Researching Islam in Denmark: Public Debates, Political Opinions, and Freedom of Research
By Dietrich Jung
In recent decades, doing research on the Middle East and Islam in Denmark has become an increasingly unpleasant affair. The Danish public perceives Islam and the Middle East as almost synonymous; the crises there, though, are often understood in religious terms. Moreover, Muslims represent the largest religious minority in Denmark, a country that otherwise has been enormously homogeneous in terms of religion. Only 50 years ago, being a Dane meant also being a member of the Folkekirke (People’s Church), following the Lutheran branch of the Christian religion. In 2021, although this “Danish State Church” still dominated the religious landscape, with a registered membership of 73.2 percent of the Danish population, the number of Muslims in Denmark was meanwhile estimated at about 4.5 percent. Today, the integration of this Muslim population into Danish cultural life is one of the dominant subjects of public debate. Since the so-called Muhammad Cartoon Crisis of 2005, the relationship between Islam and Denmark in domestic politics has developed into a starkly polarized if not even ugly controversy. In this controversy, research on Islam has sometimes been used as a scholarly fig leaf to support the one or the other political position. Researchers not willing to play this politically assigned role in public have often been denigrated as useless state employees without any real benefit to society at large.
Imam Ali Mosque Copenhagen (Guillaume Baviere; cc-by-sa-2.0)
This at least has been my own experience of the Danish public debate on Islam. In April 2018, just to provide a personal example, I gave an interview to Ny Viden (New Knowledge), the newsletter of our university. In this interview, I described my research project on “Modern Muslim Subjectivities,” which received financial support from public and private funding institutions based on international peer-review procedures. In this project, we examine the multiple ways in which Muslims have developed specifically Islamic imaginations of modernity. The findings of this project do not easily fit any of the bold black-and-white assumptions that are prevalent in Denmark’s public debate. To my surprise, this interview resulted in a considerable backlash on Facebook, with comments branding me among other things as an idiot with no knowledge of Islam. In many readers of this interview in a – to be frank – rather irrelevant journal, my argument on the unquestionably modern character of contemporary Islamic imaginations of subjectivity and social order raised almost hateful responses. Some of the readers even demanded that the leadership of the University of Southern Denmark (SDU) should sack me. Something that indeed would be possible, because job security for Danish academics is comparatively low, as tenured positions are unknown. But is it not precisely the purpose of academic research to question rather than to confirm the entrenched positions of public debate? Apparently not when it comes to matters of Islam.
This depressing insight was more recently confirmed by the adoption of an udtalelse (“opinion”) of the Folketing, the Danish Parliament, on 28 May 2021. With 72 to 24 votes, the Folketing adopted a resolution about “excessive activism in certain research environments.” The majority of the Parliament called upon the leadership of Danish universities to guarantee self-regulation in academic practice. The initiative for this resolution came from Henrik Dahl, a sociologist and MP representing the small “liberal” party Liberal Alliance, and Morten Messerschmidt, today the new leader of the nationalist Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party). Addressing in particular academic environments doing research on subjects such as gender, migration, racism, and Islam, the two politicians claimed to have observed pseudoscientific practices in research in which politics came disguised as science. This is something, in their reasoning, the Danish state should not pay for. In the parliamentarian debate that preceded the resolution, Dahl and Messerschmidt asked the then Minister of Education and Research, the Social Democrat Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen (today Minister of Culture), whether she agreed with them that in certain research circles there were problems of “excessive activism at the expense of scientific virtues.” According to Henrik Dahl “one cannot trust the typical Danish Middle East researcher,” and he continued: “What they have to say about Islam and about the Israel–Palestine conflict is so absurdly one-eyed and biased that reasonable people cannot base their own positions or actions on it.”
Entrance of the Folketing (Jebulon; cc0-1.0)
The minister responded that she had no intention of playing the judge of specific research circles, scholarly methods, or individual researchers. In this way, she clearly confirmed the Danish university law on freedom of research. At the same time, however, she stated that politicians should not refrain from discussing the aforementioned “negative” tendencies in academic research. The task of the minister, according to Halsboe-Jørgensen, is to guarantee freedom of research by securing the maintenance of good scientific practice at the same time. Consequently, political interventions would be necessary where scientific self-regulation did not work. Henrik Dahl’s attack against Danish scholars and the adoption of the resolution by the Parliament triggered a wave of protest by researchers from various Danish universities. In an open letter to the daily Politiken in June 2021, 262 researchers expressed their deep concerns regarding this public representation of their research. According to the article in Politiken, the recent vehement critique of named scholars by politicians and the media was followed by violently threatening personal attacks on social media and in private messages. As a consequence, there was an increasing number of Danish researchers who no longer wished to engage in the public debate in order to avoid harassment and intimidation.
The minister did not want to respond directly to this letter. However, 3,241 Danish and international scholars from a multiplicity of academic disciplines did so two days later. In their open letter to the Danish government, they demanded that the government withdraw its support for this resolution on so-called excessive activism. This second open letter prompted Henrik Dahl and Morten Messerschmidt to take action once again. In an article in Berlingske, Henrik Dahl accused the researchers of trying to shut up their critics by playing the victim. According to him, there were many reasons to believe that political activism and pseudoscience are obvious problems at Danish universities. In another article in Berlingske, Morten Messerschmidt declared that he thought it “deeply bizarre” that all sorts of researchers from various disciplines were now reacting with what he considered to be paranoia, speculation, and general hysteria. In his understanding, these researchers simply did not understand the problem and they wanted to avoid actually engaging with it. However, Danish researchers are neither paranoid, nor are they hysterical. But they do share the concerns of those Danish university employees who bore the brunt of these constant political attacks. In recent years, Danish scholars have been regularly confronted with both state intervention in teaching and research and the public demeaning of their work. Therefore, the solidarity expressed among Danish researchers should come as no surprise.
