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Making a Mosque, Realizing a Community

The Great Mosque of Copenhagen mirrors the patterns of the Near East. It has tall minarets and a huge dome. The sun reflects off the side of the dome, making the green and white decorations shimmer. Since the first day this mosque was open, Danish school children have come to learn about Islam. They gather in small groups in the education center and discuss – what is Islam? Who are Muslims? How can we learn to live together without fear? Inside the great prayer hall, thousands gather on Eid, the most important holiday of the Islamic calendar. The Imam leads services switching between Danish, Arabic, English and Urdu. The diverse faces before him are all absorbed by his contemplations on religion in a modern society.

The First Danish Mosque pierces the sky with sharp modern edges, demonstrating to the passers-by that Islam is a religion that continues to develop. The architect, a Dane, did not want a fairy tale mosque taken out of 1001 Nights. Instead he wanted to challenge the Black Diamond lying just across the water by making this building modern and truly Danish. But it is not forbidding – its doors always open to welcome in the community, its prayer hall simple, warm and full of light. Once you are inside you do not want to leave.

The Center for Islamic Studies is a complex of buildings that include a mosque, ethnic restaurants, a Turkish bath, classrooms and a conference hall. All are welcome inside, to enjoy a shish kebab, a Turkish steam bath or to rent the conference hall – as long as you don’t bring it swine or wine. On Fridays, a muezzin climbs the tall minarets to call for prayer, his song echoing across the complex below and the neighborhood of Amager – just as the church bells ring across the roofs on Sundays.

The Empty Land

These visions of a unifying Danish mosque remain only a fantasy. In its place lies a plot of overgrown land on Njalsgade Islands Brygge on Amager. This land has become the center of debate about the construction of a mosque in Denmark. In 1992, the Copenhagen City Council passed a local plan approving the use of the land for a mosque. Instead of a mosque symbolizing the unity of the Danish Muslim community, there is a deserted lot evidencing their lack of unity. “Danish Muslims can’t unite around anything except for the fact that they disagree,” says Hussein Schjøttz, a Danish convert to Islam and spokesperson for United Danish Muslims. 

The Islamic Cultural Center and a coalition of Muslim embassies submitted the first proposal for the mosque in 1992. A majority of the City Council gave the groups permission to construct a mosque, despite significant local opposition on Amager. However, the construction never began and the proposal was eventually abandoned due to internal disagreements. The Islamic Cultural Center and the Muslim embassies stopped renting the land and the debate died. 

But now, almost ten years after the initial proposal, the debate has been rekindled. At the end of 2000, some Muslims took the initiative to reconsider the mosque construction. In an article in the January 2, 2001 issue of “Amager Bladet,” Dansk Folkepartis (the most right-wing Parliament party) Parliament member Peter Skaarup reacts: “Shockingly, the project is running again: plans about a big mosque on Amager that we thought was well forgotten have been reopened.” Part of the community on Amager, which collected four thousand signatures against the mosque the last time its construction was proposed, still opposes its construction. But this is not the major issue facing the group attempting to construct a single mosque for all the Muslim communities in Denmark. 

Instead, the communities have different visions of the mosque: as a cultural house, an Islamic study center, a multi-ethnic center of worship or a truly Danish mosque. In addition, many of the Muslims in Copenhagen disagree about the way the mosque should be funded. Imam Fatih Alev, a Muslim born in Denmark and leader of the Muslim Student Union explains “The presence of a mosque is a concrete sign of unity.” In order to create this symbol of unity, Muslims living in Denmark need to agree on why it is important, what purpose it will serve, and who will fund it. We discussed these subjects with members of several different communities – Muslim and non-Muslim – working with the issues surrounding the mosque.

Clearing the Land, Visualizing a Symbolic and Practical Structure

“The problem with a big mosque is that it could become an attraction for Muslims to come to Denmark,” says Peter Skaarup of the Dansk Folkeparti. “The mosque would be a symbol of Danish society changing in a direction many people do not follow,” he adds. Several of the people we interviewed also see the mosque as a symbol of how Danish society is changing. But few of them view it as a potential attraction for more Muslim immigrants. Jørgen Bæk Simonsen of the Carsten Niebuhr Institute of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Copenhagen sees the lack of a mosque in Denmark as an embarrassment for Danes. “There definitely should be a mosque – it’s depressing that we’ve had Muslims for thirty years and we’re still denying them this basic respect,” he says.

