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Sunday, May 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Minarets and Cartoons

The Swiss popular vote last week to ban mosques from building minarets seems quixotic and prejudiced and faintly ridiculous. Yet, based on my experience in Scandinavia where I was seen as a Muslim, it is not at all isolated. It reflects a growing consensus in much of Europe, not about minarets, of course, but about the Muslim presence.

My friends in Denmark range from university-educated professionals to folks known as "Brians (pronounced bree-ann)," a faddish name adopted by the working class members who admired a fighter by the same name.

The skepticism towards the Muslims runs the class gamut. And a good deal of it has built up over time.

So I asked a couple friends. I have had long discussions with them about all manner of things, over pints of beer, and I wanted to know how they saw the Danish experience with Muslim immigrants.

"Personally I'm too young to remember the first immigrants coming in to the country, mainly from Turkey" wrote Simon. "At that time there was a shortage of workers. So believe it or not, we actually invited people up here."

The result was that workers from the deeply impoverished mountains of eastern Turkey immigrated in large numbers. The expectation from the Danes was that the workers would be temporary, much as the Mexican workers in the fields of California are often temporary workers, returning to their native land after building up some money.

"I think the expectation from many of the immigrants was the same -- go to Denmark, make money for a few years and then leave," said Simon, a big and friendly man with the pallor and bits of straw-blonde hair typical of the Danes.

But the economy both slowed and shifted, he said, with the result that low-end jobs became fewer, and many of the recent immigrants were left with little education and no job.

"What happened was that an even lower social caste was inserted to the Danish society. Now even the original Danes who were unemployed could pick on the unemployed immigrants. Everyone else would point to them whenever anything was wrong here in HC Andersen land," he added, using the common reference to native son Hans Christian Andersen.

Up to that point, he said, the Muslim population had not become a political focal point. It was more of a 'they are taking our jobs' kind of thing.

But the international controversy over a set of Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad changed all that.

"What got Danes who were not originally calling for all foreigners to leave to say, 'Hey wait a minute!' was when reports started showing up that a group of immigrants had actually been campaigning with the drawings around the Middle East."

That campaign resulted in riots, the burning of Danish consulates, evacuation of Danish citizens and an ongoing Middle Eastern boycott of Danish products.

In the aftermath rose an anti-immigrant party, the Dansk Folkeparti. It has hijacked the Danish flag, which has long been a festive symbol and made the flag into a symbol of traditional Danish culture with a major soupcon of nationalism.

"The Dansk Folkeparti leadership are not a bunch of village idiots, and they have gotten every possible vote out of this situation," said Simon. "They have managed to put an equal sign between Muslim and criminal, and unfortunately the governing coalition needs their votes to remain in control. So every time the coalition screws something up (which happens about every 24 hours these days), the Dansk Folkeparti bails them out -- at a price."

That price is the incremental tightening of rules that apply to immigrants. But the Muslim immigrants are partly responsible for their fate, Simon added. It is not simply a matter of bad press or national prejudice.

"They are over-represented in the crime statistics -- really they are," Simon said. "And this is starting to get to the original Danes."

"Today there are parts of Copenhagen I will not walk through -- at all. There is a gang war going on between immigrant gangs and the Danish chapter of the Hells Angels. Needless to say to anyone that has seen me, I absolutely do not look like an immigrant."

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