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The Political Perversion of Religious Differences The Role of Religious Leaders in the Immigration Debate


Being lost is certainly not the best place to be, but sometimes it can be an important place from which to begin. As an American for the first time in Denmark, I have gotten lost nearly everyday around Copenhagen. But on the windy morning of June 17, I finally found my way to the interview with Safet Bektovic only to realize I would again be lost in a different way.

We were meeting with Bektovic in order to gain his perspective as a Bosnian philosopher on Islamic-Christian relations in Denmark. Before the interview officially began however, my Danish co-writer Søren explained to me that Bektovic, who is assistant director of the Islamic-Christian Study Center, preferred speaking in Danish. Therefore, my only contribution to our research would be to study Bektovic's body language to supplement whatever Søren heard. 

And so it happened that I was lost again, in a totally different sense. I sat there without words, waiting for some noteworthy change to record in Bektovic's demeanor but likely just making him (and Søren) more uncomfortable under my studying stare. I naturally didn't comprehend a great deal of what was taking place, but I saw in Bektovic's face a kind and gentle man whose eyes betrayed a timid reserve and occasional sadness. 

Then the change came, and I somehow knew what was being said without the words. Søren and I had reviewed the questions before the interview and so when I saw Bektovic's face, I knew the very question Søren was asking this time: "If the Muslims in Denmark were threatened as the Jews were during the Second World War, would the Danish people help in the rescue of this religious minority as they had another 60 years ago?" 

Suddenly the familiar reserve faded from Bektovic's face and he concealed his sadness no more. I don't understand the Danish language, but I immediately knew his answer. It was all the more chilling and desperate coming from a Muslim. Would the Danes defend the Muslims today? 

"No, no…no."

Clergy in Question

In many respects the Muslim situation in Denmark differs significantly from the situation of Danish Jewry over half a century ago, and comparing such a hypothetical threat to a historical event may be problematic. Still, Bektovic's troubling doubt reflects an all-too-widespread sentiment among Denmark's Muslim community: they are not welcome and cannot belong. 

In early fall of 1943, the Danish public learned that Jewish citizens would soon be facing persecution by the then-occupying Nazi forces. The choice soon became clear: either permit the Nazis to remove and extirpate the Jewish population as was being done throughout occupied Europe or resist. It is now a major point of national pride that the Danish people chose to resist. Moreover, the clergy played an important role in resistance. Understanding that they wielded a particular influence over the public conscience as religious leaders, they chose to speak out for the Jews and helped to organize a stunning communications network among the country's 2,200 parishes in a matter of only a few days.

Sixty years ago, the clergy realized their moral responsibility to help rescue the Jews in danger. Sixty years later, it seems the clergy would still have such a moral responsibility. The Danish Jews are no longer threatened by the Nazis, but members of religious minorities indicate they are still threatened in Denmark. What role can today's religious leaders then play in protecting the rights of other humans? Are the clergy fulfilling their responsibility to promote peace and justice for all?

Political Distortions of Religious Proportions

"There is a straight line from the horrible rapist - to the man who circumcises his daughter and forces his wife to wear a scarf - to the person who because of his religious fanaticism flies into the World Trade Center. What they have in common is a hatred to other people, a hatred whose origin is a sick ideology,"  declared Danish MEP Mogens Camre shortly after September 11, 2001, in a speech to the Danish People's Party wherein he repeatedly blamed the Islamic faith for terrorism and evil.

In the past twenty years, the number of Muslim immigrants in Denmark has swelled. As a result, the Danes have been forced to reevaluate their own identity and attitude toward their new neighbors who may not share the "traditionally Danish" outlook and way of life. Camre's condemnation of Islam seems to have lowered the standard of fair speech over religious minorities in Danish politics. As a result, some Danish politicians have isolated the entire Islamic religion as the principle cause for the nation's frustrated efforts to integrate immigrants. 

Priest and MP of the Danish People's Party Søren Krarup bluntly accuses, "Islam makes integration impossible." He backs his accusation, arguing that it has been impossible for Christians and Muslims to peacefully co-exist for the last sixteen hundred years. Krarup believes that Denmark, along with the rest of Christian Western Europe, is now in the same situation as the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth century when the massive migrations began. He warns that if such migration cannot be resisted through either new legislation or Christian conversion, Denmark will then be overrun and its status as a nation-state will end. Although some protest Krarup's extreme stance is peculiar to himself, he is in fact not completely alone.

