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Fanning the flames

by Archives February 26, 2008

The atmosphere in the predominantly Muslim neighbourhood of Braband in Aarhus, Denmark, is tense. The past week has been filled with religiously-charged violence: riots, car burnings and police intervention, characterizing what a local Danish newspaper dubbed Muhammadkrisen II, or Muhammad Crisis II.
This most recent round of controversy began when the Danish Security Intelligence Service uncovered a plot to kill Kurt Westergaard, the Jyllands-Posten newspaper caricaturist who drew the now-infamous cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban.
After 17 newspapers throughout Denmark decided to re-print the controversial cartoon to accompany the new death threat story, riots began in Copenhagen, Aarhus and other Danish cities.

Fanning the Flames

The debate’s central theme is freedom of the press versus freedom from religious persecution. Was it really necessary, in light of 2005’s violent reaction from Muslim communities worldwide, to reprint the Muhammad cartoon this time? Shouldn’t the Danish media have known better than to fan the flames?
Besides inciting violence and riots, the incidents have succeeded in magnifying the enlarging divide between native Danes and immigrants. Lars From, a journalist at Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper responsible for the 2005 cartoons, said that Denmark’s Muslim population – numbering close to 200,000 – were “using [the cartoons] as an excuse to make a fuss.”
“When the cartoons were first printed, I thought it wasn’t a good idea,” From said. “But the way [the Muslim community] reacted showed it was the right thing to do. Their reaction was so strong and so stupid. If people were personally insulted it would be different.”
His comments express the widespread belief among native Danes that the cartoons were not personal, and that publicly attacking a group’s religious leader and hinting that all Muslims are terrorists, as many of the cartoons did, shouldn’t merit an angry response.
It may be true that burning cars and engaging in violent police altercations is the wrong means, but when pushed to the outskirts of Danish society, many in the Muslim community feel there is no other way.

The Great Danish Divide

Having lived in Brabrand North for two months now, I cannot pretend to know what it feels like to spend years in the concrete jungle of this far-removed neighbourhood. But for many Muslims in Aarhus (primarily of Lebanese, Turkish and Somalian backgrounds), everyday life involves the harsh reality of overcrowded apartments, a confused sense of identity and sparse job opportunities. The unemployment rate in Brabrand hovers around 30 per cent, compared to the Danish national average of 3.8 per cent.
About 46 per cent of Braband’s residents are Muslim immigrants, a group that feels left out of Danish society. Is it really any surprise that mocking their highest Prophet and culture in general will incite violent outbursts?
In the eyes of many Danes, it is. A Danish classmate, during a recent Europe and Islam class, explained what he referred to as “Denmark’s Muslim problem.” He said that Muslims chose to be isolated, and that they were increasingly unwilling to learn Danish or understand Danish culture. “If they don’t like it, why don’t they go home?” was his ultimate conclusion.
This “us versus them” mentality can be observed in Denmark’s public sphere as well. Soren Krarup, a member of parliament from the nationalist Danish People’s Party (which earned close to 14 per cent of public support in 2007), recently called the hijab a totalitarian symbol similar to a Nazi Swastika. Plans to build a new Islamic Centre in Brabrand have also been stalled due to opposition from Aarhus’ city council and various resident associations.

Long From Over

In the end, forgetting Aarhus’ rough neighbourhood won’t solve the city’s growing integration problem. Danish society cannot continue to ignore its emergent Muslim population – many of whom are second or third generation Danes. It cannot continue to overlook its own citizens, while giving them a ridiculous ultimatum and drawing discriminatory cartoons. Otherwise, burning cars will be the least of Danish worries; because like all good stories, the third instalment – Muhammedkrisen III – will surely be on its way.

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