For many people, the construction of a mosque is seen as the inevitable and necessary product of having a large Muslim community. It is both a practical necessity and a confirmation of the fact that Danish society now includes those of other religious persuasions. Currently, although more than twenty informal mosques exist in Copenhagen, in classrooms and basements spread throughout the city, there is no single gathering place for Muslims in Denmark. On Eid and other important holidays that necessitate large groups of Muslims worshipping together, they must resort to renting out conference halls or stadiums, Walliat Khan of the Copenhagen City Council explained in “Amager Bladet” on April 3, 2001. Many Danes recognize this practical necessity. “We don’t have to love it, we don’t have to hate it. We just have to receive it on Amager,” says Karen Torgny, reporter at Amager Bladet. She continues: “The Muslims should be allowed to have a mosque.”

But even more important than the practical need for the mosque is its symbolic significance. With 170,000 members making up three percent of the Danish population, Islam is the largest minority religion. While Peter Skaarup sees the mosque as a symbol of Danish society moving away from the values of its population, others see it as an acknowledgement of this substantial part of the Danish population that has not yet been recognized. “Within a few years there will be the first real mosque – a symbol of freedom of religion. It will tell the world that this society is open, not just dominated by the state church, but open for everyone, including minorities,” says Walliat Khan.

Ethnic differences split the Muslims in Denmark apart. In addition, generational differences leave second generation immigrant youth seeing Islam as a remnant of their parents’ village life. Many see the mosque as crucial to unify the fragmented Muslim communities and allow them recognition as Danish Muslims. Most services in local informal mosques are not in Danish but in the language of first generation, alienating the communities from each other and the youth from their parents. In order to create dialogue within the Danish society about Islam and within the Muslim community about Denmark, many people see second generation Danish Muslims as key. The second generation Muslims live the dual identity of Danish and Muslim. Through dialogue, many hope these two identities will no longer be seen as mutually exclusive. As well as dialogue, time will play an important role in unifying this dual identity. In fifteen years the second generation will be full-fledged members of Danish society as Danish Muslims – like the Danish Jews. Fatih Alev calls this “the mosque of tomorrow,” since it will represent a Muslim community that can be unified as Danish Muslims.

Hussein Schjøttz appreciates the strong symbolic power of a mosque, but insists that it should only be built after a unification of Muslims in Denmark. “If the Muslims unite to build it, they will use it. If the mosque becomes an idol or just an object, it will be empty. I don’t care if we have a mosque – I can pray at home, I can go to a local mosque. I would rather have that than an empty symbol.” Regardless of the process many Muslims and non-Muslims believe that once a mosque is built it will unite Muslims and serve as a “stamp of recognition,” as Walliat Khan puts it.

Laying the Foundations of an Integrated Society

The mosque would not only demonstrate that Danish society recognizes its Muslim members. It would also show that the Muslims living in Denmark have ceased to be strangers, instead becoming integral parts of Denmark. “The mosque will attach the Muslims to Denmark and Danish society,” says Jørgen Bæk Simonsen. “It will accelerate integration,” he continues. As a visual symbol, the mosque would represent this change. And as a Danish institution, it would ensure that dialogue between different Danish groups continues. “If it [the mosque] is not a place of dialogue, I will be the first to oppose it,” states Fatih Alev. Walliat Khan believes that the mosque will foster integration by being an open public structure. “It will show the Danish society that the Muslim population is not going to be a problem. They’ll be able to see what Muslims are doing and thinking.” Many agree with Khan that the mosque will have an important educational role for both Muslims and non-Muslims interested in learning about Islam. “The mosque could be used as an instrument for dialogue. This is required to remove boundaries and stereotypes. We need dialogue with minorities – not about them,” declared Alev. The only way to create integration is to destroy the stereotypes holding people apart – and the only way to do this is through education. A mosque that also functions as an educational center and is open to the public could go a long way in dispelling popular misconceptions about Islam. Fatih Alev hopes there will be a two-way dialogue that also teaches Muslims about Christian Danish values. In fact all the people interviewed agree that a mosque will aid in integration through its symbolic and practical functions.

