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Muslims In Denmark Face A Wave Of Intolerance

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And we're going to Denmark now where a debate is raging over Muslim immigration and religious tolerance. One Dutch politician who compared Islam to Nazism was acquitted last week of hate speech charges, and that verdict has horrified Muslims across Europe who fear it will encourage more anti-Muslim sentiment.

NPR's Philip Reeves recently visited Denmark, and he found that Muslims there are feeling beleaguered.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

PHILIP REEVES: In a cafe in Denmark's capital, Copenhagen, a group of men is taking afternoon tea. The men have beards and traditional Islamic robes. The mood's upbeat. There's no outward sign that in this nation, these men are no longer entirely welcome because some Danes want them to leave.

KENNETH KRISTENSEN BERTH: My name is Kenneth Kristensen Berth, and I'm a member of the party committee since '99.

REEVES: He represents the Danish People's Party. It's the third largest in Denmark's parliament. On some issues, it's liberal but not on Muslim immigration.

KRISTENSEN BERTH: Every day, I would like to exchange the 400,000 Muslims in Denmark for 400,000 Chinese. Every day of the week, I would like to do that, because we have a special problem with the people from Muslim countries because they have no intention of integrating into Danish society.

REEVES: A few years back, Denmark was considered a model of tolerance. Back then, you would never have heard a mainstream party talking of swapping out Muslims for Chinese, says Safia Aoude.

SAFIA AOUDE: Twenty years ago, nobody would say these kind of things. Some people I know, they're actually so scared of these kind of rhetoric and they actually move away from Denmark. They move to Great Britain or America.

REEVES: Aoude is a lawyer who sometimes feels an outsider in her own country because of her background.

AOUDE: Every time people ask me, where you come from. And I tell them it doesn't matter where I come from because I define myself as a Muslim. I live in Denmark, and I have all the responsibilities like any other citizen has.

REEVES: Relations between non-Muslims and the Muslim minority in Denmark took a downward turn with the cartoon crisis several years ago.

Drawings of the Prophet Muhammad published in the Danish press enraged much of the Muslim world. Attacks by Islamist extremists that followed in Denmark cranked up the tension, so generally have the conflicts in the Middle East.

Yet another big trend is at work. Barriers are going up. In recent years, Denmark's toughened its immigration laws. Fearing an influx of refugees because of the Arab Spring, it's also tightening border controls despite the Schengen Agreement guaranteeing free movement in most of the EU.

The very concept of multiculturalism is now being called into question in much of Europe. Danish writer and journalist Helle Merete Blix is among those who think it's failed.

HELLE MERETE BLIX: Because multiculturalism does not produce more pluralism. What it produces is parallel societies. It has to be a main culture that you sort of integrate into. And if too many people suddenly speak out they want Shariah law, they do not want democracy, that is a major problem in every European country.

REEVES: Some Muslims in Europe are indeed opposed to secular democracy. Take Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamic organization. It wants to turn the Muslim world into a caliphate. Accused of anti-Semitism and inciting violence, it's banned in parts of Europe, though not in Denmark, where Chadi Freigeh is its spokesman.

CHADI FREIGEH: My problem, when we talk about integration - integration is actually a cover-up for assimilation. They want Muslims to give up their Islamic values, their Islamic identity, their Islamic way of life and adopt the Western secular way of life.

REEVES: But Hizb ut-Tahrir is a fringe group.

Abdul Wahid Pedersen converted to Islam nearly 30 years ago. He serves as the imam in a Copenhagen mosque. He works with many young Muslims, and he's worried about them.

ABDUL WAHID PEDERSEN: They feel that they're not being allowed to share the Danish dream because they're not being treated as Danes. And even if they go to their parents' country of origin, they're not being treated as Pakistanis or Turks either.

REEVES: Pedersen sees a spiral in which anti-immigration nationalist extremists fuel Islamist extremists and vice versa. Denmark's overwhelmingly moderate and tolerant majority needs to step in and bridge that gap, says Pedersen, before it's too late.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.