Danish Side of the Story

     I was in line for a big dance club called Absalon in Copenhagen’s old city, years ago.
     I was with my American friend Kleb, a soccer player whose father is from Ecuador. Both of us have dark hair and darker skin than the average Scandinavian. The bouncer told us the club was private.
     It was an enormous club that held hundreds of people. I said we were from California. He asked us for ID which is never requested in European clubs. We showed our California driver licenses, and the mood instantly turned friendly.
     The bouncer smiled and welcomed us into the club. He did not say so, but it was clear he had thought we were Middle Easterners.
     This was a good ten years ago, way before the controversies of the Danish cartoons and the anti-Danish riots throughout the Middle East.
     I relayed this story to a Danish friend at the time, saying you could not get away with such blatant prejudice in the United States. Henrik’s answer was matter-of-fact. “There have been a lot of knifings in that club,” he said. They involved Middle Easterners.
     So, the bouncer had a reason.
     The strength of the nativist party, Dansk Folkeparti, which today shares power in the coalition government of Denmark, is built on a foundation of such stories and incidents.
     A Danish woman, Domenic, had told me about an incident where she suddenly realized her backpack was missing, in a café in the center of Copenhagen. She rushed outside to confront the man walking way with her backsack.
     A small woman with a big personality and a deep voice, her complaint quickly brought a group of men who surrounded the Middle Eastern man who had taken her things. He pulled out a knife. Dropping the backsack, he got away before the police arrived.
     Another woman, Lene, lived in the mid-sized town of Horsens in Jutland, the great, northern peninsula that is the agricultural heartland of Denmark. She bicycled to school, as almost all the Danes used to do, every day. But her route took her through an immigrant neighborhood.
     A lovely and athletic woman, the harassment and verbal abuse she took every day from the Middle Eastern men had taken its toll, and she had come to hate the foreigners who had been given rights in her country.
     But the mother of all incidents was the Danish cartoon controversy in 2005, when a Jutland newspaper published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
     A pair of Muslim religious organizers who had been given sanctuary in Denmark toured the Middle East with a “dossier” that included faked material in addition to the cartoons. Their complaint was taken up by Muslim leaders and a set of anti-Danish riots followed throughout the Middle East, as well as a boycott of Danish products that has sharply affected dairy exports to that part of the world.
     Such exports are central to the Danish economy.
     I could well understand the common Danish reaction to a pair of Muslim religious figures who had been given sanctuary in Denmark and then repaid the hospitality by fomenting riots against their host and attacking its economy.
     One of the pair of imams duly presented himself when Denmark sent a plane to evacuate Danish citizens threatened by the riots in Lebanon. As a Danish citizen, he was given a seat on the plane, along with the others.
     In a typically muted and reasoned reaction, a Danish reader commented, “It was — to many Danes — a stroke of irony to see him gladly accepting the assistance of the Danish government that he resisted so much.”
     The Danes, along with European nations in general, score high on press freedom. In response to official protests from Middle Eastern nations, the Danish government took the position that the cartoons were a matter of press freedom and that the only means to sanction the Jutland paper was through the courts.
     Muslim groups in Denmark tried that route and Danish public prosecutors declined to bring a criminal action, noting that the cartoons were protected as commentary on a subject of public interest, much like the American Constitutional protections that allow wide latitude for press commentary on public figures.
     From that failure, Muslim groups took an extrajudicial route that included death threats and assassination plots that, to my amazement, have continued into the present in the United States.
     Late last month, two Chicago residents, a Pakistani and an American, were arrested and accused of planning to bomb the Jutland paper that published the cartoons.
     So you might understand why many Danes feel somewhat aggrieved towards the immigrants they at first welcomed into their nation. Even though I did not appreciate the cold wind of prejudice that blew my way while I was in Denmark, as a secular American confused for a Muslim.

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