Denmark’s first mosque opens amid controversy

Denmark’s first mosque opened on Thursday, but leading politicians stayed away from the event.

Supporters hope the mosque will help build bridges of understanding [Simon Hooper/Al Jazeera]

Copenhagen, Denmark  Perched on top of a tall column at a road junction in the Norrebro neighbourhood of Copenhagen, an enormous American-style ringed doughnut demands to be noticed.

“De Angelis. Delightfully different DONUTS,” reads the sign. Further down the street, a mock lighthouse advertises a self-storage warehouse, vying for attention on the busy skyline with the branded flags of car showrooms and industrial chimneys.

Next to the lighthouse is the latest vertical addition to this mundane urban landscape that is currently stoking controversy in the Danish capital. A slender minaret topped with a small crescent marks the site of Denmark’s first purpose-built mosque.

Denmark is home to approximately 226,000 Muslims, many of them the children of migrants who have been arriving since the 1960s. Many of them hope the mosque and the adjoined Islamic cultural centre finally means acceptance after decades of marginalisation.

But senior politicians and members of the Danish royal family invited to Thursday’s opening ceremony stayed away amid concerns that the organisation behind the mosque, the Danish Islamic Council (DIR), promotes a conservative interpretation of Islam.

Foreign funding

Funded by a donation of $27.4m from Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the former emir of Qatar, critics cite alleged ideological links between the DIR and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Depth

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Meanwhile, media coverage on the eve of the opening focused on comments reported by the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, which provoked Muslim anger worldwide in 2005 by publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, in which Mohamed al-Maimouni, the DIR’s main spokesman, described homosexuality as a sickness.  Al-Maimouni told Al Jazeera it was disappointing that politicians had chosen to stay away.

“This is a historic day for Muslims in Denmark and it sends a very negative signal,” he said. “We are a part of society and we are proud to be Danish. We have our religious background, but that has nothing to do with being a good citizen and participating positively in this society.”

Al-Maimouni said the mosque complex, officially known as the Hamad Bin Khalifa Civilisation Centre, stood as a symbol of an emerging Danish-Muslim identity.

The buildings marry common elements of traditional Scandinavian and Islamic architecture such as clean lines and simplicity of form, while the mosque’s Moorish-inspired interior stonework references Islam’s European heritage.

“We always said that we had to have a Danish mosque, and not an Egyptian mosque, or a Qatari mosque, or a Moroccan mosque,” said al-Maimouni. “All of the furniture is Danish design.”

Conservative anger

Yet for many on the Danish right, the idea of a Danish-Muslim identity remains both a contradiction and a provocation. A protest planned on Thursday outside the mosque by members of Stop Islamisation of Denmark (SIAD), a far-right fringe group, was banned by police on the grounds that it risked inciting unrest.

Reacting to the ban, Anders Gravers Pedersen, the leader of SIAD, compared the group to the Danish resistance fighting against Denmark’s Nazi German occupiers during World War II.

But inflammatory anti-Islamic rhetoric also fuels more mainstream debate. Writing in a party newsletter, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, the leader of the far-right Danish People’s Party which won more than a quarter of votes to finish first in last month’s European elections, described the mosque as a “bridgehead for an extreme version of Islam“.

“I do not like the risk of rabid imams preaching on Danish soil,” he wrote.

I voted for the mosque, but I am concerned about the money and the point of view they have on homosexuality and other things.

by - Lars Aslan Rasmussen, Social Democrat MP

Yildaz Akdogan, a local representative of the Social Democratic Party, said politicians should stand in solidarity with Danish Muslims as well as engaging in dialogue with Muslim groups on issues where they disagreed.

“It is important for politicians to send a signal to all Muslims in Denmark that we do accept Islam and we have freedom of religion in our country,” Akdogan told Al Jazeera.

“I would rather have an open mosque on the street where I can see it and visit it, instead of having all sorts of different mosques in basements or back yards where we don’t know what is being preached.”

But others supportive of Danish Muslims’ right to build mosques said there were serious concerns about the project’s links to Qatar and the ideology it would promote.

“I voted for the mosque, but I am concerned about the money and the point of view they have on homosexuality and other things,” Lars Aslan Rasmussen, another local Social Democrat, told Al Jazeera. “My concern is that they have connections to the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar is known for supporting the most conservative groups in Europe and the Middle East.”

Rasmussen also questioned the DIR’s claim to speak for a Danish-Muslim identity and said future mosque projects should not be funded by donations from overseas.

“But what is more important is that there should be new ideas in Islam [and] you will have imams who accept homosexuals. It will come, but this mosque is not representing something new and that is a shame.”

‘Building a bridge’

Speaking at Thursday’s ceremony, Ghaith bin Mubarak al Kuwari, Qatar’s Minister of Endowments and Islamic Affairs, said the Gulf state was proud of its support for a project it hoped would act as “a bridge to build trust and a beacon to achieve mutual understanding between Denmark and the Muslim world”.

DIR spokesman al-Maimouni said al Thani’s donation was a one-off payment and that the centre would be used to promote dialogue between different interpretations of Islam and across society in general.

“There were no conditions from the Qatari side and there is no political agenda. There is huge diversity in the Muslim communities here. In the history of Islam the mosque was always an attractive place to solve any kinds of problems in society. It is a platform for everything.”

Clarifying his comments on homosexuality, al-Maimouni said the DIR’s views were in line with the Quran. “But that does not mean that if people want to come to us we would reject them, absolutely not. We are not judging people because of their sexual background. We have respect for all people whoever they are.”

Across the road from the mosque, groups of youths gathered to watch as arriving dignitaries stepped from their cars onto a red carpet flanked by the Danish and Qatari flags.

Marwan Buahya, a local youth worker, said that as a tough inner city neighbourhood, Norrebro faces typical problems associated with immigration and integration.

“It’s more difficult being a Muslim in Denmark than it used to be because of all the things happening around the world,” Buahya told Al Jazeera. “I hope the people living here will be happy [with the mosque] and I hope that young Muslims will participate and stay away from trouble.”

Changing views

Support came from other local community members. “It would be strange to live in a country and be born in a country and not have your own house for your religion, so it’s very nice,” Hanne Ravn Hermansen, a local artist, told Al Jazeera.

It would be strange to live in a country and ... not have your own house for your religion.

by - Hanne Ravn Hermansen, local artist

“This was just the most boring street in Copenhagen with all the car showrooms – and that stupid doughnut – and now you’ll get people coming here so I think it will do good things for this neighbourhood.”

Brian Arly Jacobsen, a researcher specialising in Islam in Denmark at the University of Copenhagen, said polls showed public mood was gradually shifting in favour of greater acceptance of the country’s Muslim minority.

While surveys in the 1990s had shown strong opposition to the construction of mosques, he said a clear majority of Copenhageners now supported the mosque, and compared the current controversy to the debate over the creation of the country’s first Muslim burial ground in 2006.

“Since they actually established the burial ground there has been no debate at all,” Jacobsen told Al Jazeera. “If people see that the mosque is not a security threat, or threatening society in general, then it will not be so controversial anymore.”

Back across the road from the mosque, Buahya shrugs and laughs when asked what it means to be a Danish Muslim. “Islam is my religion and I am born and raised here, so of course I am Danish. There is no question. I am 35 years old and I don’t think it is an issue.”

Follow Simon Hooper on Twitter: @simonbhooper

Source: Al Jazeera