Will Copenhagen uphold freedoms after shootings?

In the space of twenty-four hours, Copenhagen has seen its own moment of political violence

H.A. Hellyer
H.A. Hellyer
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In the space of twenty-four hours, Copenhagen has seen its own moment of political violence – and the catching of the perpetrator. But that will not be the end of it. It cannot be. Denmark continues to face a threat on its shores – as does the rest of Europe. How both respond will not only define how long and how extensive the threat will be neutralized – but what kind of Denmark, and what type of Europe, will emerge as a result.

A few months ago, I was in Copenhagen. Like many European countries, it has been rightly concerned about the numbers of its own citizens that have travelled abroad to Syria and Iraq in order to join radical Islamist groups there, including ISIS. Unlike many European countries, however, it has taken a far more cautious legal approach to those returning. While other states, such as the UK, have speculated about the possibility of stripping citizenship from their nationals who do travel to those combat zones, Denmark has tried to integrate those returning as best as possible. Part of the reason for that is simple: the average age of “foreign fighters” in Denmark tends to be much younger. If evidence comes to light of wrongdoing, the Danish court system jumps into action, but otherwise they remain under surveillance. As of yet, nevertheless, no returnee seems to have fallen into trouble.

That remains the case even after the horrendous attack on the small cultural center in northern Copenhagen, where a discussion on blasphemy was taking place with a controversial Swedish cartoonist. Linked with infamous propagandists of anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. and elsewhere, claiming once he’d accept an invitation from the Ku Klux Klan if they invited him, he obviously attracted attention, with a radical extremist targeting the center. As a result of his attack, several people were injured, and one died. The attacker then proceeded to a synagogue in Copenhagen and killed a Jewish Dane in what was presumably a hate crime. In a shootout with police a few hours later, the gunman was killed. Security services knew who he was but confirmed he hadn’t been a foreign fighter. Had he come into contact with one who helped in his radicalization? That will become clearer in the days to come.

Danish and European leaders need to respond to this tragedy by rejecting any sense that they are about to abjure principles in favor of some kind of “war on terror” narrative

H.A. Hellyer

There are a few points that will be raised repeatedly in the coming days and weeks. The first will be, inevitably, the notion of free speech – unfortunately so, because the issue here is one of criminality and rule of law. Generally speaking in Europe, it is not against the law to blaspheme and even in the minority of countries where such laws remain on the books, they are not put into practice. There may well be a worthy discussion to be had about whether or not they ought to be and free speech advocates ought to remember that in Europe, a variety of things are legally considered as “protected speech”. Most societies in the world, including in Europe, retain the notion of protecting the “sacred” from insult and degradation. In some societies, that relates to religious symbols. In others, it is historical events. It’s few indeed that truly believe in unbridled free speech.
But that is not the issue here. The issue is what kind of response is permitted when one disagrees. In that regard, there ought to be no question: vigilante violence of any sort, let alone murder (which is what the perpetrator conducted) is unjustifiable. This is a rule of law issue and ought to be treated as such.

Ideological component

But there is more here and that will be the ideological component that, in all likelihood, provided the (im)moral justification for the gunman’s actions. Using this attack to justify yet more bigotry against Muslims, especially at a time when hate crimes are an increasing problem in Europe, would be depraved. Nor, if we are serious about the problem, is there any scope for silly calls of “Islamic reformation,” or demands that Muslims at large apologies for the actions of a criminal.

At the same time, there will be questions – as there ought to be – about the ideological element here. How important it was or not in this particular case will remain an item of discussion – ideology does not always have the same impact on perpetrators. Indeed, preliminary information suggests the gunman was a former gang member with a history of violence. But the ideological element exists and a serious discussion around the roots of radical Islamism and its intellectual links to the purist Salafism remains pertinent. Once upon a time described as heterodox by many of Sunni Islam’s most noted religious authorities, it has been promoted across communities worldwide – including Europe – and a sensible conversation around it is important.

At the same time, Danish and European leaders need to respond to this tragedy by rejecting any sense that they are about to abjure principles in favor of some kind of “war on terror” narrative. That has three main elements: a security response; a rule of law response; and a societal cohesion response. On the security level, the Danish security services need to take a long, hard look at whether or not they failed in some fashion to prevent this tragedy. There should be no jumping the gun in this regard – “lone wolves” are often beyond detection. But an investigation remains in order.


On the rule of law level, there will be the temptation to increase the powers of the Danish state at the expense of civil liberties – at least in some quarters. That is precisely what supporters of the perpetrator are hoping for; the opportunity to show that Denmark’s and Europe’s commitment to fundamental rights can be easily shaken. A security response does not necessitate this, on the contrary, the strongest and most enduring security regime is one that is built in coordination with rights organizations.

Finally, the attacker’s hope, in attacking a random bystander at a Copenhagen synagogue, was undoubtedly to inspire fear among Danish Jews and encourage them to view themselves as not only unsafe in Denmark, but in conflict with Danish Muslims. In that regard, it is poor indeed that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has somehow accorded himself the authority of a “Caliph for the Jews” in calling for Danish Jews and European Jews en masse to exile themselves to Israel.

Religious and political leaders in Denmark of all shades and stripes ought to make it abundantly clear – regardless of reckless comments by foreign politicians or militant attacks by criminal extremists - Denmark’s future is not one where communities will be further apart. Rather, they will use these tragedies in the only way they ought to be used; to bring people together.


Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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