How anti-immigrant sentiment infected Denmark’s politics

From ghetto laws to talk of mass Muslim deportation.

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Youtube videos of a floppy-haired man burning the Quran and warning against an upcoming civil war between “ethnic Danes” and Muslims has been a hot topic in the recent political debate in Denmark. Initially deemed a passing fad, the man behind the videos, lawyer Rasmus Paludan, has made international headlines ahead of the Danish general elections 5 June. Following a campaign that includes demands for the deportation of all Muslims and the preservation of a Danish “ethnic community”, his ethno-nationalist party Hard Line is expected to gain seats according to most opinion polls.

After brief indecision, the majority of the Danish parties – all except right-wing populist Danish People’s Party – have distanced themselves from Hard Line, calling Paludan “extreme” and “vulgar”. But according to Peter Hervik, an anthropologist and associate professor in migration at Aalborg University, Rasmus Paludan has in fact been radicalised by an anti-immigration discourse that has been prevalent in Danish politics for decades. “Paludan is often portrayed as an extremist and a nutcase, but he is actually a symptom of underlying mechanisms in the Danish political discourse,” says Hervik. “The Danish media portrayal of him as an extremist conveniently gives the centrists and the Danish People’s Party an opportunity to wash their hands of Paludan.”

Political commentators and researchers have pointed out that Hard Line’s political programme has many similarities with the policies of the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party (DPP) that has lent its support to Danish liberal-conservative governments almost constantly since 2001. Elements of DPP’s anti-immigration policy platform have also long been absorbed by the conservative and liberal parties, and over the past five years increasingly by the Social Democrats, as well as what is considered the left in Danish politics.

The Social Democratic Party are frontrunners in Wednesday’s election, and recent polls show that they have largely drawn votes from the Danish People’s Party. This is partly the consequence of ongoing EU fraud allegations against the DPP, but is also as a result of its embrace of key right-wing issues, which has made the party more appealing to DPP voters, observers say.

In recent interviews Social Democratic leader Mette Frederiksen has sought to reassure voters that the party will not stray from the current harsh line in immigration policies if she is to become Prime Minister. But this assurance could well have been given after the previous election in 2015, as the party has backed a long line of anti-immigration bills while in opposition.

In 2016 The Social Democrats backed the “jewellery law” that allowed the state to strip money and other portable wealth from newly arrived refugees. The party backed a niqab ban in 2018, and has also supported a “paradigm shift” in Danish refugee policy that shifts focus from integration to repatriation of new asylum seekers.

Additionally, the traditional workers’ party voted for the so-called “ghetto law”, decimating social housing in certain low-income immigrant neighbourhoods, and forcing children in these areas to attend 25 hours of mandatory daycare a week from the age of one in order to be introduced to “Danish values”, Christmas and Easter; refusal results in sanctions through children's benefits. Moreover, the Social Democrats have supported a law creating zones where crime is punished more harshly than in the rest of the country – a law that observers claim collides with the principles of equality and the rule of law.

This right turn in the Social Democratic Party does not come as a surprise to Ferruh Yilmaz, associate professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, who has outlined the transformation of the Danish immigration discourse in his latest book How The Workers Became Muslim. “The Social Democratic support of the Danish ‘ghetto law’ is in my opinion the natural consequence of the party’s policies since the late 90’s, where they expressed a new focus on what would later be called the ‘value struggle’ in Danish politics: Danish values as the norm and immigrants as an anomaly.”

Yilmaz claims that the underlying reason for this turn is the Social Democratic acceptance of the neoliberal dogma that the welfare state is no longer affordable – which made it more difficult for the party to be perceived as representatives of working class interests. “Considering that the extreme right had already been successful in framing immigration as the main political concern of the Danish population, the Social Democrats felt compelled to latch on to immigration as their main topic.”

The Social Democratic support of the ghetto law didn’t surprise Fatma Tounsi either. Tounsi is co-founder of Almen Modstand, an organisation aiding residents in social housing areas affected by the new law. The group has especially protested against the parts of the law that allows forcible evictions of social housing residents in order to boost private housing and thereby strengthen “social mixing” in these areas.

However, what did surprise her was the green, leftist Socialist People’s Party’s (SPP) support of this particular part of the law. “In my opinion, the SPP’s support of the ‘ghetto law’ is in fact a support of the privatisation of social housing areas but it is justified because it fits well with a ‘tough on immigration agenda’”, Tounsi says. To her, this indicates that the Danish Left is increasingly excluding people with immigrant backgrounds from their notions of solidarity. “There has been created this myth that immigrants are fundamentally different from the rest of the population, and unfortunately much of the Left has bought into that.”

Peter Hervik agrees with this analysis, and sees the idea of incompatibility between Danes and non-westerners, especially Muslims, as a way of justifying and naturalising excessive restrictive policies. “Once you establish this narrative, it must be kept alive”.

Even if the liberal-conservative government and right-wing Danish People’s Party are defeated in Wednesday’s election, the anti-immigration discourse seems here to stay.

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