Denmark making amends to insulting the Prophet

After cartoon controversy, Copenhagen is divided over efforts to mollify Muslims with two mosques


Yet despite a sizable Muslim population, the Danish capital of Copenhagen has nothing but the occasional tiny storefront Muslim place of worship.

The city is now inching toward construction of not one, but two grand mosques. In August, the city council approved the construction of a Shiite Muslim mosque, replete with two 104-foot-tall minarets, in an industrial quarter on the site of a former factory. Plans are also afoot for a Sunni mosque. But it has been a long and complicated process, tangled up in local politics and the publication four years ago of cartoons mocking Islam.

The difficulties reflect the tortuous path Denmark has taken in dealing with its immigrants, most of whom are Muslim. Copenhagen in particular has been racked by gang wars, with shootouts and killings in recent months between groups of Hells Angels and immigrant bands.

The turmoil has fed the popularity of an anti-immigrant conservative party, the Danish People’s Party. In city elections scheduled for Nov 17, the People’s Party, by some estimates, could double the roughly six per cent of the vote it took in the last municipal vote.

Denmark is not alone in grappling with the question. In Italy, the rightist Northern League opposes mosques in Italian cities; in Switzerland, voters will go to the polls on Nov 29 in a referendum to decide whether to ban the construction of minarets.

In Denmark, it was the cartoons, one of which depicted Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, that gave the initial impetus to a movement for a mosque.

“I wrote a front-page story saying we somehow had to reconnect to the Muslims, to collect money to build a mosque as a sign of solidarity,” said Herbert Pundik, 82, the former editor of the Danish daily ‘Politiken’.

Reactions

Pundik, speaking by phone from Tel Aviv, where he now lives, said that within 24 hours there had been more than 1,000 positive responses. But then the Muslim reaction to the cartoons turned violent, with attacks on Danish embassies in several cities, including Beirut and Damascus. “The steam went out of the project,” Pundik said.

Yet it didn’t die. Bijan Eskandani, the architect of the Shiite mosque, said he found inspiration for his design in the ‘Persian element in Islamic art’, which he said consisted of a “special lyric, poetic attitude”. The Shiite community, he said in written answers to questions, lacked the financial means to acquire a suitable site for a mosque. “The building lot they have is situated in an ugly, unattractive, inharmonious gray factory area,” he said, adding that “a sparkling mosque there may make a difference.”

The very word Persian sends chills down Martin Henriksen’s spine. “We are against the mosque,” said Henriksen, 29, one of the People’s Party’s five-member directorate, in an interview in Copenhagen’s Parliament building. “It’s obvious to everyone that the Iranian regime has something to do with it,” he said. “The Iranian regime is based on a fascist identity that we don’t want to set foot in Denmark.”

Since becoming party to the national government coalition in 2001, the People’s Party has helped enact legislation to stem the flow of immigrants and raise the bar for obtaining citizenship. Immigrants, Henriksen insists, “need to show an ability and a will to become Danes”. He cites past Jewish immigration as an example. “Many Jews have come to Denmark since the 16th century,” he said. “We don’t have discussions about whether to build synagogues.” There are at least four synagogues in the city.

Abdul Wahid Pedersen, whose parents are Scandinavian, converted to Islam years ago. “I was 28, a child of the 60s,” he said. Now 55, he is chairman of a 15-member committee promoting construction of a grand mosque for Copenhagen’s Sunni Muslims.

He concedes that of the estimated 2,50,000 Muslims in a Danish population of 5.5 million, only about 35,000 are Sunnis. Yet he defends the need for a grand mosque and says that while the Sunni community is not soliciting financing from Saudi Arabia, as the People’s Party contends, he has no problem accepting a donation.

“If someone wants to chip in, that is OK,” he said, in the shop in a working-class neighbourhood where he sells Islamic literature, prayer rugs and other religious objects. “But they will have no influence on running the place.”

Pedersen, a blond man with a ruddy wisp of a beard, said his committee was even considering installing wind turbines atop the minarets and covering the mosque’s dome with one large solar panel.

Regulations

The city’s deputy mayor, Klaus Bondam, 45, defends the right of Muslims to their mosques. The minarets, he said, would be “quite slim towers, we’re not going to be Damascus or Cairo.” The city had also made clear there would be no calling to prayers from the mosques’ minarets. As to the charge of foreign underwriting, Bondam said it did not concern him as long as the sources were listed openly.

But he fears that the debate over the mosques could help the People’s Party double its share of the vote in this month’s local elections to as much as 12 per cent. “It’s the little discomfit of people of other religion or background,” he said. “Why can’t they be like me?”

For Toger Seidenfaden, 52, the present editor of ‘Politiken’, the People’s Party is “democratic and parliamentary — they are not brownshirts”. But he said they were a “very Danish, nationalist party — they’d like Denmark before globalisation.”

On the broad avenue called Njalsgade, where the Sunni mosque is to be built on a vacant lot, Preben Anderson, 61, a bricklayer, said he had nothing against a mosque, though he pointedly said he could not speak for his neighbours. “We have churches,” he said. “We have to have mosques.” He stood across the street from where weeds and junk now cover the lot where the Sunni mosque could one day stand. One neighbourhood resident, asked if he could point out the site where the mosque would be built, professed not to know.

Per Nielsen, 56, a retired history teacher, said the economic slowdown and the gang wars in nearby neighbourhoods were feeding the popularity of the People’s Party. As for the mosque, he said, “There’s very strong pressure — people living here don’t want it.”

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