This is the third in our short series of posts exploring the weavings of structural and interpersonal racism in the Danish context. Following Somdeep Sen’s enraging piece on racism in the Danish academy and Chenchen Zhang’s detailed analysis of the statistical and discursive invention of “non-Western immigrants”, Mahvish Ahmad explores the co-construction of Danish innocence and Muslim guilt in everyday life – a deeply personal account which illuminates a broader, structural picture.
It was difficult for me to write this blog. I left Denmark years ago, in large part because I was tired of the big and small insinuations about Muslims that were a part of national politics and everyday life. I grew up reading gross generalisations about Muslims in Danish newspapers. I read stories about my oppression as a Muslim woman and how I should be grateful that Denmark saved me. I watched the Islamophobic far right gain unprecedented levels of power and the center-left throw Muslims under the bus by changing their position on immigration because that was the only way they could imagine staying in government. I reeled from stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that the Danish state took part in to stay in America’s good books, only to deny settlement to refugees escaping the violence they had helped unleash. In visits to Pakistan, which our family went on every summer, I saw a country destroyed by the same wars. The horror of imperial violence and racial stereotypes bled into everyday interactions. It manifested itself when my boss told me that he would never hire a woman with a veil because he was uncomfortable with this supposed symbol of female oppression. This was before he denied me a raise because he didn’t feel it suited women to insist on a higher salary. It showed itself when a journalist insisted that my father, a Muslim man whom he had never met, must be a misogynist. It revealed itself when my brother was racially profiled and strip searched by police because him and two friends were the only brown guys in a club at which the cops were searching for drug dealers. It showed its ugly face when my brother’s drunk colleague admitted to me that all her co-workers hated my “gangsta” brother but “fuck,” she loves her favorite “perker,” a derogatory term for non-white Danes. It felt close when friends saw visa applications for spouses rejected, because their partners came from the Muslim-majority countries their parents were born in. And yes, racism circulated in the corridors of Danish academia, where I as a student of social and political science was taught to talk about Denmark’s foreign policy instead of its support for imperial war and where I was told about immigration and integration but never about racial governance.
It was difficult for me to write this blog because I spent years seeped in a society where you were not allowed to utter the word, racism, especially not if you’re Muslim like I am. To write now, openly, about the racism of big, violent policies and small, aggressive interactions feels overwhelming. In the first drafts of this blog, I kept listing every public and personal example I could think of, only to find myself getting more and more angry at the oppressive silencing of debates on racism that was so central to Danish debates when I was growing up. You see, I learnt that people like me have three options. We can loudly and boisterously proclaim our love for Denmark and our gratitude that we have been released from a life in a Muslim-majority country. We accept, in other words, that Denmark is fundamentally good and the world of Muslims fundamentally bad. Politicians like Naser Khader – who supported a Danish ban on burkas and who played on tropes of violent Muslims to falsely accuse my good friend, the female imam Sherin Khankan, of being a “closet Islamist” – is the most prominent example of this position. Alternatively, we can engage these topics respectfully and apologetically, desperately trying to convince good Danes that we’re not all that bad. That’s what Ozlem Sara Cekic, a parliamentarian, did when she drove around the country meeting neo-Nazis for tea and cake. Or, we can stay quiet because that is often the only way to get through the day. Engagement was too tiring for me, so I was mostly evasive. To now write against a tried and tested survival strategy, developed and honed after years in Denmark, feels strange. It’s weird to use the word “racism” in the context of Denmark, not because racism does not exist, but because I have spent my entire life being told that I absolutely cannot and should not use that word about the Danes.
Here is the thing. Racism, especially towards Muslims, structures Danish life. It is institutionalised in law and policy. And it is cultural, manifesting itself in public debates and everyday interactions. Successive governments have passed a battery of laws in the past twenty years, directly or indirectly targeting Denmark’s Muslims. Politicians in power have repeatedly made statements that single out Muslims as uniquely backwards, uncivilised, and barbaric. And statistics gathered by a handful of studies on Islamophobia in Denmark show that Muslims face discrimination in employment and constitute the primary targets of hate crimes. Yet, despite overwhelming evidence of racism’s presence it is aggressively denied in public debate and spectacularly absent in academic research. The refusal to engage the question of racism was apparent this June, during the closing debate in the Danish parliament, in the wake of global Black Lives Matter protests. When parliamentarians Sikander Siddique, an independent, and Pernille Skipper, of the far-left Unity List, pointed out that there is racism in Denmark, a mostly right-wing parliament refused to acknowledge its existence, and criticised the politicians for even raising the issue. In turn, much Danish academic research continues to frame challenges facing minoritised communities as a problem of immigration and integration, leaving out racism. Even critical studies fail to integrate racism: One prominent Danish political science journal, for example, mentions “racisme” only once in a 127-page study on the “Integration of Immigrants in Denmark.” The reason I found it so hard to write a blog on something as obvious as Danish racism was because refusing and erasing its presence is central to how it works.