The resolution of the Danish parliament represents nothing more than an additional link in a chain of political directives and interventions into the workings of universities. When taking up my position as professor in Middle East and Islamic studies at SDU in 2009, I was first met with a political call to expand our teaching portfolios and to accommodate more students, in particular new students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. At this point in time, the slogan was “university education for everyone.” Only a few years later, the government issued a bill to drastically reduce the number of students due to rather negative but also questionable employment statistics. The next idea was to introduce a cap to the number of different subjects a student may start to study while still being eligible for the usual study grant provided by the state. This regulation was dropped again by the following government. Until recently, the internationalization of Danish universities was a top priority, including making our courses attractive for foreign students. Today, the state requires a reduction in courses taught in English, a precondition for appealing to foreign students, in order to circumvent EU regulations granting exchange students from EU countries the same conditions as for Danish students. The latter implies paying them similar student grants to those that all native Danish students receive, which has visibly raised public expenses in education. The latest political initiative is that universities are required to move some student places from Aarhus, Copenhagen, and Odense to provincial towns in order to construct a “Denmark in balance.” Those universities which do not comply will lose 10 percent of their students at their centers. Given the fact that the state funding allocated to each Danish university largely rests on the number of students that pass their exams, this is again a fundamental economic threat that in the end will lead to the closure of courses and research environments.
These political directives have been accompanied by a rhetoric that increasingly portrays academic work in a negative light. Various politicians, cutting across the boundaries of political parties, responded to any criticism of their university policies by painting a picture of spoiled academics who only wanted to preserve their basically undeserved privileges. Against this background, the resolution of the Folketing on “activist research” is not an isolated event. Rather it is part and parcel of a process that raises concerns and frustrations among Denmark’s academic staff. Not that there is anything wrong with the state making demands on publicly funded educational institutions. But when the directives of shifting governments seem to lack any consistency or educational strategy, then these policies do more harm than good. The latter is definitely the point at which we have arrived in Denmark today.
When it comes to Danish Middle East and Islamic studies, I simply cannot recognize any validity in Henrik Dahl’s and Morten Messerschmidt’s claims at all. This field of scholarship represents a lively environment that produces research at the highest international level. Anyone who takes the time to just spend a few minutes reading the homepages of my colleagues will realize this. It is not that we are looking for “true Islam,” but that we are exploring the diverse social and historical realities it presents. Contemporary Danish research is not about confirming or refuting particular claims on Islam, but it aims at gaining a better understanding of the often very contradictory ways in which Islamic traditions have been interpreted in the course of history. Our research results are regularly published by international publishers and scholarly journals in different languages. In this way, Danish research on Islam has gained significant resonance – both positive and negative – in international research environments. Danish scholars give lectures on all continents and present their research agendas to critical colleagues and students around the world. This clearly shows how scientific self-regulation works, without the need for the Danish parliament to call on the management of various universities to ensure it. In stark contrast to Dahl’s view that one cannot rely on Danish Middle Eastern studies, there are researchers and institutions around the globe who are very much interested in the research that takes place at Danish universities. It is almost absurd to believe that Danish researchers could evade justified criticism by their peers.
When the previous Minister of Education and Research, Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen, could not understand why more than 3,000 researchers were concerned about the adoption of the parliamentarian resolution of May 2021, all she had to do was pause to think about Morten Messerschmidt’s proposal in Berlingske. Referring to the text of the parliamentarian resolution, Messerschmidt called on Denmark’s researchers to return to the “criteria of evidence and objectivity of the 1950s,” which – according to his view – were “completely uncluttered and beyond any doubt at Western universities.” These quotes not only show how differently politicians may interpret the resolution, but also indicate a possible broader threat to Danish research. There are no methodological or theoretical criteria in modern science that are beyond any doubt. Not in the 1950s and not today. It is not the concerns of Denmark’s researchers that are “deeply bizarre”, but rather the ideas about academic research such as those held by Messerschmidt. If the Folketing’s resolution is used to implement such recommendations from powerful politicians, then it is they who are in the end endangering the scientific integrity and freedom of Danish research.
This essay builds on the following articles in Danish newspapers:
Politiker I folketingsdebat: “Vi kan ikke stole på den typiske danske Mellemøsten-forsker”. Kristeligt Dagblad, 28 May 2021.
262 forskere: “Vi er dybt bekymrede over den stigende mistænkeliggørelse af vores forskning”. Politiken, 6 June 2021.
Oprør breder sig voldsomt: 3.241 forskere vil have regeringen til at trække støtten til kontroversiel tekst. Politiken, 8 June 2021.
Forskere forsøger at lukke munden på deres kritikere ved at spille ofre. Berlingske, 8 June 2021.
Mandag fik de 226 forskere på nakken – onsdag er der 3.241 utilfredse forskere: “Det er dybt bizart”. Berlingske, 9 June 2021.
Mellemøstforsker: Henrik Dahls generaliserende angreb er uanstændigt. Berlingske, 2 July 2021.