Hate preacher list an own goal

As Denmark publishes a list of hate speakers banned from entering the country, the government has had to fend off criticism from experts who deem the list "random" and "pointless"

Last year, the TV2 documentary Moskeerne bag sløret (‘Mosques behind the scenes’) uncovered the anti-democratic practices and ideologies being advocated behind closed doors by radicalised Danish Muslims. While the documentary was criticised by some for presenting an unnuanced representation of Denmark’s Muslim community, it was rewarded with a nomination for the prestigious Cavling Prize for Investigative Journalism.

It also spurred action by Integration Minister Inger Støjberg of the Liberal Party (Venstre), who expressed concern that many of the more radical speakers in Danish mosques were being flown in from abroad.

“Denmark should not admit people who want to come here to advocate violence and terrorism on Danish soil,” the minister told TV2, adding that it was important to keep out people “who want to overthrow our democracy.”

Last month, the government released a list of six foreign “hate speakers” that are now banned from entering Denmark. The list was approved by Parliament with support from the Danish People’s Party (DF) and the opposition Social Democrats (Socialdemokrater).

Experts warn that the list is useless, however, and could even give radicals more ammunition for their cause.

Sending a signal
The list’s most prominent critic has been Jacob Mchangama, director of the judicial think tank Justitia, who argues that the list is random and undermines the principle of free speech.

“I think there is good reason to keep people who advocate terrorism and violence out of the country. However, that was already possible before this list, which makes it possible to keep people out on the basis of some pretty unclear criteria, and for saying things which – while they will certainly be viewed as controversial – are actually legal in Denmark,” he says.

The six hate speakers on the list were selected by the Danish Immigration Service and mirror lists of other European countries. While Mchangama argues that many of the speakers express ideas that Danish society could certainly live without, their desire to spread anti-democratic views doesn’t necessarily mean they pose a threat to society. Instead, the line should be drawn at people who are known affiliates of terrorist groups or are known to promote joining organizations such as ISIS or Al-Qaida.

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“Basically, the government is saying that if you say something that is anti-democratic or a violation of the blasphemy law, then you are now not allowed into the country. I can’t see that those things necessarily pose a threat to Denmark. I believe a much clearer threat should be posed to society before we start restricting who can enter the country,” he says.

“There are so many others who could have been placed on a list like this. The arguments for the selection of these specific speakers have not been made public. Also, some of them have not even encouraged violence, which tells me that there are many others who could have been put on the list instead.”

Canadian imam Bilal Philips, left, and Dr. Terry Dale Jones are among six “hate speakers” who are banned from entering Denmark for the next two years. Philips has condoned suicide bombing, while Jones is a Christian minister who was internationally condemned for his plan to publicly burn Korans.

Niels Valdemar Vinding, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen and expert on Islam and Imams in the West, agrees.

“As far as I can see, there is no clear logic in this. All they’ve done is look to other countries and take six of the usual suspects,” he says.

But the list does more than just restrict who can come to Denmark, argues Vinding. By including both extremist Christian minister Terry Jones and radical Muslim imam Bilal Philips, it sends a message that Denmark doesn’t tolerate hate speech, regardless of who’s doing the speaking.

Making martyrs
There can be some unfortunate and unintended consequences to such a list, he cautions.

“A list like this draws an incredible amount of attention from people who are sympathetic to the extremist opinions of the six speakers. In this case, the list becomes an advertising billboard. Since the list was released, all six speakers have been Googled like crazy, and the international press has covered it. There is no doubt that they could have done their homework a bit better – it seems like symbolic politics to want to draw the line so publicly.”

He adds that the list doesn’t really combat the issue at hand.  “All you do with this list is direct people’s attention. It inevitably becomes polarising, because those who are strongly opposed to the people on the list will say it is not far-reaching enough, while those who are already sympathetic to the messages of the hate preachers will point to the hypocrisy of democracy and what they perceive as the undermining of free speech.”

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Kirstine Sinclair, an associate professor and expert in radicalisation from the University of Southern Denmark, agrees. To her, the list looks more like a symbolic policy than a useful tool.

“From what I understand, Danish politicians want to restrict the activities of conservative religious communities that in any way limit integration or undermine democracy. And that, I think, is very sensible. The question is what a list like this actually does. It can tell us whom we find problematic but it cannot limit the attention given to these people – quite the opposite actually – and it does not work pre-emptively in any way. It becomes a reaction to a problem that it does not help solve,” says Sinclair.

Torben Ruberg Rasmussen has spent most of his career at the University of Southern Denmark studying radicalisation and religion in Muslim communities in Denmark. He sees the list as an act of helplessness.

“I believe that the issue in a nutshell is that we have a serious problem with radicalisation and parallel societies in the Danish context, but we still haven’t properly formulated a workable strategy of how to intervene,” he says.

“I don’t think the list will have much effect, mostly because it is based on the notion that radicalisation comes from outside our borders. I think it is clear that radical Islam is a more or less integrated part of Muslim communities in Demark.”

Sinclair underlines that there is a risk that Danish Muslim communities will regard the list as evidence of persecution, and that Danish politicians will be willing to compromise on freedom of speech to fit their needs.

“There is a dilemma – can you shine a light on this problem without making the problem worse? In my opinion, the best way to go about it is through legislation, and to punish those who break the law. In which case we need to do what Justitia is doing and question whether we have the best legislation to combat the problem,” she says, referring to Justitia’s opposition to the blasphemy law.

“We should enter into dialogue and pose questions instead of throwing up a poster, which is the way I view the list. I am a strong believer in dialogue.”

Hardcore seal of approval
Responding to the criticism, Venstre MP Jan E. Jørgensen (V) says the government was aware of the risk that the list could be used to fuel a narrative about the hypocritical West.

“We knew going in that the list would have the effect of shining light on these guys. They can use it as a sort of stamp of approval – a certificate of them being truly hardcore. That is obviously a disadvantage, but one that we don’t believe outweighs the positive consequences, which are that these people won’t come to Denmark, host meetings, and get people on board with their message of hate.”

Jørgensen concedes that the selection of hate speakers was a bit random, but said it was never supposed to be a comprehensive list of every radicalised preacher on the planet. To appear on the list, they not only have to hold anti-democratic views, they also have to have an audience. There also needs to be a good chance they might want to travel to Denmark.

He also stresses that politicians were not involved in the actual selection process.

“We have an ‘arm’s-length principle’ so that no one can criticise us politicians for making selections based on our own prejudices. This is very important, as it means that no one can accuse us of using this to exclude certain persons for solely political reasons,” he says.

Schengen ban
Mchangama has a final criticism that could ripple throughout Europe. The banned hate speakers aren’t just banned from Denmark, but would have to be denied entry to the entire Schengen area – Europe’s border-free region.

“When the list means that you are banned from all Schengen countries, it is plausible that other Schengen countries may start creating similar lists. Ultimately this could hit pro-democracy speakers in places like Poland and Hungary, who suddenly could be banned from coming to Denmark.” M

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By Joshua Hollingdale

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