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Keeping the Eye on the Ball: the Diversity and Integration of Denmark’s Muslim Communities


Recently famous for its hard-line position on immigration and the integration of refugees, Denmark has been described as a "small village" by scholars attempting to explain the causes of its hard-line policies.  Given the short 30-year time period marking the arrival of unprecedented religious and ethnic diversity with new immigrant groups, the “small village” reflex should not come as a surprise.   One aspect of this reaction has been the tendency to depict the large Muslim minority as a homogenous bloc of 200,000 people sharing similar cultural, social and political views. While the Muslim communities have arguably been able to integrate themselves into Danish society since the 1970s, the cartoon crisis indicated that some elements of religious and cultural diversity are still causing friction within Danish society. The simplistic way of depicting and understanding Muslim community groups that has been used in the past is simply not good enough. 

No longer taken at face value, a larger number of Muslim leaders have become familiar to the Danish public and media since the cartoon crisis.  Although the increased inclusion of Muslim leaders in public debate has helped dispel some of the mystery surrounding Muslim communities, the extent to which these representatives actually speak on behalf of the Muslim community remains unclear.  For example, at certain points during the cartoon crisis, some Muslim community leaders were depicted as if they spoke on behalf of not only all Danish Muslims but also on behalf of the 1.5 billion Muslims of the world. To make matters worse, the Danish political community focused almost exclusively on issues of free speech and individual freedoms, passing up a crucial opportunity to explore the cultural and religious characteristics of the Muslim communities in Denmark.  In a context where dialog about cultural and religious issues was already minimal, this could only lead to more confrontation and misunderstanding.     

In order to address the problems of representation and diversity in the Danish dialog on integration, we decided to interview leaders of Muslim community groups from all parts of the political and religious spectrum: Abu Laban from the Islamic Faith Society, Abdul Wahid Pedersen from Muslims in Dialog, and Fatih Abed from Democratic Muslims. We also talked to additional members of the Muslim community to inform our research and find out exactly who the Muslim community groups in Denmark represent.  Taken all together, the interviews provide a framework to clarify the importance of the similarities and differences between Muslim groups. While Muslim groups frequently have very different ethnic identities and take different opinions on the mixing of religion and politics, they still agree on the fundamental values necessary for engaging in a dialog with Danish society, sharing similar concerns about integration and political participation.  

Part I: Diversity

The Muslim community in Denmark is extremely diverse.  Coming from all over the world, these Muslims bring distinct cultural and social traditions from countries such as Morocco, Palestine, Iraq, Somalia, Mauritania, Turkey, Bosnia, Pakistan and Iran to name a few. These cultural differences are also enhanced by linguistic differences.  As a result, religious and social communities have tended to group themselves according to a common ethnicity.  This grouping can be seen in the Turkish mosques and Pakistani mosques providing religious services in Turkish and Urdu.   For example, the Islamic Jaffaria Center is a mosque made up of mostly Shi’ia Muslims.  Directly from Pakistan, the Imam of this mosque speaks neither English nor Danish. In order to interview this Imam we needed a translator.  IIslamic Jaffaria was reminiscent of a phenomenon which some Muslims refer to as an “importation of structure from the home country.”  In these types of communities, social, linguistic and religious practices are brought over and copied in Denmark, making ethnicity highly important for conceptions of group identity and loyalty. The Turkish mosque DIYANET is another example of this, as it is a branch of an official mosque of Turkey.  The concept underlying both DIYANET and Islamic Jaffaria reinforces membership to national communities abroad rather than to a Muslim identity in Denmark. This means that an immigrant’s identity remains very much attached to the home country, especially for first generation immigrants.

Some Imams, such as the leader of the Islamic Faith Society, Abu Laban, encourage a different type of identity called “pan-Islamism.”  This is a conscious effort to reduce the importance of ethnic distinctions by stressing the shared values that community members have by being Muslim.  In this model, ethnic distinctions take a second place to religious commonalities. These types of communities do not allow for religious diversity within sects of Islam , however, and potentially over-stress the importance of religion. While this emphasis on Muslim identity helps increase group unity and coherence in the context of ethnic and national diversity, it also suggests that Danish nationality comes second after religious identity.  Imam Abu Laban explained this concept to us: “The main mistake made by the West is that they haven’t understood up to this moment that Islam as a religion is not a normal ingredient of our culture, it is the MAIN ingredient of our culture.”  This is perhaps one of the reasons for which Imam Abu Laban has been labelled as a “hard-liner” and is one of the more controversial Imams in Danish media and politics.

