New kids on the block: critical of religion and left-wingers
It happened in Kongens Have. A crowd gathered in front of the Viggo Hørup monument, ready for the big reveal. The audience was slightly smaller than expected, but the high-profile names of the board secured the presence of several journalists and cameramen.
One of those names is Ahmed Akkari, the former imam who played a significant role in the rage against the Muhammad Drawings in 2005, before making a u-turn to take up the fight against Islamic fundamentalism. Akkari wasn’t present, however, and it was Hanna Ziadeh who stepped to the forefront on that sunny afternoon to officially unveil their new political party: Nyt Centrum-Venstre (New Centre-Left).
“Why a new party when there are so many parties in Denmark?” Ziadeh began. “Simply put, way too many of us with left-wing values have been left homeless on the left wing. We have often felt that our criticism of Denmark’s prostration before Islam and Islamism has been completely disregarded. It’s important that we take an unequivocal stance and send the message that this society is built on some clear, proven values of freedom.”
Ziadeh, who has lived in Denmark since arriving here in 1986 as a 21-year-old political refugee from his homeland Lebanon, highlighted freedom of speech and gender equality as two of the most important such values.
“Why should an Arab stand here and lecture Danes on Western values of freedom,” Ziadeh asked, clapping his hands together and laughing in irony.
“Right? Reason number one: I have spent 21 years in a country where we fought – in the left-wing’s happy Marxist past – to achieve the same level of freedom and democracy that you find here in Europe.”
“Reason number two is that, after I got tired of integration politics in Denmark – which is where I think they’ve really screwed up – I’ve worked with promoting values of freedom in the Middle East. During that time, I saw the anxiety people have about being labelled anti-Muslim and how, as a result, they turn a blind eye instead of fighting many of the Islamist powers that use religion as a platform to achieve undemocratic gains and strongholds in our society.”
Ziadeh, the co-founder and chair of Nyt Centrum-Venstre, then offered a few additional reasons why he’s perhaps able to appreciate these values of freedom more than many others do: “I am secular, from a Christian background, half Palestinian – which is systematically discriminated against in Lebanon and other countries – and I am also …” as he placed both hands jokingly over the microphone … “Gay”.
Mosques of Europa
I later met with Ziadeh in Cafe Europa, a place he has frequented since its opening in 1989. During our conversation, he unleashed a wealth of information about the issues their new party aims to tackle – including fundamentalism. The man knows a thing or two about the subject, having worked for the Danish Institute for Human Rights for about 15 years.
I learned, for example, that two of the largest mosques in Denmark are financed by Iran and Qatar respectively. “Qatar!” Ziadeh exclaimed. “You know what Qatar is? You know the one place on earth where the Taliban, the most radical group after ISIS, has got diplomatic representation? In Doha, the capital of Qatar. These are the people we allow to come and indoctrinate our Muslims.”
“And no-one in Denmark wants to talk about it because they are afraid of the big brother and instead attack the little brothers – the Muslims that are here,” continued Ziadeh. Hence Nyt Centrum-Venstre’s proposal to close the most radical mosques in Denmark. “We want to close, let’s say five to ten mosques if we could prove that they are really indoctrinating children and things like that,” he contended.
But fundamentalist powers are only part of the issue to surmount. “I have three nephews,” began Ziadeh. “Their mother is a descendant of the prophet! From Yemen, the most conservative Muslim country on Earth. Their father is an atheist from a Christian background. My three nephews were neither baptised nor circumcised. But one day, one of them came to me and said: ‘I believe in Jesus.’ I took him to one side – he was like eleven years old – and asked: ‘What are you saying Marcel?’ I chose their names: Marcel, Marcus and Mateo. And my brother is called Mehdi, by the way – it’s a Muslim name, but we don’t care. So, I said to Marcel: ‘Listen! We don’t believe in anything until you are of age, you know, when you can think for yourself.’ And he said: ‘But my mother said Jesus exists.’ I told him: ‘I don’t care what your mother said! You’re not Christian and you’re not Muslim. You are half this and half that by descent. But you choose what you want to be!’”
Ziadeh paused for a moment, then added: “Do you think a Muslim is allowed to say that to his children? Where on Earth? It is systematic indoctrination.” Now remember: this comes from a man who was an integration consultant in Copenhagen for years – a job he quit after the mayor at the time (from SF) held a campaign speech in one of the most fundamentalistic mosques in Denmark, led by Ahmad Abu Laban. (The mayor told Ziadeh: “Whatever you do, just please don’t go to the press.”)
The answer: schools
Nyt Centrum-Venstre’s key measure in fighting such indoctrination is to be found in the school system. Co-founder and vice chair Jens Baj told me that they want to change the way religion is taught in private school.
“Religious studies today are mostly a description of what religions do – Muslims live by the five pillars, Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter etc – but never take on questions like: ‘Are these religions right? Can their claims be true? Or are they just wishful thinking?’” pointed out Baj.
“We need to be more critical and say things as they are … and this would apply to all religions. If only we could have 10 or 12 such lessons in school, a lot of children would get the opportunity to ask questions about their own religion. And it would be compulsory. That’s not how it is today: today, parents can take their kids out of the school’s religious studies and homeschool them on the subject.”
Educating the public
NCV also aims to use its political platform to educate the population on the topic. This has already begun on its website, ncv.dk. Regarding freedom of speech, for example, they cite a 2019 study conducted by the Danish Ministry of Justice, which reveals that 76 percent of Muslims in Denmark think that it should be forbidden to criticise Islam.
