Friday, February 17, 2006

A digression: Origins of xenophobia in Denmark

Before continuing my series of posts on the "cartoon row", I think it may be useful to digress a little. A lot of the events that have transpired will not be fully understandable by non-Danes, unless some background information is given.

In today's Denmark, xenophobia is an important political factor. This is a significant point, since it is a fact that deviates quite strongly from the way Danes tend to view themselves. Ask any Dane, and they will tell you that it is typically Danish to be helpful and open towards foreigners. This is the way Danes see themselves, and it is fundamental to their worldview.

Yet a significant portion of the same people who claim to be open and tolerant will, given the right circumstances, openly utter strongly xenophobic remarks directed at a particular segment of the population of Denmark -- to wit, the large group of first- or second-generation immigrants living in Denmark.

As of January 1 2000, 7.1% of Denmark's population were first- or second-generation immigrants. Of these, the largest groups were Turks, Germans, Bosnians and Lebanese, with Pakistanis, Yugoslavs, Iraqis, Somalians, Norwegians, Swedes, Iranians, Poles, Britons, and Vietnamese as other major groups. The Turks made up the most significant group, with twice as many Turks as Germans.

This figure, 7.1%, is supplemented by a number of refugees with more or less permanent asylum in Denmark, bringing the total to about 8.4%.

The fact that many of the immigrants, and refugees, are Muslims, is an important factor in shaping the thrust of the xenophobia. When xenophobia manifests itself in any population, it strikes those most different from the local population. Thus, the many Nordic immigrants encounter few, if any, twinges of xenophobia, whereas the Muslims are often made the target of outright discrimination.

Now, despite this, Denmark has a long tradition for emphasizing tolerance and mutual respect between the peoples of the world -- so how did this sudden wave of xenophobia come about?

To answer that, we have to go back to 1814.

Until 1814, the kingdom of Denmark was a dual monarchy, governing both Denmark and Norway. Furthermore, the king of Denmark also ruled the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. Thus, the kingdom had within its borders at least three major ethnicities. Roughly speaking, the ethnic Danes made up about half the kingdom, and the Norwegians and Germans each made up another quarter. Many artists and entrepreneurs were either German or Norwegian, and German was regularly spoken on the streets of Copenhagen.

In the Napoleonic Wars, the Danes had found themselves on the losing side (through a combination of bad luck and poor leadership). By 1814, Denmark was bankrupt and faced with the payment of war reparations to the winners -- which included neighbouring Sweden, a long-time enemy of Denmark. As part of the settlement, Denmark handed over Norway to Sweden. The result was a new distribution of ethnicities within the now-reduced kingdom. With the disappearance of the Norwegian minority, the Germans now made up approximately a third of the kingdom's population. The Danish moiety had grown from half to two-thirds.

In 1864, the pattern repeated itself. As part of Bismarck's grand project to unify Germany under Prussian hegemony, Denmark lost the Duchies -- and the greater part of its German population. Suddenly, Denmark had become a nearly homogenous nation, with only one ethnicity to speak of.

From 1864 and for a century thereafter, Denmark cultivated its sense of defeat and loss, transforming it into a mirror-image sense of pride in being a close-knit society. This was only reinforced by the Nazi occupation of Denmark from 1940 to 1945, which solidified the image of the foreigner as Other in the Danish collective mentality.

Not long after the Second World War, Europe underwent a period of economic expansion, and the general level of education in the population rose. As a result, Danish people suited for unskilled or semi-skilled labor became relatively scarce. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, this shortage led to the importation of large number of migrant workers. Most of them were Turks, and they were originally called fremmedarbejdere ("foreign laborers"). Later, the term gæstearbejdere ("guest laborers") was introduced, presumably to emphasize the fact that their stay was expected to be temporary, not permanent.

Many of the Turks that chose to migrate came from the poorest, most backwards areas in Turkey, and friction with the Danes was to be expected. The most obvious difference was religious, and to many Danes, the image of the unassimilated foreigner, the outsider within Danish society, became associated with Islam. Nevertheless, the initial reception was moderately friendly. As the number of immigrants grew, during the late 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s, however, the mood cooled considerably.

