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Integration: Giving Voice to Ethnic Minorities in Denmark

No community speaks with one voice. Although this fact is self evident, much of the debate revolving around the integration of ethnic minorities in Denmark has invoked an image of an ethnic minority community that is monolithically uneducated, tradition bound, crime prone, and most of the time, Muslim. This perception is, of course, a conflation of what in reality is a huge diversity of cultures, traditions, and backgrounds that have a multiplicity of complex and nuanced views of what integration is and how it should be achieved. In light of this reality, in this paper we seek to give voice to a small sample of ethnic minority community leaders and demonstrate the great variety of opinion that exists in a population that is often oversimplified and misunderstood. 

As a point of comparison, in the United States, a country whose identity is closely linked to immigration, the words integration and assimilation are often used interchangeably, and in most people’s eyes the difference is small. Most immigrants who arrive seeking opportunity are accepted, as long as they achieve economic independence and pledge allegiance to basic values of democracy and freedom. Whether this is called integration or assimilation, becoming American does not mean rejecting one’s cultural identity in favor of a new one. In Denmark, on the other hand, the difference between assimilation and integration is tellingly sharp. Assimilation means, in addition to entry to the labor market, becoming Danish, not only legally, but also in regards to culture, opinions, and identity. Integration, however, signifies acceptance and full membership in Danish society, while allowing for the retention of a distinct cultural identity. The fact that the distinction between the two is often drawn, suggests that the debate over ethnic minorities in Denmark is really a question of ‘should they assimilate?’ or ‘should they integrate?’ 

Of course, integration is not simply a cultural process, but also a political and economic one. In many ways the cultural debate that has gained prominence in the 1990s has been intensified by the economic debate over how best to integrate immigrants into the job market and reduce the disparities that exist between ethnic minorities and ethnic Danes. These questions are tied up in how immigrants from countries with vastly different economies from Denmark can become part of an advanced post-industrial welfare state that once was largely homogenous. This debate is not only about economic incentives, but also of tolerance:  how willing is Danish society to fully integrate ethnic minorities into the economy? Of course, the ethnic minority community itself is sharply divided over the origins of and solutions to economic inequality. 

The Meaning of Integration

Rising inequalities between ethnic minorities and ethnic Danes has pushed leaders in the ethnic minority community—including journalists, leaders of non-governmental organizations, and religious leaders—to call for government and society to facilitate the integration of newly arrived immigrants. However, as apparent by the divergent views of the ethnic minority community leaders interviewed, the very meaning of ‘integration’ itself is contested. While some assert a narrow definition of integration, many emphasize that the integration process needs to be seen as a mutual effort, not as one-sided. 

Bashy Quraishy, a member of the Council for Ethnic Minorities and chairman of the Fair Play Association, emphasizes a more theoretical understanding of integration by pointing out that the concept comes from the Latin word “integratus, meaning a wholeness, in which single parts make up a whole, but retain a relative independence.” He vehemently argues that the government and Danish society in reality advocate a process of assimilation, rather than integration. He claims that “…Danish society is trying to force an assimilation process onto the ethnic minorities, without understanding one basic fact. As long as the Danish public holds on to their Euro-centric beliefs, they will never accept a non-Danish, non-white, non-Christian person as an equal member of Danish society.”  Additionally, Quraishy stresses the need for Danish society to actively embrace ethnic Danes rather than treating them as societal burdens. In this vein, he argues that “the whole burden of integration is put on the shoulders of the ethnic minorities thus relieving Danish society of any responsibility for the very concrete socio-economic problems it has created for the minorities. When the Danes talk of equal rights and equal responsibilities for everybody living in Denmark, they forget the most important aspect of mutual integration, namely the provision of equal opportunities, and protection of these rights under the law.”

