Imam Mundhir Abdallah is a good example of the dilemmas that have confronted politicians in Denmark in their response to Islamist extremism among the country’s 300,000 Muslims, the large majority of whom are first- or second-generation immigrants.
In May 2017, the Danish Jewish community filed a complaint against Imam Abdallah for a sermon he delivered two months previously, in which he implored faithful Muslims to kill the Jews on “Judgement Day” and urged the “liberation” of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem from “the filth of the Zionists.”
The Danish authorities were aware of Imam Abdallah’s extremist beliefs and associations for at least two years before that. In February 2015, a man named Omar al-Hussein attended Abdallah’s mosque in the Copenhagen suburb of Nørrebro; two days later, al-Hussein embarked on an armed terror rampage in the Danish capital, gunning down a Jewish security volunteer, Dan Uzan, at Copenhagen’s main synagogue before being shot himself by police. So when audio of Abdallah’s Jew-baiting sermon of 2017 surfaced on the website of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), the reaction against him was forceful—and not solely from the Jewish community.
Speaking for the government, the minister of immigration and integration, Inger Støjberg, denounced Abdallah’s words as “horrible, anti-democratic and abominable.” Columnist Tarek Ziad Hussein wrote frankly in the newspaper Politiken, “it is with a heavy heart that I must admit that we in Muslim circles have serious problems with antisemitism.” Addressing the core of the matter—and this in a country famous for being the only nation to resist the Nazi deportation of its 7,200 Jews during World War II—Hussein asserted against the anti-Semites that “Danish Jews have the right to be treated equally, regardless of their political views [on Israel.]”
There are between 7,000 and 9,000 Jews in Denmark. Even when compared with other small Jewish communities elsewhere in Europe, Jewish Danes constitute a tiny fragment—some 0.16 percent—of the overall population of 5.5 million. And yet for much of this decade, they have endured anti-Semitic attacks and abuse wildly out of proportion to their numbers.
Most of that hostility comes from the Muslim community. Surveys conducted in Denmark during the last decade show that Muslims are much more likely to hold anti-Semitic beliefs, with one poll demonstrating that 75 percent agree with statements such as “Jews incite war and blame others,” and “Jews want to dominate everything.” Yet levels of anti-Semitism among the wider population are relatively low, with an ADL survey of 2015 revealing that 9 percent of Danes hold anti-Semitic views, as against 29 percent of Spain’s population and 37 percent of France’s.
In Denmark, as elsewhere in Europe, the rise of anti-Semitism among Muslim communities is closely connected to other alarming trends, most obviously terrorism. Along with Copenhagen, Brussels and Toulouse are two other cities that have witnessed terrorist attacks on Jewish targets in recent years. After the week of terror in Paris in January 2015, which began with a terror operation against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and ended in a murderous, hostage-taking siege at a kosher supermarket, Europeans were faced, in sledgehammer fashion, with the realization that the rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish fervor can result in targeted attacks on the general population as well.
Many European countries have now introduced extensive civic-education programs for immigrants, but it is the ambitious pending legislation in Denmark that has led to a wave of concern about racism and discrimination. In part, that’s because of the unique conditions that prevail there.
New welfare benefits laws passed at the end of the 1990s effectively froze immigrant populations in the urban neighborhoods where they originally settled, by assigning them to a specific municipality in order to receive their welfare payments. As of 2013, these 25 areas—where crime, unemployment and dependency on state benefits are primary features of daily life—are known officially as “ghettos.”
Understandably, the use of the word “ghetto” has been widely criticized as deeply insensitive and does the government no favors in persuading its critics that its new policies are not driven by racism. But the policies in themselves, assembled in a plan to break up the ghettos by 2030, should be welcomed by anyone who has observed the havoc and insecurity wrought in Europe by Islamist extremism, as well as anyone concerned that the dunderheads of the far-right will capitalize on this state of affairs, as they have been.
Included in the proposed legislation is mandatory instruction in “Danish values” for ghetto children, starting from babyhood (at the age of 1), for 25 hours per week. Parents who force their children to make extended visits to their ancestral countries, where much of the work of integration can be rapidly undone, could face prison sentences as a result. Families who do not send their children to school or who do not comply with the new rules stand to lose their welfare benefits—in Denmark, a generous package that covers all essentials of life.
Some critics have lambasted the Danish proposal as an exercise in racial profiling. One commentator even compared the policy of providing welfare payments to immigrants—while engaging them in integration efforts at the same time—to Australia’s repression of its Aboriginal population. But racist legislation by definition targets specified groups; in Denmark’s case, all residents of these neighborhoods will be governed by the same rules, with the goal being social assimilation instead of further marginalization.
The chatter about mass “Christianization” or mass loss of citizenship or similar radical measures only obscures the real debate here: whether these measures can be effective in introducing peaceability and a degree of prosperity to mainly Muslim immigrant communities. Many Europeans, not least in the continent’s Jewish communities, will be hoping that Denmark’s government succeeds.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.