COPENHAGEN — Three years ago, Danish neo-Nazi groups vandalized more than 80 graves in a Jewish cemetery in Randers on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the day on which the Nazis unleashed a wave of pogroms against Jews in Germany and Austria in 1938, unofficially marking the start of the Holocaust.
Ever since the 2019 desecration in Randers, an unlikely group comes to patrol the main Jewish cemetery in Copenhagen every year on Kristallnacht: a motorcycle club wearing leather vests adorned with their signature hamsa patch — a palm-shaped good luck symbol among both Jews and Muslims.
“We do this to make sure it won’t happen again, and we will do the same if someone [vandalized] the Muslim cemetery… or even a Buddhist or Christian cemetery,” said Dr. Sohail Asghar, the co-founder and vice president of MuJu & Co. MC Danmark, an interfaith motorcycle club in Copenhagen for Muslims, Jews and their allies.
Biker groups clad in leather are often perceived as being tough guys who drive fast, don’t mess around and walk a bit on the wild side. But the members of MuJu & Co. turn up in places where biker gangs are not expected to congregate — such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial, a mosque in downtown Copenhagen, or a Jewish cemetery on the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
MuJu & Co. is Denmark’s first and only motorcycle club with a focus on Muslim-Jewish relations. It was founded in 2019 to unite motorcycle fanatics who are also interested in spreading a message of tolerance.
“It came up as a kind of joke, because we realized that we were several people riding bikes with Muslim and Jewish backgrounds,” said Dr. Dan Meyrowitsch, a Jewish epidemiologist and global health expert who knows Asghar through their work in international public health.
“We said, we both have this fondness for motorcycles. Maybe others are the same, and maybe we can gather around motorcycles as an excuse for friendship,” said Asghar, a Muslim anaesthesiologist/intensive care doctor who was born in Copenhagen and whose parents are from Pakistan.
Almost half of Danes see racism as a growing problem, though most of the racism is directed at Muslim immigrants. In 2020, the latest data available, there were 635 hate incidents reported to the police, including 79 directed at Jews, 87 directed at Muslims, and 360 directed at foreigners, who are often Muslim. There are about 8,000 Jews in Denmark and approximately 320,000 Muslims, or 5.5% of the population.
“The idea was to seek dialogue, peace, collaboration, and bridge building,” said Meyrowitsch, the co-founder and president of MuJu & Co.
Asghar sees it a bit differently. “The driving factor is friendship and having a good time,” he said. “We are friends having lots of fun. On top of that, we’re doing bridge building.”
The group, which includes a few dozen members, is approximately one-third Muslim, one-third Jewish and one-third atheist or other religions who support the mission. But it was the Muslim contingent that pushed for the group’s big trip to Auschwitz in 2022.
“Visiting Auschwitz has been something I wanted to do for years,” said Asghar, a World War II buff who voraciously reads history books. “I have always been trying to get my head around how atrocities like this could ever happen. How could humans do something this grotesque? And how can we still repeat ourselves with other genocides after the Second World War?”
The group connected with the Polish Embassy in Denmark, which sponsored the group’s hotel stays in Krakow. Eleven members joined for the more than 1,500-kilometer (932-mile) ride in early October.
“For us, as a group, I thought we needed to see the consequences if we don’t do bridge building and don’t understand each other,” said Asghar. “I have a theory that if all high school students in Europe visited Auschwitz, maybe there would be less racism.”
“And the Muslims among us think if something like this happens again, the Muslims will be the victims,” he added.
Three of MuJu’s Jewish members lost relatives in the Holocaust, which made the visit much more personal for the entire group.
“It was a big issue for me to face this place like that,” said Said Idrissi, the MuJu & Co. road captain. His job is to lead the pack on the road, map out the routes and make sure the group stays on schedule.
“Could we as human beings be so cruel? I wanted to see it with my eyes,” said Idrissi, a Muslim from Morocco who moved to Denmark as a young child and now works as a driving instructor. “If I had been there with my other friends or people from my workplace, it would be a different visit, but coming here with my Jewish friends, I saw how they reacted and the pain in their faces.”
Tony Gelvan, a Jewish member of the group, asked the tour guide for help locating information about his brother’s wife’s father, who was imprisoned at Auschwitz for part of the war. “I was happy that it was a 70-kilometer [43-mile] ride back to the hotel, so I could be by myself on the bike,” said Gelvan.