Not all of the ethnic minority community leaders interviewed share the multi-faceted understanding of integration. For example, Hikmat Hussein, member of the Copenhagen Council on Integration, narrowly defines integration as “entry into the labor market.” In his view, immigrants, once employed, have the opportunity to improve their Danish language ability, have greater contact with Danish society in general, and achieve economic independence. Simultaneously, however, ethnic minorities can retain their traditions, culture, religion, etc. as part of their private life. Additionally, he doesn’t view the current integration patterns as a sign of failure, but rather points out that “Integration is a process – it takes time – it’s supposed to take time”.

Economic Integration 

One look at the socioeconomic indicators of ethnic Danes in comparison with ethnic minorities reveals why integration has become a contested issue. Large disparities exist between ethnic minorities and the ethnic Danes by various measures, including entry to the labor market, dependence on the state, and contact with Danish society. For example, according to the Rockwool Foundation, while ethnic Danes’ rate of participation in 1998 in the labor market stood at 74%, only 38% non-Western ethnic minorities were in the labor market. Additionally, about one-third of ethnic Danes versus two-thirds of ethnic minorities are either partially or completely supported by the state. The press and the right wing have used this fact in particular to provoke debate over the compatibility of the welfare state and an increasing number of ethnic minorities. Perhaps even most alarming, immigrants who came to Denmark between 1988 and 1990 still have a lower participation rate in the labor market after 10 years than those who arrived between 1978 and 1980 had after 5 years. This pattern has raised the concern that immigrants are integrating less fully than immigrants in previous years. These statistics demonstrate that there is a cause for this debate, as the increasing number of ethnic minorities has been accompanied by the appearance of marked inequalities.

Ethnic Minorities and Work

It is virtually universally agreed upon that entry into the labor market is a critical feature of integration. There is however, substantial disagreement over the reasons for the disparities that exist and what policies the government should pursue to address the existing inequalities. The disagreement over integration into the labor market tends to focus on two key issues: discrimination by employers and the lack of economic incentives to work due to unemployment benefits. While some argue that discrimination is the main obstacle to increased participation in the labor market, others maintain that with the current levels of welfare, work is often less profitable than unemployment. 

One study by the Rockwool Foundation found that the picture is more complicated, as their statistical analysis show that three factors mainly determine whether the individual immigrant becomes integrated in the labor market: age, knowledge of Danish, and health. This analysis revealed that discrimination and economic incentives seem to only be minor obstacles to entry to the labor market. The study did show that because ethnic minorities often have unskilled jobs and a low hourly wage, 21% of recent immigrants and their descendents lose money by working rather than being on unemployment benefit. On the question of discrimination, in a qualitative interview survey, 25% of ethnic minorities asked said that they had been rejected for a job because of discrimination, and 14% had their suspicions. Thus, only a minority claimed to have been or suspected of being a victim of discrimination.

Despite the complex statistical picture, activist Bashy Quraishy argues that “Ethnic minorities today are being discriminated on all levels of society. …The Danish law still does not protect minorities from discrimination on the job market. The second generation of minorities can not even get as far as a job interview, let alone find a job.” To remedy this problem he advocates the implementation of a government mandated quota system, similar to “affirmative action” programs in the United States, where the government would require employers to set aside a certain portion of positions for ethnic minorities. He argues that “Because the society is so rigid, it is not allowing non-white people to come into labor market, so there should be laws that if there are a hundred jobs in the construction industry, nine or ten should be reserved for ethnic minorities.” He also emphatically believes that the lack of economic incentives is not behind the disparities between ethnic minorities and ethnic Danes. 

Abram Mahmoodi, a researcher and advisor on integration for an umbrella organization of ethnic minority groups called IND-sam, echoes Quraishy’s claim that discrimination is a major obstacle preventing integration into the labor market. He argues that Danish civil society defines itself on ethnic, cultural, and religious terms, and thus de-emphasizes personal qualities and qualifications. This, he contends, has resulted in a very conservative reaction of the labor market. While not suggesting as radical a solution as a quota system like Quraishy, he does argue that the Danish government needs to make a better effort to place more ethnic minorities in skilled positions. Additionally, he adamantly rejects the idea that the welfare state has slowed the integration process. In fact, he argues that the extensive Danish welfare state has hastened integration, especially through education. Cutting back on welfare benefits, would in his view, be an attack on the gains that immigrants have made. 

