By Ahmed Akkari *
Matters that may be minor elsewhere in the world can become heated controversies in Denmark. This can make the country the center of international attention and debate, as we saw in the Mohammed cartoon crisis.
This time Denmark is in the spotlight for its prohibition of face masking, which came into force on 1 August 2018. The ban requires law enforcement personnel to issue fines to anyone wearing a mask in public. The ban applies to face covering in general. Balaclavas are included, for example. But it is widely seen as a measure against the conservative Islamic burka, which covers a woman’s whole face, and the niqab, which covers all of the face apart from the eyes.
The first fine of DKK 1,000 (€140) has already been issued to a 28 year-old Muslim woman in the Hørsholm Center, just days after the law came into force.
I believe the ban is a mistake. In fact, despite the good intentions behind the legislation, it is likely to gift psychological empowerment to radical groups.
The number of women who wear veils for religious reasons is very low – they are estimated to number only around 200. Yet people have discussed the issue widely, presenting opinions of all kinds, for and against. This has led to protests where Muslim and left-wing women gathered to offer emotional and practical support to women they see as suppressed. For their part, Muslim organizations led by Kvinder I dialog (Women In Dialogue) issued a statement signed by a large number of Islamic groups. There is significant foreign interest too. For example, a rich French-Algerian Muslim said he would help any women affected by the ban by paying their fines.
The law has also led to protests by Muslim organizations with political Islamic profiles, as Weekend Avisen demonstrated in a recent article on the subject. They will use this issue to further strengthen their footholds in Muslim communities which feel they are being targeted by the government.
This is regrettable, especially when the act seems misaligned with its own purpose. I believe the liberal government gives high importance to individual freedom, just as I and many other Danes do, including the right to cover yourself with whatever garments you see fit. Yet I also like the idea of putting pressure on radical Islamic symbols in public life. This is where it went wrong – I believe the act has shown a lack of vision and actually completely missed its goal. It became a merely symbolic policy, not a solution to the presence of hardcore Islamic conservatism in the public sphere.
This can be seen in the awareness among Islamic movements that it can be used for victimhood rhetoric to attract the attention of Muslims who are usually not close to their thinking.
The ban also prompted a silly reaction from leftwing figures who wore masks and little else, walking around or taking pictures to make the case that there is no problem.
Beyond the fringes, many Danes, including Muslims, do not like ultraconservative outfits but want to leave the small minority of women choosing them alone, believing that they are largely harmless, only finding themselves segregated from society. The burka and the niqab are also unusual sights in many Muslim countries, so why make a big deal out of something with so little importance?
Indeed, one can ask how targeting religious symbols is supposed to have any effect on terrorism and radicalism. Answers from politicians seem to be about agitation and relief from the burden of seeing this dress in public. Well, policies dealing with the roots of dangerous radical terrorism should be more substantial.
The problem with Islamic ideology is not reflected properly by women wearing veils as part of their religious way of life. It lies far beyond that. Meanwhile the more problematic Islamic elements are building up organizations and coming into the center of Muslim affairs. The law does not deal with these troubling assemblies and powerful ideologies, but with garments. Instead of looking deep into the mental and pedagogical upbringing of children or promoting a sound dialogue with active and productive secular Muslims, we see a reactive measure. It triggered other reactive voices, making the whole case look like a quick mixture for a bad cake. Even some liberal and conservative voters and supporters of the government see these flaws in the act.
Valuable time has been lost to headlines and debates, across Scandinavia and even in America, the UK and France. When the focus is on such matters, there is less consideration of more important issues, such as understanding diversity and creating a common humanistic platform where people can meet and exchange ideas. The proud and excellent tradition of the Danish high schools can be a fine framework for such policies. They could host meetings and debates and target key population segments, bringing them closer to an understanding of the core common values citizens in a democracy share. Work on these fundamental questions would be much better than symbolic political restrictions.
The bottom line is a setback. A month on from the ban, did it make Danes feel less concerned about the radicalization threat? I don’t think so, no, not at all. A quick look at the debate shows that people have actually became even more concerned and frustrated in one way or another.
* Editor’s note: Ahmed Akkari is a Danish teacher of Lebanese origin who became known for his involvement in the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in 2005-2006. Shortly after the Danish newspaper published its Prophet Muhammed cartoons in 2005, Ahmed embarked on an international tour that was meant to stir up outrage amongst Muslims. Akkari, a prominent leader in Denmark’s Muslim community, joined a group that led protests against the cartoons. In August 2013, Akkari publicly reversed course and categorically asserted that Jyllands-Posten had a right to publish the cartoons. He is now the most vocal Muslim thinker against radicalism in Denmark.