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When Well-Integrated Immigrants Become Traitors

 

“Threats make moderate Muslims who have a critical view of Islam pull out of public debate. Moderate Muslims often keep such criticism for themselves because they fear social isolation, threats and violence.” 

Jyllandsposten, November 16, 2004, following the murder of the Dutch film-director Theo van Gogh.

The terms “well-integrated” and “traitor” refer to the two sides of a profound conflict that characterizes the integration process in Denmark. They emphasize the gap between some fundamentalist minority groups and the Danish majority culture and its own norms. The idea of being “well-integrated” thus is associated with a Danish dream of perfectly assimilated “foreigners” who have totally adapted to the majority’s culture and norms, which are seen as highly desirable. In contrast, the term “traitor” refers to the negative consequences of the process of adaptation to majority culture at the expense of the traditional minority culture.

Both terms refer to extreme conditions (whether seen as positive or negative) when a complete “conversion” of the person’s identity and way of life has occurred. What about the possibility of actually combining traits of a majority and minority culture? 

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Danish media has consistently reported on immigrants who are public figures in Denmark and who have been called “traitors” by various fundamentalist groups due to their democratic and liberal behaviour. Furthermore there have been stories in the media about immigrant bouncers at nightclubs, who also have been denounced as “traitors” by other immigrants due to the fact that they had been refused access into the club. Such episodes are part of a varied picture of the difficulties immigrants face when trying to locate their own identity and place in Danish society. Not only do they have to cope with threats from neo-Nazis and patronizing statements such as “immigrants with other religious and cultural backgrounds will never become real Danes,” but they also have to deal with criticism which may come from immigrant communities – in fact, from other people who share their culture and religion.

Some of these immigrants who are known from the political, journalistic and cultural spheres and moreover from the media debate have agreed to tell us their stories. There is a great variety in their backgrounds and professions, which underlines the breadth of the problem. They are immigrants from different countries, some are prominent figures and some are not and they represent both sexes. But they are all from Muslim societies, have jobs in the public sphere and all have chosen to live in Denmark.

Thus, by hearing their personal experiences and opinions on the problems with criticism and even threats from some fundamentalist immigrant groups we will get a picture of why they got in this situation, how this has influenced their lives and how they have managed to cope with this kind of threats.

Naser Khader: Politician and author, originally from Syria. He has lived in Denmark for thirty years. Khader started to participate in the debate some fifteen years ago by writing letters to various newspapers. When he wrote his book Honor and Shame, in which he criticized fundamentalism and certain interpretations of Islam, he was subject to serious harassment. Due to threats from extreme Muslims, Naser Khader has been escorted by two security officers from the Danish Police’s intelligence service during the whole election campaign.

Rushy Rashid: Journalist and author, originally from Pakistan. She has lived in Denmark for twenty-five years. After being married to a Pakistani man for six months, Rashid filed divorce and emerged in the public debate about integration. The reception among members of the Pakistani community was less than favorable, and Rashid’s family found itself isolated. In addition to slanders, Rashid had to confront the fact that her book Lifting the Veil was banned in part of the Pakistani community. Accused of relying on a “liberal” interpretation of Islam, Rashid has also needed an escort to and from lectures and public appearances.

Farshad Kholghi: Comedian and column-writer, originally from Iran. He has lived in Denmark for twenty years. After having harshly criticized and made fun of the Muslim immigrants he has been threatened. Once it became known that he was a Bahai and not a Muslim, he was not referred to as a “traitor” but as a “Danish idiot.” Kholghi has a secret address and phone number and is reluctant to use public transportation, as he explains, due to reactions to his comments on Muslims like Osama bin Laden.

B.M.: Anonymous individual employed as a bouncer at one of the nightclubs in Copenhagen, originally from Mauritania. He has lived in Denmark for ten years and has been a bouncer for seven. After several incidents in which he has had to refuse entrance to the club to several “immigrants,” he has been denounced as a “white-ass kisser.” According to B.M., he rejects people “not because they are not white, but because they are trouble-makers”. Upon refusing to let some people in the club, he has been threatened, sometimes even with knifes. 

Which is Worse: Danish Idiot or a Traitor?

Naser belongs to those politicians who have received direct death threats and are unpopular among fundamentalist Muslims. When Naser visited a business school during the last election campaign, he was attacked by several students for participating in democratic society as a Muslim. The school maintains that these students are members of Hizb ut-Tahrir: a political movement with the main goal to establish a global Islamic state based on the Koran and Sunnah. According to Naser, they called integration and democracy “haram”, which is a term that refers to something forbidden in Arabic. Naser has introduced the term Muslim light to refer both to his relationship to the Muslim community and his determination to uphold democratic rules. These liberal ideas, however, combined with his tendency to question important aspects of the Koran, are what make him a traitor in the eyes of fundamentalist Muslims. He tells us that being an apostate is actually worse, according to these extremists, than being a “hopeless Dane” since the threat comes from “within.”