Others, including Hikmat Hussein and Mehmet Necef, an associate professor at the University of Southern Denmark, see the lack of economic incentive to work as a barrier to economic integration. Hussein maintains that because work is not necessarily more profitable than receiving welfare, some immigrants do not see a need to actively integrate and engage Danish society. He points out that this is especially true for those immigrants who hope to return to their country of origin. To remedy this problem, Necef controversially advocates the lowering of the minimum wage, as well as the lowering of welfare benefits. In his eyes, a certain degree of increased inequality is necessary to provide the impetus for more immigrants to enter the labor market and for employers to be more willing to hire ethnic minorities.

Is Denmark a Multicultural Society?

There are many answers to this pressing question. Some say that Denmark already is a multicultural society, others say it is multiethnic. Others again, including the Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, claim that Denmark never will be a multicultural society. 

Hikmat Hussein says that what matters to him isn’t what we call it, but how we respond to it in reality. We have to “show respect and accept towards each others culture and traditions”, and “get to know each other” in order to be able to live together in a harmonious coexistence. He believes that as long as the law is respected and that there are some common and universal values and norms that are agreed upon, then culture, tradition, and religion belong in people’s private lives. Hussein makes it clear that the hostility in the public debate might turn the ethnic minorities away from the debate. One does not want to participate in a society in which one only is considered as a problem. He believes that this passive position can harm the image of the ethnic minorities, and certainly does not make them participate in the public debate.

Bashy Quraishy describes Danish society as an intercultural society, with a 96% Danish majority and only a 4% ethnic minority population: “Danish society must accept that it is no longer a mono-cultural society...[and] must accept the fact that it has changed and has become intercultural.” Bashy Quraishy considers himself as a Dane with a non-European background. The fact that he lives in Denmark, he says, does not transform him into a Dane. “I’m a black Dane or a Dane with a Pakistani background, but the Danes simply refuse to accept that because they have a very clear idea of what a Dane is. A Dane is a white person with mousy hair, a very long Danish ancestry, whose name is Jensen and who is mainly a Christian. Of course ethnic minorities must learn the language, respect the laws, establish a good neighborhood and slowly assume certain Danish cultural norms which seems suitable to the individual. But the rest belongs to people’s private lives.” 

Quraishy believes that a new form of racism is evolving: cultural racism. He argues that “Classical racism has been replaced by a new racism... Instead of saying you are black, and inferior, you start comparing cultures, making one culture superior/inferior to another. There is a law against racism in Denmark, but it is never used....”

The Importance of Mutual Integration 

There is a consensus among the ethnic minority leaders interviewed that the process of integration has to be mutual. In their eyes, the majority must open up and make room for the minorities to find their place and feel welcomed. The minorities, on the other hand, must contribute to and participate actively in society. Most agree that a new set of values, based on human rights combined with the rule of law, is necessary. Within this framework, there should be room for each individual to practice their religion, culture, and tradition. This requires, according to many of the minority leaders, that Danish society grant each individual in the society equal rights, duties and opportunities. They argue for the right to language and culture, to marry who you want, to live where you want, etc. 

There is less agreement, however, on which common values and norms are necessary in a multicultural and democratic society. According to Bashy Quraishy, it is in this discussion very important to distinguish between social values and cultural values on the one hand, and Danish values and universal values on the other. He argues that “Those basic values which all human beings subscribe to must be taught in school. But in the same school there must also be place for other cultures! ... democracy is not a Danish value, it is universal, respect for human beings is universal, freedom of speech is universal – so what is so Danish about that?” When it comes to culture, he says that “you can’t push people to abandon their values and culture no matter how primitive you think they are...the more you push, the more they will push back. If you think you can push until we accept – forget it! I talk to you with my mouth. The one standing behind me, he has a stone in his hand.”