Groups such as Muslims in Dialog and Critical Muslims place Muslim identity within a larger Danish context. Muslims in Dialog spokesperson Abdul Wahid Pedersen stresses that “we are all Danes, and some of us happen to be Muslim.”  He supports a more forward-looking version of Islam, where Islam remains important for personal beliefs, opinions and daily life while remaining rooted in a Danish socio-political identity. Muslims in Dialog does this by trying to encourage the use of Danish in sermons and activities, as well as by stressing membership not only to the Muslim community but to Danish society as a whole.  This dual membership where religious and Danish identity explicitly go hand and hand has perhaps been the reason why groups such as Pedersen’s and Critical Muslims have been dubbed as the “good guys” since the cartoon crisis.  Pedersen told us that “For many years I’ve been a monster [in the media] but recently I have found (after the cartoon crisis) that I have moved from being a monster to someone who is a citizen who can be engaged without threat…  The religion is no longer as much of an obstacle…now there are different shades of grey.”   

One more recently formed group, Democratic Muslims, goes even further.  They stress that religion is an individual’s private matter, promoting a secular national identity as the only acceptable form of political identification. In Democratic Muslims, members are first Danes and then ethnic Muslims.  Membership is based on six criteria which in principle ensure that members’ political views are completely independent of their religious affiliations.   Spokesperson Fatih Abed told us that “To understand each other and respect the other, why don’t you do a Van Gogh-style video  to people who want to come to Denmark so that people can understand what type of society they come to when they come to Denmark.  People think that they are coming to a Christian society when they come to Denmark, but it’s not true, it’s a secular society.” Democratic Muslims believes that immigrants must value and preserve this secularism above their religious and cultural beliefs.

The effect of cultural differences within the Muslim community is helpful not only in distinguishing group identities and loyalties; it is also helpful in avoiding the confusion of cultural and religious differences when discussing important social issues.  Samia Yusuf Ali from The Danish Association Against the Circumcision of Girls told us that Somali Imams were much less willing to take a stand against female circumcision than the Arab or Turkish Imams in Denmark and Europe.  Because she understood this cultural difference within the religious community, Samia was able to get seven high-profile Imams to make statements in front of the Danish parliament affirming that Islam did not support the practice of female circumcision.  Moreover, the Arab and Turkish Imams were very eager to help Samia clarify this distinction between cultural practices and religious doctrine concerning women’s rights.  A simplistic understanding of Islam would have incorrectly placed the cause of the problem on the religion and labelled Islam as incompatible with Western cultural values. On the other hand, issues like the death penalty are less easily rejected by parts of the Muslim community. While unopposed to the elimination of the penalty in Denmark specifically, many Muslims have difficulties rejecting it as a universal principle. This is because the death penalty and other criminal punishments are mentioned in the Sharia and denouncing the penalty universally could be seen as equivalent to denouncing Islamic law. Understanding the different cultures and diverse values within the Muslim community thus helps to differentiate between which conflicts with Danish society are due to cultural differences and which ones are due to religious differences. 

The different ways of creating group identity through cultural and ethnic distinctions are also characterized by very different types of leadership.  These distinct types of leadership in turn affect views on the appropriate relationship between politics and religion.  Some Muslim groups have exclusively religious leadership, such as Islamic Jaffaria and DIYANET.  This exclusive religious leadership is accompanied by a stance of non-involvement in politics.  Both mosques refuse to participate in public debates.  Islamic Jaffaria does not allow the distribution of any political leaflets within their grounds and prohibits board members from belonging to any political organizations while serving the mosque.  Although secular in leadership and content, Democratic Muslims share this view on the importance of keeping religion and politics separate.  Religion regards the private life of members and should not spill over into political activities or opinions.  Others such as Abu Laban and Abdul Wahid Pedersen mix religion and politics, exercising political leadership and maintaining their function as Imams at the same time. Both Abu Laban and Abdul Wahid Pedersen expressed opinions that are easily understood in an American context where religion does not have a preferential place in institutionalized politics but nevertheless informs political activities. Laban justified the mixing of religion and politics by arguing that religious motivation is not so different from secular motivations for social activism; one of his dreams would be to have a Muslim lobby advocating social concerns informed by the Muslim perspective. He told us that “The issue is not secularism versus religion, knowing if there is religious support to Muslims’ demands or not.  Their demands should not be seen as an obstacle to democracy but should be seen in a normal way.”   Laban used an analogy to explain this idea, comparing parents’ requests for Halal meat in school cafeterias to parents’ demands for vegetarian food.  In this way, social demands informed by religious concerns are less threatening than they might seem.

Part II: Commonalities

Despite the many differences within the Danish Muslim community, views on political participation do not differ to such a large extent.  All groups, irrespective of their views on mixing politics and religion (excepting radical groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir), are pro-democratic and accept the Danish constitution as the appropriate framework for political participation. Neither the Islamic Faith Society, Muslims in Dialog or Critical Muslims feel that the Danish constitution or democratic political system are incompatible with Muslim values. Although Abdul Wahid Pederson refused to denounce Sharia in order to run for political office, he justifies this as a refusal to denounce his Muslim identity and faith rather than a rejection of democratic political values.  Imam Abu Laban explained that there is enough room for interpretation within Islam for it to be compatible with any democracy. He also says that one “must develop a standard of awareness amongst Muslims in Denmark by making them aware that they have the opportunity to contribute to politics.” This awareness is often times lacking due to the large number of Muslims originating from authoritarian regimes where political activism and participation are not allowed. For example, Abu Laban argues that the responsibility to change the xenophobic trend in Danish society falls upon Muslims.  They should increase and improve integration efforts through political activism rather than complacency. Abdul Wahid Petersen agrees very much on this point by saying that the Muslim Community should be much more active in advocating their opinions.  He believes that the development of grassroots organisations, umbrella organisations as well as the establishment of a regular ‘media’ to represent the Muslim community, are needed to work towards better integration, dialog and understanding. 

