ACCEPT PLURALISM Danish Launch Event

Tolerance in a Pluralistic Society

how do we live with what we think is wrong in society, education and politics

- and should we?

Friday 4 March 2011

Copenhagen Business School - Frederiksberg, Denmark


A conference arranged jointly by:

  • The Department of Political Science, Aarhus University
  • The Department of Business and Politics, Copenhagen Business School


Presenter Asmaa Abdol-Hamid (Consultant, Vollsmose Community Planning and former politician, Red-Green Alliance) speaks at the conferenceDenmark has been impacted by increasing cultural and religious diversity. New members of society meet detailed integration requirements -- employment-related, political and cultural -- and integration is actually going well. Most people would like to see Denmark as a pluralistic society that affords space for difference. But is there enough space? After multiculturalism and cultural conflicts, perhaps, an older concept is coming onto the national agenda -- namely tolerance.

The conference introduced the Danish part of the EU research project ACCEPT Pluralism. It raised the question of whether we even understand what tolerance is, and invites political decision-makers, NGO representatives, public commentators, academic researchers and journalists to inform the research project with input on the problems of tolerance in society, education and politics.

The Danish ACCEPT Launch event featured the following panels:


Panel 1: Tolerance In A Liberal Society

Commentators Rune Engelbreth Larsen and Mikael JalvingThis panel posed the question: Has this eagerness for integration has gone too far, such that liberal society has become intolerant? Is tolerance an overlooked third position, one placed between the positive recognition of minority cultures and stern requirements for acculturation? Does tolerance perhaps infer a risk we should not take? Or is tolerance in reality too little - is it the case that what is really called for in order to include new members of society is closer to a recognition, goodwill and dialog that challenges what it means to be tolerant?

After introductory comments to the conference by Peter Gundelach (Professor, University of Copenhagen), Per Mouritsen (Professor, Aarhus University and Leader of the Danish ACCEPT team) began the panel by arguing how best to frame the concept of ‘tolerance’ - as allowing practices one finds objectionable or even wrong, because one has good grounds to do so - and highlighting the new ‘liberal intolerance,’ where tolerance of certain practices is rejected on liberal grounds. Michael Bang Peters (Associate professor, Aarhus University) followed with a talk on his research with two colleagues that has found that Danes’ tolerance of cultural/poltical minority groups, including Muslims, is closely related to their perceptions of whether those groups support democracy and fair play themselves - in other words that tolerance seems to need to be perceived as mutual in order to exist. The panel’s respondents, Thomas Bredsdorff (Adjunct professor, Copenhagen Business School and Prof. emeritus, University of Copenhagen) and Jacob Mchangama (Chief legal advisor at the Danish liberal think-tank CEPOS) responded to the presentations with comments about the roots and history of tolerance in Denmark.

Participants in the audience responded to the panel with interest, asking about whether it was enough to simply ‘tolerate’ minority groups’ beliefs and practices when perhaps a deeper respect is warranted by their being fellow members of a free society, and about why it seems to be the case that that the mutual, two-directional nature of tolerance seems to be somewhat less liberal toward Muslims (at least among some Danes) than toward other marginalized groups.


Conference attendees listen during one of the conference's panels


Panel 2: Tolerance In Schools

It is in our schools that young students, as the future citizenry, should be taught to live in democracy and imprinted with society’s foundational values. It is also there that children from many cultural and religious groups in society meet daily. The conference’s second panel examined whether and how tolerance is learned and practiced in schools: What understandings of tolerance exist, what is tolerance based on, and what educational means are used? Which points of view and practices are seen by students, parents and teachers as wrong, but are tolerated -- and how are the tolerated? What role is played by political prescriptions of tolerance and of zero-tolerance within schools’ work with ethnic/religious differences?

Lise W. Egholm (Principal, Rådmandsgades School, Copenhagen) speaks at the conferenceLise W. Egholm, Leader of Rådmandsgade School in Nørrebro, Copenhagen (a very diverse school with only a small minority of ethnically Danish students) shared her experiences and perspectives in leading a school at the forefront of many integration challenges and initiatives.

Her school has found success in emphasizing ongoing dialogue with parents and families, in providing parenting and other resources to parents of its students, and in affirming the acceptance of ethnic and religious difference but laying clear standards for its families and students in terms of engagement in education and treatment of children and women. Sune Lægaard (Associate professor, Roskilde University) presented his framework for thinking about tolerance in schools, with the conceptual addition that while tolerance regards the allowance of practices that one actively thinks about and takes a position on, and respect actively affirms others’ practices, a good (and plausible) middle way is politeness in society to others and their (acceptable) practices. Panel respondents Ove Korsgaard (Professor, Denmark’s Pedagogical University) and Manu Sareen (MP, Social Liberal Party) discussed the presentations, commenting on the need for measured approaches towards other groups and their practices, and to a more accepting view of difference in society. 

Audience members asked whether it was important for individual schools to have the same and clear policies with regard to demands to accommodate cultural and religious diversity among students and parents. The responses by panelists were generally that schools should be able to maneuver with a certain pragmatic flexibility.

One example discussed by the panel and questioners was whether or not schools should report in each individual case their knowledge about corporal punishment of children by parents to the municipality as demanded by law (corporal punishment of children is illegal in Denmark). Panelists generally seemed to agree that it was wiser - at a particular school were parents with immigrant background generally used corporal punishment as a disciplinary tool in child rearing - to act as the school had done, arranging parents meetings in which the (im)permissibility of corporal punishment of children was discussed and more constructive parenting techniques were outlined and encouraged.

