One day around the beginning of October, a sixth-grade class in Ejerlykkeskolen, a school in Odense, Denmark, was supposed to watch a film. But five or six students made some kind of a disturbance. The details are unclear; the point is that, in one way or another, they disrupted the class and made it impossible for their classmates to view the film. Their teacher tried to control them, but without success. Finally she gave up and sent them down to the principal, a woman named Birgitte Sonsby.
Now, Sonsby, by all indications, is no ordinary school principal. According to Poul Erik Anderson – upon whose intensive coverage of this story, beginning with an October 18 article in Den Korte Avis, the present account is largely based – Sonsby has been named the best school principal in all of Denmark. She is the head of the Odense principals’ organization. She was recently selected over 353 other nominees for a leadership award presented by the city of Odense. And she has been officially commended for running a school in which students and teachers alike feel welcome. But on that day when those five or six kids were sent to her office to be disciplined, she was unable to do anything with them. When she tried to talk to them, they laughed in her face. Eventually she lost her temper. And she said something that she shouldn’t have: “I’m so damn tired of you Muslims destroying education!”
Before we proceed, a note on translation. The expletive Sonsby used, skide, can be translated in any number of ways, some of them a good deal stronger than others. I’ve chosen “damn,” but the level of intensity may be better captured by a more emphatic word, such as “goddamn,” “bloody,” or even (and this is, in fact, probably the closest equivalent) “fucking.” And the word I’ve translated as “destroying” was ødelægger – which could also be rendered as “ruining” or “spoiling,” or, somewhat more mildly, as “damaging.”
In any event, Sonsby apologized. But that wasn’t enough for the father of one of the disruptive boys, twelve-year-old Raacan Mansoor. The dad, Shaib Mansoor, reported Sonsby to the police for racism – a charge which, if sustained, could lose her her job. (Never mind that Islam isn’t a race: that ship has long since sailed.) Mansoor later withdrew his police complaint, but made it clear that he still wanted Sonsby fired.
After Mansoor’s accusation was reported, some people close to the situation defended Sonsby, testifying to her good qualities while acknowledging that she’d crossed a line. Others were quick to label her a racist and call for her head. Yet when you get right down to it, the only thing she’s guilty of, aside from using what may or may not be considered profanity, is voicing a forbidden truth.
The facts are these. For many years, the number of Muslim students in Danish schools has been steadily rising – and, as it has risen, the quality of everyday school life in Denmark has steadily eroded. In some schools, such as Ejerlykkeskolen, students with foreign backgrounds (the great majority of them Muslim) now outnumber native Danes – and the consequence of this has been a far higher level of disorder. Everyone in Denmark knows this.
Danish parents have pulled their kids out of certain public schools – and placed them in other public schools or in private schools – precisely because they don’t want to put them through what is increasingly becoming a nightmare. Andersen notes that when the municipality of Copenhagen redrew some of its school districts recently in order to place more kids from well-off Danish families in Blågård Skole, which is two-thirds non-Danish, the parents of no fewer than 45 percent of those kids pulled them out of the public school system and put them in private schools.
In short, to suggest that Muslims have destroyed – or ruined, or damaged – education in many Danish schools is only to state a fact.
On October 24, Andersen reported that in the wake of the charges against Sonsby, the head of her school board, Peter Julius, had written an op-ed for a local paper in which he spoke out against what he called the “tyranny of silence” surrounding the terrorizing of teachers and students in many schools by “maladjusted and ill-mannered bilingual students.” (“Bilingual students,” by the way, has become the Danish euphemism of choice for “Muslim students.”) These kids, Julius wrote, lack “the norms and values needed to succeed in a regular Danish school.” They call their teachers “whores” (ludere), harass and threaten them, and make routine accusations of racism (when, for example, a teacher tells them “to take their feet down from a sofa or a table”). Every day, it gets worse, inch by inch. “At some point the other children start to view them as role models.” And “every day our staff struggles to make room for good education.”
Andersen, to his credit, has not let go of the Sonsby story. On October 29, he reported that she isn’t the only one who’s “damn tired” of Muslim kids destroying education. So, it turns out, are the parents of many other students at Ejerslykkeskolen, whose anger over the “sabotaging” of their kids’ education predates the incident in the principal’s office. Indeed, in response to complaints by many of those parents, and threats by them to take their kids elsewhere, the school board, at a meeting on September 25 – days before Sonsby lost it – discussed the possibility of placing Danish and non-Danish students in separate classrooms. On October 12, the school board asked the city’s Board of Education for permission to do just that. That’s just how bad things have gotten.
Danish schools have been sliding down this slope, of course, for a long time. Andersen cites a report from 1992 – twenty years ago! – warning about the rise of precisely these problems in Danish schools. Frank in a way that European government reports about such matters can rarely afford to be nowadays, the report took immigrant-group parents to task for their “ignorance, indifference, and laziness,” and lamented their habit of “using/misusing Islam as the law over Danish law,” noting that Islam was “a constant obstacle to reasonable integration/assimilation.” Yes, Denmark has been a model for other European countries when it comes to reforming disastrous immigration and integration policies. But the current situation in Danish schools provides a helpful reminder that all these things are relative. Even the star of the class, in this case, is less than impressive. For all Denmark’s reforms, that country’s schools have deteriorated in exactly the ways that that 1992 report warned about. Today, to acknowledge out loud the state of affairs so bluntly outlined in that report twenty years ago is grounds for dismissal from a teaching job.
To read Sonsby’s story is to feel extraordinary empathy for her. She’s done a magnificent job in the face of challenges that most of the bureaucrats above her have tried to ignore for years – and the moment she slipped up, in the slightest of ways, some of them were quick to throw her to the wolves. But to read this story is also to reflect on that troublemaking kid’s father, Shaib Mansoor. Not only was he quick to run to the police screaming “racism.” On Friday, Danish state TV reported new complaints by Mansoor, who revealed that in a meeting with him after the Sonsby incident, a school official said that Muslim students do cause problems – Mansoor’s reaction to which is to complain “that schools distinguish between Muslim and Danish students” and that the problem in the schools (which Mansoor identifies not with kids like his son but with people like Sonsby) goes even higher up than the principal level. Mansoor pointed a finger at municipal officials.
Plainly, Masoor has learned to play Danish society like a maestro. His ranting obscures the fact that, as Andersen points out, the kind of behavior that pushed Sonsby over the line would never be tolerated for an instant in most schools in the Muslim world. In such schools, respect is all, and an unruly kid risks corporal punishment. If a typical Muslim father in a Muslim society were to find out that his son acted up in class and received a good beating for it, he would, in all likelihood, accept it, probably even approve. Respect must be enforced.
But Denmark is another story. Danish values, Danish culture, Danish law, the Danish educational system: in the eyes of many a Muslim in Denmark, these things deserve no respect whatsoever. They’re simply there to be exploited, as effectively as possible, for whatever personal gain one can wring out of them. Those Muslim kids who dared to laugh in Sonsby’s face have been taught from infancy that someone like her – an infidel, a woman – is their inferior, deserving of nothing but contempt and abuse. “Some of these boys,” a teacher told Ekstrabladet the other day, “are brought up like little kings, and no woman – aside from their mother – is supposed to tell them anything.” Certainly that’s the take-away from the behavior of Raacan Mansoor and his friends, and that of Shaib Mansoor, too – whose first instinct, instead of getting Raacan in line and showing some respect for the brat’s teachers, was to try to destroy Birgitte Sonsby’s life.
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