Denmark, Christian state religion, secularism and Islam

This May 2019 Voice of America video says about itself:

Denmark Targets Migrants in ‘Ghetto’ Crackdown Ahead of EU Election

For many, the term ‘ghetto’ evokes the horrors of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. But in Denmark, the government has launched a crackdown on 30 run-down areas officially labeled as ‘ghettoes,’ all with high immigrant, Muslim populations. The policy has dismayed many liberal Danes, but as Henry Ridgwell reports from Copenhagen, immigration is playing a major role in the European Parliament elections this week, and issues like integration and identity are creating a fiery campaign.

By Sophie Zinn:

Voices of Danish Youth Signal a New Danish Consensus on Islam

23 November 2019

The European migration crisis, which began in 2015, has had a significant impact on immigration and security policies across the region. In Europe’s smaller, more homogenous countries, rising migration and the prospect of refugees and migrants becoming people’s permanent neighbors has led to amplified anxiety about national identity. This has been particularly true in Denmark, one of the most racially homogenous, migrant-averse countries in Europe. Especially when considering Denmark’s treatment of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, (all of whom are referred to as ‘Muslims,’ whether they are or are not), public discourse consistently questions what makes a Dane a Dane and whether immigrant families can share in that identity. For four months in Denmark, I studied how different religious and non-religious communities from diverse ethnic backgrounds construct Danish identity and the influence that Denmark’s secular culture and established state church could have on the construction of this identity. Existing scholarship suggests that Danish identity, secularism, and religion are not uniformly understood. By focusing on younger generation Danes, I was able to discover interesting trends that go beyond the scope of existing scholarship: there are generational differences among Danes, and younger generations tend to view a multicultural Danish identity more positively than their elders.

Why Denmark?

Denmark is considered one of the most secular societies in Europe, even though the state itself has an official national church, producing a social system that Lægaard identifies as “moderate secularism”. He argues that Denmark’s “endorsement of moderate secularism implies that multicultural equality does not require the same kind of recognition for all religious communities” (2012, 200). Danish secularism, therefore, has presented unequal opportunities for the recognition of, and civic participation by, various religious minorities and migrant populations in the country, both with respect to state institutions and in everyday interactions. Because the state ultimately determines the legal status of individual religious groups, the country’s migrants and religious minorities are confronted with a Protestant conceptualization of religion, where migrants’ religious expression, freedom, and beliefs are overseen and authorized by an Evangelical Lutheran state (Lægaard 2012, 200). The Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs is in charge of the national church and also has the power to officially recognize religious minority communities. Denmark’s Evangelical Lutheran state is, however, itself circumscribed by the ethnically Danish, Christian majority’s desire for a secular public square. Denmark’s traditional understanding of its own identity as Christian-yet-secular can hinder “other” members of its population from fully identifying and participating as Danish citizens. Pervasive social rhetoric refers to Danish identity as either Christian or secular, leaving little space for the inclusion of religious minorities.

In 2005, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons entitled “The Face of Muhammad” with provocative images of Islam and the Prophet, widespread debates about immigration, freedom of speech, and identity followed (Shetarh 2005). The cartoon controversy contributed to a rise in Danish nationalist parties, such as the Danish People’s Party (DPP), who advocate for free speech [against immigrants] and a Christian national identity.

What is less well known is that Denmark’s military and civil engagement in Afghanistan may have contributed to the idea that Muslims cannot be Danish. This became evident to me when I was touring the Danish War Museum’s exhibit on Denmark’s contribution to the war in Afghanistan. Our group’s tour guide explained that part of the mission for Danish soldiers was to promote democratic development and respect for human rights, yet just a few minutes later, he remarked that most soldiers did not believe that Islam was compatible with either of those ideals. For Muslims living in Denmark, the state’s continued presence in Afghanistan since 2001 has informed Danish notions that the Middle East is not compatible with democracy and human rights, attitudes reflected in the policies and attitudes of the Danish Parliament and right-wing nationalist parties. The Danish military effort to provide support and strengthen Afghan’s ability to take care of themselves suggests that Danish values need to be introduced into this conflict zone in order to secure peace and security. However, our tour guide at the Danish Military Museum discussed the overall reluctance to utilize military resources in a region that Danes view as being incapable of aligning with their democratic values. The recent refugee crisis of 2014 may also help explain why the media and politicians portray Middle Eastern migrants as Muslims with a culture that rejects the Danish values of human rights, democracy, and welfare.

