Education About Islam in Danish State Schools

Mette Buchardt and Nanna Ramsing Enemark

State-Church Relations, Islam, and the Muslim Communities in Denmark

State and Church in Denmark

Historically, state and church have always been intertwined in Denmark. In 1739, King Christian the Sixth introduced mandatory Confirmation for all children, which meant a certain level of literacy and schooling was necessary. It was administered by the Evangelical-Lutheran Church, which has been the dominant church since the Danish Reformation in 1536. Church and state were closely intertwined in the decades that followed (Buchardt, 2017, 286). While the Constitution in 1849 introduced freedom of worship (§67), the Constitution’s §4 maintains: “The Evangelical-Lutheran Church is the Danish Folk Church and is as such subsidised by the state” (own translation) (Grundloven/The Constitution, §4).

Compared to other religions, the Evangelical-Lutheran national church Folkekirken (The People’s Church) enjoys extended privileges in Danish public life. Folkekirken is, for instance, administratively responsible for registering births and deaths in counties1 (Jacobsen, 2015, 195), and its priests and bishops are paid by the state. Though other religions can receive tax deductions, they cannot receive direct state funds. Religions can apply to become recognised communities of faith and receive tax benefits, license to perform wedding ceremonies and baptisms, and have residency permits issued for religious leaders (e.g. rabbis and imams). Recognised communities of faith are plentiful in Denmark; the communities of faith are not divided along merely religious lines, but often also relate to specific national contexts or branches of religion (e.g. the Armenian Apostolic Church in Denmark and mosques connected to the Turkish state). The last estimate conducted in 2015 listed 160 recognised communities of faith (0ager, 2015).

The Muslim Communities in Denmark

It is not legal in Denmark to register religious affiliation, making for a significant margin of error when estimating the number of affiliates of each religion, especially as only Evangelical-Lutheran Christianity and Islam are sizable religions in Denmark. Other religions are estimated to be observed by no more than 1% of the population. The official number of members of Folkekirken was nearly 75% in 2019 (Pedersen and Fahrendorff, 2019). Nonetheless, while the vast majority of the population are members of Folkekirken, fewer categorise themselves as religious: in 2016, a survey indicated that less than 20% consider religion very important in their day-to-day lives, while 30% were indifferent to the importance of religion (Konigsfeldt, 2016). The number of Muslims has grown steadily since the rise of labour migration in the 1960s, and since the 1980s Islam has been one of the largest non-Christian religions. At present, the Muslim population is estimated at somewhere between 5 and 5.5%, making Islam the second most common religion in Denmark (Pew Research Center, 2017; Jacobsen, 2018). Because most early migration of Muslims stemmed from the guest worker programmes of the 1960s and early 1970s, migrants tended to come from Sunni Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Turkey (Buchardt, 2016a, 93). When the guest worker programmes came to an end, later waves of Muslim migration originated in countries such as Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon (mostly Palestinians), Somalia, Iraq, and, more recently, Syria. They arrived through either asylum or family reunification with previously arrived migrants.

Religion and Education in Denmark: General Overview

Religion and state in Denmark are also intertwined in the state education system. In the 1100s, priests and other church-related professions were receiving a sort of organised education in terms of learning to read and write in Danish and Latin (Appel and Fink-Jensen, 2013). Following Luther’s Reformation in 1536, the so-called Kirkeordinansen (the Church Ordinance) was issued (Appel and Fink-Jensen, 2013, 43-45). As a result, schools based on Lutheran Christianity were established in all major cities (Appel and Fink-Jensen, 2013, 29-30). Thus, the Reformation did not result in severed or weakened ties between state and church but rather in a different and tighter integration between the two (Buchardt, 2017, 286). In 1739, King Christian the Sixth introduced mandatory instruction for all children in order to prepare them for their Confirmation. The main object of learning was Luther’s Small Catechism, and the church and the state were closely intertwined (Buchardt, 2017, 286).

With the School Act of 1814, the mandatory years of instruction began at age 7 and concluded with Confirmation, tying the educational system together with church rituals (Kjeldsen, 2016, 72). Historical and demographic developments - first the granting of religious freedom with the Constitution of 1849 and later the expansion of the welfare state during the 20th century - have been accompanied by a decrease in the church’s direct influence on education, although Christianity still makes up an important element of the school curriculum as part of the culture and history of the nation.

