Interview by Felix Struening
Danish integration problems with Muslims became public worldwide in 2006 when the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Exactly two years later riots broke out again because of the reprint of the Mohammed cartoons by all major Danish newspapers.
Currently 70% of the prison population in the Copenhagen youth prison consists of young man of Muslim heritage. Is this recent violence and general violent tendency among Muslims solely coincidental, or is there a direct connection?
In February 2009, Nicolai Sennels, a Danish psychologist published a book entitled Among criminal Muslims. A psychologists experience from Copenhagen. In his book, Nicolai Sennels shares a psychological perspective of this Muslim Culture, its relationship to anger, handling emotions and its religion. He based his research on hundreds of hours of therapy with 150 young Muslims in the Copenhagen youth jail. EuropeNews interviewed the author about his book and its consequences on integration of Muslims in Europe.
EuropeNews: Nicolai Sennels, how did you get the idea to write a book about criminal Muslims in Denmark? Nicolai Sennels: I got the idea in February 2008 during a conference on integration in Copenhagen, where I was invited as the first and only psychologist working in a Copenhagen youth prison. My speech at the conference was about the fact, that foreigners culture plays a significant role concerning integration, crime and religious extremism. I emphasized, that people from a Muslim culture find it difficult, if not impossible, to create a successful life in Denmark.
This statement was met with great resistance from Danish politicians and also my own boss from the youth prison. I was quite surprised since I thought that my point is obvious: some cultures fit better into Western societies than others. All of Europe is currently struggling to integrate Muslims but this endeavor seems to be impossible. According to the Danish police and the Danish Bureau of Statistics more than 70% of all crimes in the Danish capital are committed by Muslims. Our national bank recently published a report stating that a Muslim foreigner costs more than 2 million Danish kroner (300,000 euros) in federal social assistance on average, caused by the low participation in the work force. On top of this, we have to add many additional types of social welfare that unemployed people can receive in our country: expenses in connection with interpreters, special classes in school 64% of school children with Muslim parents cannot read and write Danish properly after 10 years in a Danish school social work, extra police etc.
My statement resulted in a legal injunction, a kind of professional punishment, which stated, that if I ever repeat this, I could be fired. According to the Copenhagen authorities it is apparently permitted to state that the serious problems among Muslims are caused by poverty, the media, the police, the Danes, politicians, etc. But two things are definitely not allowed: 1) discussing the significance of culture and 2) our foreigners own responsibility for their integration in our societies. Unfortunately many very powerful politicians lack a clear understanding of the psychological aspect of culture and the influence it has on integration.
EuropeNews: What were the reactions in Denmark?
Sennels: The book was received with a great amount of attention, already before the book was officially published on February 24 2009. It was on the front page of one of the biggest national newspapers in Denmark, and I was on the radio and TV participating in debates with politicians and other experts on the subject. The first publication of the book was sold out after three weeks.
Since then, there have been some big changes in Danish integration policy, which seems to have been influenced by the book and the attention it got. From my personal point of view, the widespread attention shows that my statement is true: there is simply a great need for a deeper understanding of how Muslims culture influences their chances for integration.
The very famous politician, Naser Khader, who is Muslim and the author of the bestseller Honor and Shame, wrote a review of my book and stated that it should be obligatory reading for students, social workers and teachers. Jyllands-Posten, the brave newspaper that first published the Mohammed cartoons, calls the book an original piece of pioneer work.
EuropeNews: Lets have a closer look at the book. You talk about four myths of integration. The first one concerns the difference between the cultures of immigrants.
Sennels: What I discovered during my work at the youth prison was that people of Muslim heritage have other needs for social work than Danes or people of non-Muslim cultures. These different needs require more attention, and psychologists need to do more research on these topics in order to be able to create effective social politics.
I completely agree with my critics that personal and social problems can lead to anti-social behavior among both Westerners and Muslims. However, there is still extremely disproportional anti-social and anti-democratic behavior among Muslims. The Danish Bureau of Statistics published a report (1 and 2) stating that Muslim countries take the first eight places on the top 10-list of criminals country of origin. Denmark is number nine on this list.
