Arriving in Copenhagen for the first time on Wednesday, my very first encounter with a resident of the city was with my taxi driver, a Pakistani man living and working in Copenhagen some twenty years. As well as offering me some sage advice about the weather (he figured I was British), he spoke to me about the city and his take on what it is like to be a Copenhagener today.
His knowledge of and passion for the city was evident as he told me the best places to go and things to see in Denmark’s capital city—a city he described as “having the whole world in it.” For him, the city’s diversity is something to be experienced as much as the Tivoli gardens or the cosmopolitan harbour area. And it is for this very reason that I am visiting the city.
On September 10, Copenhagen Muslims will be celebrating Eid ul-Fitr, the Islamic religious holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Eid ul-Fitr is one of the most important festivals in the Islamic calendar, and is often described as the “Muslim Christmas.”
Muslims living in Copenhagen will celebrate Eid in a variety of ways, including visits to family, friends and the mosque, giving gifts and new clothes to children and sharing food with relatives and friends. But this year, they won’t be doing it alone. For the second year running, the city of Copenhagen—in all its diversity—will be celebrating with them by marking the feast with a public festival in the very heart of the city.
Organized by the World Cultural Centre (Verdenskulturcentret) in Copenhagen and sponsored by private and public organizations, (including the Copenhagen City Council) the Eid Festival will take place this year at Christiansborg Castle Square from 2p.m. on Friday, September 10.
The Verdenskulturcentret held the festival for the first time last year in a public square in the Town Hall Square. Their ambition was, and still is, to organize a public Eid festival in order to share with all Copenhageners one of the biggest annual celebrations of a large group of its residents living in the city. This was pioneering. Until last year, only private enterprises had organized similar Eid parties on this scale and none of them had taken place in such a central and public space. After some hard work and fundraising in 2008/9, the center secured support from major municipal and some private funds as well as sponsorships. As Søren T. Høyer from the Verdenskulturcentret explains, “Eid is the kind of celebration that works very well as a catalyst for the demystification of Islam to the general public, or, indigenous Danes, at least in Denmark, in the sense that some of the key words for the celebration resemble that of, for instance, Christmas: Being with your family, doing good deeds, a time for charity etc.”
To receive support for such an event from the municipality is significant. After the cartoons’ affair and the riots which have plagued the district of Nørrebro in particular (where the At Home in Europe Project has recently conducted research on the experiences of Muslim and non Muslim residents), Denmark’s attitude towards its Muslim citizens has been questioned. Remarks from a police official just a few days ago that recent rioting in Nørrebro by young people was due to poor sugar levels caused by their Ramadan fast only helped to strengthen the argument that Copenhagen’s Muslims are misunderstood and seen as alien to the city.
The deputy mayors, Klaus Bondam and Pia Allerslev will also be present and speaking at the event, showing that the municipality is fully behind creating a more cohesive and inclusive city. Even the location is significant. Christiansborg (Castle Square) is home to the Houses of Parliament and, a popular place for demonstrations, is a symbol of political participation: a statue of King Frederik the 7th, who in 1849 gave the Constitution to the Danes, overlooks the square.
The At Home in Europe Project will have a booth at the festival where visitors can take part in a survey about identity and belonging, and have their portrait taken as part of the project’s collection of images from across the 11 cities covered by the Muslims in EU cities reports. In addition to this, a debate has also been organized exploring the role of Muslims in the world of arts and culture and how successful have they been in bridging cultural divides and making strides into the mainstream. The Open Society Foundations are also pleased to be presenting the American Muslim comedy troupe, Allah Made Me Funny.
Such an open gesture of inclusivity in the political heart of a city is an example which should be shared with other cities in Europe as they try to make their cities open to all their residents regardless of religious, ethnic or cultural background.