Denmark has been unmistakably reshaped by the rise of gangs. Not since the Second World War has the country experienced such tension on its streets. People and politicians alike are complaining about the shootings taking place in their neighborhoods, including one of the softer politicians on integration policy.
The Danes don’t seem naïve, they are. This includes the self-esteemed Danish way of solving problems. Now a harsher reality has set in.
Around nine people were hit by gunfire during only eleven days in September 2018 in ongoing gang-related fights in the notorious northwest quarter of Copenhagen. The police are present in force, but the violence has continued and they have fired back at shooters The situation has gone wild on the streets, and the reporters have had a lot to work on for their news coverage.
In 2017, the number of shootings included 64 wounded in over 60 episodes, the highest since 2008, when the police began registration of gunfire incidents. When compared to other countries, this record may seem low and under control. By Scandinavian measures, however, it is alarming.
Stop and search zones giving the police special powers have been introduced and several people have been arrested. It is now common knowledge that the “Brotha” and “Loyal to Familia” gangs are involved in a long term fight, where revenge and retaliation is part of the war.
This raises some questions in cozy, organized and secure Denmark:
1. Why have the gangs grown strong and been left loose in this way, having both guns and money, when security measures in Denmark are so high and the country is relatively sharp in tracking criminal activities? Denmark is one of the countries in Europe that has thankfully avoided being hit by major terrorist attacks, apart from the case of Omar El-Hussein, who attacked an event featuring the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks and a synagogue guard in 2015.
2. Why do young men join gangs when Denmark has one of the largest and most wide-reaching public sectors? For decades, the Danish state has invested heavily in anti-radicalization and integration projects and its public workers put time and effort into connecting to schools and communities where troubled youth are to be found.
3. The gangs have been operating and having shootouts in areas where the majority of residents are from MENA countries, such as Nørrebro, Herlev and Ishøj. Why isn’t the relationship between the environment and street gangs clearly pointed out?
4. What type of threat to society do these gangs present, when we know that they are mainly non-religious and not Islamic in their lifestyles?
5. Would a religious lifestyle be a way out of troubled lives for young people, or could it just encourage them to commit more violence?
Let me focus on the last two questions. I think that many religious Muslims learn to avoid violence and become more civilized in their way of thinking and acting. So young gang members finding peace in religious teachings and the authority of God can be a solution. If they are attracted by moderate religious thinking, then the effects are very positive.
As an imam, several times I have seen young people change completely, moving away from a bad lifestyle by attending lessons on the importance of good manners for a better life and salvation. There are many underestimated psychological effects of becoming religious when you are a troubled person.
But on the other hand, if the troubled youth are seized by the wrong sort of people, the Islamist groups, then we have a dangerous cocktail mix. It becomes the worst of both worlds, joining the gang attitude with the fanatical political views of sectarian teachings.
We have seen plenty of this in France, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK as well as Denmark. In almost all cases, the young people had a troubled upbringing and no religious lifestyle. In a matter of years and sometimes only months, they become holy warriors, obeying orders from religious leaders instead of the gangs.
This means that gangs with Middle Eastern roots and values are a potential security risk for European states. They are not only gangs in the traditional sense, as they combine the values of gangs with religious thinking in the local community. On several occasions we have see how gang fights have been resolved by Islamic cultural centers having the authority of an “imam” or “sheikh” who is listened to and obeyed. These centers then use their authority to become a dominant local voice.
At worst, the situation could deteriorate and tensions could become as intense as they are in Gaza, the West Bank, Pakistan or Afghanistan, with large numbers of ordinary young people joining street gangs and then becoming fighters for God.
I think Denmark and Scandinavia have to revise their policies for integrating ethnic groups, understanding that socio-economic conditions are merely one part of the answer. Unfortunately, both the police and the experts still hold to the old socio-economic solutions as a way of thinking, and thereby miss the mark and waste funds. There are other important issues to be addressed, such as respect for the authority of the state and the role of creating critical minds in social institutions. It is important to raise the profile of solutions that are more focused on rejecting bad behavior, not only seeing it as a case for treatment.
It is true that several political steps toward stricter regulations have already been taken. But as I see it, the gangs exist because of the communities that allow them to, not because of any laws voted for in parliament.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.