The issue of parallel Muslim societies has sparked renewed debate in Denmark after a three-part television documentary, "The Mosques Behind the Veil" was aired at the beginning of March on Danish TV2.
The documentary consists of an undercover investigation into claims that Muslim imams are working towards keeping parallel societies for Muslims within Denmark.
The filmmakers had two young Muslims -- brought from outside Denmark -- go undercover in Gellerupparken, an area best described as a predominantly Muslim ghetto in Aarhus, Denmark's second city. For three months, the two lived as a fictitious couple, Fatma and Muhammed, while visiting eight different mosques in Aarhus, Odense and Copenhagen -- the three largest cities in Denmark -- with hidden cameras. The goal was to hear what imams say behind closed doors about Danish law and authorities, gender equality and general contact with Danish society, such as Muslim women participating in the Danish job market. There are approximately 140 mosques in all of Denmark.
The film is similar in concept to the British BBC Panorama documentary, "Secrets of Britain's Sharia Councils," which aired in April 2013. The BBC went undercover to document the discrimination practiced in British sharia councils against Muslim women. (The existence of British sharia councils were no secret to the British; the Danish film, it turned out, documented a Danish sharia council for the first time).
For the purpose of the documentary, Fatma was given a personal cover story -- based on real-life dilemmas -- for which she would seek advice from the different imams: Her husband is violent, and she does not wish to have sex with him. She cannot get pregnant and his family has found a second wife for him. She consulted with a Danish girlfriend about the violence, which has left her bruised, and the girlfriend told her to go to the police.
What do the imams think she should do?
The series begins in the Grimhøj mosque. The mosque has been in the Danish headlines for years, especially since police statistics in 2013 showed that 22 out of the 27 Muslims from Aarhus who left to fight with Islamic State in Syria had frequented it. The head of the mosque, Oussama El Saadi, has, in fact, said that he hopes the Islamic State will win and that there will be an Islamic world government. The imam of the same mosque, Abu Bilal, was sentenced last year in Germany for inciting hatred against both Jews and non-Jews, and fined €10,000.
Abu Bilal, imam of the Grimhøj mosque in Denmark, was fined €10,000 last year in Germany, after being found guilty of inciting hatred against both Jews and non-Jews. (Image source: MEMRI video screenshot)
Fatma, during her visits to the mosque, learned from imam Abu Bilal that married women who commit infidelity should be stoned to death, and that Muslims who leave Islam may be killed. He makes no reservations about these teachings. She also learned that young children who refuse to pray should be beaten (a woman asks the imam specifically, how she should conduct those beatings). Fatma was also informed that a woman may not take a job without her husband's permission.
Abu Bilal further says that her husband is entitled to take another wife. Fatma is not allowed to deny her husband his "sexual rights," even when he is violent. When she asks the imam if she should involve the police, the answer is an emphatic "no."
Officially, the spokesman of the Grimhøj mosque, along with spokesmen from three of the eight mosques, professes that the mosque respects Danish law. But behind closed doors -- on hidden camera -- he advocates polygamy and beating children. He also instructs Fatma to go back to her abusive spouse and to let him commit what amounts to rape.
Fatma attended three other mosques in Aarhus, one of which publicly claims to be "moderate." All of the clerics gave her the same answers. Some told her that violence is not allowed, but made it clear that there is nothing she can do. The imam at the Fredens mosque added that she might be able to obtain a divorce, if necessary, from their sharia council.
Muhammed, reporting what he experienced in the mosques, told TV2 news that he had been warned in the mosques against the Danes; informed that they were kuffar (unbelievers), and that he should avoid them and their social functions, such as birthday parties. One imam told the couple that they should "not melt into Danish society," but simply surround themselves with other Muslims.