Religion and Integration 

Imam Fatih Alev, chairman of the Organization for Muslim Students (FASM), believes that we must distinguish between cultural and religious values, but both sides of the debate have been reluctant to do so. According to Alev, both ethnic minorities and Danes have not made this distinction, which has generated confusion and hostility. Alev emphatically argues that many of the practices that are condemned by ethnic Danes are in fact cultural traditions, not religious practices. For example, forced marriages and blood feuds are not part of the Islamic religion, but have been practiced by some cultures that happen to be predominantly Muslim. These kind of cultural practices, he believes, should be restricted. But because of the constitutional right to religious freedom, he says, religious values are protected. Thus, “In Denmark we should have some religious minorities, not cultural minorities.” 

Alev also sees that some Muslims themselves have difficulty in separating cultural and religious values, owing to strong cultural influences and a lack of religious knowledge. On the other hand, religion is becoming more and more important to young Muslims, Alev says, as they are increasingly interested in their roots and family background. Religion is an important matter in integration, he continues, as religious minorities are often amongst the most integrated since they can make a distinction between cultural and religious values. However, Alev thinks that the a-religious character of Danish society makes it difficult for Danes to sympathize with practicing Muslims:  “Coexistence and integration is easier in a religious society because there is an understanding from religious people towards other religious people.” 

Hidden Voices: Women and Youth

There are two groups within the ethnic minority communities that strongly expresses their feeling of not having been heard, or even consulted in the debate: women and youth. Both groups believe that they represent a strong and culturebearing voice of ethnic minorities, and as for the young people: they represent the future. As new generations of the ethnic minorities grow older, they will claim their right to speak out on behalf of themeselves. Leaders within women’s and youth organizations agree on the need for politicians and the media to seek advise from these neglected groups. 

Women, one of these unheard groups, have confronted many problems in the process of integration, especially in regards to labor market access and education.  For example, the Rockwool study shows that women’s attachment to the labor market has declined dramatically over the years. In 1998, the participation rate for Danish women was 2.2 times as high as that for women from non-Western countries, against 1.5 times as high in 1985. In general, issues involving ethnic minority women, who come from non-Western countries, have been especially prominent in the debate on integration. In Denmark, where the principle of gender equality is deeply embedded in society, cultural practices such as forced marriage and head coverings are especially controversial. Ayse Deveci, founder and chairwoman of The Bridge (Broen) – an organization for ethnic minority women in arranged/forced marriages – believes in the importance of ethnic minority women themselves starting the fight for equal rights, duties and possibilities in Danish society. She believes that it is a fight that will take time, and fears that the process is being opposed by the ethnic minority men. She draws hope from small changes in statistical indicators: the numbers of divorce and abortion amongst ethnic minority marriages/women are gradually raising. Ayse Deveci views this as important, showing that women are becoming more aware of their right to autonomy and determine their own fates. 

The Bridge, the center she has founded is also, Deveci says, an important part in the integration process. As implied by the name, her organization works towards building bridges between cultures, but also sending signals and moral support to encourage women’s liberation, women to take part in the public debate and women to get an education so that they can access the labor market. The Bridge is an organization for women, made up by women, and Ayse Deveci calls for more women to get involved in organizational work: “Take a look at the ethnic minority organizations, very few of them are women’s organizations, and very few women are found on their [organizations’] boards.” 

