ODVV interview: Antipathy against Muslims is...
Renowned for its free education, high-quality healthcare services and prosperous economy, Denmark carries accolades such as the world’s most connected country in terms of mobile phone and internet use, the least corrupt nation in the world according to Transparency International and the second most innovative country in the European Union as reported by the European Innovation Scoreboard.
Up until the late 1960s, Denmark was a mostly monolithic society in terms of languages and cultures. This trend of homogeneity still prevails to some extent and 2017 figures from Statistics Denmark show nearly 87% of Denmark’s population are of Danish descent. As compared to countries such as France, Italy, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, immigration to Denmark has been modest in numbers and insignificant diversity could be tracked in the languages, backgrounds and cultures of the migrant groups coming to this country. Beginning in mid-1980s, immigration to Denmark surged, although not enormously, and today there are more than 470,000 immigrants living in the Nordic state.
By 2018, the Danish government had passed some 100 laws on immigration, rendering the kingdom’s immigration policies among the toughest across Europe. One of the most controversial laws is the “jeweler law,” permitting the government to confiscate money and valuables from arriving refugees to offset the cost of their resettlement. In 2018, the wearing of burka by Muslim women was banned, even though it has been surveyed that less than one percent of Muslim women in Denmark wear veils. 25 “ghetto” districts have been designated across the country that host immigrants. The “ghettos” are notorious for the stringent rules they impose on the residents including enforcing double punishment for crimes committed in such neighborhoods and mandatory attendance of daycare centers for at least 25 hours a week for children aged one and older so that they absorb Danish values.
Muslims make up a minuscule percentage of Denmark’s population; however, they form the second largest religious community in the country. The first Muslims were registered in a census in 1880, and today there are 320,000 adherents of Islam living in Denmark. Public perceptions of Muslims in Denmark are mixed, and different investigations have produced varying results. Some studies suggest that Denmark is a Muslim-friendly nation and some others point to the spike of anti-Muslim sentiments and hate crimes.
Dr. Lene Kühle is professor with special responsibilities at the Department of the Study of Religion at Aarhus University. Her research interests include religious diversity, religious minorities and law, religion in public institutions, Muslims in Europe, mosques, radicalization and extremism. She is the co-author of the book “The Critical Analysis of Religious Diversity.”
In an interview with Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Dr. Kühle responded to some questions about anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments in Denmark, the intensification of right-wing rhetoric across Europe, the government’s integration policies and the portrayal of Danish Muslims in the media. The following is the text of the interview.
Q: According to a report published by European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights last year, the European Union made “no progress” in combating racism in 2017, and out of the bloc’s 28 member states, only 14 countries implemented strategies to eliminate racial discrimination. What do you think the EU’s challenges in tackling racism and racial, religious discrimination are rooted in? Is it that EU leaders don’t consider addressing the exponential growth of racial and religious intolerance their priority?
A: The agenda of the European Union in regard to promoting a rights-based approach to different areas is very ambitious. It includes not only racism, but any kind of discrimination on the basis of gender, age, religion, ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation. From the report, it actually appears that discrimination on the basis of old age, disability or sexual orientation could be stronger than discrimination based on ethnic background and religion. I’m not saying that racism is not a problem at all, just emphasizing that the EU project of equality for all is so ambitious that it is almost doomed to fail. I don’t accept the interpretation that there is an “exponential growth in racial and religious intolerance,” but the inclusion of many more new parameters on which claims of discrimination can be raised may mean that less attention is paid to the well-established grounds like religion, ethnicity and gender. It is in addition clear, that the different rights may be brought in contradiction.
The Danish Board of Equal Treatment has for instance dealt with the question of exchanging handshakes between men and women both as a question of freedom of religion, where a man won a discrimination case where he had refused to shake hands with his female manager, and as a question of gender equality, where a female student won a discrimination case because her examiner wouldn’t shake hands with her. There are many contradictions embedded in pursuing a rights-based agenda and while some think that more focus on rights will lead to a more just and peaceful Europe, some scholars suggest that it rather creates conflicts.
Q: What’s your view on the impact of the Brexit referendum and the coming to power of right-wing parties in countries such as Hungary, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands on the surge of xenophobia and racism in Europe? Has the rhetoric of the populist, nationalist leaders emboldened extremist elements in these countries?
A: Brexit was a massive shock for Britain and for Europe as a whole. In Denmark, it has led to the dismantlement of EU skepticism and a renewed affirmation of the role of the EU in Europe. I don’t think that skepticism to EU necessarily equals xenophobia and racism, but it is obvious that these two elements can go together because resistance to the EU may be on the basis of nationalism, which may be associated with xenophobia. In Denmark, a new Islam critical party is in fact pro-EU. Rhetoric of populist, nationalist leaders might in some cases have emboldened extremist elements in these countries, but it may also work in the opposite direction. Sweden, which has a policy of curbing this kind of rhetoric, seem for instance to struggle more with extremist right-wing elements, than is the case in Denmark, where debates have been more unlimited.
