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In Denmark, Jewish and Muslim Communities Fear Fallout from Copenhagen Shootings

As anti-immigration movements decry Islam as a threat to the West, many Danes are more anxious that the attack will be used to stir tensions for political gain in the run-up to September's elections.

by Katie Engelhart
Feb 20 2015, 10:50am

Image via AP

On Monday, as Denmark reeled from a deadly shooting spree by a homegrown Islamist radical, around 50 Danes gathered outside a movie theatre in central Copenhagen to sing a song. The cold was biting, and those in attendance — mostly male, mostly elderly and entirely Caucasian — gripped wrinkled song lyrics with gloved hands. On one side of the square, a man with a loudspeaker cued the crowd — which soon began a shaky rendition of the Norwegian ballad Surrounded by Enemies.

The song comes from a poem by the Norwegian poet Nordahl Grieg — written in 1936 about the Spanish Civil War and popularized during World War II, when it was read out on BBC radio broadcasts, listened to in secret, as a means of buoying popular resistance to the Nazi German occupation.

Seventy-five years later, the tune has been redeployed in Copenhagen: by those who claim that Denmark is yet again occupied — this time, by radical Islamists.

Monday evening's gathering was organized by PEGIDA Denmark, the Copenhagen offshoot of the anti-Islam, anti-immigrant German street movement PEGIDA, which stands for "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of Europe." The sing-song followed a torch-led march through the streets of the capital, and a self-consciously solemn walk around Sankt Jorgens Lake. The event was organized hours after 22-year-old Omar el Hussein was shot down by police on the streets near his home, after being identified as the suspect behind last weekend's Copenhagen killing spree.

On Saturday afternoon, Hussein opened fire in a café in Copenhagen, killing one man and injuring three cops. The café was hosting a debate on free speech — featuring the controversial cartoonist Lars Wilks, famous for his 2007 drawing of the Prophet Mohammed as a dog.

Hours later, Hussein, who had fled the scene, reappeared outside of Denmark's central synagogue — killing a Jewish volunteer guard, injuring two more officers and kicking off a city-wide manhunt.

Around 5am, the suspected gunman was tracked down by police and shot dead, in Copenhagen's immigrant-heavy Norrebro district. Later, he would be identified: as a 22-year-old, Denmark-born Muslim man who had been released from jail only two weeks earlier.

Copenhagen Shootings: Police Kill Suspected Gunman Behind Two Deadly Attacks. Read Here.

The revelation that the killer was Muslim, and that one of his victims was Jewish, played out the inevitable way that such news plays out in today's Europe. There were statements from Muslim and Jewish community leaders; a unity march; an anti-Islam march; pleas of calm; an affirmation from the prime minister that "this is not a conflict between Islam and the West… [nor] between Muslims and non-Muslims" — and a call, from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for European Jews to move to Israel because they are no longer safe on the continent.

 There has been a heavy police presence on Copenhagen's streets since the shootings. Images via Phil Caller.

The PEGIDA rally — held at the same time as a march for tolerance — was thinly attended by an ageing crowd, flanked by Danish police in yellow reflective vests. Many held banners and Danish flags. "Islam only accepts the law of sharia," organizer Nicolai Sennels told those in attendance.

"The Islamic world doesn't like us," a white-haired woman named Asa told VICE News, as a nearby octogenarian teetered by with a flaming torch. "Because of the Mohammed drawings some years ago… In the Islamic world, they are really angry with us."

Around 7pm, the march dissipated. Lingering over a cigarette was Dan Park: a Swedish "provocative artist" who has previously been sentenced for hate speech and who was in the Copenhagen café when the gunman opened fire. Park — who wore a black jacket with an image of a noose on the left shoulder — told VICE News that he was at the PEGIDA march because the group "is against Islamization and for freedom of speech, so yeah." Asked whether he thought Muslims posed a threat to Denmark, Parks shrugged: "If they are shooting people, that's a threat, I think... Hell, it was a Muslim. He didn't shoot Muslims. He shot Jews and he tried to kill artists."

And yet in most circles in Copenhagen, anxieties seems to be directed at the social impact rather than the terrorist threat itself. Many Danes told VICE News that they do not fear future attacks, per se, but instead worry that right-wingers will capitalize on the shootings for political gain, in the lead-up to September's national elections.

The shootings come one month after a deadly terror assault in Paris, which saw jihadists kill 17 people at the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices and a Jewish supermarket. Police and intelligence officers in Denmark say that the Copenhagen suspect may have copied the Paris attackers — and may have been "inspired by militant Islamist propaganda issued by IS and other terror organizations."

A poll earlier this month indicated that around 50 percent of Danes want to limit the number of Muslims in Denmark.

Hate in Europe: Germany's Anti-Islamic Protests. Watch Here.

Earlier on Monday, Copenhagen's streets were crowded with fresh-faced police officers carrying MP5 sub-machine guns. One cop told VICE News that officers had been brought in from all over the country.

By the central synagogue in Krystalgade — the main synagogue serving Denmark's 2,500-strong population of practicing Jews — floods of people lay thousands of flowers on the street. Some passers-by planted small Israeli flags.

Near the front of the crowd, a sobbing young student named Dea Larsen said she worried about "the way that this can be used in a political context... This is just a fucking maniac who has killed some people."

