We begin with a very American debate that’s underway in Europe where a quickly-expanding Muslim population is testing tolerance on all sides. Nowhere is the discussion more heated than in Denmark. In three short decades, that small country has gone from almost no Muslims to hundreds of thousands -- a bigger proportion of the population than other European nations. The resulting culture clash is raising issues of freedom of speech and religion. Our cover story is The Danish Debate.
Denmark is known for its love of bicycles free speech traditions and a Muslim population that now surpasses five percent.
Mayor Cecilia Lonning-Skovgaard: We still see slightly higher birth rates for Muslim families than for non-Muslim families.
Cecilia Lonning-Skovgaard is the mayor in charge of integration in the Danish capital of Copenhagen, where the community of Muslims is quickly expanding.
Lonning-Skovgaard: We see a pattern where a lot of Muslim youngsters are required, unfortunately, to marry boys or girls from their home country. So we still see quite a huge number of the young people being flown in from Pakistan, Turkey and so on in order to, to marry Muslims living here.
In Copenhagen— as in many parts of Europe— tensions are growing with the expanding Muslim population bumping up against non-Muslim communities. It’s a dynamic that's testing the limits of free speech and hate speech on both sides.
Denmark is where the “Cartoon controversy” originated in 2005. A Danish newspaper standing for free speech defied Islam’s ban against depicting its prophet Mohamed. That set off a global wave of deadly attacks by Muslims against Christians and a violent, deadly attack a decade later in France on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
Jacob Mchangama: I'm very much a child of the cartoon crisis
Jacob Mchangama is a free speech expert at a Copenhagen think tank.
Sharyl: Was your view that even if minorities or certain people are offended, that free speech should still enjoy special protection?
Mchangama: Oh, very much so. I think in many ways it's the best form of equality before the law, and a sign of integration, that you can sort of laugh off or at least dismiss, thoughts that you find offensive to you or religion and say “You know what? They have the right to say this, but that right is also what gives me the right to go to my Mosque and practice my faith, to hand out Korans in the street if I want to.”
But Denmark’s strong free speech culture is being seriously tested by the emergence of a Danish politician named Rasmus Paludan. Paludan, an attorney, founded an anti-Muslim hard line party in 2017.
Paludan video: Hello, my name is Rasmus Paludan and I'm the leader of the Danish political party, Hard Line.
Mchangama: And probably the first person since 1939 when the Nazis were running for parliament to have a political program that called for the deportation of people based on their ethnicity. So he wanted non-Western people, even Danish citizens to be deported. And he wanted to ban Islam. It wasn't quite Nazi-ism, but it was an explicit platform of ethno-nationalism, based on deeply illiberal values.
Paludan video: In Denmark, our party is fighting for the survival of ethnic Danes here in Denmark.
In a matter of months, Paludan gained popular attention through his YouTube channel
Paludan video: There are plenty of countries in the world that were very peaceful and non-Muslim and became Sh*thole nations when Islam arrived.
He burned Islam’s sacred book, the Koran.
Sharyl: What has made him a possible in this society?
Mchangama: Well, for a long time he was mostly a sort of a pathetic phenomenon, online phenomenon. Then he went to this immigrant area of Copenhagen and he was attacked. Police had to protect him. Cars were burned down and he would probably have been killed or seriously injured if the police hadn't protected him. And that gave him massive popularity and ensured that he was eligible to run for the parliamentary elections.
To Paludan and his supporters, the violent attacks proved his point. Muslims had come to the tolerant Danish society and resorted to violence to stop constitutionally protected free speech.
Sharyl: What's your goal?
Paludan: Well, the goal is for all the Muslims to leave Denmark
We went to Paludan’s offices in downtown Copenhagen where the government forces him to accept around the clock security, for his own protection.
Paludan: I mean people came from Afghanistan because of the war there. People came here, here from Bosnia when there were strikes there and I'm like, “How can that possibly be Denmark's problem? Are we really supposed to destroy our own country because other people in other countries have problems?”
Paludan: If you live in a Muslim country and you're well off and you're reasonably happy, and you have reasonably high intelligence and good jobs, you have no reason to leave. But the people who are not very intelligent and who are deeply religious, they have every reason to leave because they live sh*tty live where they're from. And in Denmark they get everything for free
Sharyl: Would your position be that you agree you are racist, but there's good reason to be — or is your position that you're not racist?
Paludan: No, My position is that I'm certainly not racist already because I don't want to, separate people by determining their race. Muslims can be any race. I don't judge them by whatever perceived race they are. I do judge them by their actions and Islam teaches actions that are completely in conflict with Western democracies.
As much as many oppose what Paludan has to say, Danes, like Tarek Ziat Hussein , defend his right to say it. Hussein is a lawyer, Muslim, and author of a book on “How to be a Danish Muslim.”
We interviewed Rasmus Paludan. And what are some of your general thoughts about his rise in popularity?
Tarek Hussein: He's had a strategy where he's gone out to these areas where there is a lot of Muslim people and trying to provoke a reaction. And, unfortunately, a lot of places you've got that reaction. There's definitely, in some Muslim communities, there is problems in regard to accepting free speech. And from my point of view, of course that's an issue that we have to address. That's one of the things I've said to my own community that if you look at Rasmus Paludan, he's been doing this for two years and nobody listened to him. And as soon as he got the reaction where people started burning cars and throwing rocks at the police, suddenly he rose in the polls and were able to almost get into parliament.
Sharyl: So would you say Paludan, as an extremist himself, is picking out extremists maybe on the other side— to the extent they exist— and highlighting those?
Tarek: Most definitely. So one of the things that we've seen in Denmark, but also in other European countries, is that the extremes in both parties lifts out of each other. If you could say that.
In Denmark’s most recent elections, Paludan's hard line party ended up falling just short of the 2% needed to win seats in parliament. But he insists his popularity, like Denmark’s Muslim population, will continue to grow.
Sharyl: If your views are not popular among a majority, and if this is perhaps even endangering your way of life, if not your life, what keeps you going?
Paludan: Well, I can tell you many, many people agree with me. As much as I can see with succinct clarity that if I don't do this, then this country will— we'll go straight to hell. It will completely be a different country in, in very few years. And, and that will be very, very, very unfortunate for all the Danes who are not Muslim, which means almost all of them.
And so Denmark will continue to wrestle with a very American ideal: the most important speech to protect can be that which is hardest to defend
Mchangama: If you don't protect the free speech of people like Mr. Paludan, then basically you don't have strong free speech protections.
Lonning-Skovgaard: He is basically free to go out there and say all the crazy stuff that he wants to do because we deeply, deeply believe that free speech is a universal right.
Paludan recently claimed his free speech rights were being violated.. after police banned several demonstrations he planned and forced his party's conference to be cancelled over security concerns.