While knowledge of Islam is being increasingly taught in lower and upper secondary schooling’s religious education (RE), Christianity is still emphasised in the curriculum for the subject Kristendomskundskab (Knowledge of Christianity) as well as in the paragraph on the purpose for schools. The current §1 notes that pupils should be familiarised with Danish history and culture and have knowledge of other cultures and countries (Undervisningsministeriet, 2017). A transformation process has in other words taken place, meaning that Lutheran Christianity is currently viewed as a historical component and a foundation of Danish culture, intertwining evangelical Lutheran Christianity and culture (Buchardt, 2015). With the passage of the Bill of Public Schooling in 1975, the subject changed status and content: rather than preaching Christianity, the current subject aims at teaching about Christianity.

Organisation of Schooling in Denmark

Folkeskolen (The People’s School), the public institution for schooling in Denmark, begins with a mandatory form 0 called Btfrnehaveklasse (kindergarten class) and continues up until the ninth or tenth grade, equivalent to at least ten years of schooling in the comprehensive primary and lower secondary school. While national legislation does not dictate the number of hours allocated to each subject, municipalities hold significant power in determining both the assigned hours and the organisation of the schools, the hiring of principals, and other strategic decisions. The Ministry of Children and Education determines the regulations and objectives for each subject, including Kristendomskundskab (Buchardt, 2014b, 50). Kristendomskundskab is mandatory from grades 1 to 9, and is divided into three stages: first to third grade (ages 7 to 9), fourth to sixth grade (ages 10 to 12) and seventh to ninth grade (ages 13 to 16) (in the tenth grade it is an elective subject). In either the seventh or the eighth grade, depending on the municipality, the pupils will spend a year preparing for their Confirmation if they wish to remain (if baptised) or become a member of Folkekirken. During this year, the pupils do not receive lessons at school but go to the parish priest for lessons. Pupils who opt out of Confirmation preparation do not receive these lessons. In recent years, the number of Confirmations has decreased, and instead some pupils choose a so-called “humanistic

Confirmation” which emphasises ethics, critical thinking, reflection and humanism (Abildtrup, 2017).

After 10 years of comprehensive schooling, pupils either move on to different tracks of upper secondary education, vocational education, or enter the optional tenth grade. At the upper secondary level, or high school, religion is taught at varying levels and intensities, depending on which academic track is chosen. Exemption is allowed on the grounds of “conscience conflict”, although the principal of the school is required to inform the parents of the non-confessional approach of Kristendomskundskab (Undervisningsministeriet, 2014). While exemption from Kristendomskundskab is allowed in primary and lower secondary schooling, Religion in upper secondary schooling is mandatory at the lowest minimal level (C-level, having the subject for one year) (Abildtrup, 2017).

The Place of Islam Within National Life and Education

Following the 1960s labour migration, public and parliamentary attention on Muslims and their relation to Danish society and education increased. Politically, the early 1970s saw an increased focus on migrants and often connected them to “cultural problems” which were, in turn, connected to Islam (Buchardt, 2018). Debates focused mainly on adult migrants and, initially, the presence of migrant pupils in the Danish education system was relatively unnoticed in public discourse (Padovan-Özdemir & Moldenhawer, 2017).

During the 1980s and 1990s, attention on Muslim children and women as well as on integration increased (Buchardt, 2016a, 13). At the same time, the national centre for statistics (Statistics Denmark) started to collect more detailed data on migrants and their descendants. Within schools, the education of migrant children was also becoming of interest to practitioners - as evidenced by the number of textbooks teachers themselves began to produce (Buchardt, 2016a, 25-33; 2018, 65).

