Denmark’s Unabashed Lightning Rod On Immigration

The Saturday Profile

Denmark's Unabashed Lightning Rod on Immigration

The New York Times
Published: November 10, 2007

“I think we are letting down freedom-loving Muslims if we are not fighting the radical Islamists.”
Karen Jespersen

KAREN JESPERSEN is so new to her job as Denmark's minister of social affairs that she felt compelled to apologize to a visitor that she could not identify the painter of the canvases hanging in her offices, because she still has her predecessor's furnishings. It was a rare admission, for Ms. Jespersen does not often apologize.

Since her appointment to the post in September, she has emerged as a stalwart defender of a country's right to require immigrants to accept its basic values and, inevitably, a lightning rod in Europe's continuing debate over immigration. And for a onetime student leftist, prominent journalist and former official with the Social Democratic Party, her new role in the conservative government of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen represents the latest step in a remarkable personal odyssey.

Ms. Jespersen's defenders say that, sooner than most here, she had read Scandinavia's discomfort with immigration laws that overburdened schools and social programs, and even threatened law and order. But her opponents cast her as an opportunist.

Critics think that Karen Jespersen chose to leave the Social Democrats when she eyed a chance to gain influence and become a minister in the right-wing government by speaking against the party and the government she was part of, said Henrik Dam Kristensen, a spokesman for the Social Democrats.

Ms. Jespersen disagrees, of course, arguing that her migration from left to right grew primarily out of her concern about the impact of immigration on Denmark. think immigration is a benefit for society, she said. ut you have to be very cautious in dealing with it, to keep your basic values.

Most Danes favor immigration, she said, but refuse to surrender the achievements of their society. e will keep the equality of men and women and freedom of speech. Like most of northern Europe, Denmark has been in a quandary over immigration, notably from Muslim countries. In 2004, the Dutch film director Theo van Gogh, who made a short film critical of the treatment of Muslim women, was shot and knifed to death on an Amsterdam street. A year later, the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad in an unflattering light, setting off violent protests throughout the Muslim world.

In September, several Danish cities offered asylum to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former member of the Dutch Parliament and collaborator of Mr. van Gogh. She had fled to the United States after receiving death threats from Muslim groups but returned to Europe recently, after the Dutch government refused to pay for her protection in the United States. She declined the Danish offers and said she intended to go back to Washington.

MS. JESPERSEN is hard to label. At 60, she is a veteran of 1960s counterculture struggles, a women's rights advocate, a skilled politician who has sat in Denmark's Parliament and has been a minister in Social Democratic governments.

The conservatives, who are expected to retain power in parliamentary elections on Nov. 13, regard her as someone who lends validity to their restrictive immigration laws. The Social Democrats, while denouncing her, realize that her Saul-to-Paul shift reflects in some way the state of the Danish soul, torn between traditional values of tolerance and fear that unrestrained immigration will somehow tear apart the national fabric.

Unlike many in the party she represents, Ms. Jespersen did not come from privilege. Her parents divorced early, and she was raised by her mother, who ran a food store. Ms. Jespersen says she was deeply influenced by her mother, who she said had little education, but was a hard worker, and for her, justice was a strong word.

had a strong connection to the values I received from her: equality, responsibility.

After studying history and archaeology at Copenhagen University, she followed her passion for social justice into politics, writing for a leftist political journal that set her on a path to a career in journalism, first for an academic journal and later for Danish television, where in the 1980s she earned a reputation as an astute interviewer.

Danish newspapers, admiring her aggressiveness, called her he smiling killer.

She met the man she would marry, Ralf Pittelkow, when they were both leftist students in the early 1970s. Before that, Ms. Jespersen had lived as a squatter with other feminist students. She moved into a commune with Mr. Pittelkow, who would later alternate between academia teaching literature and politics, where he became an adviser in the 1990s to the Social Democratic prime minister, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen.

Ms. Jespersen also rose through the ranks of the Social Democrats, winning a seat in Parliament in 1990 and serving as interior minister and social affairs minister later in the decade. By 2001, she was out of government, and by 2004, at the Social Democrats annual conference, she broke with the party over immigration.

gave a speech about Turkey, she said. was against Turkey becoming a full member of the European Union. I don't think we can cope with it. It's a very large country, with very different values. I said we should at least have a referendum, that there would be a great migration.

Her role in immigration issues grew, even after the collapse in 2001 of the leftist government and its replacement by the current government. In October 2004 a lecturer at Copenhagen University was beaten by a gang of Muslims who accused him of having read parts of the Koran to non-Muslim students.

In 2005, Jyllands-Posten, which by then had hired Mr. Pittelkow as a columnist, published the Muhammad cartoons. In response to the reaction in the Islamic world, Mr. Pittelkow and Ms. Jespersen published a book, titled slamists and the Na?e, in which they went so far as to assert that some qualities of Islam could also be found in Nazism and Communism. It became a best seller.

THE book did not equate the movements, she said, ut they had in common that one truth was in the world, and that one truth goes deeply into your private life. She added, ot all Muslims are reading the Koran in that sense, but those who interpret it this way are growing fast, in organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, though I am convinced we can isolate them.

She said, think we are letting down freedom-loving Muslims if we are not fighting the radical Islamists.

In addition to sharply limiting immigration, the current government has enacted laws to prevent honor killings, which still occur in Muslim families. If a teenager is ordered to perform such a killing to avenge the honor of a female relative, she said, parents and even uncles and aunts are held liable.

Ms. Jespersen denies that her transformation represents a betrayal of principle. y core values are the same, she said. thought there was room for my core values in Social Democracy, but I find there is more room among the conservatives.

Fully half of the students of immigrant background in Denmark leave school without a diploma, she said. was called a right-winger, but I said we are letting children down who have a weak background.

see a bounce back to my youth, she went on. eople say, hat a long journey youe made. And I say, don look at it in that way.

Her husband, Mr. Pittelkow, agrees. Her mother had a big influence on her, he said. And her mother had a saying, “Behave yourself, but don't put up with anything.”