Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
There are no official statistics on the Muslim community in Denmark, as the Danish government does not register individual religious beliefs. However, it is estimated that Muslims number around 280,000 people, making up nearly 5 per cent of the total population.
The first large-scale migration to Denmark began in the late 1960s, as workers from Turkey, the former Yugoslavia and Pakistan came to fill gaps in the labour market. Before that, Denmark was a relatively homogeneous society in terms of language and culture. From the mid-1980s onwards, Denmark became the host country for large numbers of refugees fleeing war in their homelands. They came from Sri Lanka and Somalia, as well as Middle Eastern countries such as Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. In more recent years significant numbers of Syrians escaping conflict have sought asylum in Denmark.
Muslims have primarily immigrated to Denmark in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, first as labourers and then as refugees. While Denmark has been well known historically for its tolerance, increasing tensions became apparent as this ethnically and religiously homogenous society became more diverse. Opposition towards the number of migrants started to grow in the 1980s, and when the Social Democrat-led coalition came to power in 1992, a more restrictive immigration policy was introduced. In 1999, an Integration Act was passed. It was the first of its kind in the world and the government’s stated intention was to ‘to ensure that newly arrived refugees and immigrants can make the most of their capacities on an equal footing with other citizens of Denmark’. However, some campaign groups accused the government of discriminating against ethnic minority communities. The rising popularity of far-right groups heavily influenced mainstream parties to adopt a tougher line on immigration and asylum issues. In 2001, a right-wing coalition promising tighter immigration controls ended years of dominance by the Social Democrats. European anti-racism groups have repeatedly expressed concern about increasing numbers of racist attacks in Denmark.
Another milestone in terms of relations between Muslims and the non-Muslim Danish majority took place following the publication in September 2005 by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten of 12 cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, ostensibly to overcome what the editors perceived as self-censorship reflected in the reluctance of illustrators to depict the Prophet. The cartoons were highly offensive to Muslims because Islam is understood to prohibit graphic depictions of the Prophet and because most of the depictions were extremely derogatory, associating him, and by implication all Muslims, with terrorism. In response, Danish Muslim organizations held public protests and the controversy spread beyond Denmark, with examples of the cartoons reprinted in more than 50 countries, sparking further protests including rioting. Much of the outrage was directed against the government of Denmark because of its refusal to suppress the cartoons or to take action against the editors of Jyllands-Posten. The cartoons and the reactions they elicited placed further pressure on a relationship already under strain. As evidenced by increased support for the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party, the controversy symbolized and amplified tensions and misunderstandings between Denmark’s Muslim community and the rest of society.
In spring 2007, the selection of a young Danish woman politician of Iranian descent as a potential candidate for parliament sparked further controversy. Asmaa Abdol-Hamid said she would wear the hijab if elected to parliament and would refuse to shake hands with men, in line with her religious beliefs. This caused further intense debate about religious freedom and the acceptance of diversity in Denmark.
The number of people of Muslim faith in Denmark increased on a year-to-year basis after 2011, when the centre-left government abolished some of the stricter immigration and refugee policies of its predecessor. A significant demographic shift occurred in 2014, when the number of Muslims coming to Denmark increased by 13,000, due partly to a surge in the number of Syrians seeking refuge. By 2015 the number of asylum applications (the majority from Muslim countries) was nearly three times higher than just two years before.
2014 saw significant public debates surrounding Islam in Denmark. While the ability to freely construct places of worship has been regarded by some as a sign of societal integration, the opening of the Hamad bin Khalifa Civilisation Centre, which became the largest mosque in Scandinavia, faced opposition by some politicians and members of society due to fears that its Qatari funders were seeking to spread their conservative version of Islam. In February 2014, a ban on the ritual slaughter of animals without previously stunning them was introduced in Denmark, requiring halal meat to be imported from other countries. Officials argued that the ban was necessary to promote animal welfare, but many Muslim groups argued that ritual slaughter can be conducted in a humane way. The majority of halal meat in Denmark was already imported prior to the ban; however, many observers raised concerns over the precedent set by this measure in the context of increasingly Islamophobic legislation.
These events have occurred against the backdrop of a political shift in Denmark towards the extreme right. The right-wing Danish People’s Party (DPP) gained 21 per cent of the vote in the 2015 general election and became the country’s second largest party. Among other measures, the DPP called in February 2017 for immigrants and refugees to celebrate Christmas if they wished to be seen as ‘Danish’.
Many people in Denmark have not been accepting of Muslim migrants, who have been confronted with prejudice and racism. According to a survey conducted in 2017, nearly a third of Muslims living in Denmark feel that they are looked down upon by the rest of Danish society.
The government’s stance towards immigrants is far from welcoming. Recent years have seen an increase in legislation and policies that are aimed at dissuading migrants from coming to Denmark and are often viewed as specifically targeting the Muslim community. In 2016, the citizenship test was made more difficult, benefits available to immigrants were nearly cut in half and the family reunification process was extended by two years.
Muslim community members often face considerably pressure to integrate, and distinct practices and belief have at times been a source of public controversy. In 2016, a day care centre serving mostly Muslim families stopped serving pork because no one would eat it. There was an immediate backlash that resulted in a specific measure being passed requiring pork to be on the menu in order to help preserve national identity.
In January 2018, the populist Danish People’s Party (DPP) presented an ‘anti-ghetto’ strategy for areas with large migrant populations that included curfews, increased policing and a ban on the construction of mosques with minarets. The so-called ‘ghetto deal’ was later adopted by the Danish parliament. It targets 25 largely Muslim-majority areas with restrictive policies such as mandatory ‘Danish values’ education for children. Non-compliance can lead to the cutting off of welfare benefits.
In May 2018, the government introduced a ban in public places on full-face coverings, described by the Justice Minister as ‘incompatible with the values of the Danish society.’ The first person to be fined under the new law was a 28-year old woman who was wearing a niqab. Police were called in August 2018 to a shopping centre in Horsholm in Nordsjælland when the woman had become involved in a scuffle with another woman who had tried to remove her niqab. The incident highlighted the risk that the new law can act as a green light for Islamophobic attacks.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in