OPINION :: The Question of Sharīʿa in Denmark

Denmark contributor Niels V. Vinding comments on recent discussions of sharīʿa in Denmark that have arisen on the basis of uninformed media reporting, which has had the consequence of sparking legislation that may have discriminatory effects on Muslims. These developments come in the wake of the Danish documentary Under the Veil of the Mosque, which he labels a misguided attempt to pin the difficulty surrounding Muslim integration into liberal Danish society on the moral preaching of conservative Muslim clerics.

Reports have been circulating of a recently broadcast three-part TV documentary “Under the Veil of the Mosque,” aired on Danish TV2 in March 2016, that claimed to unmask extremist views among some Imams in Denmark and to argue that sharīʿa councils were working towards keeping parallel societies for Muslims within Denmark.

This post is written to establish – counter to what has been reported so far – that the narrative of the documentary and the assumptions that it builds on are extremely biased and significantly skews the view of Islam, Muslim leadership and mosques in Denmark. I will make some generally critical observations and then elaborate on one of the most telling scenes from the documentary: Imam Abu Bilal of the Grimhøj-Mosque in the Aarhus region relates the contested story of the stoning of the pregnant adulteress from the tribe of Juhayna to the congregation, which is assumed by the documentary to mean that he publically argues for the stoning of women.

While it does ask highly interesting questions and gives documentaristic insight to the mosques, all worthwhile understanding and nuance is sacrificed for the single goal of establishing that there are mosques and imams in Denmark who are extreme Islamists in views and practices. This is not new. It has been demonstrated repeatedly in court cases, police investigations, and newspaper articles, not to mention in open interviews with spokesmen and imams from the mosques that clearly establish them as quietist Salafists and sympathisers. However, the documentary’s portrait of sharīʿa is inadequate and reveals significant misunderstandings and prejudices about Muslim life in Denmark.

Within a margin of appreciation, the overall question of the documentary was sober enough. It wanted to uncover whether the mosques were advancing or obstructing integration in Denmark. There is ample reason for controversy: yes, there is a gap between Muslim religious environments and the liberal Danish culture, and yes, integration is a challenge in Denmark. Not just across religious divides, but across cultural, social, economic and historical barriers, too. The documentary gives some insight into a conservative religious environment where women are discouraged from working, light beatings of children who do not pray are allowed, and many Muslims feel alienated from liberal Danish culture.

However, the documentary quickly demonstrates that the undercover female agent ‘Fatma’ was sent in with hidden cameras to unveil extremist views and practices amongst the imams of various mosques. The TV station wanted to raise the debate and thus deliberately presented the most controversial story they could produce. As such, it follows the same presumptive journalistic line we have seen in the UK (BBC One, Panorama, Secrets of Britain’s Sharia Councils, 2013) and the Netherlands (SBS6, Undercover in Nederland). Not surprisingly, using the same questionable methods and building on the same assumptions, the conclusions were similar.

From a critical point of view, the editorial and journalistic choices were extremely biased and questionable; the carefully particularized line of questioning by the mole was borderline entrapment, important and repeated statements on living justly according to Danish law were edited out, and there were additional substantial shortcomings. Even graver, it later came to the public’s attention that the mole was an outspoken member of Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and that most of the background and support for the propositions in the documentary were drawn from a former imam from one the mosques, Ahmed Akkari. A former hardliner Islamist with a history of violence, Akkari had played a significant role in the Cartoons Crisis of 2005-2006 as one of the prime agents of spreading much of the hate around the Middle East. Akkari had had a feud with the mosque leadership on the attitude towards the Muhammad Cartoons and seeing the fallout of the crisis, Akkari left the community. His participation as informant confirms the fundamental bias of the documentary and much – if not all – of his testimony is defined by his hostility towards the leadership that shunned him.

Returning to the question of sharīʿa in Denmark, which is rightly a question that arises from the documentary, one scene stands out as an epitome of the skewed understanding of the responsibility of the imams and the mosques. During the first part of the documentary (mins 23:06 to 24:32), we see and hear parts of a khuṭba sermon delivered by one of the imams, Abu Bilal, who is antagonised in the documentary. The mole, Fatma, sits in listening to the khuṭba as he begins to speak of the story of the woman of Juhayna, who reportedly was stoned to death after she confessed to adultery three times over several years to the Prophet Muhammad. The imam relates the story in his khuṭba, but the documentary cuts away after the imam says in Arabic, “There once was a young woman from Juhayna, who committed a great sin. She committed adultery. As it happens to many young people today. God forbids it.” Then a speaker is added relating a simplistic version of the story, and it returns to the part where the imam finishes the story with the gory details of the stoning. The last words the imam recounts are “The penitent woman died. God’s punishment of her was complete.” Then the documentary cuts to the pathos of Fatma, who finds the story abhorrent and repulsive.

