The Words of the Pedersen Family

Challenges and Opportunities Posed by Europe's Muslim Population

Marion Pedersen
January 24, 2012
Former Member, Parliament of Denmark
Address to the International Leadership Conference, Seoul, Korea, January 2012

I will speak about some of the challenges and opportunities posed by Europe's growing Muslim population. I think the biggest challenge is still to get the Europeans to remember that the 9/11 attackers were terrorists and that they just used their faith as an excuse for their criminal acts.

In Denmark and the rest of the Nordic countries, we have had immigrants from Muslim countries since the 1960s. At that time it was mostly men who came to earn enough money to start a small business or build a house in their hometown. Most of them planned to stay temporarily and not permanently. But as time went by their families came, their children grew up, and they stayed. From just a couple thousand people, we now have about 200,000 Muslims in Denmark, out of a population of 5.5 million.

So is this a threat to Danish society? Personally, I see it as more of an opportunity than a threat or challenge. First of all: most of these people came to work, and they did work. They helped the Danish welfare society to grow. Now with the economic crisis it is, of course, difficult for many people to hold a job. Second, it gives me a chance to learn to know another religion, a different emphasis, and a different way of living at first hand. The challenge is to see the possibilities instead of the "problems." For me as a politician, it is important to integrate our new citizens into the Danish way of life and culture. That can be very hard, especially for those who came to Denmark recently and have not learned the language or the culture. Some of them come from countries that have very different traditions, for instance, concerning women's rights or freedom of speech.

So how should we see the possibilities and try to enhance the integration process? First of all, it is important not to see them as "the other"; rhetoric is very important here. Secondly, it is important to help them to find a job, get an education, and learn the language.

Everyone wants the best for their children. The same is true for our new citizens with a Muslim background. Therefore, it is important to help the children to be a part of society. Whether it is in school or the workforce, we need to include them because we need their skills and presence in the workforce.

Unfortunately there is a kind of barrier in the workforce, not only in Denmark but also in other European countries. It is especially hard during economic crises when your name is Hassan and not Hans. But that should not be a barrier for the young men or women. My advice to the young new citizen is always to learn Danish and try to get an education, and if you already have an education to get it recognized in the Danish system so you can prove your skills.

In the Nordic countries we have seen criminal gangs of young people who join just because they feel that nobody wants them and they need to seek their own way of life. But that is a bad solution.

In my opinion, Danish work places will gain a lot if the employees come from different backgrounds, both in working methods and culture. My husband and I have a small business. We own a garage, and we always have employees from many different ethnic backgrounds. We have never had any problems with that; neither have the rest of our staff or our customers. I don't know why, but in my experience they are more dedicated to the company than the ones with a pure Danish background.

To summarize, countries with a growing Muslim population will profit in human terms if they welcome the new citizens and help them to integrate while allowing them to be different and retain their culture as long as it does not collide with the laws in their new country and as long as they don't create a parallel society. That is not beneficial for them or society in general.

This is my personal story, but the challenges that I have talked about are the same in most North European countries.

The central question, again, is shall we as politicians focus on the problems or on the possibilities? I choose to see possibilities instead of barriers. But to do that, it is necessary to see people not as Muslims or Christians but first of all as human beings and as citizens. Unfortunately, the events of 9/11 have affected our viewpoint, and therefore we tend to see them first of all as Muslims instead of as people. And if we keep doing that, we also push them to see themselves first of all as Muslims instead of as citizens.

We should all remember that "A stranger is a friend you have not yet met." 

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