He said he spent most of the ride thinking about all of the genocides that have happened since WWII, especially in Bosnia in the 1990s, furious that the world had learned nothing.
A film crew also joined to document the group’s journey, and may make a documentary. Gelvan said despite the gravity of their destination, the driving part of the trip allowed them to do what they love best — ride together.
“A long ride like that will really challenge and test all the existing bonds between people,” said Meyrowitsch.
On the road again
On a recent Saturday in Copenhagen, half a dozen members of the group met at Meyrowitsch’s house to set off on a two-hour ride from Copenhagen to the fishing village of Hundested. There was already a fall chill in the air as the group rode through the rolling Danish countryside. They took winding country roads, dotted with traditional thatched-roof farmhouses and stunning views of the water.
The Saturday rides are the organization’s core activity, exploring areas a few hours outside of Copenhagen, stopping for lunch, maybe visiting a museum or cultural site, and heading for home. They ride in tight formation as Idrissi leads on what he insists is the club’s strongest and loudest motorcycle, though that is up for debate at the lunch stop. During the stops, they like to tease Meyrowitsch about his stable of classic motorcycles that are constantly breaking down, hash out recent motorcycle purchases or maintenance, or talk shop with other bikers they meet along the way.
MuJu & Co. is an official club registered with the Biker Foundation Denmark, which governs motorcycle “patch clubs” that are recognized by the patches on their jackets. Many of the clubs gather around a certain theme, which can range from enthusiasm about a certain brand of motorcycle, living near each other in a local neighborhood, or being military veterans, former policemen, recovered addicts, or bikers who raise money for charities, explained Gelvan.
While there are other clubs centered around religious identity, MuJu & Co. is the only interfaith group for Muslims, Jews and allies, said Meyrowitsch. They’re not aware of other Muslim/Jewish interfaith biking groups in other parts of the world, though they would very much like to collaborate.
A rabbi, an imam and a Harley…
Perhaps the most perfect interfaith moment on two wheels happened last May. It was just before a discussion that MuJu & Co. organized at a local coffee shop in Nørrebro, a Copenhagen neighborhood with a large population of Muslim immigrants. Before the debate, MuJu & Co. invited guests with wheels on a tour of Muslim and Jewish highlights of Copenhagen, including community centers and places of worship.
Denmark’s chief rabbi, Jair Melchior, joined for the day. But unfortunately, the rabbi didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle — so imam Abdul Wahid Pedersen, the imam at a major Copenhagen mosque who rides with the group occasionally, invited the rabbi to hop on the back of his Harley.
The event was a success — and not just because an imam and a rabbi were riding a motorcycle together.
“We talked about how to proceed with peaceful relations and dialogues, focusing on between Muslims and Jews, but also in general, about minorities and religious ethnic minorities,” said Meyrowitsch.
It’s a big part of MuJu & Co.’s mission to bring their message off the bikes and into the larger world. On March 19, they participated in the local celebrations for the United Nation’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. And last year, they hosted Liselott Blixt, who was then a Member of Parliament with the Dansk Folkeparti, for a ride and discussion about immigration policy and the impact of politicians’ rhetoric about immigration in Denmark. The MP drove a massive orange Suzuki Hayabusa, considered one of the fastest production motorcycles available, according to Meyrowitsch.
The group has also celebrated holidays together, including sharing a huge Ramadan iftar break-fast meal with three generations of MuJu member Imran Parvaiz’s extended family, and gathering together to light Hanukkah candles. It’s allowed them an inside look into the other culture, and, for many, a window into how other people of their own religion might have different traditions.
“It’s given us some insight that we probably would have never had, unless we had very close friends or family that follow these traditions the same way,” said Meyrowitsch.
This year, they’ll return for their “peace watch” at Copenhagen’s Jewish cemetery on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, on November 9. But mostly, they’ll just get together and do what they love to do: ride their bikes.
“The take-home message for me is that we have used our hobby, motorcycles, to increase our friendships and bridge building,” said Asghar, who hopes other people think about ways to tie their existing hobbies into opportunities to meet people who are a little different from them.
“I’m not saying everyone should go with motorcycles. Maybe it’s another type of meeting club, or a book club, or whatever,” he said, urging people to consider opening it up to people of different faiths and see what kind of relationships can form. “It’s about finding friends among unusual suspects.”
“Motorcycles are an excuse for friendship,” he added. “We’re finding good friends, getting to know each other, and bridging the gaps we thought existed, but realized they don’t exist at all.”
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