COPENHAGEN (AFP) — After years of thinly veiled hostility between Copenhagen and the Muslim world, a beauty pageant and a proposed law have Danes locking horns over one potent symbol of Islam: the headscarf.
When Iraqi-born Huda Falah, 18, won Denmark's first Miss Headscarf competition earlier this month because of "her blue headscarf and her beautiful, irresistible style," many Danes simply smiled, shrugged and moved on.
Others saw the pageant as emblematic of the growing influence of Islam in Denmark and what some perceive as its anti-democratic and woman-hostile spirit.
"The headscarf symbolises that women are inferior to men (and) I don't think this is something we should promote through a beauty competition," Inger Stoejberg, a high-ranking member of Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen's Liberal Party said in a newspaper interview ahead of the pageant.
Naser Khader, a Muslim member of parliament, agreed, calling instead for a competition for "the best arguments against the headscarf."
A number of Imams meanwhile slammed the pageant as disrespectful to Denmark's 200,000 Muslims, who make up 3.5 percent of the population and the country's second largest religious community after the state-run Lutheran Church.
The fact that the controversy followed on the heels of a nationwide debate over whether judges should be allowed to sit on the bench while wearing the headscarf, or hijab, made it all the more touchy.
"Some Muslims have the feeling they are being pilloried by Danish society," sociologist and Liberal Party MP Eyvind Vesselbo told AFP.
Although Denmark counts no Muslim judges, a court ruling late last year that the headscarf would be permitted on the bench sparked public outcry.
Following a virulent campaign by the far-right, anti-immigrant Danish People's Party (DPP) calling the hijab a "symbol of tyranny" that, if allowed inside a courtroom, could usher in Islamic law in Denmark, Justice Minister Lene Espersen proposed a law to overturn the court ruling.
"We have decided to prohibit the wearing of (all) religious or political symbols while exercising the function of a magistrate, because a judge must be neutral and impartial," she said at the end of April.
According to a poll published last month, the bill, which is expected to pass in parliament later this year, received support from 51 percent of the Danes, while 44 percent were opposed to a ban.
The polemic, which echoes a similar debate last year on whether the head-covering scarf should be allowed in parliament, was only the latest example of what many Muslims feel is mounting persecution and alienation under Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen's centre-right government.
Although DPP is not part of the coalition it is an important ally that has helped Rasmussen stay in power since 2001.
Under its influence, the government, an unwavering supporter of the US-led "war on terror", has introduced some of Europe's most restrictive immigration laws, which many feel are specifically aimed at curbing new arrivals from Muslim countries.
Copenhagen has also, in the name of freedom of expression, stubbornly refused to apologise for the publication of 12 cartoons satirising the Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper in September 2005.
The drawings sparked angry and in some cases deadly protests across the Muslim world in early 2006, with demonstrators torching Danish embassies and flags and boycotting Danish companies.
Another wave of protests came early this year after the most controversial of the drawings, depicting the prophet's head with a turban in the shape of a bomb with a lit fuse, was widely republished.
Not all government ministers agreed with the decision to ban the headscarf and other religious symbols from the courtroom.
Most critical was Integration Minister Birthe Roenn Hornbech, who slammed DPP's campaign on the issue as "fanatically anti-Muslim".
"Without a nuanced debate (we risk) creating many extremists, because the Muslims feel offended," she warned.
Two Lutheran priests also protested the law proposal in an open letter published last week, claiming it violated the freedom of religion accorded by the Danish constitution and was an assault on all people of faith.
"You begin with the judges, and once you've started setting up barriers there is no stopping the process," Torsten Johannessen and Helge Baden Nielsen wrote.
According to sociologist Vesselbo, "the debate for or against the hijab in court has become a debate for or against Muslims," at a time when many Danes feel their country and traditions have come under siege by Islamic extremists. That sense of vulnerability was enhanced earlier this month when a suicide bombing at the Danish embassy in Pakistan killed six people. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack, which it said was "revenge" for the Prophet Mohammed drawings.
Danish intelligence has also repeatedly warned that Al-Qaeda and other Islamic militants are planning attacks on Danes and Danish interests abroad as well as in Denmark, where integration of the Muslim population is becoming ever more challenging.
The headscarf debate risks "putting back by 10 years" attempts in Denmark to integrate Muslims, Vesselbo warned.
"Muslims feel yet again that they are being trampled on, that they are not welcome, that they are not liked," he said, insisting that delaying integration "goes against the interests of society."
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