Conducting peace-building research on minorities at a cross-roads in history

Dr. Amineh Hoti

Posted Dec 20, 2014      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Pakistani immigrants in Copenhagen, Europe:  Conducting peace-building research on minorities at a cross-roads in history

by Dr. Amineh Hoti

How and why we see the world the way we do depends on our perspective. Denmark, proclaimed the “happiest country in the world”, is known for its social mobility, transparency and progress, with the highest ranking in the world despite its population of a little more than 5 million people. Its capital Copenhagen aims to become the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. Its true acclaims lie in being a city where you can borrow books from the library free for a month; where the Queen is like an ordinary person and goes about the city on a cycle; where there is very little “VIP culture”, schools and hospitals are free. There is a lot to learn here, but as anthropologists not tourists. Digging deeper under the skin, we have found that there is also another story – that of immigrants’, mainly Pakistani, to Denmark.

Recently, Denmark became known in the world, especially to Muslims, for its cartoon controversy – negative cartoons of the Prophet (PBUH) were published widely, causing protest and fury. Denmark has a widely cited code of behaviour called “Jaunteloven” which sits uneasily with the immigrants’ own needs and identity. Its law No. 9 states, “You’re not to think anyone cares about you”- this cultural law has implications for both the Christian majority and the Muslim minorities as both religions emphasize love and care for the other. The stories of Muslims in Denmark (who are at the heart of controversy in its media and popular imagination) is worth exploring in order to find paths to peace in the world.

It is this that brought the “Journey into Europe” team led by my father, Professor Akbar S. Ahmed to travel here from different parts of the world. Similar to our previous excursions last summer to the UK, Spain, Germany, Bosnia and Greece to look at minorities, especially Muslims, in Europe and to explore how we can build bridges between different communities and give voice to so many different people who are otherwise not heard. Professor Ahmed flew from DC with his trusted and well-travelled team: Zeenat Ahmed, Frankie Martin and Harrison Akins. I left my home in Pakistan at 2am through the dark and cold path that the bus took to the airport. I deeply feel the pain of what my fellow-people are going through, with all the unease and turmoil they face on a day-to-day basis, and as we flew off from South Asia, I prayed for peace and deeper understanding in the region and in our world.

At the University of Copenhagen, Dr Ehab Gamal a Professor from Egypt hosted a talk on “Journey into Europe”. Amongst the distinguished people present were, one of Pakistan’s most senior diplomats, Ambassador Masroor Junejo, who later gave dinner in our honour.

Professor Akbar Ahmed talked to a highly educated, intelligent, and diverse audience about Muslims not being “new” to Europe as immigrants. Muslims have been in Europe since 711 and in Al Andalus, in Spain, they created a very positive culture along with Christians and Jews - one of tolerance and great learning from which Europe gained enlightenment - although history books discredit this period with the phrase “The Dark Ages”. He emphasized the importance of the Quaid-e-Azam who respected diversity and felt deeply about the protection of minorities and refugees (as the Quaid himself was from a minority group). There are pockets of Pakistan in Copenhagen – the Jinnah School and Iqbal Academy, for instance.

The Chief Rabbi of Denmark, who also attended the lecture at the university, said he has spent decades improving relations between his own community, Muslims and Christians. He talked about the challenges within his own community regarding differences and disagreements. He suggested that if we are to improve things we as individual communities have to first, improve relations within our own camps, and secondly work closely with the media.

In this and all the subsequent talks we had, the role of the Danish media came up again and again as one of great significance in image-building/breaking and very problematic in its current methods of representations. Mr. Bashy Quraishy a Danish-Pakistani with his own show on Danish TV called “Bashy’s Corner” said, “media is the alpha and the omega” but, unfortunately, it plays a negative role – some shows fuel racism and hatred between communities and are based on fiction and caricatures, he said. The killings at Sydney, which came under attack by a man with a criminal record who claimed to be a person from a Muslim country added to the sadness and unease of every day Muslims. That night, CNN flashed images of Muslim beards, tasbeh, CIA reports of torture; followed by the fictive show that will do much damage to relations, “Homeland”, which shows the “bad guys” from Pakistan. Those who made this program and others like it unthinkingly are not giving responsible and positive messages and images to the world – it will only lead us down a dangerous path.

Nina, a refugee who escaped genocide in Bosnia with one Christian and one Muslim parent and married to a Dane, was present at the university lecture. She studied, for her thesis, three of the top newspapers in Denmark. She looked at all of the articles published on Muslims and all 1700 articles showed them in a negative way. Her study revealed that there was: a) an “asymmetric relationship between a democratic majority and an ethnic minority who does not have the same opportunity to articulate discourse in the public debate, b) the policy agenda is largely based on the terms of the media which in the case of Muslims tends to focus on conflict, and c) the political actors succumb to the media’s news.”