To explain the cooling, a number of economic factors can be brought in -- but from a nationalist angle, the cause was more straightforward. Formerly a nearly homogenous nation, Denmark was having to get used to something that had been outside its experience for over a century: the idea that significant ethnic minorities existed in the country, and were no less "Danish" for not being ethnic Danes.

A new political party, Fremskridtspartiet ("The Progress Party"), had been formed as a tax-protest party in the early 1970s. By the mid-1980s, the party had adopted xenophobia as part of its platform. The party's leader, Mogens Glistrup, openly called the Muslims "Mohammedans" (a term deeply abhorrent to Muslims, since it wrongly implies a worship of the Prophet Muhammad as if he were divine).

In 1995, the Progress Party splintered, and a breakaway faction led by Pia Kjærsgaard formed a new party, Dansk Folkeparti ("The Danish People's Party"). The new party appealed to its voters through a platform consisting of xenophobia and an appeal to the socially disadvantaged (pensioners, in particular). This populistic appeal won it a growing influence in Danish politics. By 2001, they had become the third largest party in the Folketing, the Danish parliament. As the main support of the minority Conservative-Liberalist government led by the Liberalist Anders Fogh Rasmussen, they have managed to wield a significant degree of power over government policies.

Unsurprisingly, they have used a lot of this influence to support their xenophobic programme. In effect, they are the "invisible" third party in what is in reality a majority government.

When I return to the subject of the "cartoon row", in my next post, please keep this development in mind. Remember that this is a very vocal and highly influential group in Danish politics -- but that they still make up a minority of Danes. Many sensible Danes abhor them and their policies (though many who openly disavow them probably secretly support some of their views -- human nature being what it is).

Addendum - some selected recent blogposts and news stories on this topic:
Dunner's: How often? I don't!
Mikhaela's News Blog: Even More on the Mohammed Cartoons: Or, Mikhaela's Cartoon Wars FAQ Rotten judgment in the state of Denmark

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Blogger JDsg said...

Thanks for the various posts so far (and the link ;) ). I've enjoyed the historical perspective that you've brought, showing how Denmark has gone from a multi-ethnic culture to a homogeneous culture.

What I find interesting is that Danes should adopt a xenophobic attitude instead of a more tolerant attitude when being reintroduced to living in a multi-ethnic culture. As you pointed out, this probably has to do with the Nazi German experience from WW2.

IMO, the problem is that the xenophobic attitude won't work in the long-term unless the country shuts its doors to foreigners completely (or, at least in the case of, say, Japan, to where the percentage of other ethnicities within the country makes up, at the most, a very tiny percentage). However, Denmark appears to have let in a much higher percentage of "foreigners - by your count, a little over 8% - which appears to have be a significant enough percentage. (Moreover, I don't think you're going to be able to "kick out" the other ethnicities without worsening the country's image internationally.)

I believe this is where Denmark must rethink its attitudes toward ethnic minorities and (IMO) adopt a much more tolerant attitude; in essence, adopting the Singapore model. Here, where there are three completely different (and significant) ethnicities (Chinese, Malay and Indian), the government will and does crack down on people who incite others against the other ethnicities. That recently happened, with three people who were arrested and convicted under Singapore's sedition act. If Mr. Rose had done here what he did in Denmark (i.e., publish the cartoons), he would be serving time in jail.

Problem solved.

18 February, 2006 05:25  
Blogger RP said...

(jd:) " Denmark has gone from a multi-ethnic culture to a homogeneous culture."

Indeed, and back again to multi-ethnic in the course of the past generation.

The subject of "kicking out" the ethnic minorities is unlikely to arise other than in the minds of a few extremist nutcases -- ethnic cleansing is a gross violation of human rights, and no matter how vocal the xenophobic minority is, the majority is still decent.

As for the Singapore model... I've lived in Singapore (albeit decades ago), and I agree that ethnic strife is limited very strictly. However, the price in terms of curtailed civil liberties is too heavy to be borne, in my opinion.

18 February, 2006 17:58  
Blogger AbbaGav said...

Wow, I've read a few of your posts and I'm impressed with your clear presentations, but since you're an historian you probably take that for granted. Very informative.

