sums up the sentiments of several of the others, saying "sometimes I wish I had brown eyes and a Turkish name so I didn’t have to explain" (Interview with Sumaya). By contrast, Melissa, who has a mixed ethnic background, feels like she is finally able to blend in (Interview with Melissa). 

The Development of a Danish Muslim identity 

Our interviews with these seven New Muslim women brought out clearly their struggle to live in the cultural milieus of majority Denmark and the born Muslim community, both of which can identify them as the 'other'.  Most of the women had attempted to address this tension soon after their conversion by adopting a new cultural identity along with the Muslim faith.  With time, however, their attempts to reconcile their Muslim faith and Danish background became evident.  Their efforts to demonstrate the compatibility of Danish society and Islam reveal the beginning stages of a Danish Muslim identity that contradicts the Danish-Muslim dichotomy in the minds of Danes.   

Despite the treatment of New Muslims as outsiders by Danish society, the women also express pride in being Danish and in the values they identify as being both Muslim and Danish.  One of these values is the freedom of religious belief in Denmark.  "I am very proud to be Danish," says Bettina, who states that Danish society provides the best environment for being a Muslim because of its religious freedom.  She expresses disappointment that many Danish Muslims do not take advantage of the free atmosphere to be more diligent in their religious practice.  The importance of religious freedom to the New Muslims women is also clear in how all the interviewees stressed that though they hoped their children would choose Islam, they were free to adopt a different religion, emphasizing that they would never respond the same way their own families did to their conversions. 

A second value that the women emphasized is the Danish focus on cooperation, which they frame as an Islamic value. On a personal level, they describe the compromises made in their interactions with non-Muslim family members. Sumaya allows her parents to drink alcohol in her home and will not talk openly about her religious practices around her mother as a sign of respect (Interview with Sumaya and Fatima).  When Melissa visits her family, she removes her headscarf before entering the house to make her mother more comfortable (Interview with Melissa). 

This growing understanding of what it means to be a uniquely Danish Muslim has implications not only for the converts in their personal lives, but also for the openness of Danish society to Islam.  Converts, simply by virtue of living at the intersection of the majority Danish and Muslim immigrant societies, are called on to be mediators and cultural translators between the two groups (Roald 2004). This is particularly evident in the disproportionate influence of two of the older New Muslims in the Danish media. Abdul Wahid Pedersen estimates that he is contacted once a day by Danish journalists, and to emphasize his point, a call from a journalist interrupts our interview (Interview with Abdul Wahid Pedersen). Bettina has also featured prominently in the Danish media (Interview with Bettina).  Together they represent what Kate Østergaard calls an 'assertive Islam' approach, which attempts to define Islam in the public sphere in positive terms rather than passively allowing the religion to be defined by the media and politicians. 

The more recent converts we met with are more reluctant to adopt the role of cultural translator, and even express frustration with the questions they are asked about Islam. They complain that they are called upon to explain the actions of all Muslims, both locally and globally. They are asked to justify everything from the 6-year-old wearing a headscarf on Nørrebrogade to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by a Danish society that sees Islam as a unified institution. However, simply by their choice to wear the headscarf and openly practice their religion in the public sphere, these women are creating a space for Islam in Danish society and challenging the Danish-Muslim dichotomy. 

However, to date there is a significant absence of institutions to support the Danish Muslim community in their efforts to practice Islam the Danish way. We attended Friday prayers conducted by imam Abdul Wahid Pedersen in Danish in the gymnasium of an Islamic school, but these prayers are subject to the availability of the room, and thus can only take place during school holidays. The only other offering of Islamic instruction for Danes that we found was Sunday afternoon classes on Islam for women held in English at the Tauba mosque.  