Head of the Danish People's Party Pia Kjærsgaard in a recent article of the party's newsletter "The Failed Integration" writes, "The more we give in, the more Islam develops into an impenetrable, parallel society."  Here Kjærsgaard is referring to the particular debate surrounding swimming lessons for Muslim children in Odense. Some parents are simply unwilling to allow their children to mingle with the opposite gender especially in swim clothes that don't properly cover their bodies. But Kjærsgaard explodes the debate, turning what would be an otherwise local and cultural concern into a stark divide between world religions and an attack on national identity. Her statement is in fact then an implicit critique of tolerating or "giving in" to cultural differences, and her reasoning follows: the more accommodation to differences, the less integration (i.e. assimilation)--and the more the traditional Danish way of life is in danger. In addition to Camre and Krarup, Kjærsgaard's manipulation of cultural differences into religious clashes has become a rising political trend extending beyond the Danish People's Party. Former Mayor and Social Democrat Per Madsen of Ishøj was recorded in an interview with The Dane as early as 1989, accusing that "Muslims live at a medieval stage with a loathing of women that is unheard of in this country."  

Whether it's a question of wearing a scarf at work, praying at certain times during the day, or requiring a specific diet, politicians have isolated and castigated cultural differences as irreconcilable religious conflicts. 

But the conflicts between immigrants and Danes are simply not religious, according to Safet Bektovic. He notes, for instance, that the 25,000 predominantly Muslim Bosnians are getting along quite well in Denmark without negative attention from either the media or politicians. Moreover, he argues that an estimated 90% of official Muslims in Denmark don't read the Koran or regularly attend mosque. Bektovic reasons that the success of integrating immigrants depends not on their religion but on the structure of their previous society. 

So to blame the difficulty of integration on religion by calling it a Muslim problem is then simply not accurate, he says. Therefore, politics and media are confusing culture with religion and consequently stigmatizing the entire Muslim community. Thus what is essentially a question of specific culture and custom has been distorted into a general critique of faith and identity.

Imam Fatih Alev, who has been part of the Union of Muslim Students since 1990 and is a four-year member of the Islamic-Christian Study Center, senses that in Denmark, "Islam is seen as an inferior set of values." 

He believes that predominantly cultural differences are misconstrued to characterize an entire religious community because there is no significant majority among immigrant groups to categorize other than "Muslim." As a result, the media and politicians tend to lump many different groups together, implying they represent the entire Islamic religion. And so, the diversity and even tension within the Muslim community of Denmark goes largely unnoticed. Instead, the "Muslims" are referred to in the political rhetoric as a unified and homogenous group. And Islam is seen as a nation or collective rather than the broad and diverse religion it truly is.  

Priest, theologian, and director of the Islamic-Christian Study Center Lissi Rasmussen suggests that the misrepresentation is due to more than the lack of a majority immigrant group in Denmark. She believes much of the divisive rhetoric over the clash between Islam and Christianity originates from fear, which politicians increasingly exploit. 

"Religion is very emotional….Political leadership legitimizes negative attitudes [and has] used fear to gain votes," Rasmussen argues.

Therefore, whether from ignorance of diversity or fear of differences, she claims that Muslims on the whole have been unfairly isolated and stigmatized.

Reluctant to Respond

As politicians like Camre, Krarup, Kjærsgaard and Madsen are exploding cultural differences into religious divisions with fear rhetoric, they cross what in Denmark has been more or less a divide between politics and religion. Since the dilemma of immigration and integration has eroded into a debate of religion, it seems uniquely relevant now that the Danish clergy become more active in redressing such political manipulation used for religious discrimination and resist the present human suffering as they had sixty years in the past. 

However, many question whether the clergy have much relevant influence anymore. Even if Danish religious leaders are so far quiet on these matters, could their speaking out really influence politics? 

Perhaps not entirely. But even if they can't change things completely--even if their influence has waned in an increasingly secular society--shouldn't the clergy strive to make a difference as if they were still according to the 1943 Shepherd's Letter (Hyrdebrev), "the conscience of the state"? Hasn't the Church a duty to stand up as it did in 1943 when another religious minority was targeted? If so, why have most religious leaders so far been overwhelmingly silent and complicit?

Cornered and Fragmented

Rasmussen laments that the Church is in many ways quite cornered out of politics and too fragmented within itself to act. She also feels the structure of the Church makes it nearly impossible for it to come up with a clear position, not only on the relatively new multi-religious situation, but on many other matters as well. As a former Humanity in Action report by Tom Weirich and Jesper Packert Pedersen indicates, the nature of the problem originates in the Danish constitution of 1849 which states that Denmark is not only a Christian country, but also the Church is the church of the people. The relationship of state and church stated in the constitution was deliberately left open for the infant democracy to eventually sort out. 

But it hasn't been sorted out, and the ambiguity is still problematic today in 2003. For instance all priests are civil servants paid by the state and supervised by the bishops. If a priest is to be fired, the Minister of Ecclesiastical Affairs--a thoroughly secular position--makes the final decision. The Minister can also fire the bishops, although no precedents of this exist likely because the bishops are democratically elected by the dioceses. Regardless, without a clear definition of duty and authority as such, power hinges on the individual's political reputation and not necessarily on competence. In an extreme case for example, the clergy might end up being in charge of the financial side and the lay people might end up deciding in ecclesiastical matters.  

