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Trouble In Paradise: Terrorism & Intolerance in the World’s Happiest Nation

Opinion | March 30, 2015

The Nordic region tops the world’s rankings of gender equality, income equality, education, environmentalism, democracy, and more, and Denmark leads the pack. In a recent article in the New Yorker, author Nathan Heller stated, “The most galling measure of Nordic superiority…comes from the Danes.” It’s the happiest country in the world, the most socioeconomically equal country in the world, and, in general, appears to be a shining example of how to construct a society.

Last spring, while I was studying European politics in Copenhagen, one of my classes focused on the role of religion in politics: a topic pertinent to Europe’s tumultuous beginning of 2015. February’s terrorist attacks in Copenhagen, committed by a Danish-born Muslim extremist, shocked the country and the world. But for anyone who understands the context, the shootings were not that surprising.

While equality in Denmark is certainly not a façade, what I witnessed during my time there differed from what I had expected based on Denmark’s sparkling reputation. Just like France, Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K., Belgium, and other European nations, I found that Denmark is not immune to the deep-seated racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia that have run rampant across the continent.

You see, this shooting wasn’t Denmark’s first brush with terrorism. In 2005, right-wing newspaper Jyllands Posten published cartoons portraying the prophet Muhammad as a terrorist. Outrage over the cartoons took the form of protests and riots across the Islamic world, many of which turned violent. More than 200 people were killed in these protests and in widespread attacks on Christian churches and (mostly Danish) European embassies. Later, in 2006, authorities stymied a plot to bomb Nørreport Station, one of Copenhagen’s busiest public transportation hubs. Since then, many other terrorist attacks have been attempted in Denmark; however, none had been successful until this year.

To understand how a country of only 5.5 million people can become the target for international extremist groups, it’s necessary to contextualize the country’s history and culture. Understand: Denmark is one of the most homogenous places on earth. In central Copenhagen, it is easy to get lost in a sea of 6-foot-tall, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed men and women, each wearing all black except for a brightly colored pair of Nike sneakers.

But homogeneity in Denmark goes beyond looks and dress. The Danes are incredibly like-minded people who sometimes describe themselves as a “tribe.” Indeed, the generous Danish welfare system can be attributed in part to the Danes’ propensity to take care of one another. Taxes, which comprise up to 60 percent of a citizen’s income, are rarely a topic of contention, as everyone in the society is expected to contribute to the greater good. In Denmark, community, unity, and inclusion are integral.

Unlike the United States or even its European neighbors, Denmark has a short history of immigration. Denmark always had very few immigrants, most of whom were Scandinavian or German. After the Cold War, however, the crumbling situation in the Middle East drew the first large influx of Muslim immigrants to the country. Today, Muslims make up 4 percent of the population, and due to more immigration and a low Danish birthrate, this percentage is increasing by the year.

But still, unlike ‘American,’ which can refer to a wide array of groups, ‘Danish’ is synonymous with not only a country, but also with a single, like-minded ethnic group. The introduction of the idea of hyphenated Danish-Muslim has been a radical change for Danish identity, which had been constant for so long. Accepting a group that differs in appearance and many key values—pilsners and pork among them, but religion perhaps being the biggest—has been highly difficult for the Danish tribe. Since the 1990s, the Muslim population has exploded, and for the first time the Danes have had to confront not only immigrants, but also Muslims who can claim a Danish birth.

Further, Muslims are not Denmark’s only “non-Danish group.” The country’s introduction to the European Union allowed for an increase in immigration from poor Eastern European countries, further contributing to its welfare system’s woes. However, there is little discussion of the costs of these immigrants, who, perhaps due to their skin color, shared religion, or more Western culture, stand out less from mainstream Danish society. Instead, much of the contempt—and blame for stressing the welfare system—has been pointed directly at Muslims, despite the fact that older Danes are a much larger threat to the system than any other group.

Tension between Muslims and native Danes is palpable. Danish-Muslims have faced threats, epithets, racially charged violence, and heavy discrimination in the job market. In 2001, the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance launched its second investigation into the treatment of Muslims in Denmark, finding a notable amount of discrimination not properly prevented by law. The commission further expressed concern about discrimination in the job market, housing market, and the xenophobic propaganda in Danish politics.

Over the past ten years, their report has held true. Just being a Muslim in Denmark reduces one’s chance at economic opportunity and increases the chance for discrimination. Wearing any visible religious apparel in Denmark decreases one’s chances of getting a job by 65 percent, the highest rate of reduction for any European country. Unemployment for Muslim immigrants in Denmark is over 20 percent, well above the 6 percent average for the entire country.