Several issues have arisen in public debates regarding Islam, including the questions of halal slaughtering and the veiling of women. In 1980, halal slaughtering was made legal in Denmark, but it was not without protests from both the left and the right wing (Jacobsen, 2015, 177). In the 1990s, concerns of particular interest were the hijab, the niqab, and the burka (Jacobsen, 2015, 81). A smaller number of principal legal decisions gained significant attention, and it became clear that employers were allowed to introduce dress codes prohibiting women from wearing the hijab. In 2009, jurors and judges were no longer allowed to wear political and religious symbols visibly, making hijabs de facto illegal for these state officers (Jacobsen, 2015,182). A further tightening of the regulation on Muslim women can be seen by the 2018 legislation banning full face veils, indirectly banning niqabs (Reuters, 2018). Confessional schools in general have received attention as well (cf. infra). Since the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001, there has been increased concern about the radicalisation of young Muslims in Denmark. This increased after the so-called Muhammad crisis which unravelled in 2005, when a number of drawings satirising Islam and the Prophet Muhammad were published in the national newspaper Jyllands-Posten (Hansen and Buchardt, 2011). The drawings became the centre of a crisis, as Jyllands-Posten was accused of deliberately offending Muslims. Events and debates related to the drawings lasted several years, and it brought further attention to the Muslim minority in Denmark and the perceived dichotomy between being Danish and being Muslim (Hansen and Buchardt, 2011, 61).

Religious Education and Education About Islam in Denmark: The Current Situation

Competencies pupils have to acquire during their lessons in a specific subject in the Folkeskole are referred to as Fcelles Mai (Common Goals). These list the abilities students should have obtained during the course for specific age groups. Goals for RE in Denmark include aspects such as knowing the historical value of evangelical Lutheran Christianity and the main points of the history of Christianity. For the additional subtheme in the older grades, “Ikke-Kristne Religioner og Andre Livsanskuelser" (Non-Christian Religions and Other Life Perspectives), goals relate to “the main points and issues (problemstillinger) within the large religions” (Borne- og Undervisningsministeriet, 2019d), which are Islam and Judaism, and to a lesser extent also Hinduism and Buddhism. While it is only required for pupils to learn about the non-Christian religions from the seventh grade onwards, the ministerial guides offer examples of how to include particularly the Abrahamic religions as elements of comparison in earlier forms. The aim of RE is described as follows: “The pupils should in the subject Kristendomskundskab obtain knowledge and skills, making them capable of understanding and relating to the religious dimension’s importance for the life perspective of the individual person and their relation to others” (own translation) (Borne- og Undervisningsministeriet, 2019d).

The document continues by emphasising the importance of understanding Christianity’s historical and contemporary importance in Danish history and culture, and concludes that pupils should also learn about other religions and life perspectives. This should raise pupils’ academic abilities in relation to personal positioning, responsibility, and action in a democratic society (Borne- og Undervisningsministeriet, 2019d). In a similar vein, the subject Kristendomskundskab, which is officially non-confessional, maintains Christianity as the most important religion with respect to Danish culture and history. Other religions are a compulsory part of the subject, but they are considered of lesser importance than Christianity. Politically, Christianity is positioned as an important part of a shared national cultural history.

As Christianity has always had a prominent role in RE, it has taken a considerable amount of time for other religions to be included in the subject, and non-Christian religions are still not a theme in the examination. In 1993, Kristendomskundskab was expanded to include “non-Christian religions and other life perspectives” for older students in grades 7 to 9. Nonetheless, Islam is not explicitly referred to in the guide for the subject Kristendomskundskab or within the goals for students’ outcomes. While there were Common Goals within the subject by 2004, there are no explicit goals for the theme “other religions and perspectives on life” until pupils have completed ninth grade (Buchardt, 2016b, 98). Since 2007, Kristendomskundskab has been a subject pupils only need to be examined in, if it is selected in a randomised draw between other subjects within the humanities2 (Buchardt, 2016b).

Since the passage of the School Act of 1975, it has been possible for pupils to be exempted from Kristendomskundskab, initially only if they were not a member of the Church, but now also on the grounds of a “conscience conflict” (Kjaer, 1999, 17). The number of exempted RE pupils is not registered, but a ministerial answer reveals that, according to a sample, 1.3% of pupils nationwide did not attend lessons in Kristendomskundskab. One sampled school had an exemption rate of nearly 70%, which means that if that particular school had been excluded from the calculation, the percentage would be closer to a 0.5% exemption rate nationally (Ministeriet for Born, Undervisning og Ligestilling, 2016). While there have been debates in recent years about making the subject mandatory, there is no official legal proposal yet (Ritzau, 2016). Since 1994, it has not been possible to be exempted from the upper secondary subject Religion (Jensen and Kjeldsen, 2013, 203).