One challenge facing all of the Muslim groups in Denmark when participating in integration debates is the question of accurate representation.  Democratic Muslims spokesperson Fatih Abed accuses groups such as Abu Labans’ Islamic Faith Society for claiming to represent many more Muslims than they actually do. When asked directly however, Abu Laban clearly defines the members of his mosque and organizations and states he does not speak on behalf of all Muslims in Denmark. Moreover, Abu Laban criticizes views such as Abed’s and says that this view is a stereotypical media portrayal that causes a more general problematic view of the different Muslim groups. Very much in line with Abu Laban, Abdul Wahid Pederson points to the inevitability of a certain duality between whom one represents and whom one speaks for. He highlights that membership is very low in Danish political parties in general, but come election time, the public divides itself in terms of the groups with whom they agree most.  This is because that is the way representative democratic political systems work. In line with Danish democratic systems,  Muslim participation in public debates is also subject to these tendencies in representation and participation.  

During our interviews, it became clear that despite their differences, the most important and influential Muslim community leaders agreed on the most fundamental issue at hand: the question of how to successfully integrate Muslims into Danish society. Abu Laban talked about improvements in education and political participation, while Abdul Wahid Pedersen spoke to us more about participation through different political channels.  Fatih Abed from Democratic Muslims emphasized “jobs, jobs, jobs.”  When specifically asked, no group considered the relationship between the Christian church and the Danish state, or the creation of an all-Muslim political party, to be of any importance.  Through our conversations on integration with each group, the importance placed on positive outcomes and integration by all became increasingly clear.   Remarkably, the two most opposed leaders in terms of religious and political views, Abu Laban and Fatih Abed, took the same stance on integration and representation.  They told us that the number of members in their groups is not of concern because representation is not the end goal of political activism; successful integration in terms of education, jobs and general political citizenship is the top priority.  This importance placed on results could potentially downplay the specific cultural differences within the Muslim community, making the hope of improving dialog both across Muslim groups and with non-Muslim groups a realistic goal.  

Part III: Conclusion

After taking the time to speak with the leaders and members of Denmark’s Muslim community, it is clear that familiarizing the Danish public with the Muslim communities is of vital importance.  It is unreasonable to pretend that real social and political dialog are possible without knowing the different cultural and religious contexts of the Muslim community.  By focusing on individual political freedoms, Danish politicians and media have unfortunately created a context-free discussion.  Ignoring the diversity of the Muslim community only increases the tendency to confuse the social, political and religious factors relevant to integration and dig ditches between communities instead of bridge them.   

At the same time that the varied ethnic, religious and political positions must be taken into account, the diversity of views and values held by the Muslim community can also confuse dialog and efforts towards better integration.  It is for this reason that Muslim leaders must recognize the common goals of groups within the Muslim community.   The name of the game is to keep the eye on the ball, not on the players.  By focusing on their common goals instead of on their differences, Muslim community leaders in Denmark can improve integration efforts and ameliorate relations with the non-Muslim Danish public.  Danish politicians and media should also play their part by stressing the common values held by Muslims and non-Muslims.  This role can be more easily understood in the American context where both secular and religious political activists coexist under democratic rules and institutions.  Danish politicians should publicly recognize that Muslim political activists are not inherently un-democratic and encourage rather than discourage Muslim political and social participation.  It is important not to let the differences across Muslims and with non-Muslims serve as an excuse to exclude anyone from the debate or slow down integration efforts.  Only by focusing on the common goals and values of Danish Muslims and non-Muslims can the “small village” reaction be reversed.  Dialog can only move forward when each party is understanding and open, and this is near impossible if the groups with which one dialogs are shrouded in mystery.





Imam Abdul Wahid Pedersen, ‘Muslims in Dialog’, Monday June 26th, 2006 

Imam Abu Laban, ‘Islamic Faith Society’, Monday June 26th 2006

Fatih Abed, ‘Democratic Muslims’, Monday June 26th, 2006

Imam Syed Muried Hussein, ‘Islamic Center Jaffaria’, Saturday June 2nd,2006 Imran Hussein, ‘The Network’, Thursday June 22nd, 2006-06-29

Samia Yusuf Ali, ‘Danish Association against Circumcision of Girls’, Wednesday June 28th, 2006


Garba Diallo, leader of the ‘International Peoples College’, Elsinore Sherin Khankhan, Speaker presentation at Krogerup Højskole, Sunday 4th of June 2006

Kim Hundevadt, Journalist ‘Jyllandsposten’


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Denmark Denmark 2006


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