In Copenhagen, Fatma consulted the leader of the female section of the Islamisk Trossamfund mosque, Umm Abdullah. The claim at Islamisk Trossamfund is that it is in contact with several thousand Muslims every week, and thus among the biggest mosques in Denmark. Umm Abdullah tells Fatma that she must not go to birthday parties; there would be, she says, alcohol and mixed male and female company -- and she should only meet with Danish people in order to tell them about Islam. This is necessary, says Umm Abdullah, to save the Danes from hell, and the only reason why Muslims should interact with Danes. When Fatma asks her about her personal problems, Umm Abdullah tells her that she must not contact the police about the violent husband. "Why should you become a laughing stock in front of the infidels?" she rhetorically asks.
Fatma also went to see the imam at the Hamad Bin Khalifa mosque in Copenhagen, better known in Denmark as "Stormoskeen" ["the big mosque"]. Named after the former emir of Qatar and fully sponsored by him, it opened in 2014. The organization behind the Hamad Bin Khalifa mosque, the Danish Islamic Council, has claimed that the people who operate the mosque have chosen a moderate interpretation of Islam that is compatible with Danish society.
On camera, the spokesman from the Hamad Bin Khalifa mosque confidently assured the journalists from TV2 News that the mosque thoroughly respects Danish laws. He even assured them that women enjoy even better rights than men.
When Fatma spoke to the imam of the Hamad Bin Khalifa mosque, however, and filmed it with a hidden camera, she was given the same answers she had received in all the other mosques: She must not take a job without her husband's permission, and even if her husband continues to beat her, she must not contact the police. This most "moderate" of all the Danish mosques also advocated polygamy, and the right of the husband to his wife's body, even when she might prefer to refuse him.
One of the questions Danes are asking themselves after viewing the documentary, is whether Danish Muslims actually listen to the imams and do what they say. According to a poll conducted in October 2015, 40% of all Danish Muslims believe that the law in Denmark should be based solely on the words of the Quran and 77% believe that the Quran should be followed to the word. Ten years ago, the figure was 62%. The poll showed that 50% of all Danish Muslims pray five times a day; ten years ago, the figure was 37%.
While the working assumption has been that with time, Muslims would become less, not more, religious, these numbers fly in the face of the wish that Muslims might be comfortably assimilated into Danish culture.
At the end of the documentary, Fatma and Mohammed visit the sharia council -- which, since the documentary aired, has been dismantled, but others are believed to exist -- at the Fredens mosque in Aarhus. Here, Fatma pleads over ten times for a divorce from her violent husband, but the council refuses, telling her to go back home and try again.
These were exactly the same responses as those given by the imams of the British sharia councils in the BBC Panorama documentary from 2013. Genuinely abused women pleaded in vain for divorce, and sometimes had to wait for ten years to obtain it. The answers they received from the imam were identical with the answers that Fatma heard from the eight different imams in Denmark: Go back to your violent spouse and try to work it out.
TV2 presented the secret recordings to all the mosques that had been investigated, but the mosques refused to comment on them.
Instead, 31 Danish mosques and Islamic organizations decided to react to the exposure of their goings-on by collectively condemning the way that TV2 had portrayed the Islamic organizations in the documentary. The organizations held the TV station responsible for the "way that it was destroying the integration that the organizations had worked on for the past 30 years in Denmark" and claimed that "Danish Muslims are an integral part of Danish society and play a positive role in integrating Muslims into Danish society." They also reaffirmed that "Muslims have a right to seek advice about Islam, Islamic rules and Islamic sharia in Denmark."
The ongoing public debate that has followed the broadcast, shows -- unsurprisingly -- that neither politicians, opinion makers nor so-called "experts" have any workable plans for how to deal with what the TV documentary revealed. Some have suggested that imams get a special university education or go through a licensing process. Others have suggested closing the Grimhøj mosque -- an act that would doubtless be regarded as provocation, and one that would not solve anything in other, similar, mosques. Still other observers have suggested looking more closely at possibilities in the Danish constitution for dealing with the problem. One thing is clear: Denmark is as far away from solving this problem as the rest of Europe -- and it is not going to get any easier.
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.