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A Rising Star in Danish Politics: Muslim Politician Is Messenger of Change

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In Denmark of all places -- the country with Europe's toughest immigration laws -- a Muslim member of parliament has become a rising star on the political scene. Now he wants to shake up traditional Danish politics with his new party.

Naser Khader has founded a new party in Denmark: The 43-year-old Danish Muslim wants to create a new center in Danish politics.
Mikkel Østergaard

Naser Khader has founded a new party in Denmark: The 43-year-old Danish Muslim wants to create a new center in Danish politics.

Is this the kind of man Danish voters are pinning their hopes on? The sort of man who is causing an upheaval in the calcified political atmosphere between Århus and Copenhagen? He is casually dressed, and his black hair and bronze skin reveal his Arab roots. He also happens to be a Muslim.

Naser Khader, 43, sits in his makeshift office in Copenhagen's old town surrounded by boxes, laptops and loose cables. "It was so boring here, with absolutely nothing going on," he says. "I am very pleased that we have managed to get some movement into politics."

He is putting it mildly. Since Khader announced the establishment of his party, the New Alliance, more than two weeks ago, a debate has erupted of the sort that Denmark hasn't seen in years. Some of the issues on the new political agenda in Copenhagen include a radical 15-percent tax cut (a proposal that was quickly discarded) and a relaxation of the country's stringent immigration policies.

Entrenched positions on the left and right are softening and new majorities are being forged. "Many people were just waiting for something to happen," says Noa Redington, the editor of Mandag Morgen (Monday Morning), a respected Copenhagen weekly.

The Copenhagen Post even writes that the Syrian-born politician set off "shock waves" when he announced that he was leaving his liberal leftist party, Radikale Venstre, after 23 years. The party had moved too far to the left for Khader's taste.

His new party has attracted more than 18,000 new members, at least on paper, and 12,000 have already paid their party membership dues. In the space of less than three weeks, the New Alliance has jumped from non-existence to the third-place slot behind Denmark's traditional parties. Opinion poll institutes expect Khader's new party to capture up to 16 percent of votes. Many are already predicting new elections for this fall, which would likely put a new face on the government and place more power in Khader's hands.

This would represent the latest pinnacle in the stellar career of a man who became the country's most popular politician in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy. Khader owes his success to his skillful mediation between angry Muslims and the Danish government at the time. But he is also a man who, in the eyes of many older and more conservative voters, should not even be considered a true Dane.

Trading Damascus for Lego and the Little Mermaid

In 1974 Khader left his village near Damascus, together with his Syrian mother and four siblings, to follow his father, a Palestinian, to Denmark. It was more of a coincidence than anything else that his father, who was looking for work, landed in Copenhagen.

For Khader, who was 11 at the time, his new home, the land of Lego and the Little Mermaid, might as well have been the moon. "What was I was supposed to do in Denmark? I hated my father for that," says Khader. "I missed everything: my friends, school, food, the weather." But his perspective is different today. "Today he is my hero. He gave us a future."

Khader and his story personify the most hotly debated question in Denmark today: How many foreigners should be allowed into the country, and how many immigrants and refugees can the Danish welfare system bear? No more than are already there, argues the xenophobic Danish People's Party (DPP), and especially not any Muslims. As far as the DPP is concerned, Muslims are nothing but forms of "cancer" whose goal in life is to murder the "real Danes."

The populist right-wing party managed to get Europe's toughest immigration laws on the books because Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and his center-right minority government needed its support. Even the Council of Europe has criticized Denmark for promoting "an atmosphere of intolerance and xenophobia."

Khader wants to fight the right-wing populists. He also wants to secure more power for himself, as a member of a new center-right government. The country's immigration policy must change, he says: "Our borders must be open." But, he adds, "our social security funds should be closed."

The parliamentarian is currently riding a wave of sympathy. His offices are literally teeming with young volunteers, who see Khader as a kind of pop star. As Redington has discovered, the newcomer derives much of his support from more well-educated and higher-earning voters, who are tired of high taxes and Denmark's poor reputation. "For them," says Redington, "he is the message of change."

Khader doesn't see his role as being quite so revolutionary. "We are not a protest party, but a people's party," he says. "We are the first party of the new center." When asked if he sees himself as an Arab Dane, Khader, who holds a Master's degree in political science, responds: "I have faith, but I'm not religious. And I am a fanatical democrat." And yet there is much about the politician that makes him far more Danish than many a Dane: his blonde wife, their summer home on the island of Seeland and the Danebrog, or Danish flag, fluttering at his door.

"But I also fight for my mother," the politician insists. She is a conservative Muslim who regularly visits the mosque and wears a headscarf -- right in the middle of Khader's modern Denmark.

"Integration is a life-long process," he says, "and I am still in the middle of it."

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