For a New Path Forward, Denmark Must Commit to Equality

Women looking at a phone
Two women sit in a square in Copenhagen, Denmark, on August 5, 2016. © Ilvy Njiokiktjien/The New York Times/Redux

While the rise of angry nationalism across Europe has sparked concern, for outsiders like U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Denmark remains a social democratic paradise. Beneath the veneer of happy Danes enjoying ample social benefits lies a deep and virulent hostility to Muslims in their midst. No other country in the European Union has demonized and ostracized its Muslim citizens and immigrants in such comprehensive fashion, or with such pernicious effect.

Last Tuesday’s national election offers Mette Frederiksen, leader of the left-leaning and victorious Social Democrats a choice: double down on anti-Muslim policies, or offer a new path forward for a nation with a historic commitment to equality?

Animus towards all immigrants surged across much of Europe in the wake of the record influx in 2015 of migration from Africa and the Middle East. In recent years, Denmark has published warnings in foreign newspapers advising potential migrants not to come, and authorized the police to seize cash and valuables as compensation for the country’s costs of asylum—a controversial echo to a far more insidious policy from the 1930s that made Denmark impenetrable to Jewish refugees who Nazis expelled from Germany.    

Denmark has gone further, not just to keep out people they do not want, but feeding on stereotypes of Islam’s alleged association with terrorism to make life increasingly difficult for the thousands of Muslim citizens and immigrants in the country.

Last June, Denmark joined Austria, Belgium, and France in passing a law that imposes hefty fines on anyone wearing a face-covering garment including the Islamic burqa, even though around 150 Muslim women in Denmark wear the burqa.

In December, Parliament adopted legislation requiring immigrants who want to obtain citizenship to shake hands with officials as part of the naturalization ceremony. The move was widely understood to target religious Muslims, who often prohibit or discourage touching members of the opposite sex outside of immediate family members.

The same month, the government approved funding for a project to isolate rejected asylum seekers on a remote island that hosts the laboratories and crematory of a center researching animal diseases. A Facebook post by the immigration minister said the point was to make clear that such persons “are unwanted in Denmark, and they will feel that.”

The clearest sign of Denmark’s intention to stigmatize Muslims as undesirable outsiders was Parliament’s adoption late last year of a series of laws officially known as the “ghetto package.” The legislative measures include reduction of social housing, compulsory out-of-home schooling for children as young as one year old, the imposition of sanctions on primary schools with poor Danish language test results, and the designation of specific penal zones, where certain crimes carry double penalties.

Neighborhoods that are designated as so-called ghettos have a range of social and economic challenges, but their defining characteristic makes clear what these new laws are really about. To qualify for invidious treatment, the proportion of neighborhood residents who are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from “non-Western countries” must exceed 50 percent. The laws exclude Australia and New Zealand from the concept of “non-Western,” suggesting that legislators were less concerned with geography than with race, religion, and ethnic origin. 

As of December 1, there were 29 ghettos according to government data, most of them with disproportionately high numbers of Muslims. It is hard to avoid the impression that the ghetto package is one of a methodically constructed array of policies designed to tell Muslims, you are not welcome. 

Of course, it is one thing to read about such actions. It is another to feel their impact. On a recent visit to Copenhagen to explore with activists and lawyers what might be done, I spoke with Muslim women who vividly brought it home. One woman shared the personal denigration she experienced upon repeatedly seeing signs at political rallies proclaiming, “Muslims should not speak unless spoken to,” or “Take off your headscarf and join Denmark.”

A legal scholar at a major university lamented about her experience being Muslim in today’s Denmark: “I have internalized the hatred and, rather than challenge it, just try to avoid it. I have stopped doing things that require that I go to places where I might encounter hostility because of what I wear. I stopped riding my bicycle, I stopped going to the grocery….”

A woman wearing a niqab explained that, following adoption of the face-covering ban last year, she withdrew from university classes in downtown Copenhagen for fear of encountering angry rhetoric, or worse.

Overwhelmed with other challenges, the EU has said not a word about the ghetto package. Even progressive governments are reluctant to challenge the Danish government, which has long been a leader in international development aid and rule of law promotion worldwide.

Given the breadth of anti-Muslim sentiment across the political landscape, it may be up to Denmark’s courts—or, if they fail, Europe’s—to underscore the inhumanity, and illegality, of the ghetto package. But that will take time. Before then, we might all ask of our Danish friends, will you abet or stand in opposition to racism in “paradise?” 

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