Scandinavian Tolerance Tested by Copenhagen Shootings: a restrained response is crucial

Local media have named Omar El-Hussein, a Danish citizen, as the gunman in attacks on a free speech debate and a synagogue in Copenhagen which left two people dead. El-Hussein had recently been released from prison where it is feared that he was ‘radicalised’ by Islamic extremists and subsequently attempted to imitate the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris that stunned the international community last month.

Bullet-holes mark the glass at the venue of a free speech debate that resulted in the death of a film maker Source: NY Post
Bullet-holes mark the glass at the venue of a free speech debate that resulted in the death of a film maker
Source: NY Post

Denmark was the source of controversy in 2005 when the Jyllands Posten newspaper published inflammatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, infamously including one depicting him with a bomb in his turban. Reprisals have long been feared but never realised in Denmark itself (although several of its foreign embassies were attacked).

The Copenhagen assault has led to renewed concern that Scandinavia may be yet another region vulnerable to attack by Islamic extremists. Muslims are the largest religious minority in Scandinavia, accounting for about 3-4% of the population in most countries.

Finland and Sweden experienced some limited Muslim immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when ethnic Tatars arrived from north-eastern Europe. Most of these were involved in the prosperous Baltic trade which had links to mercantile enterprises in the Middle East.

Most Muslim immigration to Scandinavia, however, has occurred fairly recently. From the 1960s, there were several waves of immigration from the Middle East as Muslims came to work as labourers in the underpopulated Nordic countries. By the 1980s and 1990s, Scandinavia had become one of the primary destinations for Muslim asylum seekers. Many of these people were escaping conflict, whether it be in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan, the relaxed immigration laws and reputation for tolerance attracting many desperate people north. Their children have subsequently been born Scandinavian citizens.

Somali Swedes play the popular Scandinavian game of Bandy Source: UNHCR Northern Europe
Somali Swedes play the popular Scandinavian game of Bandy
Source: UNHCR Northern Europe

What is most striking about the Muslim population of Scandinavia is that it is, on the whole, secular in nature. Islam is not as invasive as it is in other European countries and few of the Muslim immigrants to Scandinavia subscribe to the state religion of their homelands. Indeed, for many this was a reason to flee.

Despite their excellent integration, Muslims have been the target of much populist rhetoric in Scandinavia which trumpets the values of Nordic nationalism, Euroscepticism and a homogeneous society. In Finland (Finns Party), Sweden (Sweden Democrats) and Denmark (Danish People’s Party), the third biggest political parties pursue an anti-immigrant, nationalist agenda that often targets the Islamic community as a threat to ‘Nordic values’. Norway’s Progress Party, whilst not as extreme, has also adopted populist nationalist rhetoric in recent years. Even the German-born Pegida movement has reached Scandinavia. 

Many Scandinavians remain proud of their countries’ reputations for generous social welfare programmes, religious and cultural tolerance and inclusivity. Yet change is in the air, partially precipitated by the deeds of Islamic extremists abroad. An attack at home is likely to encourage more people to reassess their ultra-liberal stance.

Anti-Islamist Pegida supporters march in Oslo Source: RT
Anti-Islamist Pegida supporters march in Oslo
Source: RT

Ironically, Scandinavia is probably one of the regions least threatened by Islamic extremism. Integration amongst the Muslim population has been far more successful here than in countries such as France and Britain. Whereas in Scandinavia many Muslim immigrants and their offspring are grateful of the opportunities provided to them in asylum, in other Western European countries, some Muslims seem to see their hosts as perpetuating a colonial legacy that renders them socially immobile.

Islamic extremism is now a constant global threat. Yet it would be wrong for the Nordic nationalists to take advantage of the Copenhagen shootings to identify a particularly virulent strain of extremism in Scandinavia. History, in this instance, does not bear them out.

Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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