EuropeNews: So that means, we have to treat Muslim and non-Muslim immigrants in a different way? Sennels: Seen from a psychological and also humanistic perspective, it is very clear that people from different cultures have different needs when they have or create problems. My own experience is that Muslims dont understand our Western way of trying to handle conflicts through dialogue. They are raised in a culture with very clear outer authorities and consequences. Western tradition using compromise and inner reflection as primary means of handling outer and inner conflicts is seen as weak in the Muslim culture. To a great extent they simply dont understand this softer and more humanistic way of handling social affairs. In the context of social work and politics this means that they need more borders and stronger consequences to be able to adjust their behavior.
EuropeNews: That leads us directly to the second myth: it is often said, that the criminality of immigrants is caused by social problems, not by their cultural background. In your book you disagree and point to the religion of the Muslims as a source of criminality.
Sennels: Well, I would rephrase it as Muslim culture instead of religion because there are a lot of Muslims who dont know what is written in the Quran and who dont visit the mosques. But they are strongly influenced on a cultural level. And there we see that especially anger is much more accepted in the Muslim culture. One example: in Western culture and also in other non-Muslim cultures, like in Asia, you see aggression and a sudden explosion of anger as something youll regret afterwards, something you are ashamed of. It is completely opposite in the Muslim culture. If somebody steps on your honor what I as a psychologist would call self confidence you are simply expected to show aggression and often also verbal or physical revenge. So, aggression gives you a low status in our cultures, but a high status in the Muslim culture.
There is however another and much deeper reason for the wide spread anti-social behavior in Muslim communities and their strong aversion against integration namely, the very strong identification that Muslims have with belonging to the Muslim culture.
My encounter with the Muslim culture has been a meeting with an exceedingly strong and very proud culture. This is certainly something that can ensure an ancient cultures survival through changing times Islam and the Muslim culture are excellent examples of this. A strong and proud culture unfortunately also makes the cultures members almost unable to adapt to other values. In Germany, only 12% of their 3.5 million Muslims see themselves as more German than Muslim; in France and Denmark, only 14% of the Muslim populations respectively see themselves more as French or Danish than Muslim. Research among Muslims living in Denmark also shows that 50% of the 1st- and 2nd-generation immigrants are against free speech and 11% would like to see the Danish constitution exchanged with the sharia law (more numbers from this research can be found in the printed issue of the newspaper). These high percentages are of course frightening, but especially disturbing is the fact that there are no differences of opinion on this topic among Muslims who are born and raised in Muslim countries and the opinion of their children who are born and raised in Danish society. When it comes to identity among Muslims, nationality does not count at all in comparison with culture and religion. The consequence is a powerful and growing opposition to Western culture and values in Muslim ghettoes throughout Copenhagen and other major European cities.
EuropeNews: As you already pointed out, a lot of Muslims have a strong connection to their religious identity. The third myth you dismantle in your book is about the percentage of extremists and fundamentalists among Muslims. Its often presumed that this percentage is relatively small. What is your experience?
Sennels: People hope that most Muslims are modern and accept Western values. My experience is different, and this has been proven by the statistics in Europe that I just quoted. In February 2008, we had some deadly serious riots by young Muslims in Denmark.
Those riots were partly a reaction to the great focus by the Danish police on the steeply rising crime rates in Muslim areas. The other reason was the reprinting of the Mohammed cartoons in all Danish newspapers. This reprinting was an act of solidarity with the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, whose life was, and still is, seriously threatened.
In these riots, we saw Muslims who dont practice the Islamic religion in their daily lives standing up for their culture and religion in a very aggressive way. Copenhagen was smoking for an entire week due to several hundred of fires, and the police and firemen trying to calm the situation down were also attacked. A big part of the rioters ended up in the prison where I worked, and I therefore I had the chance to talk with them. Almost all of them were Muslims, and they all claimed that what they have done starting fires, attacking the police etc. was justified since Danish society, through its pressure on integration and through reprinting the Mohammed cartoons, has proven itself to be racist and against Islam and Muslim culture. The few Danish people among the rioters were completely different. Their explanation of their actions was predominately a search for adventure or excitement.
