For the second time in six weeks, Denmark has passed laws specifically or predominantly targeting its Muslim citizens. At the end of May, Danish politicians voted to ban women from wearing the niqab and the burqa in public. A few days later, the government passed an even more extraordinary set of laws, which have become popularly known as the “ghetto laws.”
Some areas of the country will be designated ghettos, and within these areas – and only within these areas – a parallel set of laws would apply, where children from the age of one would be forced to spend at least 25 hours a week away from their families, exposed to “Danish values”; where sentences for crimes committed in those areas would be automatically doubled; and where kindergartens will have quotas to prevent more than 30 percent of the children coming from immigrant backgrounds.
It is, say the politicians, a matter of the purest coincidence that most of these designated areas are majority-Muslim.
Yet these new laws are selectively applied. The Danish legislation banned only the visible symbols of one faith, Islam. The turbans worn in the Sikh community and the kippahs worn in the Jewish community were left untouched.
The same is true of the ghetto laws. Although part of the criteria for which areas are selected as ghettos is impartial – the stipulation that 40 percent of residents are unemployed, for example – the major criterion is that more than half the residents come from non-Western backgrounds. Given that Denmark has historically taken migrants and refugees from the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa, all areas with significant numbers of Muslims, and given that the right-wing public discourse against Muslims is relentless, it seems fairly clear what the intention is.
The Danish government seems remarkably tone-deaf to how these policies are perceived. The decision to create ghettos where parallel laws apply led to reminders of the experience of European Jews forcibly placed in ghettos in the 1930s. Another law passed in 2016 allowed police to search those claiming asylum and confiscate money and jewelry – another policy with ominous historical resonance.
The government, naturally, dismisses these parallels as overblown. And certainly, Denmark today is not the Europe of the 1930s. But the perception of policy matters.
What is it about Denmark that has made its society – in many respects so liberal – so susceptible to anti-immigrant, even anti-Muslim, policies?
The answer is not, as commonly supposed, the recent migrant crisis or concern over “Islamization” since the 2000s. Denmark has had a nationalist tendency for decades, back to the founding of the right-wing Danish People’s Party in the 1990s and even beyond.
For two decades, the DPP has steadily increased its share of the vote. Since 2015, it has been in government, in coalition with the center-right Venstre party, pushing particularly virulent anti-immigrant, nativist policies. But in truth, the DPP and its allies have been pushing at an open door, because Danish society has a political philosophy that has made it particularly susceptible to forceful integration policy.
At the root of this is a way of looking at the nation state and its role that is fundamentally different to how the Anglo-Saxon world, particularly the United States and Britain, sees it. For Danes, the role of the state involves making Danish citizens – and if that means draconian measures to forcibly “remake” Muslims in their own image, the public can accept it.
That may sound like the militant secularism of France, but in fact the two are very different. The French experience of religion is as a force that inherently opposes secular government, hence why there is, in reaction, such a clear separation of church and state and why there is no such thing as a state religion in France.
Denmark is very different. Not only is there a state religion, Lutheran Christianity, there is even a state church, the Folkekirken, or People’s Church, of which the head of state is also the supreme authority. The Folkekirken is state-funded, there is a dedicated minister for the church in the Danish government and Christianity is openly taught in schools as part of Danish culture.
That last aspect is the most important one in understanding why Denmark seems to have taken such a confrontational view of Muslim minorities. For Danes, the state has a substantial role in building citizens. It is through the school system that the aspects of egalitarianism, collectivism and gender equality that are cornerstones of Danish society are inculcated.
Those values are, of course, inculcated in Danes first and foremost – and some Danes dislike those values. But since the rise of nationalist politics in the 1990s, the focus has been on immigrant communities, with the suggestion that it is only and predominantly immigrant communities who refuse to integrate – and who therefore need to be integrated by force.
Danish society is generally comfortable with the idea that individuals have to give something up for the sake of the broader society. Paying higher taxes is the most obvious manifestation of this. But it goes further, because in a more collectivist society, it is acceptable for people to subsume parts of their personality in return for a more harmonious society. Danes will say that it is important in a small country of five million that people have common rules and customs.
That is why Denmark, by and large, has found it acceptable for citizens, of whatever background, to be molded by the state. If, now, some citizens have to be molded a little more firmly, many in Denmark are willing to accept that without dissent.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.
AFP PHOTO/SCANPIX/KELD NAVNTOFT