Q: It’s an open secret that unfavorable views of Muslims have intensified lately. The Special Eurobarometer on Discrimination in the EU in 2015 and the Pew Research Center report on views about minorities, diversity and national identity in the EU found that the majority of Europeans don’t hold positive views about Muslims, and that anti-Muslim hate crimes have increased significantly in the recent years. Why has this antipathy emerged?
A: I don’t agree that unfavorable views of Muslims have intensified as a general trend. The result of the Pew report you mention is in fact that most Europeans say they would be willing to accept Muslim neighbors as well as family members. Though even one hate crime is too much, the level of anti-Muslim hate crimes in Denmark is low. In 2018, the number of reported hate crimes was 260, of which 63 concerned Islam and 26 was against the very small group of Jews in Denmark. 76 was on the basis of sexuality, mainly homosexuality. It is true that the numbers are rising in Denmark, but this is most likely due to the campaigns launched to report hate crimes. I don’t think there is anything indicating a growth in antipathy against Muslims.
Q: A 2015 study by the YouGov institute suggested that Denmark is the most racist country in Northern Europe and the third most racist country in Western Europe. A survey by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights revealed that 41 percent of African-European respondents in Denmark have experienced some form of racial harassment in the past five years. Do these studies and numbers represent the realities of the Danish society?
A: The YouGov study has been critiqued quite a lot for its methods and conclusions. As stated earlier, I do not think that these reports are giving an accurate picture of realities in Denmark. Racism exists and racist and anti-Muslim voices are raised in public debates, but I doubt that it is rising.
Q: Denmark’s Social Democrats led by Mette Frederiksen won the majority of parliament seats in the general elections earlier this year. In her victory speech, Frederiksen named cracking down on immigration as one of the priorities of her party. Do you find it surprising that a centrist politician has voiced such views? Do the Prime Minister’s remarks reflect the growth of anti-immigrant sentiments in Denmark?
A: The major topic of Danish politics of the recent decades has been immigration and integration. Immigration is a major challenge to Danish society, because it is a welfare society, which means that society covers all costs of those who cannot provide for themselves and provides free education and health care for everyone. In the last decades, it has become very clear that a large intake of migrants will drain the state budgets unless immigrants become integrated, that is, they are able to support themselves and their family. The new government in Denmark is generally considered to represent a new politics for Denmark. It is generally argued that Mette Frederiksen has decided to put a hold on the debates on immigrants and to keep the right-wing, anti-Muslim parties out of power by stating that this government is as strict on immigration as the previous one. The government is dependent on left-wing parties, so it will be interesting to see how she will navigate the landscape. But so far, she has prevented a big discussion on immigration to take over the agenda.
Q: In 2018, Folketing passed the controversial “Ghetto Plan” law which stipulated certain restrictions on the immigrants and asylum-seekers living in 25 underserved residential areas across Denmark, including making it mandatory for ghetto residents to put their children aged one year and over in daycare for a minimum of 25 hours a week and doubling the penalty for crimes committed in the ghetto districts. The critics said at that time that the Danish government has set about to impose its integration model on the asylum-seekers, mostly coming from Muslim countries, in an indiscreet manner, and dictate its values. What’s your take on that?
A: I agree with the evaluation that these policies are quite far-reaching and also in most cases unnecessary. The Danish government policies often take their point of departure in the worse possible example of immigrants who do not want to be part of and contribute to Danish society. Though it may be possible to locate such individuals, they are certainly the exception. The idea of Danish ghettos central to these policies have been critiqued intensively by Danish scholars. The concept of a ghetto creates the image of an area ridden by crime and antisocial behavior. Most people who live there actually like it and find that there is lot of community cohesion. While crime rates are a little higher in these areas, it is actually minimum, but they would prefer more police to ensure law and order, rather than these new policies.
Q: How balanced and realistic is the image the Danish media portray of Muslims? Do Danish media stoke Islamophobic sentiments or do you consider their coverage fair?
A: The Danish media portrayal of Danish Muslims is diverse and wide-ranging. I agree that part of the coverage can have a negative tone, but this is not uncommon for Danish media’s portrayal of anything. Media generally focus on conflicts rather than on harmony. Danish media have been very willing to give airtime to Danish radical Salafists as well as to extreme anti-Muslim voices. It has been part of the practice of Danish journalism to include the most extreme viewpoints to create the most exciting story, but in recent years, journalists have increasingly considered whether this is the best approach. A center for constructive journalism has been set up to discuss whether journalism should focus less on the extremities and the conflicts.
By: Kourosh Ziabari