September 27, 2007 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Taking on the Islamists

Kids here in the suburban Copenhagen area are pragmatic about immigrants. They do not categorize them by faith, nationality or skin color but by size. There are the "small immigrants" and the "big immigrants." Many find the "big immigrants" threatening, especially when they travel in groups of young men in the evening.

My 18-year-old niece, though, would never dream of letting any of them intimidate her, having grown up in a town with a sizable Muslim population most of her life. Even the biggest and toughest of the "big immigrants" will back down, she believes. "I just tell them to 'shut up.' I really can't put up with having to be afraid in my own town," she says. "I just won't accept it." She also allows though, that immigrants can also be "good guys." The Somali owners of a pizza shop were wonderfully helpful during her late grandmother's illness, and one of her best friends is from Somalia.

Welcome to the complicated terrain of the Danish immigration debate, where religion and nationalism - Danishness - are increasingly intense issues. There is some irony in this, for Danes are notoriously uncomfortable with the articulation of big ideas, thoughts or emotions.

Denmark is home to 5.4 million people, of which 5 percent are of Muslim extraction. This number is fairly standard in much of Western Europe these days, with France having the highest percentage (9 percent) and Italy the lowest (under 2 percent). The Danish immigrant population is the result, as is the case in so much of Europe, of generous guest-worker and family unification policies that have only in recent years been sharply curtailed. In Denmark during the 1970s, guest workers arrived from Turkey, Pakistan, Morocco and the former Yugoslavia. In the 1980s, they came as refugees from Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Bosnia.

The rest of the world will know Denmark as the country of the Mohammed cartoons, which caused upheavals throughout the Muslim world last year, and provoked the Danish flag to be burned by angry crowds throughout the Middle East. In Denmark, support for the decision to stand up for the principle of press freedom was widely popular, but Denmark paid a price in relations with the Arab countries.

Like elsewhere in Europe, the political engagement of immigrants has been slow to take hold. There are currently just three elected Muslim members of parliament. The highly controversial case of Asma Abdel Hamid - an immigrant of Palestinian extraction and an aspiring member of parliament - offers interesting insight. Judging by photos of her benignly smiling face, wrapped in a bright blue headscarf, Miss Abdel-Hamid does not look like someone who would be political poison, but in the increasingly fraught atmosphere of Danish immigrant politics it is.

A member of the far-left Unity List party, her espousal of fundamentalist Muslim views and doctrines - like the adoption of Shariah law - have driven voters from the party in great numbers. At the May general assembly of the party, she was placed seventh on the electoral roll, something the party now deeply regrets and wants to reverse.

According to several recent polls, as a consequence of her candidacy, the small Marxist party has now declined in popular support to less than 2 percent, below the threshold for parliamentary participation were elections to be held today. As the Danish left has traditionally courted the immigrant vote, the big loser in this context could be the Social Democrats, who in order to challenge the sitting conservative government would have to rely on a coalition of minor parties on the left.

The party officialdom and other Muslim immigrants, however, have started fighting back against the threat of spreading fundamentalism. The errant candidate has been gagged by her own party, which does not allow direct contact between her and the media. And party leaders have called for a declaration of atheism on the party platform. "Especially we refugees and immigrants in the Unity List, do not understand her," Iranian refugee Bizhan Alankesh told the daily Berlingske Tidende. "We fled the Islamists. We cannot prove that she is a fundamentalist, but we are very far from her... I cannot deny the fact that there is a great deal of desperation in the party over Abdel-Hamid's presence."

There is some hope for the future in the kind of debate that is uneasily emerging in the Danish media, which leads to a differentiated view of Muslim immigrants and their aspirations. Were Europe's moderate Muslims to start finding their own voice, they might turn a corner on the road to real integration.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times