The results of the analysis conclude that media and politicians play an important role in setting the discourses that amplifies Muslims as being ‘the other’. Her thesis stated, “Muslims and Islam are often articulated through problematic and inferior characteristics, and as a threat to Danish culture and values.” She said imagine how a Dane having seldom encountered a Pakistani or a Muslim, reading this constant negative image will think and feel about them. The question the people behind the media must ask themselves is that do these images make the world a less safe place for their children and ours? By instilling fear we affect both communities and drive them apart – neighbors see neighbors with suspicion and mistrust.

Despite these tensions around the issues of identity and the image of the Prophet, I found in the main street of Stroget, beautiful blue tiles with God’s name and the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) name in Arabic. The many Pakistani-Danish women and converts I interviewed on questions of identity, the challenges they face and their suggestions about how we can bring world communities together to increase peace building, all said their role model was the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) pointing to their hearts. They carried the message of the Prophet, which is one of compassion and mercy for all of humankind. The Prophet’s message is a responsibility to the environment we live in and the necessity of being good global citizens.

With increasing global turmoil in the Muslim world, many Iraqis, Syrians, and Pakistanis came to settle in different parts of Europe, including Denmark. Some Pakistanis came as “guest workers” 50 years ago and settled, but as the Ambassador’s local Pakistani driver, Muhammad Khokar Sahib, said in Urdu as he drove us back, “after decades in Denmark, we are neither theirs nor are they ours and when we go to Pakistan they say, ‘why have you come, what have you brought and when are you going?’ So we feel we are not entirely owned by either culture and yet we belong to both places.”

As the next generation grows up in Denmark speaking fluent Danish, English and Urdu – articulate in both cultures but not fully of either - there is also a simultaneous rise in right wing anti-immigrants. Pakistani men said there was little acceptance because of what is seen as the “black” color of their skin, women said their hijab’s were pulled off their head and they were spat at. The pain of leaving one’s own home country and never fully being accepted by the host country was expressed profoundly again and again. At the same time, we saw lots of glimpses of hope – we visited several Andalusian inspired mosques and were warmly received and talked to the impressive younger generation. The top IBM sales leader is a smart and strong Pakistani woman, Sanila Rana; a prominent politician is Kashif Ahmed who has founded his own political party, the Danish National Party, because he sees himself as Pakistani as well as Danish. He said, “we must find peace within our selves and within the community we live in”. 

Reversing this situation, our own minorities must be accepted as well as Pakistanis living abroad who come “home”. Minorities and orphans as all the Caliphs emphasized are the most vulnerable and in need of state care. In every speech, the Quaid emphasized the care of the refugees and minorities. Despite the differences between the Pakistani communities amongst themselves in Denmark, Khokar Sahib, who has lived in Denmark for the last 50 years said, “hum sab Pakistani hain, hum aik hain!”

Professor Ahmed pointed out, showing the sweep of our visit in a documentary clip from Greece where he stood at the footsteps of a statue of Aristotle, and from Spain where I interviewed an array of women from the world, the lessons from “Journey into Europe” for all humanity is the challenge of the great Aristotelian idea of humanism – of treating others with great respect.

A young Bulgarian academic at the University of Copenhagen, Eletsia, rightly said, “We have very little knowledge of our world - about ourselves and about others. We need to educate ourselves in this field”. I agree, this is where the future lies against the background of all the disturbing news taking place in the world, which emphasizes the immediacy of the problem.

On the last day of our Journey in Copenhagen, as we were winding up, the shocking news came in from my home of the massacre of children in Peshawar and it cast a very dark shadow over all of us. Six/seven men killed about 145 innocent Pakistani children and teachers in an army school in Peshawar close to where I grew up in Pakistan. This was a terrible and tragic shock! Allah and the Prophet (PBUH) despise cruelty and killing. This mad cycle of vengeance and killing innocent children reached the lowest ebb. A Danish-Pakistani taxi driver told us, “when the maasoom bache were pulled out under their tables and shot I can not eat all day – my heart is filled with over-whelming sorrow!” he cried with us. Several friends from Peshawar and elsewhere in the world expressed deepest sorrow at this greatest of tragedies – children from around the world expressed their desire to write letters of support to the families—our entire team empathize and pray for the soul of every precious child and person killed and their families.

In this very difficult time of national sorrow and grief, it is important to derive strength from God’s own attributes - compassion and mercy (Rehman and Rahim). Although the wounds are too fresh, we will work towards healing our fractured world, which could not be more appropriate in the light of the terrible and tragedy at Peshawar. It took such a heartbreaking tragedy to unite the country – The PM and Imran Khan, for once, were seen sitting around the same table. Let us all pray together and reach out to the families as one united nation of Pakistanis living at home and abroad.