‘Re-educating’ Chinese Muslims and all of Denmark


Under strict surveillance. A Muslim man walks after prayers in front of a mosque in Hotan in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. (AFP)

There is no discernible attempt by Denmark to force Muslims in the country to cease to be Muslim.

The “re-education” of Muslims in two different parts of the world — China and Denmark — has come sharply into focus.

China’s ambassador to Britain dismissed a BBC report that Muslim children in Xinjiang region are systematically separated from their parents. Chinese authorities said the Uighurs are being educated in “vocational training centres” designed to combat extremism.

In Denmark, the housing minister in the new Social Democrat government admitted that official use of the word “ghetto” for marginalised, heavily non-Western, Muslim neighbourhoods was “derogatory.” Even so, the minister, Kaare Dybvad, defended laws passed last year that ensure mandatory training in “Danish values” for children in ghetto areas.

Dybvad’s centre-left party, then in opposition, voted for the laws. He insists the laws seek to “transform underprivileged areas” and end “parallel societies.”

Both China and Denmark say these moves are part of broader attempts to integrate minorities into the life of their respective countries. However, there are striking differences in the thrust and scale of the initiatives.

China seems focused on Uighur Muslims and on inoculating against the virus of jihadism, which it fears might be borne on the air — or the ether — from other parts of the world. Critics of the Chinese policy say “vocational training” is an anodyne way to describe “cultural re-engineering” of a society by severing traditional religious and linguistic ties.

Denmark is concentrating on 25 urban neighbourhoods where more than half the residents are of non-Western heritage. These are not only the poorest and most crime-ridden in the country, they are also beset by high unemployment and a poorly educated population with few prospects for advancement.

Former Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, whose centre-right government created the laws to regulate “ghettos,” once called these neighbourhoods “black holes on the map of Denmark.”

Despite the charged language, it’s clear there is a basic difference between China’s “voluntary training centres” and Denmark’s newly regulated ghettos or “underprivileged areas,” to use the terminology of the new housing minister.

China is focused on the Uighur Muslims but Denmark is targeting non-Western immigrants as a whole. They constitute 9% of the population. That Muslims figure in the targeted group is hardly surprising considering they are approximately 5.5% of the Danish population.

That said, it’s hard to shake off a sense that Muslims are the primary targets of the “re-education” drive in Denmark.

At present, there is increased scrutiny of Muslims in the United States, parts of Europe, China, India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. In disparate countries, there are varying levels of hostility to Muslims as a faith group.

The spectrum is broad. It ranges from thuggish behaviour towards Muslims in Sri Lanka since the Easter church attacks to more sinister attempts to subsume the identity of minority Muslim communities. This is the case in China and, to some extent, India.

At the furthest point of the scale is Myanmar. Its official position on the Rohingya Muslims since 1982 has been that they are non-citizens, which is to say they don’t belong to the country’s so-called national races.

Where does Denmark’s ghetto programme for Muslims and other non-Western immigrants fit on the sliding scale of Islamophobia?

There have been complaints by Danish Muslims that their children are being taught far too much about Christmas and that it is insulting to have to send a preschooler to class to learn about “Danish values.”

The international media quote some Muslims in Denmark who bitterly say “Danish politics is just about Muslims now.” The sense of fear and of being a target is apparent.

That is understandable but it’s worth considering the Danish strategy in a more holistic way. The government has spelt out its vision very clearly: “One Denmark without Parallel Societies.”

There is no discernible attempt by Denmark to force Muslims in the country to cease to be Muslim. Instead, there is an attempt to thread non-white Danes into the national tapestry. In a sense, this expands the definition of what it means to be Danish. It acknowledges that a Dane can be Muslim as well.

By extrapolation, all Danes are being “re-educated.” A broad new definition of Danish-ness is coming into being. The results will only start to be apparent in a generation.

Originally published www.thearabweekly.com