Rushy Rashid agrees. She argues that “traditional Muslims” feel extremely threatened when members of their own community rely on a more liberal interpretation of the Koran, as she has done. Because Rashid is perceived as a “radical,” she is also subject to many moral suppositions. Yet she raises her children according to Islam and considers herself a Muslim who has simply chosen to marry a man she loves, who happened to be a Dane. Rashid has chosen to combine her religion and original culture with the democratic traits of Danish culture.

Farshad, who escaped from a dictatorship in Iran, has been very critical of what he calls “the dictatorship of the mullahs” and has made fun of fundamentalist Muslims in the media and on stage. He argues that many immigrants do not confront difficult questions because it is taboo to criticize immigrants in Denmark. “We have equality in this country,” Kholghi goes on, “and the Muslim communities should be told that”. And then: “I have escaped twice. The first time I escaped from Iran and the second time from Nørrebro, where young Muslims were throwing stones and spitting at me”. But, as already mentioned, he was treated like a “traitor” by fundamentalist Muslims only in the beginning, because his name, skin colour and country of origin led many to assume that he was Muslim. While he still attracts serious criticism, he now feels that he is considered to be a representative of the Danish non-Muslim community, which is, after all, is not as bad as being a  traitor.

B.M., on the other hand, is still considered a “traitor.” “Rejecting” other individuals from ethnic minorities at the nightclub is perceived as an act that places the bouncer within the majority of white Danes. This kind of “betrayal” is not based on religion, as is the case with those who criticize Muslim fundamentalism, but is instead based on ethnicity. You cannot tell whether the bouncer is religious or not; you only notice if he is coloured and looks like an ethnic minority. B.M. is Muslim, but that is not the reason why he is denounced as a traitor. Sometimes, he is accused of not behaving like a “real black person.” When rejecting some ethnic minorities, because they look like they will cause trouble within the club, he destroys the strong group solidarity these individuals feel among themselves and the ethnic minorities. According to H.M., some of these young people expect to be let into the club because they sense a mutual solidarity  with the coloured bouncer, which, in fact, he does not feel.  The result is that his action causes even more anger and resentment than a similar incident with a white bouncer would have caused. B.M. says: “It is more difficult to reject black people; they are more sensitive because they are different”.

The Core of the Problem

As Manu Sareen (The Social Liberals) says about the episodes discussed above: “There is no doubt that they are due to an increasing polarization in society. When Danes and Muslims move away from each other, they find new fellowships. And they can do that, among other things, by finding new enemies, e.g. those who don’t interpret Islam the same way as they do”. In B.M.’s case, the new enemies could be those who don’t feel group solidarity among ethnic minorities the same way as some do. Another explanation of the religious feeling of betrayal is provided by Torben Ruberg Rasmussen (Center for Middle East Studies): “The strong reactions are a result of a new generation, which does not consider its religion as linked to tradition, which was the case in the past. For this new generation religion becomes a project that they have chosen. Not only do they feel insulted on behalf of the prophet, but they also feel their personal choice being insulted. The problem is that many Muslims in Denmark don’t understand that all values are debatable in public debates in Denmark. Nothing is sacred.” However, because some do believe that certain things are sacred, whether that is religion or shared values, they employ such labels as “traitors.” 

How to React to Criticism

When Naser hears the typical criticism directed at him, which often is “Why do the Danes have to know about this; they will just use it to criticize us even more” or “This way you play the game of the Muslims’ enemies,” he regrets the intolerance and narrow-mindedness that such statements convey. “A large number of Muslims living in Denmark are what I call democratic illiterates,” Naser argues. Does all the criticism and threats make him consider giving up? Sometimes, he admits. He soon realizes, however, that giving up would mean surrendering to the street parliament. He reveals that this fight actually makes him feel even more democratic. “It is so necessary to fight hard and democratically against the darker viewpoints.” No compromise is possible here: “If you, as an immigrant, cannot live in the unrestrained liberalism of Denmark and Holland, you have chosen the wrong country to settle down in. You should as soon as possible deal with the consequences of that. If one enjoys a high degree of liberalism and personal freedom, one will naturally not give it up voluntary - and definitely not because a group of immigrants insist on keeping a discriminating outlook from their feudal home countries.”

One can be inclined to ask whether he sees it as a problem that he is not being supported from the entire immigrant community. To that Naser replies: “The immigrants themselves are very different, and there is great diversity among Muslims. No one should have the patent on the right Islamic doctrine.” 