Efforts to set up a mosque for Danish converts began three months ago under the auspices of the Danish Mosque Association. The organization now has 102 members, and is raising money for the establishment of a mosque where prayers and instruction will be available in Danish. Bettina, who plays a key role in the Danish Mosque Association, sees a Danish mosque as having several important roles. It would create a space where Danish converts could practice Islam the Danish way without having to adopt an alternate cultural framework. A second significant group that would benefit from this new understanding of Islam is Denmark's population of so-called second and third generation immigrants, who must negotiate ties to Islam and the cultures of their parents as well as their identity as Danish citizens. A third function of the Danish mosque would be to provide a space for dialogue and the much-needed education of the Danish population on Islam. Conclusion 

In all our conversations, New Muslims expressed concern at the increase of Islamophobia in Denmark. For decades, Islam in Denmark has been defined by non-Muslims due to the reluctance of the born Muslim community to engage in the public debate. Yet despite the increasingly negative Danish perception of Islam, a group is emerging from among the Danes with the potential to create a positive space for Islam in the Danish society. Denmark's New Muslim women, having attempted to adopt other cultural identities to conform to a born Muslim population that told them that they could not be both real Muslims and continue to be Danish, are re-discovering their identities in a uniquely Danish expression of Islam. Now they must confront a Danish society that holds Islam to be antithetical and even hostile to Danish values.

In the face of ignorance, prejudice, and outright hostility in Danish society, presenting a positive image of Islam is an uphill battle for Denmark's New Muslims.  Fatima explains how a man once spit at her and called her traitor for wearing the headscarf, and how she turned around and pushed him into a hedge in response. "I was so angry back then, not just at idiots like him, but at everybody who would just look at me. I expected attacks from everyone around me". With time and the support of a small group of other Danish Muslim women, Fatima now takes a different approach.  "Now I just smile and often I find that people smile back". 

Fatima's story is representative of the progression that New Muslims undergo in their relationship to majority Danish society.  New converts may feel isolated, attacked and misunderstood by non-Muslim Danes and attempt to assume the cultural identity of a specific born Muslim group.  With time they realize that each culture with a significant number of converts to Islam has produced a unique cultural expression of Islam. In the presence of others in the growing group of Danish New Muslims, they begin to explore a Danish expression of Islam. It is from these groups of converts that New Muslims are able to engage the majority Danish society in a positive manner.  

Nour distils the sentiments of all the women we spoke with, saying "The truth is I am very proud to be Danish even though I'm not proud of Denmark". Strengthening the New Muslim community and the establishment of a Danish mosque will increase the ability of these women to constructively interact with majority Danish society, and participate in forming a Denmark that they can be proud of.

 

References

 

Interviews 

Abdul Wahid Pedersen 

Imam; chairman of Muslimernes Landsorganisation

Converted 26 years ago 

(June 25, 2007) 

Kate Østergaard 

Department of History of Religion, University of Copenhagen 

(June 25, 2007) 

Fatima 

Converted 3 ½ years ago 

(June 25, 2007) 

Sumaya   

Converted 10 years ago 

(June 25, 2007) 

Bettina Meisner 

Converted approximately 25 years ago 

(June 26, 2007) 

Melissa 

Converted 2 ½ years ago 

(June 27, 2007) 

Nour 

Converted 2 ½ years ago 

(June 27, 2007) Lene

Converted 12 years ago

(June 27, 2007)

Mariam

Converted ½ year ago

(June 28, 2007)

Print Sources 

Jensen, Tina Gudrun: 'Danish Muslims: Catalysts of National Identity?', in: ISIM Review, vol. 19, 2007. 

Jensen, Tina Gudrun: 'Religious Authority and Autonomy Intertwined: The Case of Converts to Islam in Denmark', in: The Muslim World, vol. 96, issue 4, 2006, pp. 643-660. 

Mogensen, Mogens (2005). Når danskere skifter tro - Omvendelse mellem religionerne i Danmark. Unitas Forlag, København. 

Roald, Anne-Sofie (2004). New Muslims in the European Context : The Experience of  Scandinavian Converts. (Leiden, NLD, Brill). 

Østergaard, Kate: 'Muslim Women in the Islamic Field in Denmark: Interations between converts and other Muslim women', in: Nordic Journal of Religion and Society, vol. 1, 2004, pp. 29-46. 

Østergaard, Kate: 'The Process of Becoming Muslim: Ritualization and Embodiment', (unpublished). 

Internet Sources 

Islam.dk: http://www.islam.dk/ 

Islamisk Trossamfund: http://213.237.52.131/wakfweb/wabout.nsf/Index?readform 

Kristiske Muslimer: http://www.kritiskemuslimer.dk/ 

 

 

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