EuropeNews: The fourth myth is that poverty among immigrants leads to their bad social situation. In your book, you tell us that the opposite is true.
Sennels: You can formulate this important question like this: do people get social problems because they are poor, or do they become poor because they create social problems? My experience is that the very low focus on supporting ones children in school and on ones own education and the lack of motivation for creating a professional career is a crucial factor for the poverty, which many Muslims experience in both our societies and in Muslim countries. On top of it, one fourth of all young male Muslims in Denmark have a criminal record. Poor reading skills, a strong aversion against authorities and a criminal record simply make it very difficult for you to get a well paying job. It is anti-social behavior that makes you poor. Not the other way around.
Unfortunately many politicians see poverty as the main cause of integration problems. I think this is a horrible and one-dimensional view of poor people and of people in general. The idea that peoples behavior is decided by the amount of money they have on their bank accounts every month is an exceedingly limited view. I myself, as a psychologist who graduated from the humanities department of the University of Copenhagen, would say that people have many more and stronger factors in their lives than money, which influence their behavior and way of thinking.
EuropeNews: What is the conclusion on your research? Is the integration of people of Muslim heritage into Western societies possible?
Nicolai Sennels: I would say that the optimists, the people who say that integration is possible, carry a very great responsibility. There is a very great risk that they are selling us hope, a dream, that has no foundation in reality. This means that they will be the ones who are responsible for Europe looking away from and not addressing its problems until it is too late.
There is simply no research in Europe that supports the optimists view. On the contrary, all the research that we have on integration of Muslims in Western societies shows that we are continuing to head in the wrong direction. So I dont know how these optimists come to their conclusion. Maybe it is a vain and childish hope that everything will turn out well, just like in the fairy tales. Or maybe it is a pseudo-Darwinistic idea that everything will develop in a positive direction. One thing is for sure: they dont base their judgments on facts.
Of course there are exceptions but for the largest part integration to the necessary degree of Muslims is not possible. Clever and compassionate people are working all over Europe on the problem, and they have spent billions of Euros on the project, yet, the problems still continue to grow.
The psychological explanation is actually simple. The Muslim and the Western cultures are fundamentally very different. This means Muslims need to undergo very big changes in their identity and values to be able to accept the values of Western societies. Changing basic structures in ones personality is a very demanding psychological and emotional process. Apparently very few Muslims feel motivated to do so. I only know a few who managed, but I also know that it was a long and exhausting struggle on an inner level for them and that they often pay a high personal price on the outer level because their Muslim friends and families despise and/or disown them for leaving their culture.
EuropeNews: But what we are going to do with the Muslims, who are already here?
Sennels: I see two possibilities. Firstly, we should immediately stop all immigration of people from Muslim countries to Europe until we have proven that integration of Muslims is possible.
Secondly, we should help Muslims who dont want to or are not able to integrate in our Western societies to build a new and meaningful life in a society they understand and that understands them. This means to assist them in starting a new life in a Muslim country. We actually have the economic means to do this. As I mentioned previously, the Danish National Bank calculated, that every immigrant from Muslim countries costs 300,000 euros on average. With this money, we could help these people to live a happy life in a Muslim country without having to integrate in a society they dont understand and therefore cannot accept. Having money enough to support ones family and live in a country where one feels at home with the surrounding culture would be a great step forward in the quality of their lives. And we should help them achieve this. Not only the individual Muslim, but also European societies will benefit. Muslims immigrating from Europe to Muslim countries will function as ambassadors for more free and democratic societies: due to their experience from living in a democracy with real human rights and their knowledge of the social systems in Europe, they will take very important ideas and values with them. In this way they can do what hopefully most of them dream of, i.e. help their Muslim brothers and sisters in their home countries by changing the poor conditions and from which they moved away from initially.
Nicolai Sennels, 33 years old, is a psychologist and has worked for the Copenhagen authorities for several years. From 2005 to 2008 he worked at the Sønderbro youth prison in Copenhagen.
See also the article by Nicolai Sennels
And this report at Gates of Vienna