Similarly, Rushy stands by her right to interpret Islam in a way that she can live with.  She confesses, however, that she was about to give up her public role because she did not believe it was worth it to continue. “But that is no use,” she quickly adds. She has continued both the public and private fight and has enjoyed support from both friends and family members. While all the criticism, threats and the need to be escorted definitely affect her, she does not give in to those who call her a traitor: “If these individuals think democracy and equality is against the Koran, you can ask: Then why do they live in Denmark?”

Farshad Kholghi declares that he will defend democracy no matter what. Unlike Omar Marzouk, another immigrant comedian who demands respect for religion, he wants to be free to make fun of whomever he wants to. He wants to use his freedom of speech to question non-democratic or fundamental values, or what he refers to as the “middle-ages-like Muslim fundamentalism, and the things going against humanity.” Especially because he has experienced a life without democracy, he is even more eager to fight for it. “When I tell the story of the suicide bomber who receives 72 male virgins in heaven people get very provoked. And it is not only the fundamentalists but also all the Danish flabby humanitarians who are saying that I am generalizing. It is like they are on the same side as the suicide bombers. That is frightening. It would be the same if you were not allowed to make fun of the Nazis during second WW, because they are also humans”.

Having told us how dangerous his job is, B.M. goes on: “I pretend not to listen when people threaten me and I just think of the money. I think of the fact that I have to keep my job.” It is also in his interest, he argues, to keep the atmosphere in the club peaceful: “The owner doesn’t have to tell us what to do; we want peace inside. Because if we let trouble-makers inside, it means that clients will leave; it means less working hours for us, and we don’t want that to happen.” So he keeps on working despite the difficulties. He is not a public figure, like the others we interviewed, and he prefers not to become one by making his name public. He doesn’t want to be known as a “bad black person”; he just wants to do his job and be as neutral as possible.

Humanity First of All

When being a part both of a majority and a minority culture and, at the same time, being criticized from both directions, you would assume there would be a conflict in combining these cultures and in having a combined identity. So how does a Danish identity fit in?

Naser likes to say that he follows “rational thinking” and not “Danish thinking” or Danish values. He believes in a universal sense of reason, in which he sees himself as a fundamentalist in relation to the individual freedom: “Collective family rights should be destroyed. And the medicine is democracy. Those who fight against this should be paid for a one-way ticket to Saudi Arabia”. He feels neither more Danish nor more of an immigrant when being called a traitor. He simply just feels more democratic.

Rushy doesn’t feel that being called a traitor has made her more Danish: “I am accepted as a Muslim by people I care about”. She says that she doesn’t care about those who do not know her and therefore cannot influence her way of life. She has succeeded in combining her two cultures without turning her back on any of them, and the reason why she has adapted democratic values is because she has put herself outside of and asked questions about her original culture. Therefore, she too emphasizes democratic values rather than any specific Danish values.

B.M. likes living in Denmark. He is married to a white girl. He could not have done this in his own country because “the white girls there don’t marry black men.” Here there is no such problem. It wasn’t that easy, he explains, because she is also non-Danish, but after her country joined the EU last year things became easier. Perhaps the fact that Denmark was not the first European country that he entered in contact with explains why he is reluctant to say he is Danish. Rather, he prefers to be referred to as “a human being” first. B.M. plans to stay here for a long time and return to his country only when he will be too old to work.

Farshad considers himself to be a Dane: “I’ve lived in Denmark for the past 20 years, so I consider myself a Dane. If I go to America and live there for 10-20 years, I will say I am an American. But I am a human being in the first place.” He concludes by emphasizing the need to adapt to the society one lives in: “When plants are moved into a new soil they have two choices: adapt or die. The world is my country.” 

As it became clear to us when listening to these different experiences, being an immigrant in Denmark is certainly not easy, but it can be even more difficult to be a “well-integrated” immigrant when one is confronted with fundamentalism. Isolation, insults, threats, harassments and even attacks may be the result. Still, these individuals, whether public figures or not, choose to carry on. Some of them do not necessarily consider themselves to be primarily Danes. What they all have in common, however, is the fact that they like to be first considered “human beings” - individuals beyond national and cultural borders. The values that they share are universal and, therefore, it is a good idea to think about discarding such terms as “well-integrated immigrants” or “traitors.” Since they are so focused on labelling a person entirely either/or, they do not leave room for people who are both; people who have chosen not to follow one complete constructed cultural model - but a personal combined one. Yet, it demands hard work to create the necessary tolerance for this choice from both sides of the integration process.

 

 

References

 

Interviews with:

Naser Khader, 

Farshad Kholghi, 

Rushy Rashid, 

B.M.

Articles from:

Berlingske Tidende

Jyllands-Posten

BT

Politiken

Ekstra Bladet

Kristeligt Dagblad

Viborg Stifts Folkeblad

De Bergske Blade

Jydske Vestkysten

 

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HIA Program:

Denmark Denmark 2005

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