At the Trampoline House in Copenhagen, a community center for asylum seekers and refugees, the organizers exposed me to more recent Danish efforts that highlight Denmark’s reluctance to assist and integrate newcomers. I sat next to new friends during a staff update about changes in refugee and asylum policies because the Minister of Integration, Inger Støjberg, was cutting spending in refugee camps. In December 2018, Støjberg declared that about 100 migrants with criminal convictions would be relocated to Lindholm, a remote Danish island, to emphasize Denmark’s hard stance against migrants. Overall, Denmark’s reluctance to accept migrants and Muslims as Danish is related to their recent military experience, debates about public discourse, and religious differences.

Public discussions and political elections have involved questions about the perceived Muslim threat to Danish identity because most Danes are non-religious. The Danish majority had assumed that minority populations would integrate themselves into Denmark’s non-religious culture, but migrant communities continued to advocate for accurate religious representation in the public sphere, recognition, and freedom. Denmark’s political parties and actors have consistently drafted legislation and issued rulings that limit public Muslim expression, such as restricting certain headscarves or prohibiting public calls to prayer over a loudspeaker. The Danish Parliament introduced legislation in 2003 that restricted the migration of imams to Denmark, requiring that these leaders speak Danish and respect Western values of democracy and human rights to demonstrate they are not a threat to the Danish state (“Aledanemarek Tetkhed Ejera’at” 2003). More recently, in May 2018, Denmark introduced the “niqab ban”, authorizing a fine for anyone wearing a face-shielding garment in public (Samuel 2018). These policies are a way for Denmark’s Christian-yet-secular society to advance their Protestant understanding of religious expression so that religious minorities cannot physically display their alternative religious identities. With most Danes considering themselves to be non-religious, practicing Muslims face significant challenges in justifying their right to be religious in a society that does not seem to understand their beliefs.

Attitudes of Danish Youth Towards Islam

It is against this backdrop that I collected the personal narratives of young adults living in Copenhagen in 2018. I spoke with Christian, Muslim, and non-religious Danes about their interactions with the state and the national church, their own religious identity, and how their experiences relate to the wider Danish society. Four major themes emerged clearly, the most interesting of which was the pronounced generational differences in attitudes towards Islam between these young adults (ages 20-35) and their elders. I will take the first three themes briefly and discuss the last in more detail.

I. Muslims: Developing an Identity and Relationship with Denmark

The four practicing Muslims I interviewed (between the ages of 22-35) all concluded that although individuals outside the Muslim tradition may not consider them to be Danish, their strong identification as Danes is independent of outsiders’ assessments. Liza, Zara, and Arya, Muslim women with diverse ethnic backgrounds, all agreed that their ethnic heritage negatively influences others’ abilities to understand them as Danish, in spite of their own identification with Danish society. These Muslim women chose to join mosques, such as the Danske Islamisk Centre, that help them understand Danish values and integrate into Danish society. They view Denmark’s secular culture as a primary challenge to their religious expression. Philip, a young Danish Muslim convert, furthered this argument, stating that Muslims are expected to be strictly devout, while Christians can sin and it is not considered an issue. Ultimately, all of these Muslims argued that identity is based on a personal association with a culture rather than external cultural and religious expression. Their primary concern was not how their outward appearance was judged but whether their ability to practice devoutly in a state that is often hostile to spirituality and religion was constrained.

II. Non-Muslims: Danish Identity and Religion

Five interview subjects dwelt at length on the Danish state and its church, Danish secularism, and minority religions. Common themes emerged: the national church’s dwindling influence, the welfare state as grounded in Christian values, and the tension between Danes’ open-mindedness and their attachment to social convention. Anders, as a non-religious individual whose parents gave him freedom of choice regarding his religion, believes that Denmark’s public identification with Christianity is a way to deter non-Christians from publicly expressing their religious beliefs (such as in their religious garments). He argues that Danes are open to different religious beliefs but that these beliefs should be molded to fit Denmark’s homogenous, … and historically Protestant society that does not promote public religious expression, and therefore looks suspiciously at religious garments. Anders calls for a “middle way” that satisfies both religious communities’ needs and existing Danish culture.

