Danish wake-up call on Islam

COPENHAGEN — On Sept. 5, the day Danish police arrested nine Muslim suspects in connection with a foiled terrorist plot, a slender book warning of conquest by Islamic fundamentalists in Europe appeared in bookstores here.

“Islamists and Naivists,” by Karen Jespersen and Ralf Pittelkow, has since risen to the top of the best-seller list and is causing a sensation in Denmark – in part because the authors are establishment figures previously known for their progressive attitudes toward Islam and integration.

The book is also gaining notice because Denmark, a country celebrated for its fairy tales, is on the front line of the culture wars between Islam and the West following publication in a Danish newspaper late last year of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad.

The book’s main argument is that Europeans who ignore the threat posed by Islamists belong to a new and dangerous tribe of “naivists,” a term coined by the authors. This may not sound so radical at a time when the pope has upset the Islamic world by quoting a medieval passage calling Islam “evil and inhuman” and when Islamic terrorist plots have put Europe on edge.

But the book also equates Islamic fundamentalists with Nazis and Communists – a provocative stand on the heels of the cartoon crisis, which strengthened a backlash against immigrants that was already brewing here.

Pittelkow says the new book’s publication on the day of the terror arrests, while a coincidence, was a prescient reminder.

“The threat is that the Islamists and their values are gaining ground in Europe, especially among the younger generation,” he said in an interview. “They try to interfere in people’s lives, telling them what to wear, what to eat, what to think and what to believe. They warn Muslims to create their own societies within Europe or risk disappearing like salt in water.”

Muslim leaders here have denounced the book, accusing Pittelkow and Jespersen of giving Muslim-bashing a respectable face in Denmark, a country that views itself as a tolerant and open society.

Danish analysts say the book reflects the extent to which skepticism about Islam has invaded the European political mainstream.

“The book is significant because it shows how attacks against Islam are no longer limited to people on the right, but have become acceptable, even fashionable, among people close to the establishment,” said Jakob Nielsen, a commentator for the left-leaning newspaper Politiken, which Pittelkow labels “naivist” for underestimating the threat of the Islamists. “The reality is that nobody in Denmark bats an eye anymore when people talk about the threat that Islam poses to Danish values because this is viewed, however wrongly, as a fact of life.”

The authors’ backgrounds could hardly be more mainstream. Pittelkow, a former literature professor and prominent Social Democrat, advised former Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen before becoming a commentator for Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper that published the Muhammad cartoons. Jespersen, Pittelkow’s wife, is a former interior minister and social affair minister who belonged to a leftist revolutionary party in her youth.

Pittelkow says that Denmark’s cherished openness is under attack by Islamists due to a clash of values epitomized by the cartoons. He argues that Islamic radicalism nearly triumphed during the crisis because many editors and political figures in Denmark and elsewhere accepted Islamic arguments that publishing the caricatures was an affront to Islam, turning their backs on free speech.

“The mixture of political correctness and fear all too often leads to compliance with Islamism,” Pittelkow writes in the book. “The fatal mistake of the naivists was to cave into demands for Islamic-style censorship.”

For Pittelkow and Jespersen, the best defense against the threat from Islamic fundamentalists is to tighten Europe’s immigration policies, which they argue have allowed pockets of unintegrated Muslim communities to flourish.

“Denmark and the rest of Europe need to integrate their existing Muslim communities,” Pittelkow said. “Multiculturalism has gone too far.”

One “naivist,” Pittelkow says, is Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. He cites the existence of Sharia councils in Britain that rule on divorce and inheritance cases, and notes a recent poll by Britain’s Channel 4 indicating that 28 percent of young British Muslims want Britain to become an Islamic state and that 30 percent would rather live under Sharia than British law.

Danish analysts say the largely enthusiastic reception for the book reflects the growing popularity of the Danish People’s Party, which has 13 percent of seats in the Danish Parliament and has pushed through some of the toughest anti-immigration rules in Europe.

Pittelkow denies that his views mirror those of the party, whose leaders have equated Muslims with cancer cells. But he acknowledges that the party has forced Denmark to engage in an immigration debate that he says has been pushed to the sidelines by political correctness in other countries.

The book has been sharply criticized by Muslim leaders.

“Pittelkow and Jespersen are Islam- bashers who show how acceptable it has become to attack Islam,” said Imam Wahid Pedersen, a prominent Muslim leader who converted to Islam. “They are dangerous because by pushing the debate to the edges, they are making it harder for moderate Muslims in this country to find a middle ground.”

Pittelkow strenuously rejects these arguments, saying that his critique is of Islamic radicalism, not of Islam itself. He also denies that the war in Iraq and other conflicts between the West and the Muslim world are the root causes of Muslim extremism. “Britain and France do not have tight immigration policies and they have a far more serious terrorist threat than we do,” he said. “Germany has no troops in Iraq, yet it has been targeted by terrorists. Many things can be used a pretense to fight Western societies that Islamists hate.”

For many Muslims, the book’s most incendiary passages are those comparing “Islamism” with Nazism and communism. But Pittelkow insists that all three movements have totalitarian impulses and seek to control people’s lives. Islamists, he says, include not just terrorists but also include Muslims who seek to impose their values on Europe in the name of religion.

“If a woman doesn’t wear a headscarf, the Islamists will exert maximum pressure and use the threat of violence to make sure that she does,” he says. “It is that zealous attempt to apply Islamist principles that is as authoritarian as Nazism or communism.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday September 27, 2006.
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