Islamic Confessional Schools

Since the law on free schools was passed in 1855, it has been possible for anyone to open a so-called Friskole (free school or private school) (Ihle, 2007, 30). Schools in Denmark can therefore be either public or private, and around 17% of pupils attend a Friskole (Danmarks Statistik, 2018). Due to state subsidisation for private schools, only a few Friskoler in Denmark require enrolment fees, and although schools themselves appoint their boards, the state still controls and supervises the schools to ensure that they comply with national objectives (Buchardt, 2014b, 56). In private confessional schools, the subject of RE is often referred to as Religion and plays a more confessional role (Buchardt, 2014b, 54). Of those who attend a Friskole, 20% attend one with a religious component, and Catholic schools account for the highest number of pupils’ (Frie Skolers Ltererforening, 2016). In 2019, about 5,000 pupils attended Islamic confessional schools. Prior to the 2018 closing of four schools, there were 29 Islamic confessional schools in Denmark (Jensen,

2018) , and in 2012 approximately 10% of the pupils in free schools were bilingual (Coninck-Smith and Appel, 2013).

Denmark now has approximately 25 Islamic confessional Friskoler. Annette Haaber Ihle has classified Islamic confessional schools into three types based on whether the school caters to a specific ethnic group, to Arab-speaking families, or to Muslims generally (Ihle, 2007, 49). In spite of their identification as Islamic schools, only around half of them explicitly mention religion in their statement of aims (Shakoor, 2008, 34). Islamic confessional schools have in the past couple of decades been under increased public scrutiny (Ihle, 2007, 34), and between 2000 and 2007 the government made 22 changes to the law on free schools, all restrictive in nature (Ihle, 2007, 45). Islamic schools have been suspected of under-reporting “failure to thrive”, as they report nine times fewer cases than public schools to the municipality (Wang,

2019) . Several schools have lost their state funding, which in many cases, and particularly for Islamic schools, is crucial to the schools’ capacity to exist, as state funding frequently accounts for 75% of a private school’s financial foundation (Jessen, 2017). In 2017, a broad coalition in Parliament decided on an increased supervision of schools, especially in order to weed out schools not taking measures to prepare pupils for a life in Danish society (B0rne- og Undervisningsministeriet, 2017). The first and only upper secondary school with an Islamic profile opened in 2016 and closed again in 2018. The reasons for this termination were financial difficulties after losing state funding due to poor financial management, high absentee rates of students, and the poor educational level of the teachers.

Education About Islam: Curricula, Textbooks, Teacher Training, and Inspection


In a 2018 Vejledningforfaget Kristendomskundskab (Instruction for the subject Kristendomskundskab), it was emphasised that RE lessons may not under any circumstances be preaching Christianity, referring back to the 1975 legislative change focussing on knowledge about Christianity rather than/>rrac/ungChristianity (Undervisningsministeriet, 2018, 7). Subjects in primary and lower secondary school are currently guided by so-called learning goals. Rather than dictating what should be taught by teachers, they emphasise the competencies pupils should obtain through teaching. The pupils receive a total of 300 hours of Kristendomskundskab,

which does not include the traditional seventh grade Confirmation preparation administered by the church (Gilliam, 2014).

Prior to the seventh grade, pupils are introduced to the three themes of biblical stories, Christianity, and life philosophy and ethics. “Non-Christian religions and other life perspectives” are introduced as a theme for grades 7 through 9. The Feelies Med (Common Goals) for the subject do not mention any specific non-Christian religions. While Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism are all mentioned as possible objects of study, there are no strict requirements for the study of these religions (Borne- og Undervisningsministeriet, 2019b). Throughout the ministerial guidelines, they are primarily used as means of comparison with Christianity, and not as an individual object of study (Borne- og Undervisningsministeriet, 2019b, 2019c). An example of how Islam is primarily utilised in RE as a means of comparison to Christianity can be found in Laseplanen (reading plan) (Borne- og Undervisningsministeriet, 2019c), which describes “the foundation of the lessons in Kristendomskundskab” (Borne- og Undervisningsministeriet, 2019c, 3). Within the area of non-Christian religions and other life perspectives, it is explained how the lessons “should be organised so that pupils learn to find similarities and differences in the religions” (Borne-og Undervisningsministeriet, 2019c, 10).