Chairman of the Copenhagen Parish Council, historian, and specialist on the Balkan conflict Karsten Fledelius observes that politicians have not historically been keen on clarifying the role of the Church. He surmises that some are very suspicious that a strong Church might too greatly influence politics. Furthermore, the conflicting factions within the clergy have also complicated matters between religion and politics, rendering reform of the church-state relationship even less tenable. 

The Courage to Speak

And so, the questions persist: Why aren't the clergy speaking up against the attack on Islam in Denmark? What exactly can religious leaders from each tradition do to help? 

Lissi Rasmussen urges that, "We need to separate state from Church in order to criticize." 

She indicates many of her colleagues feel censored due to their financial dependence on the state. In her eyes, the structure of the church is essentially flawed and its relevance limited by the precarious relationship with the government. Nevertheless, can the clergy still make a difference despite the Church's structural limitations? 

Priest Leif Bork Hansen of Lyngby certainly thinks so. Like Rasmussen, he laments the current situation between church and state: "It's so awful--there's no opposition." But Hansen believes his first duty is as priest over civil servant, which for him means to "obey God before people." Eagerly citing Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, Hansen argues first and foremost, "The single person is responsible." He feels that he has a particular "privilege to speak from the pulpit, but it also binding." So far not many other priests or other religious leaders seem quite willing to sympathize with Hansen's attitude. And if there are many, they are not making themselves well heard. 

Naturally, responsibility isn't confined to the clergy. Fledelius points out that the situation is reciprocal and profoundly interrelated. He emphasizes that church members and lay citizens along with the clergy all share responsibility in defending the Muslim community against political victimization.

Rabbi Bent Melchior, former chief rabbi of Denmark, argues that Danish Jews have an even stronger reason to defend other religious minorities like the Muslims because they both share similar vulnerability as minorities. He believes that some of the specific requirements of Jews and Muslims resemble each other enough that policies aimed at suppressing Muslims could easily include Jews as well. But he compares the prevalent attitude among Jewish leaders with most Christian leaders, which is: "Better not to show up."

"Samtale Fremmer Forståelsen" 

And so, the problem seems ultimately founded in misunderstanding and fear--the fear to speak up, to stand out, to risk one's reputation in the name of justice. Priest Hansen reflects, "It is always the problem--we are all scared."

To fight the fear though, awareness and appreciation of religious differences must be encouraged more among the Danish public. Clergy can do this encouraging from the pulpit in every worship center. Initiatives such as inter-faith dialogues and round-table discussions with politicians and media representatives are crucial. Clergy can work with their congregation, especially youth, to promote initiatives like these. And they are already happening gradually through organizations like the Islamic-Christian Study Center, but as Rasmussen, Alev, and Bektovic know well: the public must be more involved and more aware. Rasmussen says they are especially trying to extend beyond the academic and even religious milieu. And she along with Hansen, Melchior, Bektovic, Alev, and Fledelius all believe an atmosphere of trust, tolerance, and understanding of religious diversity can only be fostered through increased contact with and exposure to such differences. 

This is precisely why they all also feel that the younger generation of Denmark is promising. The youth experience diversity more profoundly than any politician today, and as a result they are naturally less afraid and threatened by their differences. Rather than scheming to change each other through conversion tactics or assimilation policies, the youth realize that diversity is here to stay. They experience what Rabbi Melchior says that the "fear of contact goes both ways." And slowly, the youth are learning that to live together they must risk together, trust each other, listen and understand. Melchior confidently reflects on the younger generation of Denmark, "We shall overcome these fears of contact and you shall see it all over.

That day with Safet Bektovic I learned a little of what it was like to be lost in a way totally different from aimless wandering around Copenhagen. I couldn't speak Søren and Safet's language, but I studied their faces and the room around us. Early in the interview, I spotted a poster hanging on the wall just outside the door. It showed the Bible and the Koran together and read, "Samtale Fremmer Forståelsen." At the time, I didn't know what the words meant, but the poster was still compelling to me. Later, I asked Søren about the phrase, and he said it meant, "Conversation promotes understanding." I like that. I think in many ways I could actually understand Søren and Bektovic's conversation even without understanding the words themselves. Maybe then, there is a conversation outside of words that just requires us to experience each other and our differences. Maybe we have common language as we have a common human experience. But we have to promote this conversation--our experience with one another--to understand it.

It must be made clear that the problem of integration is not due to religious conflict. But it must also be made clear that we cannot ignore there is indeed an important conflict in Denmark, and steps must be taken to acknowledge the true nature of the problem. This can begin especially through dialogue and increasing awareness among young and old. Religious leaders from every tradition have a special responsibility to promote this kind of dialogue. 

Leif Bork Hansen makes this point very clear.

"We all have different beliefs but all have the same responsibility….The Church is at the heart of the country. I have the [responsibility] to speak to the people…to hit them in the heart."


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HIA Program:

Denmark Denmark 2003


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