Noman Malik, vice-chairman of The Muslim Youth League, discussed the problems facing young Muslims in the Danish society. Because they have grown up in Danish society with a different cultural background, ethnic minority youth face an identity crisis when they reach the age of 13-16. They do not know their cultural background, and many have never been in the country where their family comes from. At the same time, they do not feel accepted and included in the Danish society. According to Malik, they are stuck between two cultures. The Muslim Youth League is one of the organizations available that offer young people help in dealing with this conflict, advising them on religion and cultural background, as well as integration into the Danish society. The other important task for this organization, he says,  is to bring information about Islam and ethnic minorities to the Danish society, in order to increase contact between the two cultures. This, Noman Malik says, is important in order to fight prejudices and avoid misunderstandings. Noman Malik also echoes other ethnic minority leaders when he argues it is necessary to find a new, common set of values, based on peaceful coexistence, but with room for everyone to maintain their cultural heritage. 


Despite the diversity in opinion and perception toward integration expressed by the different minority community leaders interviewed, they all touched upon common themes. There is especially substantial agreement on questions of cultural integration. First, they all agreed that the main participants in the debate have not adequately acknowledged the need for a process of integration that demands accommodation both on the part of ethnic minorities and on the part of the host society. Secondly, they agree, though each to a different extent, that ethnic Danes need to be tolerant of private cultural practices, and understand the culture before criticizing it. All of the leaders we interviewed were wary of the tone of the debate so far, even going so far as to call it “veiled racism.” Many of the leaders we interviewed viewed the media as largely responsible for the sensationalism that has surrounded the one-sided integration debate. That this point was so widely agreed upon, suggests that the Danish citizens need to critically evaluate the way the media covers ethnic minority issues and let their criticism be known. Finally, they all called for the ethnic minorities themselves to become active in the community and make their voices heard. 

On questions of economic and social integration, there was far less agreement on how Danish society should approach the rising inequality between ethnic minorities and ethnic Danes. Viewpoints ranging from introducing a quota system in hiring to lowering the minimum wage suggest that this issue will continue to be divisive in the debate, not only in Danish society at large, but also within the ethnic minority community. What does need to be acknowledged is that economic integration is a long process, and any progress will be measured in generations, not years.

Finally, the question of integration of ethnic minorities in Denmark poses particular challenges to two of the country’s fundamental principles: democracy and social equality. Firstly, modern democracies rest upon majoritarianism, the principle that the majority can make rules binding upon the minority. Of course, the danger is that under this principle the majority can oppress the minority and eliminate its freedom. Thus, the test of any democracy is to use the principle of majority rule, but in such a way as to guarantee the freedom and equal citizenship of all, including the less powerful minority. In the making of integration policies that are meant to be binding on ethnic minorities, this unavoidable tension between the minority and the majority is very clear. Can an overwhelming majority that is distrustful of a small minority govern in a just way? Secondly, the welfare state, the guarantor of social equality, relies on a sense of solidarity that comes easiest in a homogeneous society. As Alan Wolfe and Jytte Klausen argue, “a sense of solidarity creates a readiness to share with strangers, which in turn underpins a thriving welfare state.” A genuine sense of solidarity with others in society, or the willingness to sacrifice for the benefit of others, comes easiest when the others broadly share your values and way of life. In Denmark, the question that an increasing ethnic minority population poses, is whether Danes will be able to extend the feelings of solidarity to the sometimes very different “new Danes”?



Abram Mahmoodi, researcher and advisor on integration, IND-sam 

Henrik Ryan, board member of the Minority Party

Hikmat Hussein,  member of the Copenhagen Council on Integration

Bashy Quraishy, member of the Council for Ethnic Minorities, chairman of the Fair Play Association

Noman Malik, vice-chairman of the Muslim Youth League

Ayse Deveci, chairwoman of Broen 

Imam Fatih Alev, chairman of the Organization for Muslim Students (FASM)




Documentation: Increasing human rights violations in Denmark. Interview with Bashy Quraishy.


Other people. Alan Wolfe and Jytte Klausen. Prospect, December 2000.

Lecture given by Ümit Mehmet Necef, associate professor in middle east studies, University of Southern Denmark, June 7th 2001.

News from the Rockwool Foundation Research Unit, November 2000.

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Denmark Denmark 2001


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