The curriculum for Kristendomskundskab offers different methodological approaches to the study of religion. The historical-critical approach, which is currently the dominant approach in Danish RE, has been widely discussed in the academic field (Borne- og Undervisningsministeriet, 2019c, 6; Buchardt, 2014b) and has been foundational to how Kristendomskundskab has been conducted by teachers in the Danish education system. This approach focuses on balancing between facts and interpretation, but was challenged by the narrative approach in the 1980s (Norr, 1979, 85). Other notable approaches challenging the historical-critical approach in Denmark include comparative, existential, symbolic, anthropological, and biographical approaches (Buchardt, 2016b).


Even though Islam was rarely mentioned in textbooks prior to the presence of Muslims in Denmark, and even though it was not a requirement for children younger than the seventh grade to learn about any religions other than Christianity, Kjeldsen (2016, 278) found that textbooks in her samples from the third and sixth grades all included chapters on Islam. She also found that Islam and Judaism are commonly used as religious comparators to Christianity in schools, and that textbooks take their point of departure in Evangelical-Lutheran Christianity.

An early example of the increased attention on Islam can be seen in 1981, when Danmarks Radio, the governmentally sponsored public channel (Radio Denmark), created a radio and TV show called “Allah in Denmark” (Buchardt, 2016a, 94). This was part of an increased focus on the religious background of migrant pupils, and especially on the role of Islam in their lives. The manual that followed the TV show also featured a chapter on “the cultural meeting between Danes and Muslims”, thereby labelling Islam as a separate culture from the Danish one (Buchardt, 2016a, 94). This simultaneous regard for Islam as both problem and curiosity was present from the 1980s. Since then, the categorisation of Islam as a cultural marker in conflict with Danish culture has become the prevalent perception in Danish society, both politically and pedagogically (Buchardt, 2018, 68).

At present, textbooks still seem to have this perception of Islam. One of the commonly used book series in RE in Denmark is Liv og Religion {Life and Religion). Cecilie Kudal has in her MA thesis criticised the series’ portrayal of Islam. Her research suggests that (Evangelical-Lutheran) Christianity is portrayed as heterogeneous, historically adaptable, and personalised to the individual, whereas Islam and other religions are portrayed as ahistorical, impersonal, and homogeneous. Whereas the series shows everyday life situations in relation to Christianity, Muslims are portrayed exclusively in relation to prayer and other religious practices or even as criminals (Kudal, 2015). This portrayal of Islam is similar to the findings of Kama Kjeldsen’s PhD dissertation. She discovered that Islam is portrayed as a religion of rules, whereas Christianity is promoted as a religion of love and faith in another textbook series'1 (Kjeldsen, 2016, 231). Kjeldsen further found that the textbooks portray Judaism and Islam as religions related to conflicts and “war in God’s name”, as they mention examples such as Taliban and the Palestine-Israeli conflict, whereas Christianity is essentially portrayed as a conflict-free religion (Kjeldsen, 2016, 229).

Teacher Training

Currently, teacher training in Denmark is divided between primary and lower secondary education on one side and education aimed at the upper secondary level on the other. The former takes place at a four-year bachelor’s level in teacher training colleges, involving a general course and specialisation in three subjects. The latter goes to the master’s level in two subjects and takes place in universities concluded by an in-service training programme in pedagogy (Buchardt, 2014b, 62). In the teacher training colleges, Kristendom used to be one of the three elective subjects. In 1999, only 10% of teachers who taught Kristendomskundskab opted for this elective subject during their teacher training programme (Kjaer, 1999,133). In 2013, Kristendomskundskab was the school subject with the highest number of non-specialised teachers (Jensen and Kjeldsen, 2013,190-191). This appears to be associated with a change in teacher education; since 1997, Kristendomskundskab3.s been combined with the thematic Livsoplysning (“Enlightenment of life”) and since 2007 has been included as a part of a single broader societal theme in the general course of the teacher training programme. As a consequence, Kristendomskundskab, which used to be its own subject, is now a mandatory subject area for all teachers (Kjeldsen, 2016, 96). It is taught as part of a broader introduction to society, including citizenship education and Livsoplysning. Thus, the subject focusses broadly on Almen dannelse (“Allgemeine Bildung” or “General formation”) and citizenship, and it tries to capture a secular, globalised, and diverse world while still maintaining that religion, and especially Lutheran Christianity, has cultural and historical importance and is valid as a world perspective on par with democracy and (political) ideologies (Buchardt, 2014b, 65).


