The diary of a Saudi man, currently living in the United Kingdom, where the Religious Police no longer trouble him for the moment.

In Memory of the lives of 15 Makkah Schoolgirls, lost when their school burnt down on Monday, 11th March, 2002. The Religious Police would not allow them to leave the building, nor allow the Firemen to enter.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Inge responds 

Inge from Denmark, who also wrote the previous post, responds here to some of the comments and questions she received, and also gives her view from where she lives on the "Islam / Western Divide".

I have read with great interest the many comments to the couple of e-mails that I sent to Alhamedi.
Now I would like to say a few things about how Denmark traditionally has looked upon religion, at least within the last 150 years or so. I will also touch the subject of flawed integration and some of my own positive experiences:

Religion from a governmental/scientific standpoint is seen as subjective views or codes, that some people have chosen (or been chosen) to live by.

This country has been built on the notion of separation between the governing aspects of the state and the cultural traditions of religion (which traditionally has been Lutheran Protestantism since 1536). There is indeed a “State Church” that the Queen (who has no formal power) is head of, but this is a mere symbol – a leftover from the past when people actually went to church on Sundays and thought this was a big deal. The Church hardly has any administrative tasks anymore and priests are giving sermons that not many are listening to.

Denmark has been through the same process of secularisation that many countries in Western Europe have been through. I would argue that in this sense it would also be difficult to compare this issue to the situation one might find in the US where the matter is very different. Here I am thinking about its history as a country created by immigrants, the formation and consolidation of religious groups etc, etc – it is a very different story. But Denmark has also many similarities with Western countries like the US or France or Belgium in the sense that we have attempted to move religion away from the focal points of power. This can be seen as something wrong or unfair. Some argue that it is impossible to unite the preference for a representative democracy and a strong religious conviction. I see myself as a religious person, but I consider this an emotional aspect of my personality that I try to separate from my ventures into science. I also believe that religion and emotions should be kept away from the decision-making processes of the government, though it is difficult to avoid completely. A neutral and empiric standpoint is necessary in running a country, I think.

I am aware that this is much, much more than just a question of freedom of speech and whether the Danish government can/should apologize on behalf of a newspaper they have no relation to whatsoever. One has to look at the setting in which this incident has taken place.

First of all, there has been a considerable lack of communication between the immigrants in this country and the rest of the population. I try to tell my Muslim friends that when they feel ethnic Danes are being disrespectful to them, by not trying to establish contact, this could be caused by simple ignorance or fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing that may stir anger or misunderstanding. Or perhaps it’s plain indifference: “I don’t have any immigrant friends, why should I even bother talking to them?”…and this is where the gap widens. There has been, and I believe this strongly, a widespread tendency among ethnic Danes to shut their eyes and *not take responsibility for integrating our new citizens*.

This does not mean that this government and the previous one has not tried different alternatives in the old tradition of socialism and solidarity (like paying for tuition in the language of the home country, projects involving getting kids off the streets and encourage them to be creative and productive, encouraging older immigrants to get an education (which is free here) etc). But these efforts will not work when most Danish people seem indifferent or even scared of immigrants (including Muslims). I think it’s every employer’s responsibility to make this work and that’s where it starts: When the foreman of a group of construction workers actually *hires* Abd’allah, even though his name is a bit different and his Danish not perfect. When people who used to be intolerant towards something new and different start to accept it - and willingly, of their own accord, then you know things are headed in the right direction.

I think these are problems that you will find in a lot of European countries, not just Denmark. People are frustrated about immigration and the media will primarily air the most extreme opinions on both sides. I understand totally how frustrating it may be to always be judged upon one’s appearance, how people will treat you different, talk to you different, just because you wear a scarf. It’s ridiculous, but I think impossible to remove intolerance of that sort; but what we *can* do is fight conformity by showing how diverse the world *is*. By newspaper journalists sometimes writing about the successful woman (who just happens to be Muslim, but that’s not mentioned in the article…you just see that she wears a scarf), or by recognizing that there seems to be such a concept as gay Muslims in this country – and they are people like everybody else, no matter what fundamentalist Christians or whoever might think about them.

