Controversy in Copenhagen TV Host's Headscarf Stirs Debate

With Denmark still licking its wounds over the international outrage over anti-Muslim cartoons published by a major newspaper, a new controversy has erupted over a talk show presenter who insists on wearing a headscarf on her nationally televised talk show.

With the smoke over the Danish Muhammad cartoons barely having cleared, a new development in the Scandinavian country has the potential to further fray Muslim-Christian relations in Denmark. The co-host of a popular new public television show created to debate religious and cultural differences has divided Danes with her decision to wear a headscarf on air. Some groups are even protesting to get Asmaa Abdol-Hamid's show cancelled.

Hamid, a pretty, confident, 24-year-old Dane of Palestinian descent, and a devout Muslim, is co-hosting an eight-part television series that began airing last month on public television. She hosts the show with Adam Holm, an outspoken Danish atheist. The show is intended as a reaction to the controversy that began after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad last year and sparked a wave of violent protests and boycotts of Danish products throughout the Muslim world.

"Our aim is to dissect the misunderstandings between Islam and the West in eight shows," Hamid told the Middle East Times newspaper. Entitled "Adam and Asmaa," the series captures the co-hosts debating with their guests the issues that have polarized Europe over the last few months: immigration, Islam and integration.

But the show and Hamid's headscarf have also opened old wounds. The controversy surrounding "Adam and Asmaa" revives the debate that was at the heart of the cartoon fiasco: What are the limits of freedom of speech and opinion in the Western world?

"Religion should remain private," Vibeke Manniche recently told Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. "That's why a headscarf doesn't belong on a TV host on public television." Manniche, a critic of Hamid who has started a petition to get the show taken off the air, heads the Women for Freedom Association. "The choice of Asmaa as a co-host is an insult to Danish and Muslim women," said Manniche. "She sends the message that an honorable woman can't go out unless she's covered up."

Hamid insists that her presence on television contradicts the image of the passive, silent Muslim woman behind a veil. "You can still be strong and independent even with a piece of fabric over your head," she argues. But the piece of fabric and her pro-Islamic views have earned Hamid the label of a fundamentalist. Hamid sees that as a glib response. "I have a hard time accepting that just because you wear a headscarf you are labelled a fundamentalist. That's too simplistic. I have no ties to fanatic circles."

At a time when Danes and Danish Muslims are still very much split over Islam, every step Hamid takes is being closely scrutinized. Denmark's minister for social affairs and gender equality, Eva Kjaer Hansen, recently criticized the television station Dankse Radio (DR) for its decision to push buttons with the show. "I want to remind DR that its employees should not serve as missionaries," she said.

For its part, Danske Radio has defended the show. There's no point in asking Hamid to take off her scarf now, says the station's chief, Arne Notkin. "Her headscarf is a symbol for the entire debate."


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