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.