Does Religiously Infused Violence Affect Attitudes about Immigration? Religious Tolerance in the Aftermath of Violence in Copenhagen

June, 2016

Kevin T. Smiley

Graduate Student, Department of Sociology

Michael O. Emerson

Professor of Sociology and Urban Studies

As part of a larger project that paralleled surveys in Houston, we conducted two surveys of residents in greater Copenhagen Spring 2014 and Spring 2015. We had more or less finalized our 2015 questionnaire and were in consultation with our survey research firm in mid-February when we saw the headlines on every news source: Copenhagen, under attack, shooter at large.

Twenty-three year old Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein opened fire in the early afternoon at a meeting in a small cultural center. His target was Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist famous for his controversial depictions of the prophet Muhammad. Vilks went unscathed, but one attendee was killed, and three police officers were wounded. El-Hussein escaped, and, twelve hours later, killed a Jewish security guard outside of a bat mitzvah at a synagogue in the central city. He remained at large for a few more hours before being gunned down by police in the early hours of the morning of February 15th. The archetypally safe city – there were 15 murders in Copenhagen in 2014 – was rocked by the violence, and by El-Hussein’s possible motives. He had been recently released from jail, and he had been radicalized toward violent groups claiming the Islamic faith. A native Dane, he was the son of immigrants from Jordan and Palestine.

One of the most polarizing issues in Denmark has been that of immigration. The violent
events of February 14-15th, 2015 amplified that polarization. Perspectives on immigration in Denmark intersect deeply with those of religious tolerance and integration. Leaders and residents alike negotiate a sea of tensions: how many immigrants should be allowed, what integration means, how best to integrate immigrants once they enter, and whose fault is it when they do not—the individual, or the society? And with a bulk of immigrants coming from non-Western countries that feature large Muslim populations, the immigration issue is inevitably intertwined with how much to tolerate religious and cultural backgrounds that do not match centuries-old Danish lore.

A few weeks after the attack we realized we had a rare, if deeply unfortunate, possibility to study how violence affects attitudes on immigration. Knowing that some Danes ascribe the beliefs of someone like El-Hussein to most adherents of Islam and that others situate the violence as not pertaining to Muslims or the Islamic faith at all, we sought to explore how the effect of the violence itself shaped anti-immigration attitudes in the Danish capital city of Copenhagen, if at all. Would violence by the son of immigrants make Copenhagen residents more hostile to immigrants?

We find that it did not. Immigration attitudes remained largely unchanged from 2014 to 2015. Instead, we found that right-wing political affiliation and a greater fear of crime were associated with more negative views on immigrants. These surprising findings were made clearer with a qualitative analysis by our co-author, Copenhagen researcher Julie Werner Markussen, whose research was made possible by the generosity of the Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement Religious Tolerance Small Grant. In that analysis, we found that political parties steered toward long-held views on immigration after the shootings (that is, in the few weeks leading up to the 2015 survey). The right-wing stressed how failures of integration of immigrants was primarily thanks to the immigrants themselves, while left-wing party leaders highlighted the state and society’s shortfalls in incorporating immigrants, particularly religious minorities. Instead of parties across the political spectrum all shifting toward more anti-immigrant views after the attacks, the evidence shows that the issue of immigration was already deeply politicized; put another way, most Copenhagen residents have simply already made up their mind about how immigration should be treated in their country.

Our findings point to the importance of studying how religious tolerance and attitudes on immigration are shaped by sudden, striking events. The lack of importance of having taken the survey after the shootings is half of a paradox: those events simultaneously highlight how deeply grounded religiously tolerant viewpoints are and, more problematically, the intractable nature of discrimination and bias against religious minorities.