Constructing a Mosque, Building a Multi-Religious Society

Why is Denmark, which is so well known for its commitment to international development and human rights, one of only two countries in Europe without a formal mosque? When we began this research, we expected that this was a sign that Denmark was changing to be less tolerant. We feared that the lack of a formal mosque was a sign of deep prejudice in Danish society. Karen Torgny of “Amager Bladet” sets us straight: “It’s not the Danes’ fault that the mosque hasn’t been built – it’s the Muslims’ fault, because they can’t agree.” We discovered that internal dissension within the Muslim community made realizing these visions of the mosque difficult. In addition, aspects of the Danish system make the construction of a non-Lutheran structure difficult. 

The Muslim community of Copenhagen lacks unity. It is made up of distinct ethnic groups and religious persuasions, including Iraqis, Pakistanis and Moroccans; Sunnis and Shi’ites. In addition, there are serious inter-generational differences among immigrants/refugees and their descendants. “Muslims in Denmark cannot agree on anything. That’s the biggest threat to the Muslim community,” states Hamid El Mousti. These divisions particularly endanger the construction of a mosque, since it requires huge financial support and cooperation. 

“The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but not religious equality,” writes Jørgen Bæk Simonsen (Simonsen 2001: 3). In other words, there is no religious equality in Denmark, although citizens are free to follow whatever faith they prefer. This inequality might challenge the democratic system, which ought to include all citizens equally. For example, as Hamid El Mousti explains: “We have to register our children’s names in the Church. Personally I don’t care, but some people think that is a discrimination.” Peter Skaarup believes this system works. “There should be freedom of religion but not equality of religion. Denmark is first and foremost a Christian country, and we should support our religion,” he says. The close connection of Danish society and the People’s Church makes full integration into society by non-Lutherans very difficult. 

Islam is not a recognized religion in Denmark. In addition, the Danish state stopped officially recognizing religions in 1958, before Denmark had any Muslim community to speak of. There is no separation between State and Church, which means that the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church (The People’s Church or Folkekirke) receives support through taxes. 

Over the last several decades, Denmark has become more secular. Because of this increasing secularization and because of the influx of non-Lutheran immigrants, some people feel that major constitutional changes are needed. They believe the religious makeup of Denmark has changed in terms of demography and belief, and changes are imperative to create religious equality. Other people, like Peter Skaarup, do not believe that constitutional changes are necessary. He sees constitutional changes or even discussions about them as a threat, and as a sign that “Danish values are endangered.” This belief is based on the idea that Danish culture and the Church are inseparable. As Karen Torgny explains, “Our country, our way of living and being is based on Christianity. Therefore it is a mission for the state to support the Church.” The essence of this idea is the exclusion of people who do not belong to the People’s Church from being full members of Danish society. They are tolerated at its periphery.

Currently, all local Muslim congregations are responsible for supporting themselves financially (as are all other non-Lutheran groups). Whatever other faith communities receive through voluntary private donations is tax deductible. Fatih Alev and others believe this is an injustice. “Why should the Muslims pay voluntarily while the Danes don’t have to? It’s unfair,” he says. This creates an atmosphere of inequality among religions in Denmark.

Among the people who advocate religious equality we have observed two distinct models for how this could be realized. First, a complete separation between state and church, so that all religious communities including the Danish People’s Church should be only sponsored by voluntarily donors. Second, the support of all religious communities with tax monies. Interestingly, nearly all non-Muslims who support the construction of a mosque believe that the complete separation of Church and State is necessary for religious equality to be realized. 

On the other hand, the Muslims we spoke to did not advocate this major change in Danish society, instead most were in favor of automatically funding all religions with tax monies, expanding the model of the People’s Church. Fatih Alev, Walliat Khan and Hamid El Mousti agree that all non-Lutheran groups should pay tax to support their own communities. Finally, some people saw no need for equality of religion; believing that any non-Lutheran activity should be independently funded. Karen Torgny says “I don’t think the Danish government should pay for it because we are still a Christian country. They wouldn’t pay for a Danish church in Turkey or Iran.” Hussein Schjøttz was the only Muslim we spoke to who agreed. “Islam shouldn’t be funded by the state. It needs to be maintained by its own religious community. We need enough strength among ourselves to maintain the religion. If not, what’s the point?” 

A number of Muslim communities in Denmark have been successful in raising enough money to buy a space for worship, but none have the resources required to build a large formal mosque. While some believe that the Muslim communities would be able to raise enough money among themselves if they united, others disagree. Most of the Muslim leaders we met with felt the only hope for funding a mosque in the near future lies with outside support. The World Muslim League, based out of Saudi Arabia, is considering supporting the construction of the mosque. Fatih Alev does not believe the Danish Muslim community can raise the money for the mosque. He supports the World Muslim League because they “don’t have any other choice.” 

