Nordic views on Islam sour after global attacks
The sun slips below the horizon and a call to prayer rings through what was once a brewery, but is now a house of Islamic worship.
"It's pretty ironic," says Firas Mahmoud, a 28-year-old university student who came to Denmark from the United Arab Emirates 18 years ago. In the homeland of Carlsberg beer and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, anything is possible.
Islamic communities benefit from liberal attitudes across the Scandinavian region. Muslims are free to practice their religion as they wish and, says Mahmoud, they are able to voice their views in social debates better than elsewhere.
Somalian-born Fahie Abukar, chairman of the Islamic Society of Finland, says people in the region understand Islam.
"The Nordic (region) is the best place to practice our religion," said Abukar, who has lived in Finland for 10 years. He also praised the region's welfare system, which ensures a good level of education and health care for all.
But the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and July bombings in London, as well as other action by extremist Islamists, have soured attitudes toward the minority faith among the predominantly Lutheran populations of Europe's north.
"People mind their own business, but sometimes, if people know you're Muslim, there are all kinds of accusations," said denim-clad Mahmoud, offering a can of Mecca-Cola. He says he is tired of always being on the defensive.
Racist attacks in Denmark -- which has detained eight Muslims under its anti-terrorism law since September -- grew by a third in the first eight months this year, compared to 2004.
In October, leading Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten stirred emotions when it defied Islam's ban on images of Prophet Mohammad by printing cartoons depicting him in various guises, including one where his turban appears to be a bomb.
In Norway, the anti-immigration Progress Party won a record 22 percent of parliamentary seats in a September election.
A poll by Sweden's Integration Board in September showed that while the country was more tolerant toward foreigners, it had grown less positive toward Muslims, with 40 percent saying they did not want a mosque in their neighborhood.
"Islam has become the bottom of the pecking order, a type of new enemy," Helena Benauda, head of the Swedish Muslim Council, said when the poll was published. "I fear it will get even worse after the terrorist attack in London this summer."
After four British Muslims killed themselves and 52 others in suicide bombings in the British capital, a group claiming links to al Qaeda -- and responsibility for the London bombs -- identified Denmark as a potential target.
Denmark has around 500 troops serving with U.S.-led forces in Iraq and also has soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.
Ahmed Abu-Laban, an influential Danish imam, says a similar attack by local Muslims is unlikely as they benefit from the support of the welfare state, the community is still small, and relatively new to the country.
But others in Denmark's 3-4 percent Muslim minority disagree, saying that as long as the media makes generalizations or misrepresents the religion, and as long as Denmark has troops in Iraq, the country remains a target.
"We're out there using weapons in a foreign country and for the people who instigate terrorism, this is fuel to get their activists out there to do the job," said Imam Abdul Wahid Pedersen, a Dane who converted to Islam 24 years ago.
Mahmoud, who has Danish citizenship, says that he could not have imagined an attack in Denmark before, but the London bombings made him change his mind.
He said Abu-Laban's view that an attack here was unlikely was based on the older man's own experience, and might not apply to young Muslim Danes.
"He knows what he escaped from. People born and raised here don't know it's much worse elsewhere ... It's something else that aggravates them. The attacks of the newspapers, the generalizations and what's happening in the Middle East."
The shock of the London bombings may have helped harden attitudes to Muslims in Nordic nations but it also got Danish politicians and Muslim leaders talking.
"I deeply regret that there have to be bodies on the table before (Danish politicians) actually want to start talking with us. But yes, they have started talking with us, so somehow this is a step forward," said Pedersen, 51, who sports a goatee.
Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said after a meeting with Muslim leaders in September that imams felt a shared responsibility to ensure youths were not drawn to radical action.
"We must never generalize or give the image that Islam as a religion is a problem or that all Muslims pose a possible terror threat. This is not the case," Rasmussen said. "The large and dominant majority of Muslims want to live peacefully."
In Sweden, where the government opposed the war on Iraq and where Muslims make up around 5 percent of the population, the head of the SAPO security service told Reuters that elements of extremism could always be found when people are not assimilated.
"But it's another step from being an extremist to become a terrorist," SAPO Director-General Klas Bergenstrand said, adding the authority had close and good relations with Sweden's Muslim community with regular meetings held at mosques.
Pedersen said some Danes now felt like turning their backs on Islam out but he was optimistic this would change.
"I think we will find our way through this because the Danish population is well educated. If we can't solve this, then we are worthless."
If Muslims want to be better liked in Europe then they should cut out such Islamic practices as terrorism, "honor killings" and rape.