Like the other generous welfare states of Scandinavia, Denmark has historically been known as a uniquely broadminded and tolerant nation. And so, a recent package of laws passed by the Danish parliament ordering the discrimination of inhabitants of so-called “ghettos,” — a word used for low-income, predominantly Muslim, immigrant neighborhoods — has taken much of the world by surprise.
However, these laws, described by the New York Times, as “punitive” towards the inhabitants of these underserved areas, are not an anomaly in Danish politics. Rather, the codification of ethnic discrimination by the state as a legitimate tool for “integration” is the logical culmination of a decades-long development where Denmark has been at the forefront of the anti-immigration turn in Western politics.
Although various surveys place the Danish population among the more tolerant on an individual level in Europe, Denmark has been the leader of the pack in making xenophobia and Islamophobia acceptable foundations of immigration and integration policies. While the “nationalist cultural assimilation” approach to integration now dominant in Denmark has generally been expressed through rhetoric, coercion and indirect discrimination, in recent years, direct force and anti-Muslim discrimination have become increasingly common. For example, a ban on the burqa and niqab, garments that cover a woman’s face, was recently passed, and there are continued attempts to shutter Muslim private schools.
Immigration, Muslims and proportions
Opposition to immigration and specifically the Danish-Muslim minority, most of whom are immigrants or descendants of immigrants, has defined Danish politics since at least 2001, when a center-right government came into power with electoral support from the right-wing populists of the Danish People’s Party (DPP).
A key effect of the DPP’s rise to power has been the mainstreaming of their trademark hostility towards immigration and, in particular, Muslims. The DPP mantra that Islam and its adherents are incompatible with Danish norms and values has by now become a kind of common sense in Danish politics, so much so that the leader of the largest opposition party, the nominally center-left Social Democrats, Mette Frederiksen, has argued that Islam is a barrier to integration. This shift means Denmark’s immigration policies are increasingly founded on what French philosopher Etienne Balibar, in his seminal work on the evolution of racism in the European context, describes as neo-racism: “a racism whose dominant theme is not biological heredity but the insurmountability of cultural differences.”
The anti-Muslim sentiment that underlies this anti-immigration turn is not a pathological, individualized racism. Rather, this neo-racism is structural and has manifested in what Ferruh Yılmaz in his work on the discursive underpinnings of the right-wing turn in Denmark calls a “culturalized ontology of the social,” where immigrants, and Muslims in particular, have been designated as undeserving of welfare benefits in large part due to their alleged cultural distance from “Danishness.” One Danish voter quoted in the New York Times report succinctly expressed a core element of this welfare-chauvinistic neo-racism when she attached notions of deservingness to cultural non-belonging: “Morally, they should be grateful to be allowed into our system, which was built over generations…Their culture doesn’t fit here.”
The “ghetto laws” take their starting point from this broadly shared conviction that certain social behavior, allegedly fostered by “Muslim culture” is “un-Danish” and requires disciplining by the state.
This is not to say that immigration to Denmark has been unproblematic. It is certainly true that immigration at the moment seems to be an expenditure for the Danish state. Furthermore, the unemployment rate for some immigrant groups, especially refugees, is significantly higher than the population average. Yet, the intense focus on immigration as the most pressing issue for Danish society seems to be belied by the facts. Jørgen Goul Andersen, a Danish professor of political science, points out that employment of immigrants has risen sharply in the last couple of decades and that it seems to him that “the political debate [on immigration] is curiously out of step with reality” — integration has been much more successful than one would think from listening solely to Danish politicians and media outlets where the consensus now seems to be that integration efforts have entirely failed.
And so, there is broad support for the discriminatory policies among Danish voters. The new government policy that singles out parents who live in these underserved areas and forces them to choose between sending their one-year-old to daycare 25 hours a week or forgoing welfare benefits is supported by the Social Democrats. If recent polls are to be trusted, more than three-fourths of Danish voters intend to vote for a party that supports this type of discriminatory policy. It is partially the broadly shared, but quite inaccurate, notion that integration in the singular, as if such a thing exists, has entirely failed, which leads to policies such as the “ghetto laws,” where the only measurement of policy viability seems to be whether it can be presented as doing something, anything, to ameliorate the supposed catastrophe that immigration to Denmark has been. What the actual consequences might be, particularly for those targeted by the policies, are of less concern.
Indeed, there is little proof that these new policies will actually do what the politicians claim. Unsurprisingly, experts suggest that codifying ethnic discrimination risks exacerbating the divide between the majority and minority. For instance, researchers point out that these policies might make “ghetto inhabitants” feel even more like second-class citizens: The desire to be integrated into a society is likely to lessen when that society explicitly discriminates against you.
For the inhabitants of the so-called “ghettos,” as well as other immigrants targeted by increased racism, this seems like a lose-lose situation: On the one hand, if the discriminatory policies “work,” this would result in more punitive legislation. Although what success entails is quite ill-defined — for instance, whether forced pre-school works, i.e. providing children with better language and social skills, will not be clear until, at the earliest, the toddlers in question enter primary school in 2023, if even then.
On the other hand, if the policies do not work, the alleged shortcomings of “Muslim culture” and its incompatibility with Danish social norms will be held responsible. Today’s neo-racist logic is so entrenched that it is no longer questioned—if integration fails, the minorities, especially Muslims, are to blame. This notion in collaboration with its accomplice, the ritualistic refrain that “something must be done,” will absolve the politicians who can go on to enact new discriminatory policies that continue the vicious spiral. This is the self-reinforcing nature of discriminating against those who are already marginalized and why these kinds of policies ultimately are unlikely to produce anything but increased marginalization of the vulnerable groups the politicians claim to help.