However, only after investigative journalists from the all-talk Radio 24/7 got hold of the mosque’s own recordings of the khuṭba, did it become clear what kind of context and message the imam was conveying. He had not at all condoned the stoning nor spoken to the execution of the punishment, but had related the hadith in full with all nuances – including the final point that the repentance of the woman, who sought to submit to the judgment of God, was so great that it could be distributed to a whole nation. His point was about weakness in the face of temptation and about the importance of contrition and repentance in accepting God and his order. This is an important pastoral theological point to make in a khuṭba in a very liberal place like Denmark, where drugs, alcohol, and progressive sexual norms are commonplace—not to speak of crimes in general that are unacceptable to both the legal order in Denmark and to the moral order of Islam. It implies an attempt to integrate, and it explains his use of the violent story. In addition, it falls well within the classic rhetorical genre of trghīb wa-tarhīb: of encouraging listeners to do good deeds, or as is the case here, warning or discouraging them from bad deeds.

In this light, the imam is taking seriously the fact that the Danish legal system has jurisdiction. However, for him, this does not make it all right for Muslims in Denmark to sin, and the legal system does not absolve the need for or importance of earnest repentance and a return to the mosque and to adhering to Islamic practices. His message is the socially preservative logic of a morally conservative minority faith that finds itself in a challenging context.

The khuṭba is fire and brimstone, yes, but not hate speech and not subversive to a Danish public order. It speaks to the theological questions of salvation, faith, and the importance of repentance and returning to life as a practicing Muslim. As such, it is much more a testimony to how conservative – even Salafi – Muslim leadership in Denmark is accentuating the theological rather than legal dimensions of sharīʿa, given their understanding that the legal order is immaterial to their pastoral efforts.

The production company and the TV station have refused to release the raw footage of this passage or any of the others.

Most of the reactions to the documentary were foreseeable, but the political agenda that this fed into and catalyzed was surprising. Right wing populists and conservatives wanted to tighten immigration legislation and cut funding to mosques, furthering the agenda that they had been pushing in the wake of the recent streams of refugees. However, the government launched a legislative agenda that would criminalize ‘certain religious speech acts’ such as explicitly condoning illegal activities while in an instruction or teaching context. Many of the examples given in the preliminary political agreement are easily traced directly back to false perceptions of Islam: condoning or promoting polygamy, corporal punishment of children, forced marriages, and so on. Also, a public list of sanctioned hate preachers and a secret watch list of suspected hate preachers have been agreed upon by the Liberal government, the Social Democrats, Danish People’s Party and the Conservative People’s Party. Finally, there has been talk of limiting religious rights and freedoms even further, which would, in effect, encroach specifically on Muslims’ rights. This measure found surprisingly wide support among the other parties in parliament, and the legislation arising from the agreement is expected to be drafted and submitted for hearings in the coming parliamentary sessions of 2016-17.

From 13th to 22nd March, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, visited Denmark as part of his standing mandate and invitation to identify existing and emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief, and to present recommendations on ways and means to overcome such obstacles. In his preliminary findings he too made note of the impact of the documentary and of the legislative and political reactions to it:

“Some of the remarks made by leading politicians in reaction to the TV documentary could hypothetically indicate a political move back to a literal understanding of article 67 of the Constitution, including its far-reaching limitation clause that ’nothing at variance with good morals or public order shall be taught or done’. As mentioned at the outset, however, this would not be in line with the modern understanding of freedom of religion or belief, which does not give free reign to legislators to impose limitations whenever ‘public order’ interests may be at stake. For limitations to be justifiable, a much more refined set of criteria must be met to ensure that limitations always remain exceptions to the rule that human beings should exercise their rights to freedom, including in the area of religion or belief.”

To the best of my convictions, the documentary gave insight into a religious context that it did not fully understand and therefore reverted to prejudices, assumptions and pre-established conclusions. It found only what it had sought to find, using a well-tested and effective template to spark a debate that it inevitably knew would come.

What we did see, however, which the documentary took no notice of, was an imam who had been publically criticized and typecast as a quietist Salafi, who did actually adapt his theology and his message to the challenges faced by Muslim youth in Denmark. He did not, as was assumed or expected, call for the ḥudūd criminal punishments for adultery, but told a story that directly demonstrates the importance of repentance in the moral order of God, which he regarded as sharīʿa. This episode is in no way advocating a parallel legal order, but rather bolstering the community and its moral order within the legal jurisdiction and within the religious freedom in Denmark. In short, nothing more than a shepherd to his flock in stranger lands.

Niels V. Vinding is an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies in the Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies Department at the University of Copenhagen. He specializes in Islam and Muslims in Denmark and Europe. 

The views and opinions expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of SHARIAsource.