13 March, 2006 13:43  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting post indeed. I've talked about the present state of xenophobia in Denmark at my blog:’s-party-the-adversaries-of-modern-society/

Kasper Olsen, Ph.D.

15 March, 2006 08:59  
Blogger RP said...

Thank you for the kind words, Kasper.

I have a slight problem with the method you used in Is Denmark Really Xenophobic". I can see a number of methodological problems with using raw Google searches to support a point of view (any point of view). At best, one can obtain a sense of the popular view of a situation, but not necessarily of the real circumstances.

Furthermore, one must take into account that the English word "xenophobia" isn't the only applicable search term. French, German, Russian, etc., each have their own words for the concept, not to mention all the synonyms that have to be added to make the search complete, plus the names of the countries in ALL the European languages. For instance, how about the Danish-language searches "fremmedhad AND danmark" (31000 hits) compared with "fremmedhad AND norge" (707) and "fremmedhad AND tyskland" (9920)? You see what I'm getting at...

16 March, 2006 11:06  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi RP,
as a historian you might know, that there are no "real circumstances".... ;-)

Sure, I know that there are many methodological problems with using raw Google searches. The same can be said about digging in the dust in trying to find out how the Danes' life were 3000 years ago or how life was under King Christian the 4'th some 400 years ago.

Some of the problems are,
1) why only search in english?
2) should any hit be counted with the same weight as any other hit?
3) what kind of information is covered - and what is not covered - by Google?
4) what other search-terms than xenophobia should have been included?
5) what about typos like xenofobia or xenophopia? (which actually might be much more relevant, internal danish politics like DF taken into consideration...;-)
6) bla bla bla
7) ...

But, actually, it was only thought as an *experiment* and I did not anticipate the results. But I still believe that it gives a rough, but very rough, picture of the present situation in Europe. And furthermore, I'm sure english is the most important language to search in if you're trying to get a view of what is being discussed and what is not being discussed in the media/on the net/...

As a last experiment, you might want to try doing the same with "xenophobia" and "Israel". How would you now interpret the result?

Best, Kasper

20 March, 2006 08:47  
Blogger RP said...

Hi Kasper,

First off, let me dispute your (slightly facetious) remark that there are no "real circumstances" in the field of history. You are clearly referring to the post-modernist approach to the study of history, which tends to disavow any positives, in favour of relatives.

However, I tend to disagree with this approach. It seems obvious to me that there is a "reality" there to be found, and it is an historian's (or any scientist's) job to get as close as possible to it, while keeping in mind that perfect accuracy is nigh impossible.

Further, you cannot seriously be considering a Google search on the basis of abstract terms as anything remotely near a basis for forming an opinion, nor could you seriously be comparing its validity to, say, the validity of archaeological evidence.

If I may stray for a moment into the realm of Danish historical theory, you are committing the cardinal sin that Erslev inveigled against, in considering a conclusion from hearsay (beretningsslutning) to be as valid as a conclusion from physical evidence (levnsslutning).

However, having said all that, let me just backpedal a moment and say that I fully realize that your original Google search was not meant to be authoritative, or even to be taken as "evidence" of anything. I realize that it was only meant as an indicator (en strømpil) of the state of affairs.

Even so, you must remember that the internet is full of people (some of them highly-paid journalists) who are quite willing to take what you write and turn it to their advantage. So if you're going to use deliberately weak argumentation to make a semi-serious point, you should remember to make it clear that you are doing so.

20 March, 2006 10:07  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear RP,

I agree - my first comment about that there are no "real circumstances" in the field of history was actually a JOKE aimed at all those post-modernists or social-constructivists, or whatever, who tend to believe that there are no truhts. Therefore, I had no intend of offending you

;-) ;-)

Concerning my original question: "Is Denmark Really Xenophobic?", I can - without hesitation - answer YES!

20 March, 2006 11:26  
Blogger RP said...

Dear Kasper,

I missed the joke (though I did have a faint sensation of something zooming over my head, far above), but I wasn't offended. I seldom get offended, in fact.

You wrote: Concerning my original question: "Is Denmark Really Xenophobic?", I can - without hesitation - answer YES!

My own answer is: "Ummm. Not quite. But keep pushing, and it will be."

21 March, 2006 12:59  
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