When I hang out with my “ethnic” Danish friends I talk to them about my Arab friends. I tell them how they are all very different…how I look at them as my friends first and foremost, even though first time I met them I obviously thought “Hey, this person has a different cultural background than me.” I try to share with my Danish friends all the cool stuff that my Arab friends share with me. I like Arab/Muslim hospitality, for example and how open and talkative they are about themselves, compared to Danes. I hang out with my Arab friends because it makes sense, because I like it, because I like learning and see how people do things in a different way…and I want to learn some of it myself. It is simple curiosity, not a quest for the exotic or “oriental”. I feel that I also manage to define who I am myself in this process. The same thing we do when we open a book or watch a documentary and discover new sides of ourselves while at the same time we have fun.
I may be a great idealist in this sense…and very naïve…but the funny thing is that I’ve usually only had positive experiences. My Arab friends and acquaintances like me because they feel the honesty in my interest. At the same time I feel that I can keep my opinions, my desire for critical scrutiny of new and old things. If a label has to be put on this, I guess it’s the respect for difference of opinion that forms *within friendships*. In the Arab world I sense this is a very important thing that has to be repeated in words and actions during the relationship – where here we have somehow created rules and regulations to this, much as how the State has been given the monopoly of enforcing laws. The State has to show respect to the individual and its version of “showing respect” is by following the laws, its reins, whenever it deals with an individual. The word, “Respect”, as such is not mentioned much in everyday conversation. But does that mean that it doesn’t exist at all, just because there’s a different discourse?

I would like to see Danish people show more interest in Arab and Muslim culture. Wow, you can get a long way by just knowing a few words in Arabic, greet people with Eid Mubarak around Eid.
It’s a matter of empathy, I think. I would feel the same way if I had fled to another country and suddenly someone said “hi” to me in Danish. When people do those little things to make another smile - things that we can’t expect from them - that’s when we get extra happy, yes?
In time hopefully the understanding and knowledge of things different from our own will increase, but it has to start somewhere.

When I was 11, my school had a week where we delved into Afghan and Pakistani culture. Now, this happened loooong before Taliban was ever mentioned in the newspapers. I imagine a local “friendship association” consisting of immigrants from this area had lend us these things that were supposed to give us a visual image of their home countries. I remember how we cooked Pakistani food, some children re-enacted a typical wedding from the area. We read about the houses in Afghanistan, read about Islam and life there. We were even allowed to dress up in some of the clothes – and I remember how a girl from my class got to wear the blue Afghan burka, which we all thought was pretty awesome, having never seen one before. We were also allowed to see a holy Qu’ran, which was kept in the highest place in the room. The teachers explained these things to us, and we understood that this was something important.

Perhaps some Muslims could get offended by the fact that non-believers like us were allowed to keep a Qu’ran. Some would see this as wrong. Others would probably see it as good, the Qu’ran being, not a secret book, but something that may be accessed by all who show interest and love for God and knowledge.

I know my school was not the only one that had “theme weeks” like that. Lots of schools do that here and since most people go to public schools like mine they get exposed to information about other cultures a lot. This is very necessary, especially since we are now able to communicate even more with people from other countries and cultures (the Internet is a great thing).

To round off this post…hopefully on a more positive note…I would like to add that it’s important that we don’t think in absolute truths, in “right” and “wrong”. If I started thinking “my country’s right, sc**w the feelings of Muslims in the Middle East”, then I’d be simply acting a narrow-minded and not open towards changing my viewpoint a little. I am so fed up with the “them” and “us” rhetoric, that appears in both the ME, America, Europe…all over.
Try including some Arabs into the notion of “us”. How does that feel?
That’s why my friend in Riyadh is my friend, even though we might disagree on some things. And I think he likes me too, though I’m Danish.
So, I must ask myself the question: “Hmmm, they got upset because of this…how come?”And, more importantly, I must say to myself that one sentence and one angle is not a sufficient answer.

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