In the past two months, as I have moved with my family from Spain to Denmark, my life and work have placed me in several different international communities. Within these communities, little capsules of globalization, expectations are defied as cultural borders are crossed and blurred with dizzying speed. I am teaching at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS), whose 1,000 students come from primarily U.S. colleges and universities to study abroad in Denmark, but whose diversity, like American college students overall, mirrors the globe. I have met students from Hong Kong, Pakistan, Kenya, and, Ghana, already “international students” in the U.S., now studying abroad again. “My parents didn’t really understand it,” a young woman from Pakistan told me about her decision to come to Denmark, after already being settled in a prestigious private college in Massachusetts. “I said, ‘Why not? It’s another experience. I want to learn all I can before I go back to Pakistan and try to improve education there.” More on her later.
At my daughter’s international school across town, a small English-speaking school that attracts families who are either turned off by or excluded from the pricier Copenhagen International School, her classmates are from Zimbabwe, Italy, Greece, the U.S., India, Pakistan and Nepal. Perhaps because of this diversity, and the fact that all the children are outsiders to Denmark, she felt at home there from day one. A new form of community based on difference and un-belonging was born. That might be the subject of another blog post.
But yesterday I visited yet another international community within Copenhagen: a Muslim independent school founded by Pakistani Muslims 25 years ago. There are some 20 Muslim independent schools in Denmark, private schools subsidized by the state. I went on this school visit with a group of students from DIS studying child diversity and development and our Iraqi-Danish host. Fortunately, the student from Pakistan, who I’ll call Sara, was on this visit. As we walked to the school from the train station, Sara asked if the school, Iqbal International School, was named after Allama Iqbal, the famous Pakistani poet. Our host did not know, but once at the school, we confirmed that it was. Delighted, Sara explained to us that Iqbal was a Pakistani hero because he had dreamed of independence when Pakistan was still part of British India, and worked closely with Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. This crucial piece of the school’s history would have remained unknown to me had it not been for Sara. Sara, twice removed from her country, found a piece of her home in global space, and ushered us in.
What does global space look like here? It is a class of 5th grade boys wearing Nike and Adidas athletic gear, introducing themselves to us one by one as, “I am from Somalia, but I live in Denmark.” And girls, less numerous and seated at the front of the room, wearing colorful headscarves and tunics. Although the school was founded by Pakistani Muslims, in recent years its Pakistani population has declined while the Somali population exploded. I do not yet know this history. In this global space, their English teacher was the daughter of Moroccan immigrants, born and raised and educated in Copenhagen. She told us that although parents choose the school because they believe it follows the Islamic educational tradition, it is not at all like a school in Somalia. Last December she taught the students about Danish Christmas and received a flurry of parent complaints. “But I think they need to learn about Christmas and the Christian religion,” she told us, “that’s why they are here.” Her colleague, the Arabic teacher, told us the vision of the school has always been to “teach our religion and our mother tongue.” That means that in addition to Danish and English, the school offers instruction in Arabic, Somali, and Urdu. Clearly there are as many different ways of being Muslim as there are histories of people in the school, and none of these are frozen in time. The headmaster himself is a Danish Muslim, one of an estimated 2-5,000 Danish converts.
While many voices in the Danish media criticize the formation of Muslim schools as separatist, saying, “They come to live in their own world, which creates rifts between them and the Danish society and its values,” this perspective clearly fails to capture the dynamic reality of the Muslim independent school and the global space it represents. The space is neither Denmark nor Somalia or Pakistan, but a new space of evolving Muslim self-determination, where things remain by changing and change to remain. Allama Iqbal, I later read online, had justified the foundation of a Muslim state in a letter to Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, in 1937 by asking, “Why should not the Muslims of North-West India and Bengal be considered as nations entitled to self-determination just as other nations in India and outside India are?” The school bearing his name in Copenhagen now asks, What does Muslim self-determination mean in the global era? The answer is still being debated, but it is clear it does not conform to what extremists on either side imagine. A Moroccan-Danish English teacher may teach students about Danish Christmas, while Sara, a Pakistani U.S. college student walking the streets in Copenhagen, tells me that her favorite time of the year is Ramadan, because it is at Ramadan that she feels most strongly a part of her community. I can’t help but think that she would make Allama Iqbal proud.