“The Mosque shouldn’t be funded by the World Muslim League of Saudi Arabia. It needs to be locally funded,” says Hussein Schjøttz. He, as well as other members of the Muslim community, fears the mosque would lose its Danish focus. However, Pastor Lissi Rasmussen of the Islamic-Christian Study Center described the World Muslim League-sponsored mosque in Malmö, Sweden as a unifying center for Swedish Muslims that has become an integrated part of Swedish society. This World Muslim League funded mosque in Malmö was the first of Sweden’s four official mosques. Contrary to the success story of Sweden, funding the Danish mosque has emphasized the Muslim community’s internal differences.

In an attempt to overcome these differences, several people have tried to start an Islamic Council, with representatives from each of the Muslim congregations. This council is now in the process of being realized, with the construction of the mosque as one of their major goals. Hamid El Mousti doubts that it will be possible to include representatives of all groups. However, Walliat Khan is very optimistic about the formation of the group, and believes that a Council with representatives from each Muslim community is feasible in the near future. 

Realizing a Dream, Realizing a Structure

In a predominantly Muslim suburb of Copenhagen, a new religious structure has been erected. The state, still uncertain about how to cope with its new population, reacts to the Muslims in Ishøj by building a new church along traditional Danish lines, as if to preserve traditional Danish values. Every day, buses of tourists pull up. The tourists enter the traditional white building to discover its contemporary interior. They admire the stained glass that interprets the Holocaust in a Christian context, modernizing Danish Christianity. As the tourists leave, they peer with wonder at women in headscarves walking past with their children. The women do not notice. They are used to tourists. 

On Friday at a quarter to two, we take of our shoes and leave them next to the others. We stand outside the room, unsure whether we should enter, until a friendly young man comes out and invites us in. We look around the carpeted room and choose a spot in back with the other woman. Men keep entering, facing Mecca and kneeling in prayer. In the hallway, children shriek and run. The young imam enters and signals a man across the room. He rises and begins the call to prayer. The song fills the room, bouncing down the narrow hallway, sending a shiver down our spines.

The land on Njalsgade still lies empty. Around it still swirls discussions about the nature of the mosque, who should fund it, who and what it represents. Local opposition continues, the Danske Folkeparti gaining votes and attempting to rescind the permit to build the mosque. Religious inequality further divides the Muslims from the Old Danes.

But there is hope. The debate and discussion this issue of the mosque has raised is healthy. It demonstrates that members of the Danish society are reflecting on and objecting to the current situation. We need to support Muslim initiative and engage in dialogue with each other in the name of the continuation of Danish democracy. 

A growing number of people are working to create religious equality – how long can it be before we come together to affect change? This promises to challenge common prejudices, to challenge religious inequality, to challenge the constitution. The lens of the mosque provides us with a clear view of many vital issues in post-modern Denmark; providing insights on the complexities of isolation, integration, and practicing religion in a rapidly changing society. The plot of land on Njalsgade is ready to embrace the mosque of tomorrow – as a symbol of an integrated society.

References

Interviews

Alev, Fatih. Imam, board-member at the Islamic-Christian Study Center, and coordinator of the Muslim Student Union

El Mousti, Hamid. Member of City Council of Copenhagen for Socialdemokratiet, Host of the Television Program “Mrs. Jensen’s new Neighbors.” 

Khan, Walliat. Member of City Council of Copenhagen for Venstre, and Chauffeur

Rasmussen, Lissi. Pastor and coordinator for the Islamic-Christian Study Center

Schjøttz, Hussein. Spokesperson for the United Danish Muslims and carpenter 

Simonsen, Jørgen Bæk. Associate Professor, Carsten Niebuhr Institute of Near Eastern studies

Skaarup,Peter. Parliament member for Dansk Folkeparti 

Torngy, Karen. Reporter at Amager Bladet

Works Cited

Khan, Walliat, “Vi har brug for en stor moské.” Amager Bladet, April 3, 2001

Simonsen, Jørgen Bæk, “Constitutional Rights and Religious Freedom in Practice: The Case of Islam in Denmark.” P. 1-11, In print, 2001.

Skaarup, Peter, “Nej tak til islamisk stormoské på Amager.” Amager Bladet, January 2. 2001.

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Denmark Denmark 2001

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