Additionally, direct racism towards Muslims is tangible. For example, 37 percent of Danes said they would not want a Muslim for a neighbor and 64 percent of Danes would not want a close family member to marry a Muslim. When the word “Muslim” was replaced with “person of the another race,” only 18 percent and 36 percent of Danes respectively answered the affirmative to the same questions.

The rift between the ‘native’ Danes and their ‘immigrant’ Muslim counterparts is constantly growing. In parliament, Muslims are marginalized even further. There are only four Muslim members in the 179 member parliament, and the largest party has made it their vendetta to expel Muslims from the country.

I cannot believe it is a coincidence that the introduction of Muslims into Danish society has coincided with the steep rise of the right wing, anti-immigration, and deeply nativist Danish People’s Party (DPP). Denmark is socially progressive with economically socialist redistributive policies and a cultural stress on equality. However, the far-left Danes are making a stark shift to the right. In 2002, the Danish parliament voted to abolish the Board of Ethnic Equality. Further, the parliament has approved some of the strictest immigration laws in Europe.

The burgeoning DPP has grown so much that it now holds a majority of parliamentary seats. Already they have succeeded in banning judges from wearing headscarves and other religious garb, and they are proposing a law to ban the hijab from the classroom, while all other religious garb remains exempt. The rhetoric they have used to rally Danes is, in my opinion, absolutely disgusting. In the past, the party has officially described Danish Muslims as being at “a lower stage of civilization,” as “primitive,” and as people who “lie” and “cheat.” Right now the DPP is the majority party in Denmark.

It’s not just the far right politicians who have marginalized Muslims in Danish society. After the release of the Jyllands Posten cartoons, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen used the violation of free speech to rally the country while refusing to reach out to the Danish-Muslims whom the cartoons angered. Indeed, Rasmussen declined a meeting with eleven ambassadors from Muslim countries who wished to speak with him about ongoing negativity towards Islam in Denmark. He stated, “It is so self-evidently clear what principles Danish society is based upon that there is nothing to have a meeting about,” further damaging the relationship with foreign Muslim leaders and Danish-Muslims. Rasmussen never offered any public statement denouncing the cartoon’s association of Islam and terrorism, but instead endorsed the newspaper. He made no effort to work alongside Muslims inside and outside of Denmark, only an obtuse adherence to Denmark’s old values. Moreover, 72 percent of Danes supported Rasmussen’s decision not to apologize.

It is clear that there has been little desire to bring Muslims closer and integrate them into Denmark’s new multicultural society, and just look at the results. I found it ironic that many of Danish professors and Danes I spoke with who mocked the U.S. right wing for its ignorant views also live in a country where the extremists in the Danish People’s Party hold significant political sway. It is as if the Danes woke up one day, saw a changing society, and decided en mass that maybe it was not so progressive after all. Multiculturalism did not fail in Denmark; the Danes are letting it fail.

The egalitarian, socialist experiment that Denmark cultivated for over a century is starting to crumble due to intolerance. A society that was once unified has become devastatingly split. One could sympathize with Danes momentarily: history has shown that introducing new groups of people into a society, especially one that is homogenous, has caused friction, and we are seeing that friction across Europe today. But this isn’t just any country; this is Denmark. Copenhagen is one of the most gay-friendly cities on earth, Denmark has an incredible record of gender equality, and the nation is one of the most socioeconomically egalitarian in the world. This is the place where everyone is supposed to be equal. How could such a progressive people treat another ethnic group and religious group like they were inferior? The Danes, who saved 99 percent of Danish-Jews during World War II, who take more individuals seeking political asylum than any country in the world, have acted, and continue to act, openly ignorant and hateful towards an underprivileged minority group.

While we all mourn those who were lost in Copenhagen and Paris, I’m convinced the situation in both countries is going to get much worse before it gets better. Copenhagen, and Denmark as a whole, certainly did not deserve the senseless violence of last month’s attacks. But looking back, it is clear based on the shift in Danish politics, laws, and Danish public opinion, the Danes have done little to reach out to an increasingly agitated Danish-Muslim population. Muslims are not just being excluded, they are being actively pushed away. The country’s inability to integrate, include, and support the Muslim community has caused a rift in that society that will continue to expand, unless their behavior changes. How could one be surprised something like this happened? How could one be surprised if it happens again?