 Audience members also raised the question of whether it is legitimate for school directors and teachers to refuse to talk to mothers who were completely veiled because of the alleged inability to communicate properly, or whether this was a lack of tolerance and respect towards parents' right to dress as they see fit and/or their religious convictions. There was no general agreement among panel members on this issue. The discussion raised the issue of the essentials of good communication between the school and parents of divergent religious and culture backgrounds.



Panel 3: Tolerance In Politics

Debates on political integration have seen doubts raised as to whether minorities like the Danish Muslims show sufficient respect for political institutions and foundational principles like freedom of expression, tolerance and gender equality when they participate in elections and public debate. The conference’s third panel took a closer look at tolerance and its boundaries in relation to minorities’ political integration. Should one need to actively affirm liberaldemocratic principles to be able to take part in the political debate? Should we tolerate actors who sympathize with violent movements? Which symbols and political language should be accepted among elected leaders? Should the state promote political participation among immigrants--for example, through a special Muslim council?

Panel speakers Imran Hussain (The Network, an Danish-Muslim networking association) and Yildiz Akdogan (MP, Social Democratic Party) highlighted the need for focusing on minorities and immigrant communities more broadly when discussing integration and difference in society, rather than only focusing on Muslims. At the same time they, along with respondents Asmaa Abdol-Hamid (Consultant, Vollsmose Community Planning and former politician with the Red-Green Alliance) and Rune Lykkeberg (author and columnist, Information), emphasized the importance of perceiving the normality of the immigrant/Muslim experience within Danish society, and of allowing Muslims to participate in Danish political life without being expected to represent Islam and without being subjected to litmus tests on controversial issues seen to be related to Islam.

The third panel presentation and the plenary debate that followed can basically be said to address four different dimensions of tolerance-politics nexus. The first dimension relates to questions of limits to tolerance vis-à-vis how individual politicians present themselves in the public arena. Asmaa Abdol Hamid used her own political career as an example of such limits. She referred to the public uproar created by the fact that she for religious reasons will not shake hands with men, and how this was used by political opponents to question her will to integration and her political agenda. Likewise, a hypothetical debate followed her candidacy to Parliament about whether or not it could be tolerated that a speaker in the Danish parliament whore a Muslim headscarf.

The second dimension touched upon concerns the pressure, experienced by in particular Muslim actors in the political arena, to affirm and discharge certain values before they can be accepted as legitimate participants to political debates. Imran Hussain argued here that Muslim actors increasingly need to be ‘perfectly in tune with dominant liberal democratic ideas and values’ to be accepted. Thus, before talking Muslims in politics need to distance themselves from fx sharia, jihad, violence, and proactively affirm principles of rule of law, free speech, equality of sex etc. The consequences of this in terms of Muslim actors abstaining from participating in political life were discussed in the following debate.

The third dimension addressed regards practical political interaction, and the question of who authorities and politicians can engage in dialogue and collaborations with. A key issue here was how to relate to those actors who express intolerance. Can political and administrative authorities enter into a sort of dialogue with e.g. ultra-orthodox Muslim groups, who express intolerance of ‘Western culture’ and democracy, or should a strict line of ‘zero tolerance of intolerance’ be kept? To this a participant in the audience argued that we need to recognize politically that opposition to democracy exist, and treat this as a political conflict rather than a moral one.

The final dimension that the panel participants all commented upon was the question of how to institutionally tackle minority political participation. Specifically the question of a special Muslim advisory council with privileged access to policy makers was discussed. Here the panel was in agreement: Such special channels of representation are unwanted if they are imposed top-down. In that form special institutions are an expression of disrespect of Muslim’s political capacities said Yildiz Akdogan. Rather, what is needed is a strengthening of minority representation and participation in local level democracy. Thus, as formulated by Asmaa Abdol Hamid, ethnic minorities in Denmark are ‘not asking for special rights, but equal rights’.


Thomas Bredsdorff speaks at the ACCEPT Pluralism Denmark launch event. Presenters Jacob Mchangama, Michael Bang Petersen and Per Mouritsen (behind screen), and moderator Clement Kjersgaard (from left to right) listen



Concluding round of discussion

In the concluding session, commentators Rune Engelbreth Larsen (author and journalist, Politiken) and Mikael Jalving (author and columnist, Jyllands-Posten) made remarks putting contemporary debates about tolerance in Denmark in the context of religious and ethnic tolerance and intolerance throughout Europe’s history, and highlighting both the common ground of desiring to have mutual tolerance and respect in society. The two commentators engaged in a debate, together with the audience and moderator Clement Kjersgaard (TV host , Debatten, Danish National Television), on whether emphasis on a common Danish leitkultur is possible and desirable, and what the content of such a commonly held culture could/should be.




The conference was held in Danish.

Summary Report (in Danish)

Programme in English - in Danish


Conference attendees in conversation during a coffee break



Result of the Danish press dissemination strategy, coordinated by Martin Hansen of the Social Science Faculty, Aarhus University, regarding the conference and the ACCEPT Pluralism project: 


An audience member asks a question during the conference


Imran Hussain (presenter on another panel) asks a question from the audience to one of the conference's other presenters


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Project Coordinator:
Prof. Anna Triandafyllidou,
Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies (European University Institute)

Funded by: the European Commission under the Seventh Framework Programme, Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities

Duration: 1 March 2010-31 May 2013

Disclaimer: the views expressed in this web site do not necessarily reflect the views of the E. C.