The Folkeskole was in 1814 initially inspected by bishops and priests, but neither the schools nor the subjects Kristendomskundskab and Religion are under church inspection any longer. From the beginning of the 20th century, debates regarding Christianity’s place in the Danish state became frequent. It was not until the inspection law of 1933 that separation between church and state increased regarding school inspection (Bugge, 1968). Priests were no longer automatic members of school commissions, and they were reduced to only being involved with inspection when it came to Kristendomsundervisning’ (Bugge, 1968). In 1975, the school and the church were formally separated, and Kristendomskundskab was no longer confessional. Currently, inspection in public comprehensive schools is the municipalities’ responsibility, although the state maintains oversight of how the municipalities perform in this aspect (Borne- og Undervisningsministeriet, 2018c). There are certain measurable standards that a school or a municipality is expected to adhere to: the standards for pupils’ ninth grade results, the expected rate of pupils moving on to further education, and satisfactory performance on a barometer of pupils’ well-being. If these levels are not satisfactory, the municipality can be asked to create an action plan for the school, and learning consultants can be brought in to assess and make improvements (Borne- og Undervisningsministeriet, 2018c). Every other year, the municipalities are required to compile quality reports for their schools.

For Friskoler in Denmark, there are currently two legal requirements. The first requirement is that pupils attending a Friskole are entitled to the same level of education as those who attend public schools (Borne-og Undervisningsministeriet, 2018b). The other requirement has to do with freedom and democracy: this aspect was introduced into the law in 2002 and has been included to ensure that schools that employ a certain political, religious, or life perspective do not affect the pupils in a way that is incompatible with democratic citizenship (Borne- og Undervisningsministeriet, 2018a). If the inspection reveals that schools do not meet these requirements, they can lose their funding. In this case, the schooling will fall under municipal inspection under §34 in the law of Friskoler and will be considered similar to home schooling (Borne- og Undervisningsministeriet, 2019a).

In recent decades, not only have (confessional) Friskoler been confronted with closer governmental attention, but it also appears that the name Kristendomskundskab and the subject’s content can be provoking. The public Alholm School, for instance, came under governmental scrutiny because the school had created its own RE curriculum, wherein religions were qualitatively viewed as equal (Buchardt, 2016b, 42). In line with this change, the subject name in the school was changed from Kristendomskundskab to Religion. After conversations between the school, the county,6 and the state, this name change was finally prohibited by a county sub-division of the Ministry of the Interior.'

Improving Education About Islam in

Denmark: Recent Trends and Initiatives

Teachers seem in general to increasingly include Islam in Kristendomskundskab for pupils in lower grades by means of, for example, visits to local mosques (Buchardt, 2016a). With a growing Muslim student population, many teachers also started to incorporate Muslim pupils’ experiences in their lessons (Buchardt, 2014a). However, this does not come without the occasional pushback from the public. For example, an event which gathered momentum and attention was a YouTube video uploaded by a parent whose child was seen in the video performing a Muslim prayer as part of a thematic week at a public school called “Kend mil liv” (“Know my life”), where pupils teach each other components of their everyday lives. The school experienced a sudden influx of negative feedback, where some parents were outraged that Muslim practices had been taught in that school, which was public and therefore nonconfessional (Bagge, 2019). Thus, while the place of Christianity rarely causes outrage, this incident concerning an otherwise everyday practice for many Danish Muslims elicited strong reactions.

With regard to policy developments, the most recent legislative change in RE came into effect in 2015 with the Simplified Common Goals, which was a ratification of the 2009 Common Goals II. In 2015, the Simplified Common Goals emphasised competencies, and the focus in Kristendomskundskab shifted from ethics towards these competencies. For upper secondary schools, the most recent change of relevance was the 2006 curriculum change, when Islam was introduced as the “other prominent religion” necessary to study. This means that it is no longer merely an option to study Islam: this religion must be included in the teaching. As the minimum number of religions studied is three, teachers are free to choose one extra religion in addition to Christianity and Islam, and it is often Judaism, Buddhism, or Hinduism which is chosen.