III. Freedom of Speech and the Media

Finding a “middle way,” as Anders describes, is difficult in Denmark because of widespread misinformation about both “ethnic Danish” (as it is commonly called) and Muslim Danish identity as well as religion in the media. All of the young-adults that I interviewed believe that extreme right-wing views towards migrants and Muslims is declining among Danish people, yet they all point out that the media does not reflect this decline. The Muslims I interviewed highlighted common misconceptions about Muslims in the Danish media, such as the common belief that a woman wearing a hijab is oppressed. Neither Zara nor Liza can watch the news anymore because of the nationalist propaganda. All three Muslim women agree that the media’s outsider portrayal of Islam is extremely negative. When I inquired about non-Muslims’ perspectives on the freedom of speech, they often directed the conversation to the Danish Cartoon Controversy. Anders explained that the Muhamad drawings were published to send a message about the unfettered Danish right to freedom of speech. The non-Muslims I interviewed believe that extreme interpretations of freedom of speech, which originate in nationalist parties, are actually hindering their own right to the freedom of expression because these voices appear regularly in the media and do not allow room for other conceptions of Danish identity and beliefs. The underrepresentation of Muslims in the media was widely discussed in both my interviews and informal discussions.

IV. Generational Differences

A major finding of my interviews that is not reflected in the scholarly literature is the pronounced generational differences among all religious groups on issues of spirituality, society, and the state. Without solicitation, Muslims as well as religious and non-religious ethnic Danes highlighted the differences between themselves and their elders regarding their perspectives on migrants, Muslim beliefs, and Danish identity. Interestingly, the Muslims I interviewed spoke at length about their reasons for joining ethnically-mixed congregations, yet Arya, Zara, and Liza’s parents all attend mosques that are associated with their separate national or ethnic identities. Zara mentioned that older-generation Muslims who attend national or ethnic mosques do not attempt to connect with other surrounding Muslim communities. She sees a stark difference in younger generations:

I think the younger generation is realizing that there is much more benefit in having cooperation with each other. I think the younger generation is more informed. They seek knowledge themselves and they know that it’s allowed in Islam to have different opinions of different things…There’s a… lack of knowledge within the older generations. Like, “this is our way. This is the only right way”…Bottom line; they believe in the same thing [as we do] but they practice maybe in a different way, because I see that in my parents’ generations.

Zara continued to advocate for the need for Muslims to be more informed about Danish culture and different ethnicities, and she strongly believes that younger Muslims with integrated congregations are taking that step. Emily, the non-religious Dane who has explored Copenhagen’s Muslim communities, regarded Muslims in the same way. She found in her inquiry that young adult Muslims are starting to view themselves as beyond the ethnic and national divisions previously seen in older Muslims because newer, non-ethnic mosques had been established in Denmark and because young people want to integrate into Danish culture. Arya argues that this rise of informed young Muslims is due to younger generations actively seeking religion on their own.

The ethnic Danes I spoke with regarded their family and older generations in similar ways. With both the religious and non-religious individuals I interviewed, Jesper was the only one who was both born and raised in Copenhagen. Many of these young adults moved to Copenhagen for school, and grew up in the Jutlands – the more rural part of [Denmark]. Sarah regarded her upbringing in mostly negative terms:

I grew up in a very conservative community; it’s called Lutheran Mission… It’s…hard to even discuss anything with them. Like, they’re against female pastors or priests, and they’re against sex before marriage, homosexuality, you know. And that’s hard because I grew up there and I kind of didn’t want to be part of that. And then I kind of got excluded from the whole community… Many [of those] people voted for the party (DPP) because [of its] …foreign policy, but [also because] they [the party] are all about the elderly and get their support from older people…In my part of Denmark, like the southern part, they have the majority. They have around 20% of the votes from the last election. Now they’re at, like, 15% or something because people are realizing they’re not very accepting.

