Denmark Struggles to Handle Immigration Flux: Social Programs, Cultural Identity Feel Rising Strain

By Keyser, Jason | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 30, 1999 | Go to article overview

Denmark Struggles to Handle Immigration Flux: Social Programs, Cultural Identity Feel Rising Strain


Keyser, Jason, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


AARHUS, Denmark - The call to prayer inside the Sultan Mosque booms out of a crackling stereo speaker. On the street, people walk past, not knowing that the old brick house on the north side of Aarhus is a mosque.

Downstairs, mostly Turks and Somalis sip tea at a cafe. Teen-agers gather around a pool table. Upstairs, people pray.

There are eight of these makeshift mosques in Aarhus, Denmark's second-biggest city.

In October, a group of Muslims proposed to build a mosque in Aarhus, which would be the first in Denmark. The plan ignited a debate that has been as much about Islam and Europe's changing identity as it has been about a house of worship.

"We want to bring Islam out of these houses," says Rage H.M. Rage, a Somali who has led the effort to build a mosque in the center of town.

Having escaped the civil war in Somalia and arriving as an asylum seeker in Denmark five years ago, Mr. Rage has put himself at the heart of another struggle: He wants to practice his faith openly.

In the cafe of the brick mosque, Osman Farah sipped tea and spoke about what he calls the Danes' "negative, complicated picture of Islam."

"The Danes are not ready to accept Islam in a comprehensive way. They are not racist people; just isolated," he says.

The biggest obstacle to building a mosque in Denmark, many Muslims say, is preparing the Danes to accept Islam. To them, even more important than the building of a mosque is having Danes accept one.

EUROPE'S CHANGING FACE

For Aarhus' Muslims, the mosque is a symbol of a larger battle for civil rights in Denmark and for recognition of Islam as a positive addition to Europe's cultural and religious fabric.

In its struggle to handle recent overflows of refugees and immigrants, the country thought by many to have one of the most active democracies in the world may be trying to shut foreigners out. In that respect, Denmark's woes are a microcosm of the immigration problems that afflict much of Western Europe.

Growing numbers of Muslim immigrants and refugees crossing Europe's borders are thought by many politicians in northern Europe to be straining their systems of welfare benefits. And to some, what is worse, the newcomers are challenging Europe's cultural identity and its ideas.

"The extent of the contradiction is that Europe is moving toward greater integration, yet within states there is an effort to create an exclusive climate," says Leonard Martin, a political analyst and head of the All African Organization, a group that consults with the Aarhus City Council.

There are 17 million Muslims in the 15-nation European Union. And in many countries, Islam is no longer a minority religion. Muslims make up nearly 3 percent of Denmark's 5.3 million people, or 150,000 Muslims. Islam is the country's second-largest religion.

"Yet we are invisible," Mr. Martin says.

In the 1960s, many European countries invited Turkish, Yugoslav and Pakistani immigrants to work in the continent's manpower-starved postwar industries. Refugees, fleeing regional conflicts in places like Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, added to the rising numbers this decade.

For the Somalis, who have been coming to Denmark for six or seven years, there is a new hurdle that Muslims from southeastern Europe don't face, Mr. Farah says. "We are Muslim, black and from the Third World."

The Danish government and the Muslim community in Denmark are struggling to find ways to integrate and to change Danes' perceptions of Islam.

The Aarhus City Council has increased dramatically the number of programs intended to integrate foreigners, including increasing job opportunities for foreigners, improving Danish language courses and raising foreigners' voices in local government.

But many in the city government and the community acknowledge that these programs are not working. …

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