(Islamic) Religious Education in Denmark:

The Current Situation and Future Prospects

Islam is currently a religion included in Kristendomskundskab, and textbooks and observed lessons indicate that teachers include the religion earlier than suggested by government standards (seventh grade) (Buchardt, 2016b; Kjeldsen, 2016). Although the number of Muslim and other non-Christian students has increased in Denmark, the organisation of the subject Kristendomskundskab and the materials provided result in an “othering” of Islam (and other religions) in favor of Evangelical-Lutheran Christianity (Buchardt, 2016b; Jensen and Kjeldsen, 2013).

There have been discussions about the right to exemption from Kristendomskundskab and, although reports have indicated only low numbers of Muslim parents exempting their children from this subject, the previous conservative-liberal coalition suggested making the subject mandatory, with no possibility to opt out. This, however, has not gathered the momentum necessary for a change in legislation. Instead, the newer discussion revolves around the mere name of the subject. Kristendomskundskab (“Knowledge of Christianity”) strongly implies that the subject exclusively centres around Christianity, and while an estimated 54% of the population in 2016 preferred the subject’s name to be changed to Religion, this preference has, as of January 2020, yet to amount to a proposed bill (Pedersen, 2016).

The education reforms of the 2010s were an immediate consequence of OECD’s PISA tests, which gave credit to blossoming Asian countries and left Denmark and other Nordic countries in a state of shock over their countries’ (perceived) poor educational results. In order to improve the Danish education system, the 2012 ministerial programme “New Nordic School” was introduced. The programme initiated reforms within the education system, with an emphasis on those values shared by the Nordic countries (Buchardt and Plum, 2020). “Danish” or “Nordic” values have received increased attention in political discourse and are often combined or associated with Christian values. This could be regarded as a general political trend in favour of a greater emphasis on Christianity and Christian cultural heritage (The Ministry of Culture, 2016). In a world of increasing globalisation and diversified cultural and religious perspectives, an Evangelical-Lutheran Folkekirke has thus become a marker for national historical identity. As a part of this policy, the Danish state utilises RE in a modern context: Although freedom of religion is emphasised, a secularised education system is rejected in favour of Kristendomskundskab as a cultural and historical identity marker for the formation of Danish youth.

In this regard, Merete Riisager, the previous conservative-liberal government’s Minister of Education, established a group of experts charged with the strengthening of Kristendomskundskab. In the press release, she focussed on the importance of including experts from Folkekirken, and on the way the subject can help marginalised youth who are experiencing loneliness and who struggle with their identity formation (Grynberg, 2019). Recent debates indicate no change in the strong bond between the Evangelical-Lutheran People’s Church and the state, and RE in Denmark is, accordingly, still in line with the general criterion of freedom of religion, but not with the particular issue of the equality of different religions. The cultural importance of Christianity remains the default argument for keeping the subject’s name and theme as Kristendomskundskab, leading to a de facto emphasis on Christianity and a subsequent explicit “othering” of Islam (and other religions/ worldviews) in Danish public schools today.

We argue that the Danish state has crafted a third wav with regard to RE (Buchardt, 2015) - a way to avoid both complete secularisation and complete integration of religious institutions and the state. This third way consists of retaining state and church relations in a diluted version, but at the same time framing Christianity as a cultural component of national identity. This cultural emphasis on Christianity as a cultural entity crucial to the Danish state places Islam as the other in a dichotomy: Nearly 500 years after the Reformation’s initiation in the Nordic state, Danish Evangelical Lutheranism has shifted from being churchly, theological, and administrative to becoming a cultural and historical national signifier.


  • 1. This is not the case for the South Jutland region of Denmark, which used to be a part of Germany and therefore switched to having a designated person to register deaths, births, and marriages. This system is still in place today.
  • 2. For a comprehensive list of combinations for examinations, see: https:// [Accessed 2 July 2020].
  • 3. It should be noted that the high number of pupils attending Catholic schools does not correspond to the number of Catholics in Denmark, but rather reflects the schools having an academic profile different from public schools.
  • 4. Under the Same Sky 9, a textbook for the oldest pupils.
  • 5. Except for Copenhagen, where priests for quite some time had been completely uninvolved in school commissions.
  • 6. Counties, "amter", were dissolved in 2007, and instead larger municipalities and five regions, "regioner”, were created.

7. In practice, however, many schools can for smaller periods of time put Religion on the timetable, as schools are allowed to let timetables reflect what is currently being taught in classes (such as changing History to Wars the Past 200 Years).


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