Two recent stories out of Denmark published in The Guardian and The New York Times are good examples of the bedeviling complexities connected to the issue of Muslim immigration in the small Scandinavian nation, and how it's covered by international news media.
But the complexities can only be fully appreciated if you read between the lines of both news pieces -- which is what all serious news consumers should do anyway. Remember, your average news story nearly always fails to include all relevant contributing factors. So provide them yourself to the degree you can.
In short, take nothing you read or hear in the news at face value. Think critically. There's always more to the story.
Here's what I mean, starting with The Guardian story, the first of the two pieces to be published. It's about the Miriam Mosque, the first Muslim house of worship in Denmark to feature a female imam, or prayer leader.
Actually, it has two female imams. Here's a chunk of the story:
The Mariam mosque opened informally in February, and it took six months of further preparation before the first Friday prayers could be held. “We’re still in a process of learning. We’re on a journey and we’ve only taken the first step,” said [Imam Sherin] Khankan.
Even so, the past few months have seen five weddings at the mosque, and three more are in the pipeline -- including some inter-religious marriages, frowned upon by traditional mosques. There have also been a couple of divorces, one of which was conducted after prayers on Friday.
The mosque has drawn up its own six-page marriage charter with four key principles: polygamy is not an option; women have the right to divorce; a marriage will be annulled if psychological or physical violence is committed; and, in the event of divorce, women will have equal rights over any children.
One of the mosque’s main objectives, said Khankan, was “to challenge patriarchal structures within religious institutions. Islam has been male-dominated, women are still not equal in Catholicism and [Orthodox] Judaism, and were only ordained in the Protestant faith [in Denmark] in 1948.”
The story doesn't come right out and say it, but what we have here is an example of Muslim women adopting -- for whatever their personal reasons, which I'm sure vary -- to liberal Western societal norms.
(By the way, mosques in societies where governments or powerful religious establishments don't fully control the process are free under Islamic law to appoint their own imams. The question of female imams is more complicated. However, there is a long tradition of female imams and growing support for them, particularly in western nations where Muslims have resettled.)
The Times piece, on the other hand, is not a feel-good story (as I think most westerners might regard the Telegraph report) of peaceful assimilation into a welcoming majority culture.
Rather, it details the concerns of many ethnic Danes that far too many Muslim immigrants cannot or are unwilling to assimilate. The fear, of course, is that this will change Danish society in an unprecedented and wholly negative manner.
Here's the lengthy opening of this lengthy story.
TAARNBY, Denmark -- Johnny Christensen, a stout and silver-whiskered retired bank employee, always thought of himself as sympathetic to people fleeing war and welcoming to immigrants. But after more than 36,000 mostly Muslim asylum seekers poured into Denmark over the past two years, Mr. Christensen, 65, said, “I’ve become a racist.”
He believes these new migrants are draining Denmark’s cherished social-welfare system but failing to adapt to its customs. “Just kick them out,” he said, unleashing a mighty kick at an imaginary target on a suburban sidewalk. “These Muslims want to keep their own culture, but we have our own rules here and everyone must follow them.”
Denmark, a small and orderly nation with a progressive self-image, is built on a social covenant: In return for some of the world’s highest wages and benefits, people are expected to work hard and pay into the system. Newcomers must quickly learn Danish — and adapt to norms like keeping tidy gardens and riding bicycles.
The country had little experience with immigrants until 1967, when the first “guest workers” were invited from Turkey, Pakistan and what was then Yugoslavia. Its 5.7 million people remain overwhelmingly native born, though the percentage has dropped to 88 today from 97 in 1980.
Bo Lidegaard, a prominent historian, said many Danes feel strongly that “we are a multiethnic society today, and we have to realize it — but we are not and should never become a multicultural society.”
The recent influx pales next to the one million migrants absorbed into Germany or the 163,000 into Sweden last year, but the pace shocked this stable, homogeneous country. The center-right government has backed harsh measures targeting migrants, hate speech has spiked, and the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party is now the second largest in Parliament.
The story includes examples of Muslims who are adapting to Danish culture, including eating pork, a mainstay of the Danes' diet that's forbidden to traditional Muslims. (As someone who adheres, in a liberal but very real way, to Judaism's kosher dining traditions that also reject pork products, I'm not sure why this is all good for all concerned. But that's another blog post.)
This piece also mentions ethnic Danes who reach out to Muslim immigrants to help them adjust to Danish mores. Undeniably, though, its primary focus is on the sharp backlash that this immigration surge has precipitated.
My point? Consider how widely divergent the two stories I've highlighted here are when it comes to current Danish conditions.
If you only read The Telegraph story you might easily be left with the impression that Danish Muslims are making slow but steady progress in fitting in, so surely this will all work itself out in the end. But if you only read the Times article you'd likely come away thinking Denmark's heading toward an unavoidable and fractious clash of civilizations.
So which story is the more accurate in a gestalt sort of way? The more narrowly focused Telegram piece or the massive Times story that paints with a broader brush, but still serves up a distinct point of view? What are the dominant facts on the ground?
Is story perspective the key to journalistic reality?
Have an opinion? Please share it in the comments section below.