Cultural Identity: the New Religion

Svend White

Posted Jan 17, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Cultural identity: the new religion

by Svend White

After my father’s conversion to Islam in the late 1950s, my grandmother, a devout Catholic, never questioned his right to make that choice.  Granted, she worried till the her final days for his immortal soul, but she never viewed him as less American or a part of the family for leaving the Church.  I think more than a mother’s love was at work there—I think it was the result of an intuitive understanding of religious faith and the spiritual and emotion imperative to follow one’s conscience.  I don’t think she was particularly ecumenical in outlook and she certainly didn’t approve of his decision to embrace this exotic religion, but I think she could relate to his change on a certain level, and she didn’t find his religious conversion a threat to her identity, whether religiously or culturally.

One would expect people who are “secular” in the fullest sense of the word, namely people who lack any religious faith at all, to be the least threatened by others’ religious beliefs—From their perspective, it’s just another fable people comfort themselves with, as opposed to a repudiation of the Truth—but in my experience the opposite often seems to be the case.

Discussing my mother’s conversion from Lutheranism to Islam—she converted in Copenhagen in 1970—with relatives and friends in Denmark the early 1990s, I was struck by how radically different the reaction of some was from that of my grandmother in the USA.  Though many admitted to being agnostics or even atheists, their reaction against the idea of a Danish woman abandoning a religion that many Danes seem to remember only two days a year—i.e., at Christmas and Easter—and embracing Islam was intense and deepseated.  Something far more sacred for them than religion seems to have been challenged.  Their cultural identity was in jeopardy.

I’ve always suspected that for these reasons that hyper-secularized Scandinavia, even with its tradition of compassion and social solidarity—a source of pride for me all my life, especially as America turned rightward after the lamentable advent of the Reagan Revolution—had the potential for great inter-religious strife.  Events in Denmark in recent years seem to be bearing out my theory.

With this in mind, here’s a report from an article from The Torch [which is in Danish, though there is an English section on the website], an unabashedly leftist and activist journal of social commentary in Denmark, about the increasing prejudice and zenophobia against immigrants being seen in Denmark today.  I’ve provided a rough (and quite inelegant) translation, with the original in brackets:

Recently, the Minority Party publicized an email written by the head of the Danish People’s Party Kenneth Kristensen in which he laments that one cannot simply expel Danes who convert to Islam from their country and expresses his desire to penalize Danish Muslims merely for their choice of religion.  “There is no doubt that many of these people are far more dangerous than those we’ve gotten from the Middle East.  Unfortunately, we have no way to expell them, but we can ensure that security services keep a close eye on them.”
[For nylig kunne Minoritetspartiet offentliggøre en email fra Dansk Folkepartis Ungdoms landsformand, Kenneth Kristensen, hvori han ærgrer sig over, at man ikke bare kan landsforvise danskere, som konverterer til islam, og hvor han udtrykker ønske om at kriminalisere danske muslimer alene på grund af deres valg af religion: “Der er ingen tvivl om, at mange af disse personer er endnu farligere end dem vi har fået fra Mellemøsten. Desværre har vi ingen mulighed for at udvise disse, men vi kan sørge for at efterretningstjenesten holder et vågent øje med dem.”]

Only Ekstra Bladet [a tabloid-like newspaper known for sensationalism and its saucy adult classified ads—Svend] commented on the matter in a short piece
by the [erotic] massage ads, wherein Kenneth Kristensen repeated and escalatedhis assault on religious freedom with the following grotesque
observations: “When you abandon Christian faith for Islam, it is normally the result of radicalism. It’s as much of a warning sign as wearing a swastika or displaying suicidal tendencies.” (11/23).
[Kun Ekstra Bladet tog sagen op i en frimærkenotits ved siden af massageannoncerne, hvor Kenneth Kristensen gentog og radikaliserede sit angreb på religionsfriheden i groteske vendinger: “Når man vælger at skifte sin kristne tro ud med islam, er det som regel ud fra radikale bevæggrunde. Det er et advarselssignal på samme måde, som hvis man begynder at bære hagekors eller udvise selvmordstendenser.” (23.11.).]

Expulsion, criminalization and comparisons of Danish Muslims to Nazis, but noone objected.
[Landsforvisning, kriminalisering og sidestilling af danske muslimer med nazister - men ingen tog afstand.]

It’s fascinating how some secularists seem incapable of understanding the phenomenon of religious conversion or of entertaining the idea that it might be the result of a sincere change of heart. 

It’s equally intriguing, and profoundly concerning, how ferociously those same people react to any challenge to their ersatz religion, this nebulous but all-important cultural and national identity.  Combine such Jacobin secularism with intense prejudice and you have a recipe for senseless conflict in any reasonably diverse society, and an inspiration for zealotry worthy of the Taliban.

Originally posted on Svend White’s blog - Akram’s Razor at