Why you should care
Because he doesn’t mince his words on the thorny issues of terrorism, burqas and Sharia.
Naser Khader, a Syrian immigrant and Denmark’s most outspoken Muslim, has a number of tattoos in Arabic that proclaim values that “I am willing to die for,” he says. But it’s not verses from the Quran that are indelibly inked onto his skin. They are the words for the liberal values of “freedom,” “democracy” and “freedom of speech.” One is a sentence adapted from the American Declaration of Independence — “All men and women are created equal and free.” The latest addition on his forearm states, in Danish, his allegiance to his adopted home country. They “always stir up a reaction” when he visits a public bath in the Arabic-speaking world, he says.
Conservative People’s Party MP Khader, 53, does not stick to the script when it comes to the mainstream dialogue surrounding Islam in Western politics. In the wake of the March terror attack in London, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May blamed not “Islamic” but “Islamist” terrorism, drawing a line between mainstream Islam and violent jihad, echoing past rhetoric from Barack Obama and other world leaders. Khader disagrees: “We can’t deny it. Those that commit these crimes are Muslims, they use Muslim arguments, they use passages from the Quran,” he says.
Through statements like that, Khader has cultivated a “personal brand” and a “legitimacy” on issues of Islam that lends him an outsize public profile for an MP, says Karina Kosiara-Pedersen, professor of politics at the University of Copenhagen. After briefly losing his seat in the previous cycle, he was re-elected to parliament in 2015, and is now perhaps the conservative party’s most prominent backbencher.
He is the only one [of Denmark’s few Muslim MPs] who will deliberately play the Islam card, and it is clearly not to attract the Muslim vote.
Jorgen Nielsen, professor of contemporary European Islam
“It’s my obligation,” says Khader, to speak out on the thorny and politically divisive topic of Islam and its compatibility with Western liberal democracy. “It’s much easier for me than for my colleagues who are white and Christian.” He sees Islam as in “crisis,” in need of a Martin Luther–esque revolution. Among his theses? Khader argues the Quran should be translated into modern Arabic to contextualize potentially incendiary verses; Sharia, he says, should be construed as personal faith rather than the sole legal system in a country; and it must be re-emphasized that Muhammad is not God but a prophet. Oh, and in 2009, Khader announced that his party favored banning the burqa. (It remains legal.)
These are not merely theological matters for Khader. “Martin Luther had the support of kings,” he says. His role in politics, then, is to support such reforms — through rhetoric, speech and, yes, mass media pontification.
Khader’s stances mirror the positions of many secular Syrian intellectuals, says professor Jorgen Nielsen, an expert on contemporary European Islam. Khader instead calls himself a “reform Muslim” — “I have faith but I am not religious. I don’t pray, I don’t fast, but Islam is a part of my culture.” Yet his is far from the standard stance in Islam. Muslims generally hold that the Quran is the direct word of God; translation and reinterpretation are forbidden. And for many, faith — including Sharia — is necessarily both public and private, personal and legal.
This is not the story of a standard politician, though. For 22 years, Khader was a member of the Social Liberal Party — traditionally centrist, though it’s recently aligned itself more closely with the left, with a staunchly pro-immigration stance. The country’s 2005–2006 “cartoon crisis,” though, was a watershed moment in cultural relations for the nation of some 230,000 Muslims, about 4 percent of the population: When a newspaper provocatively published a series of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, protests, boycotts and violent riots erupted worldwide. Khader, an outspoken supporter of the cartoonists, founded a group called Moderate Muslims, which was as much about religious culture as civil libertarianism. Today, Khader refers to his annual trips back to Damascus, where he lived until age 11. “I know what it is like to live without freedom,” he says.
That cartoon crisis, Khader says, “changed me personally.” Disappointed in the Social Liberals’ criticism of the cartoonists, he quit, forming the pragmatic center-right New Alliance, in part to counter the far-right Danish People’s Party. Khader’s venture remained immature on a number of issues, though, says Kosiara-Pedersen, and soon he defected to the Conservatives. His chosen colleagues today find themselves struggling with dwindling support to the more prominent center-right party, Venstre. In that battle for support, Khader is entangled in ever-prominent immigration debates; Venstre toes a harder line than the Conservatives, says Rune Stubager, professor of politics at Aarhus University — part of the reason Venstre won control of the government last election. (The integration minister recently celebrated the passing of a 50th regulation clamping down on immigration with cake.)
And so some critics reject Khader’s shift rightward as political opportunism. He’s “the only one” of the country’s few Muslim MPs “who will deliberately play the Islam card,” says Nielsen, “and it is clearly not to attract the Muslim vote.” He’s aiming for those conservatives not quite willing to go as far as the People’s Party.
It would be churlish to call Khader a one-trick pony — Islam and immigration loom over his career, but he’s also a party spokesperson for justice, culture and foreign policy, advocating once more for displays of muscle: increased police numbers, tougher sentences and the promotion of the national Lutheran state church. He argues that NATO should play a stronger role in Syria.
Despite controversy, Khader, a former popular radio host, maintains a likable public persona, says Kosiara-Pedersen. Which belies the storm resulting from provoking Islam: Khader has had round-the-clock security from two personal bodyguards since February 5, 2006 (the date is etched into his memory), the day after the Danish embassy in Damascus was torched. “You get used to it,” he says. Plus, “I am probably beyond the point of no return.”