This refusal and erasure makes both debates and research on racism difficult in Denmark. What accounts for the denial of racism publicly–and its absence academically? What does the political hostility and intellectual laziness with which racism is obfuscated tell us about Danish racism? How does disappearing racism work to uphold a racist order? As I see it, the circumvention of any real reckoning with racism in Denmark is based on a foundational national belief in Danish innocence and Muslim guilt.
Public figures who aggressively deny that racism is a key social force in Danish life cast Denmark as a country fundamentally good, innocent of the kind of racial injustice that is in the spotlight in the US today. The Nordic welfare state, it is argued, makes Denmark different from the US. It also justifies discriminatory legislation against “non-western immigrants and their descendants” since the welfare state, the argument goes, cannot survive without high levels of social cohesion which is threatened by their presence. One of the proponents of this argument includes the current Minister of Immigration and Integration, Martin Tesfaye, who also wrote a book arguing that anti-immigration politics constitutes not an aberration but a core value of the Danish social democratic tradition, justifying his party’s shift to the right. It also includes every sitting government since the 2001 Danish election, when Anders Fogh Rasmussen of the centre-right Liberal Party won after joining political forces with the far-right Danish People’s Party (DF), peddling an anti-immigration agenda. The victory ended eight years of Social Democratic rule, dealing a blow to those Social Democrats unwilling to deploy racism to win elections.
This belief in Danish innocence goes hand in hand with tropes about Muslims as dangerous, fanatical, and misogynistic. In 2001, Rasmussen came to power on the back of such tropes, at one point printing campaign posters showing young, Muslim boys leaving a rape trial. The former Minister of Integration and Immigration, Inger Støjberg, regularly posts statements on Facebook that interprets every rowdy behaviour by young Muslim men as a sign that they need to be deported. In the run-up to her election, the current prime minister Mette Frederiksen declared that Islam was “incompatible with Denmark’s majority culture” as she singled out private schools run by Muslims for closure. The examples I quote are of politicians who have held positions of power in government. Blatantly racist statements by members of the powerful DF, the third-largest in parliament, go even further, with its members stating that Nazi soldiers during the occupation were better behaved than Muslims, that Muslim fathers rape and kill their daughters, and that the hijab is like the Nazi Swastika.
Many Danish academics have criticised the country’s shift to the far right. However, most studies do so by showing that “non-western immigrants and their descendants” are well-integrated, quoting employment and education statistics. While well-meaning, they end up framing the issue as one of “integration” instead of racism. It also fails to question a deep-seated belief in the desirability and innocence of Danish life. Like academics elsewhere, it separates domestic policy from foreign policy; that’s like writing a history of Britain without writing a history of its Empire. In Denmark, this obscures the country’s complicity in colonial conquest and the slave trade, which of late have been a topic of debate due to the important work of anti-racist activists and artists to recover these histories. It also erases Denmark’s involvement in post-9/11 American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which Denmark enthusiastically joined under the prime ministership of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who eventually used the goodwill he generated to secure a post as secretary general of NATO. These wars have played a key role in the collapse of the Middle East and the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, the victims of which Denmark has systematically rejected through some of the harshest immigration and refugee policies in the EU. When academic studies fail to even mention racism, they end up helping the politicians who want all mention of racism excised from public debate.
The absence of racism from Denmark’s public and academic debates indicates a broader problem: despite two decades of relentless war in Muslim-majority countries, and legislation in several western states targeting Muslim populations (like PREVENT in the UK), the scholarship on how Muslims are racialised is in its infancy. The absence of this work is even more stark when it comes to continental Europe and its Nordic welfare states. If debates on racism in the UK and the US academies are anything to go by, it seems as if scholarship on racism will only become a central topic for Danish academics when anti-racist movements force it onto the agenda. That’s why my faith lies not with academia, but those protesting in front of the Danish parliament in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and the many anti-racist organisers who have smuggled refugees to safety on their boats. This includes politicians like Sikander Siddique and Pernille Skipper who, standing in front of parliament, did not mince their words. And it includes artists like Jonas Eika, who gave me a lot of hope in a new generation of anti-racist Danes, when he announced, while accepting the prestigious Nordic Literature Prize:
In Denmark, racism is cultural and juridical. In Denmark, we have state racism.
Mahvish Ahmad is an Assistant Professor in Human Rights and Politics at the London School of Economics. She is Danish Pakistani.