By Akbar Ahmed
Annette Bellaoui is the coordinator and co-founder of Copenhagen World Music Festival, an annual major Danish event showcasing music and artists from across the globe, and she also directs the organization Missing Voices, a musical consortium that empowers and promotes women-especially Muslims. Not only is Bellaoui a dynamic Danish woman, but she is also a convert to Islam. I and my research team met her as part of fieldwork for my Journey into Europe project on Islam in Europe.
Annette described herself as coming from a family that is "militant atheist" and "the atheist version of the Taliban." "They think I'm a bit weird, but that's okay," said Annette, who wore a colourful headscarf when she met us.
The catalyst for Annette's conversion came when she took a trip with her 12-year-old daughter to Morocco. "The very first morning I woke up really, really early… For the first time ever, I heard the Adhan... And it sounded so wonderful, but I didn't even sort of take it all in. I just stood there like-I always describe it as a cartoon figure, you know one of these cartoon figures when somebody drops an anvil on their head. I just stood there like, 'what happened?' and in that moment I said to myself 'one day, I will be Muslim.'... And until the end of my days I will swear I heard Allah call me." Three years later, in 1999, she accepted Islam.
Annette's role models are strong, powerful women, including Oprah Winfrey and Malala Yousafzai. Annette is proud of her Danish identity and does not see it as incompatible with being Muslim. The Vikings, she explained, are a key part of the Danish identity and heritage: "In the Danish community, some of the things we have taken with us from the Viking culture is a strong sense of equality, because even in the time of the Vikings every small town had a Thing, which was like a place of justice, where people would meet and debate. And it was a firm law that everyone had the right to be heard." Annette has celebrated her Danish identity by organizing festivals celebrating Danish traditions, such as a festival celebrating the coming of spring involving music, dancing, an open fire and people dressed in Viking gear, engaging in swordplay, and playing old instruments.
Conscious of the image of Islam among Danes and her alarm at seeing the violence in the Muslim world — Annette referred to ‘Muslim terrorists’ as ‘freaks of nature’
While Annette felt that there was no contradiction in being both Danish and Muslim, she said it can be a struggle to balance her Danish compulsion to respond to personal challenges by others head on and the Islamic imperative to be compassionate: "I do not forgive or forget…I struggle with this, because I know the Quran says that Allah loves those who can forgive, even if you have been greatly wronged. But sometimes I can't forgive it. And then I do what I think I have to do, I ask for Allah's forgiveness and I hope for the best."
As both a Dane and a Muslim, Annette had insight into the Danish reaction to the furious response in the Muslim world to the 2005 publication of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet of Islam, in which Muslims burned Danish flags. She said that Danes thought this was "stupid" as "our attitude would be more, if you're mad at me, why are you burning my flag? Why don't you come and try to punch me in the nose? Be more direct about it."
Her position as a convert meant that Annette is respected by both Danes and Muslims and can also be seen as a "traitor" by both. Annette finds Danes often "don't quite take me seriously because as a Muslim woman I cannot be well educated or intelligent or anything like this. I find sometimes people they would sort of go out of their way to be extra nice to me-almost like they pity me a little, because I'm a Muslim woman, I wear hijab, so I must be a little slow."
Conscious of the image of Islam among Danes and her alarm at seeing the violence in the Muslim world, Annette referred to "Muslim terrorists" as "freaks of nature." The only thing she feels she can do in response is to “disagree with everything you say, from a European view" and challenge them in the manner of Voltaire, who, Annette explained, believed, "Monsieur, I vehemently disagree with everything you're saying, but until the last drop of blood in my body, I will fight for your right to say it."
Through her work, Annette tries to challenge the "media-enhanced idea" of Muslim women as "poor benighted creatures who sit at home shrouded in black."As evidence of music's ability to transcend language and cultural barriers, Annette recounted witnessing Danes crying at one of the Missing Voices music shows she organized. "I had one of the singers I've worked with for a long time, Sarah, she's born and raised in England but from Pakistani parents. She was singing a Bosnian song in a small town… And I'm willing to take a bet that nobody in the audience understood a word of the song. But, quite a few of them, they were actually listening with tears rolling down their faces-it's like a hand extended in friendship."