Another example is a graph that highlights the status of women in the Koran: 71 percent of the text assigns women a low status while only 28 percent of it grants women either equal or high status.
The man who started it all
But let’s return to Kongens Have for a moment, where NCV officially entered the political scene on June 10. After Ziadeh finished his presentation, his spindly partner, Jens Baj, took over to further elaborate on their grand plans for the future.
In fact, this new party has its provenance in Baj – a public school teacher from Jutland. He used to be part of another party of similar values, called Uafhængige Demokrater (Independent Democrats). That initiative never caught on, but Baj wouldn’t let the concept die, so he kept moulding it and began to assemble a new group. Thus, he contacted Ziadeh and Akkari.
Activism, then doubt
But there is more to the puzzle that is Jens Baj. The man used to be a part-time activist, working for organisations such as Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke (ActionAid) and Amnesty International. Later, however, the political activism subsided as something else took its place: religion.
“At one point, I thought I had all the answers. I had this attitude: ‘Just make me the ruler of the world, I know what to do.’ But when I looked at my own life, it did not live up to that of someone who had all the answers. So I allowed myself to enter into a phase of doubt: ‘Okay, if I’m not the one who’s right … let’s assume that others are,” Baj recalled. And so began his spiritual journey: he visited the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark (Folkekirken), the Unitarians, a free church and a mosque, and he even took a few tests with the Scientologists.
Enter the prophet
Finally, Baj joined a religion he learned about thanks to his sister: “She’s a Jehovah’s Witness and she gave me a book that warned against fake religions. That’s where I first read about the Bahá’í Faith. It originated from Islam and views all religions as part of an evolution. Women and men are equal and it got rid of a lot of the bad things in previous religions.” But after three years, and making his way to the highest Bahá’í council in Denmark, Baj had to quit; he simply had to conclude that there is no god that intervenes in this world.
What led to that realisation: the way the Bahá’í people have been treated by Muslims in Iran, where they are persecuted. “If you are persecuted in Iran, you could be sentenced to death. The problem is that the Bahá’í Faith acknowledges Mohammed. That’s what’s so offensive to Muslims: the Bahá’í know he’s there and yet they have the nerve to choose another prophet! Unlike Christians, who are just stupid and don’t know there’s something much better out there. The terrible acts that Bahá’í people have been subjected to in the Middle East are what lead me out of the religion in the end. I thought: ‘There can not be a god that allows all these abominable things to happen.’ I still liked most of their core values, but the belief in a god that intervenes was part of those core values … so I had to quit.” Baj let his hand fall painfully on the table as he added: “Unfortunately.”
So, you see, much like his partner Ziadeh, Baj is a man with extensive knowledge about the religious universe he dares to criticise. Here’s a tip for you: search for ‘Jens Baj’ on Facebook and read his philosophy of life, right there on his cover photo. It consists of four precepts that are the essence of what he’s learned about life thus far: “It trumps any religion I’ve ever met.”
Power to the people
Let us now move away from religion, as there is so much NCV we haven’t discussed yet. Baj revealed another interesting proposal – one that would provide people with a new way of influencing the world of politics. It’s a new type of referendum.
First, let’s take a look at how it works today: if you want to, for example, reverse legislation by the Danish Parliament, you have the option of collecting 50,000 votes for a ‘citizen’s initiative’. If you succeed, it goes to Parliament where politicians consider it.
“But they just brush it off the table,” Baj explained. “After the government introduced some SU cuts, students submitted a ‘citizen’s initiative’ to reverse them. Nothing happened. Politicians already voted in favour of the cuts, so why would they change their minds? They are not the ones to turn to. You have to be able to turn to the people.”
NCV’s referendum would allow you to introduce an initiative without the need for parliamentary approval: the first step would be to collect 200,000 signatures for your proposal; if you manage that, you go directly to the referendum phase, which would enable the country to vote on your initiative. If the majority votes in the affirmative, it’s a success.
But not so fast! “We’ve seen what happened in the UK when 52 percent voted to leave the EU. Society is left with this feeling: ‘Did we really do the right thing? Or were the angry ones just more inclined to vote than those who are happy?’” cautioned Baj.
NCV’s solution is if a referendum receives a majority of anywhere below 60 percent, a second referendum has to be conducted to make sure that it really is what people want. If that second referendum receives a majority of at least 53 percent, it’s a win. This new majority system would only apply to referenda brought by the people – those introduced by Parliament could still be won with a slim majority and no repeat. This innovative ‘emergency break for the people’ is part of NCV’s proposal for democratic reforms. (For much more, see their website.)
The apples of a tall tree
As for the climate, NCV is ambitious, but cautiously so. “We want to pick all the apples from the tree – in other words, go all the way, because green transition is important,” Baj asserted.
“But we want to start by picking the lowest fruits first, reach the goals closest to us, and see how long that takes us. Once we reach the apples on the highest branches of the tree, it could be that we have to be standing on a shaky ladder, on one leg, stretched out, straining … risking that our economy collapses because we’re not competitive anymore – due to the high expectations we’ve set for ourselves. At that point, some companies might go: ‘We cannot produce in Denmark anymore, we have to move to Poland or China, and in such a case, the CO2 emissions of those companies would simply move to China, along with the money,” continued Baj.
“So we say: if the last apples of the tree, the final stretch on the road to total green transition, results in the collapse of the Danish business community, then we won’t pick them.”