Sarah’s comments about the DPP highlight important political strategies of the party. The DPP does target the elderly in their messaging. They focus on the welfare state and protecting Danish identity, arguing that newcomers and foreigners are taking money from the welfare system that belongs to the elderly and promising to return money to the older generations. Sarah left her hometown in Jutland to be with younger and more open Christian communities. Christine and Jesper, as religious Christians, had parents who were either non-religious, culturally Christian, or Catholic, and found their religious identity on their own. When thinking about how Muslim immigrants identify with being Danish, Jesper pointed out that second- or third-generation migrants should feel just as Danish as he does:

We had a big wave of Turkish immigrants in the 60s for work. I feel like the second generation, the guys that came here when they were kids, I hope they feel as Danish as I do. Why shouldn’t they? They’ve lived a Danish life a longer time than I have…it’s kind of hard to integrate into a society when you’re in a smaller community with people from the same place. But I think that a second or third generation immigrant is just as Danish as I am.

Throughout these interviews, it became clear that both Muslim and non-Muslim Danish young adults see a more accepting future in Denmark as the important work of younger generations.


With previous scholarship outlining the differences between majority and minority opinions about religion’s place in Danish society, these interviews have further highlighted the absence of any universal understanding of Danish culture or identity. These nine personal narratives underscore the challenges young adults in Denmark face when trying to navigate Denmark’s consistently heated political and media rhetoric. Christian, non-religious, and Muslim Danes believe religion is privatized throughout Danish society. For these Danish Muslims, exercising their faith in ways that are publicly visible is essential to their identity, and Denmark’s secular society has challenged, but not inhibited, their religious belief and practice. Danish people continuously face uncertainty about the role of the media and their freedom of speech, but ultimately believe that the younger generation is more informed and open to conversations about minority cultures. With both migration and xenophobic rhetoric rising worldwide, the future of religious minorities in Denmark remains uncertain, yet these young people are hopeful that the country they love, where freedom, welfare, and love of others predominate, will persevere. Whether that is through the national church, or through a secular democracy that respects religious minorities remains uncertain.

Sophie Zinn is currently an MA in International Relations student at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. Sophie graduated summa cum laude from Elon University in May 2019 with a BA in International and Global Studies and Political Science. She minored in Middle Eastern Studies and Interreligious Studies. This article is a shortened version of a larger two-year research project from her time at Elon University, and was funded by the Elon College Fellows and Multifaith Scholars programs. Sophie is a devoted and academically-driven policy advocate with a passion for multiculturalism, freedom, and immigration reform.

Ljubljana, 23 November 2019


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Lægaard, Sune. 2012. “Unequal Recognition, Misrecognition and Injustice: The Case of Religious Minorities in Denmark.” Ethnicities 12 (2): 197–214.

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Reeh, Niels. 2009. “Towards a New Approach to Secularization: Religion, Education and the State in Denmark, 1721—1900.” Edited by Enzo Pace. Social Compass 56 (2): 179–88.

Samuel, Sigal. 2018. “Banning Muslim Veils Tends to Backfire—Why Do Countries Keep Doing It?” The Atlantic. August 3, 2018.

Taylor, Charles. 2007. A Secular Age. 1st ed. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Wern, Birgitte, trans. 2013. The Constitutional Act of Denmark. Copenhagen.

Aledanemarek Tetkhed Ejera’at Bheq Ala’emh Alemselmeyn. September 20, 2003. Translated by Sophie Zinn.

Henfey, Khaled. “Seyamu Meslemy Awerweba Hel Yushekl Khetraan ‘Ela Alemjetm’e.” March 6, 2018. Translated by Sophie Zinn.صيام-مسلمي-أوروبا-هل-يشكل-خطرا-على-المجتمع.

Shetarh, Semyer. “Meslemw Alednemarek Yetsedwen Lhemlat Alesa’h Leleselam.” December 10, 2005. Translated by Sophie Zinn.

“Qetyel Bhejwem ‘Ela Merkez Theqafey Bekwebneghahen Walhekwemh Tesfh Balerhabey.” February 14, 2015. Translated by Sophie Zinn.

(C) 2004 IFIMES

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