The rise of Islamophobia in Denmark

, by Rhiannon Erdal

The rise of Islamophobia in Denmark
Image: Steve Eason, Creative Commons.

Islamophobia has become a polarising topic in recent years. Often intertwining with narratives and policies on immigration, it threatens to disrupt the EU and its values. The rise of Islamophobia across Europe now poses some difficult questions; for whom is the European dream of equality and opportunity? For whom is Europe? This article will look at Denmark, which at first glance may seem to be one of the most modern and tolerant countries in the world. However, this imagery conceals a darker side to Denmark for the most vulnerable, tricked by the transparent appearance of the glass house of modernity. Denmark, in its construction of a populist fortress, shows us how human rights, dignity, and freedom, founding principles of our international community, are delimited by the construction of racial lines of ‘western’ and ‘non-western’.

The populist shift: how and when Denmark became Islamophobic

In 2001, a Liberal-Conservative coalition came into power, where they would remain for the next ten years. This election marked the first time that the right held a political majority in one hundred years. This change was made possible by the supporting Danish People’s Party (DPP), a nationalist and anti-immigration party, capitalising on the context of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The attacks framed the DPP’s political rhetoric leading up to and following the election, adding fuel to a growing anti-immigration sentiment shrouded in Islamophobia.

At the centre of the Islamophobic discourses at the time were claims of identity, belonging and modernity; loaded with connotations of the ‘civilised’ and the ‘uncivilized’ recalling centuries-old racist thought that has plagued Europe and led to some of our biggest atrocities. These ideas were encouraged by the DPP to Parliament: “there is only one civilization, and it is ours”, words that would set the tone for the next twenty years of Danish politics. Fast forward to today, and battle cries about an “invasion” of Europe have entered the mainstream where the mere visibility of these ‘invaders’ supposedly poses a threat to Danish identity, as the division of ‘Western’ and ‘Non-Western’ has become the official policy for characterising asylum seekers who enter Denmark. Demarcating on one side the civilized and on the other, the uncivilized, fuelled by Islamophobia in Denmark.

No room at the inn: the zero-asylum seeker goal

In order to turn the tides on globalisation, Denmark has committed itself to a ‘zero asylum seeker goal’, refusing the UN refugee quota. The policy comes from the incumbent Social Democrat party, and it seems to be working. Last year the country saw the application of 1,547 asylum seekers compared to 21,316 in 2015, the peak of the refugee crisis. Since then, the number of accepted asylum seekers has decreased every year, with most coming from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Morocco and Somalia.

Additionally, the Danish government has discontinued the renewal of residence statuses for asylum seekers. These statuses used to renew automatically, but have now been decreased to 1-2 years from the previous 5-7, while some asylum seekers have been stripped of their status altogether. Denmark considers Damascus, Iraq and Somalia to be safe, and therefore, asylum seekers can be sent back home. This is despite the fact that this view has been criticised by the UNCHR, as Denmark is the only country to recognise these places as safe and to send refugees back home, despite being the first country to sign the UN Refugee Convention. However, because of refoulement bans, the country can only “motivate” asylum seekers to return, doing so by creating a hostile environment.

The rationale for this policy seems to be that Muslims disrupt “social cohesion” (according to the Social Democrats) and represent a “culture clash” because “Muslims cannot integrate” (according to the DPP) and thus “cannot be turned into immigrants”. The Social Democrats have carried out the wish of the far-right by officially categorising groups of people as ‘non-Western’ and putting limits on the number of asylum seekers from this group that they will accept. The attempt to dissimulate their Islamophobia under the seemingly broader Western/non-Western dichotomy but it only serves to reinforce the idea that Islamophobia is a form of racism (as noted in the EU National Action Plan Against Racism), rather than a form of discrimination ‘solely’ on the grounds of religious affinity or expression, as most of the countries deemed ‘non-Western’ by the Danish government are majority Muslim countries.

Parallel societies

The idea that ‘non-Western’ migrants (a categorisation that extends to descendants) cannot integrate and moreover, pose a threat to the Danish way of life, coupled with the highlighting of differences by the demarcation of Western/non-Western or civilized/uncivilized, has created narratives of ‘parallel societies’. That is, the (supposedly all too) visible existence of communities of people leading a perceived different lifestyle to hegemonic communities. The claim isn’t just that they don’t want to integrate, nor is it simply that they are inherently uncivilized, but rather it is that their very visibility disrupts the Danish identity. In one such instance, the inclusion of a song by a Muslim songwriter in a children’s schoolbook was met with harsh criticism where the songwriter was labelled a terrorist and the inclusion of the song was seen to be contrary to the purpose of the book, to teach about Danish identity.

This fear of majority ‘non-Western’ communities has led the government to propose an anti-ghetto policy. ‘Ghettos’ meaning places with a 50% immigrant population, gross employment income of 55% below average, 60% of middle-aged adults lacking education and a crime rate that is 3 times higher the national average The idea seems to be that people actually choose to live in ghettos rather than try to integrate into Danish society, when in fact, ghettos are typically the result of social segregation. They are usually associated with poverty and inadequate living conditions, two things ‘non-western’ immigrants are disproportionately more likely to experience (1). Ghettos are surrounded with connotations of race and allude to a form of segregation that is fed into by racial inequality. In essence, they are the physical answer to the question: for whom is the city for?

What are the practical implications for this policy? The goal is to “end the existence of ghettos completely” (according to the prime minister) by limiting the immigration population to 30%, forcing children of non-Western parents to attend day care that teaches “Danish values” and reducing the social benefits for people living in those areas. The aim of this eradication seems to be the reduction of visible differences in society and not to tackle the root causes of economic inequality and social exclusion. Moreover, it is disputable that the goal is to increase integration through ‘redistributing’ immigrants, as studies have shown that this is counter-productive, only isolating them further. As this study notes - “the social connections from intra-group bonding are what immigrants may need to mediate social relations with the society of their greater host country” and the interviews with refugees show that they were ostracised in Danish-only communities. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that they would be widely accepted in such a climate.

The case of Denmark echoes an ‘othering’ that has fuelled the past injustices that have shaped our continent. It is of course, far from the only country that holds these views, but it is a startling example. Today in Denmark, these notions result in continued forced displacement and withholding of the fruits of modernity, capturing the growing tensions of multiculturalism and globalisation which must be met with a strengthened conviction in a pluralist European identity that is critical to the European project.

(1). Bhambra, G. K. (2017) ‘Brexit, Trump and ‘methodological whiteness’: on the misrecognition of race and class’, The British Journal of Sociology. Vol 68.


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