Islam and immigration have slipped out of Denmark’s political discourse since the centre-left government led by Helle Thorning-Schmidt came to power two years ago and dismantled the ministry for refugees and immigrants. Now they are back in the news, because the country’s first big purpose-built mosque is soon to open its doors.
The mosque, jammed between a railway line and a back street in Copenhagen’s gritty north-west, comes complete with a dome and a minaret, even though local by-laws prohibit any noisy call to prayer. The news of its opening took many Danes by surprise. Denmark’s Muslims have tried for years to have a proper place to worship, but previous attempts failed or were foiled.
When the first news stories about the mosque appeared, the focus was on the architectural elegance of the new building – a pleasant blend of Scandinavian restraint and the strictures of the Islamic building code. But soon articles started to appear that fretted about fights between Islamic sects, radicalisation, foreign influence and even local vandalism. Carl Christian Ebbesen of the populist Danish People’s Party (DPP) said it was wrong to allow the building of a “symbol of a religion that doesn’t recognise democracy and women’s right to freedom”. And when it emerged that the new mosque was funded (at least in part) by a hefty donation from the Qatari royal family, the DPP waded in with a demand for legislation to hinder the financing of mosques by Middle Eastern interests.
A parallel debate has begun about halal meat. It has emerged that many hospitals, schools and kindergartens have been serving meat slaughtered by the Islamic method, and that all meat at some big slaughterhouses was blessed by an imam before leaving the factory gates. Anti-Islam hardliners protested outside a big regional hospital, saying such practices undermined Christian values. Yet many said it did not bother them if somebody said a few prayers over a carcass. Ms Thorning-Schmidt tried to appease both sides by recommending the voluntary labelling of halal meat, but also advising that Danish culture should be preserved. Her effort failed to please the tabloids, which gave her a new nickname: “Hamburger Helle”.
For now, it appears that the two most disparate groups in Danish society will emerge as victors: Muslims, who have at last got their mosque, and the DPP, whose renewed anti-Islam rhetoric has won support. A poll this week has pushed the DPP above 20% for the first time. If that translates into votes in the next election, Islam and immigration will be in the news for years to come.