Teen Poet Sparks New Debate on Islam in Denmark

COPENHAGEN – Yahya Hassan was about 10 years old when cartoonist Kurt Westergaard attracted passionate criticism from Muslims world-wide with his cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb as his turban. It ran in a Danish newspaper.

Hassan – the 18-year-old son of Palestinian immigrants who are Muslims – is now creating his own brand of controversy in Islamic circles and elsewhere with a new book of poetry that was published in Denmark last month. The writing student’s self-titled book contains around 150 poems, many of which are severely critical of the religious environment he grew up in.

His book has been a surprise strong seller since it hit the relatively small Danish market Oct. 17, with 32,000 copies being sold in about two weeks. The publisher, Gyldendal, says books of poetry in Denmark are lucky to hit 500 copies. In televised interviews, Hassan has been anything but tempered in his comments about what he views as a culture of hypocrisy underpinning Denmark’s Muslim population. His words have prompted arguably the largest debate on religion in the small Scandinavian nation since the Westergaard cartoon.

Like Westergaard, Hassan’s safety is on the line.

After reciting one of his poems, titled “LANGDIGT,” or “LONG POEM,” (he writes in capital letters only) on a Danish television station a few weeks ago, he received 27 death threats and police are investigating what they perceive as the most serious ones.

Speakeasy caught up with Hassan about a week after his book was published. His black hair tied back in a ponytail, the young poet discussed his work as he worked through a pack of cigarettes.

At first glance, Hassan looks like a typical Danish teenager of Middle East origin. His white T-shirt is covered by an elegant dark coat; his stylish blue pants are paired with brown leather shoes.

“There’s something wrong with Islam,” Hassan, a self-proclaimed atheist, says. “The religion refuses to renew itself.” It needs a “reformation.”

His poems carry titles like “CHILDHOOD” and “DISGUSTED,” dealing with issues like the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, child abuse, and the interplay between violence and religion. Profanity and vivid analogies help carry his work.

A translated excerpt from “LONG POEM:”

“You don’t want pork meat,

may Allah praise you for your eating habits,

you want Friday prayer till the next Friday prayer,

you want Ramadan till the next Ramadan,

and between the Friday prayers and the Ramadans,

you want to carry a knife in your pocket,

you want to go and ask people if they have a problem,

although the only problem is you.”

Hassan’s biggest complaint seems to be with his own peer group. “There is a massive group of Arabs – Muslims — – that commit crime on a big scale. They steal things, they sell stolen things, or they deal hash. But how can you call yourself a Muslim if all this is forbidden?”

He is careful to clarify the target of his criticism. “I speak about the lower class, the ghetto areas.”

Hassan is a product of this culture, born in what he refers to a “lower class place, a ghetto” in Western Denmark. He says his parents, who came to Denmark from a refugee camp in Lebanon but consider themselves Palestinian, would talk about the horrors they left behind in the Middle East.

He dropped out of school at 13 and soon ended up “living out of a duffel bag” travelling from institution to institution because of behavior problems, including theft. During long periods of isolation – imposed by authorities and his father – he took time to read and grew to love literature, he said.

Danish media have already lauded him as a role model for his generation. Critics such as Tue Nexo Andersen, a literature professor at the University of Copenhagen, said Hassan’s longer works are “almost Walt Whitman-like.”

Hassan, however, knew that publishing his unfiltered thoughts on the Muslims would create problems. “I knew when I would tell my story would break many taboos and many people would get offended and my parents would get angry. But my premise was that I would have to tell it as it is.”

Hassan’s book was published in mid-October, but his name became popular earlier in the month after one of his first big interviews became an online sensation in Denmark. Politiken published a piece titled “I F***ing Hate My Parents’ Generation,” which became the most shared story to ever run on the Danish daily newspaper’s website.

The writer is quick to blame his parents and their contemporaries as the reason he got involved in robberies and quit school. He says his father was physically abusive in his ways of “reprimanding” the family, and the experience shows up in his writing.

Hassan’s parents could not be reached for comment, and have stayed out of the media spotlight.

But Hassan says his poetry is only a generalization, and he wants to move past debates about whether he is a racist or role model. “People can say what they want to about my poems,” he says. “They can call them Islam-criticism, they can call them poetry, but that has nothing to do with the author; it has nothing to do with me.”

In addition to targeting hypocrisy, his poetry, he says, speaks to the problem of Muslims “exploiting the society they live in.” On free speech, Hassan says “Muslims love to take advantage of (it), and as soon as there is someone else saying something critical against them, they want to restrict it.”

Kassem Rachid, an Imam from the Danish city of Aabenraa, said he respects the poet’s right to air his views, but prefers Hassan take a different route.

“I can understand that he grew up in a problematic surrounding, but that does not have to do with religion…of course I know families like the one he describes in his book, but those you find among immigrants as well as native Danes.”

Hassan welcomes dialogue, saying he didn’t become a poet to “build a career” and has “no political agenda.”

As for his harsher critics who have threatened to hurt him, Hassan says “I know these people.” After stubbing out another cigarette, he leans forward putting his elbows on his knees, shivering slightly in response to the cold Scandinavian evening setting in. “They can’t handle criticism…they’re not interested in dialogue.”