Many Danes say they are worried that the far right will stoke tensions ahead of September's elections. Image by Phil Caller.

Indeed, signs of politicking are already in evidence. Shortly after Larsen spoke, Pia Kjærsgaard, founder of the right-wing Danish People's Party (DF), appeared at the synagogue and shed some tears before a small cluster of cameras.

Observers say it is the DF — Denmark's third-largest party, known for its stance against immigration and its promotion of ethnic Danish culture — which has most to gain from stoking ethnic tensions in the wake of the attack. In May, the party won the largest share of Danish votes in European Parliament elections.

Soeren Espersen, a DF member of parliament and spokesperson, told VICE News that Islamism is "the biggest problem that we have in the Western world now." Speaking from his office in Copenhagen's imposing parliament building, Espersen said that his party will put forward a proposal to limit immigration from the "third world."

DF will also back measures to clamp down on would-be foreign fighters, such as a controversial proposal that will permit police to seize the passports of suspected jihadists. Denmark boasts the second-highest number of foreign fighters per capita in Western Europe, after Belgium: with over 100 Danes reportedly having traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight.

Last weekend's shootings are likely to bolster DF claims that Denmark is "soft" on radicalism. The government in Copenhagen famously favors counseling and rehabilitation for radicalized young men — in place of visa bans and lengthy jail terms.

But that strategy has faced scrutiny of late. In September, the Grimhøj mosque in Aarhus, Denmark nabbed global attention after it declared its support for the Islamic State.

Asked what Denmark's short-term response to the shootings should be, Espersen smiled: "Keep calm and carry on. That's what they said during the blitz in London." Above his desk, a red sign bearing the British wartime slogan was mounted on the wall.

Denmark's 'Jihadist Rehab' Center Offers Counseling Rather than Jail Time. Read Here.

On Monday, Jewish community leaders held a press conference at the Scandic Hotel, to discuss the Sunday morning shooting of a 37-year-old Jewish volunteer guard. "I do not believe that there should be a war between Muslims and Jews in this country," said Dan Rosenberg, chairman of the Danish Jewish Community.

Rosenberg said that after the first shooting, on Saturday, he requested a police presence at the synagogue — where, on Saturday night, around 80 people were gathering for a bat mitzvah ceremony. "It's not normal that we have armed police in front of a synagogue… [This] prevented what could have been a massacre." He is now calling for a permanent security presence at Jewish sites.

On Sunday, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, general director of the European Jewish Association, accused European nations of not doing enough to protect Jews and to fight "rampant anti-Semitism." Around that same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Danish Jews to seek refuge in Israel, and said that Israel was "preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe."

Netanyahu made similar calls in the wake of the Paris attacks. His government has approved a $40 million package to assist Jewish immigration from Europe.

But Denmark's Chief Rabbi Jair Malchior has called for restraint. "A terrible thing happened yesterday, but it's not 1930," he told VICE News.

Muslim organizations, representing Denmark's 250,000 Muslims, have also come forward to condemn the attacks, express solidarity with the Jewish community, and beg for calm. Community leaders have expressed anxieties that far-right elements will vent their frustrations against ordinary Muslims — as was the case after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, when mosques across France were shot at and firebombed. "We saw what happened after Paris," Imran Hussein, a spokesperson for the Danish human rights campaign Network, told Al Jazeera. "We have to be alert."

Still, at a Monday night memorial in central Copenhagen, which drew some 30,000 people in a communal display of grief, Amira, a young Muslim student, told VICE News that she felt "very welcome."  

"There are posters saying that Muslims are welcome as well," she said. "That's really good. Because I came here and I was kind of afraid of what people's reactions would be."

Intolerance After the Violence: Paris Gun Attack. Watch Here.

One Danish Muslim who refuses to "disassociate" himself from the shootings is Junes Kock: a spokesperson for Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international organization that aspires to establish an Islamic caliphate.

Kock — a convert to Islam with bright red hair and dark blue jeans — met with VICE News at a Copenhagen park, not far from where the alleged gunman was shot down. Walking through a quiet playground, he accused Danish leaders of failing to probe the root cause of the killings: "How did sentiments arise within a young person?... It seems that nobody is really interested in asking these types of questions."

Kock also said that Denmark was becoming inhospitable to Muslims who reject democracy — as do members of Hizb ut-Tahrir — but who are non-violent.

Politicians increasingly "interfere in Muslims' daily life… under the pretext of national security," Kock charged. "When you push people that far, sometimes you get a reaction."

Kock, a convert to Islam, says that Denmark is becoming increasingly hostile towards Muslims who are non-violent but reject democracy. Image by Phil Caller.

By Tuesday evening, the site where Hussein was shot down was quiet. A few petals lay scattered outside an apartment complex, atop yellow smears of pollen: remnants of bouquets that were left at the site in the hours following the shoot-out.

A day earlier, four young men reportedly came to the building and removed the bouquets — saying that it was un-Islamic to mark a site of death with flowers.

Hussein's family has asked for his body to be buried in a Muslim cemetery, perhaps in Copenhagen's Brondby district. The district's major, Ib Terp, told Denmark's Ritzau news agency that he would not oppose burial there — but hoped that the grave "does not become a site of pilgrimage."

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart