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How is Integration Possible in Denmark?

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”
These immortal words from William Shakespeare’s play, “Hamlet”, perhaps more than ever, describe the situation in which Denmark finds itself today. Its changing patterns of immigration over the last few decades has brought the topic of integration, specifically its relative success or failure, to the forefront of public debate. In the meantime, we find ourselves as listeners and observers impatiently waiting for answers to questions about what integration is and what our its aims should be. When all is said and done, this topic ultimately involves concerns about which society we want to live in. This, in turn, is centered around the question of how a society should treat its minorities – even though the current integration debate in Denmark does not seem to explicitly address this crucial matter.  For some, this is a sign that the Danish culture and welfare system have shown themselves capable of integrating ethnic minorities.  But for others it might be a reason for concern, because the actual treatment of immigrants and refugees is growing more and more hostile. 
To penetrate the current debate on integration more deeply requires that there first be an official definition of the concept.  In our own research, therefore, our starting point was to make contact with the Minister or Ministry of Integration, in order to clarify the concept at a political level.  Then, we reasoned, we could go on to investigate how that current understanding of integration is affecting people at the level of civil society – especially ethnic minorities. We were soon to discover that finding these answers would be much more difficult, given the politically sensitive nature of the issue. Ultimately, our research with the Ministry of Integration has led us to a suspicion that integration policy serves as a justification for a diffuse set of efforts, which target ethnic minorities in order to integrate them into the Danish welfare state. Our driving question is whether such a broad attempt can succeed, if this objective has not been clearly defined at the outset. 
In our attempt to navigate the sensitive and complex issue of integration in the state of Denmark, we have chosen to offer a perspective on that debate through the eyes of individuals within Danish society, who are directly affected by the integration efforts. We interview three people who have personal as well as professional interests in the topic. The interviews revolve around the questions of how, on the one hand, integration would mean in the sense that it is currently discussed in society; and on the one hand, how integration would appear if it were in accordance with the interviewees’ societal vision. 

Hassan Preisler

Hassan Preisler is an actor and filmmaker in Denmark. In the early 1960’s, Hassan’s father, educated at Cambridge, immigrated to Denmark. With the impression that integration into the Danish society was a genuine opportunity, if one was willing to do what it took. he learned the language fluently, took on the same interests as many Danes, and largely adopted Danish customs.  Yet, still he found that he was not recognized as being a Dane. 
Hassan tells the story of his father with great emotional engagement, making it evident that he has felt the same lack of recognition. Having to elaborate and reflect upon the experience of feeling different and ‘not quite Danish’ is not new to Hassan. This has followed him ever since it became clear that his skin color was different than the majority’s. Thus, Hassan has had the desire to be accepted as ‘a normal Dane’ as long as he can remember.  As he tells his story, it becomes clear to us that many of his choices reflect this desire. “Someone like me does not choose if I am a Dane” he explains. “I was baptized in a protestant church, I eat pork and play football, just like every other Dane – but still I am not a Dane.” 
This testimony of a life as an ethnic minority in Denmark, gazing towards the white majority, raises the question of whether integration is really is about obtaining a high level of education and entering the labor market, adapting to Danish culture, and religious open-mindedness, or if it can simply be narrowed down to the color of one’s skin. It also speaks to the inevitable frustration that accompanies the status of ethnic minority, since control over the integration process is taken out of the hands of the individual, who feels compelled to do whatever it takes to become Danish. “Whether you are a Dane or not has nothing to do with what you feel as inside, but all about what people perceive you as,” Hassan states. Since that individual will unavoidably internalize the majority’s view of him or her, the final judgement on integration is effectively in the hands of the majority Never being seen as a Dane means never feeling like a Dane. 
Hassan’s life has been a struggle for acknowledgement. “When I was younger I made this presentation of myself to comfort people so they did not get afraid of me, because of my Muslim name and the way I look,” he admits. He has followed the unspoken and unwritten integration guide to Danish society, and with every step he patiently awaited the majority’s ruling only to receive the same judgment: not quite there yet. “When I was a child I thought it had something to do with something stuck in me because of my father’s Pakistani origin,” Hassan reveals, “but now I see that it does not exist. It is an illusion.” It seems that Hassan will never be fully reconciled to the fact that despite being born and raised as a Dane in Denmark, people will always refer to his cultural background as something other than Danish, based just on his looks and his name.
Speaking more broadly of this personal experience, Hassan borrows the notion of the “Danish illusion”: “Integration is an illusion. I am a living, walking, talking proof that it is an illusion. Everybody knows that it is not about what we say it is about. You say it is about my cultural background, but I do not have any other background than Danish.” Aside from the illusion of integration, Hassan observes that many Danes hold an illusionary image of Denmark that is connected to the notion of specific Danish values. In order to achieve genuine integration, we need to discard this illusion and focus on common values. During the interview, Hassan pointed out several times that it is in everybody’s interest to fight for common things instead of fighting one another. In his opinion, integration is defined by ownership, and therefore, building a society upon a foundation of shared interests and goals is a way of achieving that aim. Hassan presents this as the most self-evident thing in the world, stressing acknowledgment as a crucial prerequisite for integration; “Everybody wants the best for their country. Integration is very much about feeling ownership for the country. But how can you do so, if people are seeing you as a foreigner?” 
In spite of Denmark’s current state of affairs, Hassan holds an optimistic view, since “Denmark has a unique chance of doing things differently. The welfare state and its distribution of goods is a foundation for defining common values and a multicultural society that is not ghetto-based.” However, he does not place the entire burden of change on politicians.  He believes that a change will arise at the level of civil society, since people’s everyday experiences help to determine their values. The realm of politics does not reflect the spirit of civil society; therefore, we need to place our trust in people at an individual level. By strengthening the sense of shared values on this more personal scale, Hassan truly believes that Denmark can live up to his ideal of a country “where you do not have to live by your ethnicity and where the common link is a sense of humanity.”

Bent Melchoir

Former Chief Rabbi Bent Melchior depicts the integration of minorities in Denmark today in a realistic and telling light. Melchior describes the exclusion of the Jewish community within Denmark less than 200 years ago, and points to its relatively successful integration into society since then. During our interview, he highlights three conditions necessary for integration: time, acceptance of law, and communication. It is regarding these three points that he believes the Jewish community could become even more successfully integrated, and believes that the same pillars could lead to the integration of other minority groups within Denmark, sarcastically suggesting, “The Jews were as loved as the Muslims are today.”
It was not until 1814 that the Jewish community received official recognition within the Danish state, though Jews had been in Denmark for almost a century. In our conversation, Bent continuously stresses the importance of the passage of time, alluding to the persecution and exclusion of the Jews prior to the 18th century. The current situation for ethnic minority groups within Denmark parallels the earlier one of the Jewish community. Based on his own historical perspective, Bent believes that in time, those minorities will be successfully integrated into Danish society.
In his opinion, the acceptance of Danish law is unconditionally necessary. On both sides, he feels, there have been numerous missteps. The ethnic minorities have not fully accepted the rule of Danish law. Whether this is because they feel as though they are not fully represented within the Danish political structure should be irrelevant, Bent argues; individuals, including ethnic minorities, have obligations when they are seeking to become part of a new society. However, that does not mean that persons of any faith should have to sacrifice their traditions and customs. Instead, individuals need to find a way to practice their beliefs under the bigger tent of Danish law. On the other hand, Bent believes that the government has done a poor job of articulating the boundaries of religious tolerance, and clearly defining its positions on issues where Danish law and religious customs intersect. According to Bent, Danish society should be “open – yes, but you have to keep things as they are. Integration cannot be assimilation, and everybody should keep his color in order for Denmark to be a multicolored society.”
The last point, possibly most important, is communication. Bent emphasizes that it “is the tool with which you integrate.” Both sides have made mistakes when it comes to communicating with one another. On the government’s part, he is astonished by its overly simplistic approach to teaching new ethnic minorities the Danish language. The government has adopted a ‘one size fits all’-policy, that will undoubtedly fail. For example, he cites Somalian immigrants, who despite being analphabetic, are taught Danish according to the same system as others. The process of integrating such different groups will necessitate similarly different approaches. Both the government and ethnic minority groups have also done a poor job in the area of public discourse. “It must be shown to society that it is good for the society to be integrated,” says Bent. Finally, government and ethnic minorities have failed to effectively educate society about their respective commonalities and differences. 
Despite these problems, the picture Bent paints of Denmark today is not pessimistic. He believes that Danish society will grow in its understanding, as it always has. Wholeheartedly, he predicts that Denmark will flourish: “Denmark will become a multicultural society, but with its own taste, and its own smell. There is a Danish way.”    

Nagieb Khaja

Nagieb Khaja, a nationally acclaimed and recognized Danish journalist, was born and raised in Denmark. His father came to Denmark as a guest worker at the end of the 1960s. However, Nagieb avoids discussion of his ethnicity.  He views himself as a Dane, and does not wish to enter into a conversation that might allow people to think otherwise, saying, “I cannot say that I feel pæredansk, but I feel Danish in many ways, especially when I travel. I feel mostly Danish, since I’ve built my identity upon this.” Nevertheless, he elaborates further on how integration has impacted him personally, citing himself as an example of how Danish society can alienate individuals within its borders. He places himself in the category of a passive, excluded Dane. Speaking about his own experiences of exclusion, Nagieb states, “When all comes to all this can result in segregation and parallel societies. During my teenage years I was affected in a negative direction, and I experienced being pushed away from society at an early age.” Nagieb tells how he is constantly reminded of being seen as a foreigner since “the more you are excluded, the less Danish you feel.” As an example of never having fulfilled the goal of integration, he gives a hypothetical situation, “If I become unemployed, I will be put together with people who do not even know the Danish language, just because of my name.” 
Discussing the current status of integration, the word Nagieb finds most pertinent in describing integration is “opaque”, explaining, “Everyone talks at cross-purposes and in doing so Denmark has wasted many years.” In his opinion the debate about integration is off-track, due to its heavy focus on ethnicity. He believes that in reality, integration is most often about issues that can best be described as social problems; whereas ethnicity has little true relevance. This makes it extremely difficult to find out what is meant by the topic of “integration”, since there are new conditions and presuppositions constantly being introduced. Often it is said that the debate on integration is a part of a broader debate about values in Danish society. “What is that really about?” Nagieb asks. The result, he concludes, is that we lose track of the real problems related to integration, instead diverted by misrepresentations that in most cases are irrelevant and blown out of proportion. “The debate on integration, which I suppose goes together with inclusion, is rather about exclusion and therefore not integration. Hence, I am not particularly fond of the term integration, taking the misuse of it in consideration.”  
Nagieb instead proposes a discussion about “well-function”, suggesting that the prerequisites for this condition are common to everyone, including language, earning one’s own money, accepting the constituent values of society, and respecting both the minorities and the majority. “These are things where not only ethnic minorities, but also a white Dane, can be insufficient, and therefore, the term well-function treats people equally and not in terms of their ethnicity.” Here, he stresses his crucial point that in order to succeed at the goals of integration or well-function, we must leave ethnicity behind and focus more on the individual than we are currently doing. He states, “The current direction of the Danish society is catastrophic. No bridges are being built. The new Denmark is developing in a dark direction by using excluding language and national-socialistic values, and thereby idealizing a Danish past that never existed. Minorities are criticized and blamed, and Denmark is not taking the responsibility. If they continue in this direction, the focus on integration in negative terms will become a sell-fulfilling prophecy and result in a segregated society. I feel insecure with regards to the development.” 
In Nagieb’s view, the media plays a crucial role in influencing the process of integration in Denmark. “Both the media and the politicians have a lot of power. The discourse needs to be changed, since it affects Danes that never have any contact with minorities. Everything they know about immigrants is the negative stories portrayed in the media.” He is not arguing that the media should neglect problems in Danish society, including integration.  Rather, he thinks that it should make a larger effort to involve ethnic minorities as so-called “neutral sources” in stories that concern other topics, and view them as normal Danes, not in terms of ethnicity. Nagieb is the founder of the organization Ansvarlig presse (Responsible Press), which conducts talks at workplaces, high schools and schools of media and journalism on how to prevent the creation of stereotypes in the media. He also has touched upon the need for a change in the political discourse surrounding ethnic minorities, given that the media cannot change the whole of society itself. According to Nagieb, change in both areas must be coupled together in order to truly affect the Danish conversation on ethnic minorities.
“What I define as being Danish is the positive values such as tolerance and the welfare-state, to mention some. The less these are promoted politically, the less I feel Danish,” Nagieb admits, going on to observe that “Denmark has a huge need of political leaders, who take their time to embrace all.” By promoting common positive values around which people of every color and culture can gather, Denmark might have a chance at realizing the goal of a well-functioning society. “When I talk about the well-functioning society, I mean a society, where everyone is gathering on the basis of common, foundational values.”

A New Chance for Everyone

As touched upon in the three personal interviews above, a leading actor in integration efforts and highly influential to the ongoing debate is the current government. Since the politicians most connected with this issue apparently did not have time to speak to us, while the Ministry of Integration evaded the politically sensitive question of how integration should be defined, in order to extract a definition we have conducted our own search among the government’s policy papers. Its most recent integration plan, A New Chance for Everyone, was published in 2005 and is “intended to boost education and employment among immigrants and their descendants, counter ghettoization, and combat crime.” Such a stated objective implies an underlying definition that stresses socio-economic conditions, such as education, employment, crime, and access to the political system. 
This socio-economic understanding of integration is presented in the report, Udlændinges integration i det danske samfund (Foreigners’ Integration in the Danish Society), as being a necessary part of the other dimension of cultural integration. The think tank responsible for this report was founded in November 2000, one year before the current government came into power, by the Minister of Internal Affairs which handled integration policy under the former government. In the socio-economic model, integration can be regarded as being identical to assimilation, since the aim of both is to give minorities the same access to social resources as the majority. In other words, this emphasis reflects an ideal of equality among citizens within society and stands in direct opposition to segregation; this is also stated in the government’s plan. Integration consultant Hans Lassen, author of the book Den anden virkelighed (The other reality) from 2009, supports such an interpretation, considering employment and education to be prerequisites for successful integration.  Accordingly, at the book’s outset he states that contrary to the common picture, integration is a success, since statistics show an increasing number of immigrants who are entering the labor market and receiving an education. 

A new sense of shared humanity

Hassan’s story, however, contradicts this understanding of development, since both he and his father “did whatever it took” in order to become integrated into Danish society on the basis of these socio-economic parameters. Even though both of them exceeded the supposed demands of socio-economic integration, Hassan to this day cannot claim that he has become integrated into the Danish community on equal terms with native Danes. For him, as well as Nagieb, it all comes down to not being accepted by the Danish majority because of his name and the way he looks, which lead people to refer to his imaginary, “other” cultural background. As Hassan says, “Someone like me does not choose if I am a Dane,” expressing the fact that even though he had chosen to do whatever it took to become integrated, in the end this was not his decision. 
Much of his criticism of the socio-economic understanding of integration, which he considers to be a narrow-minded and exclusive perspective, concerns the relationship between majority and minority. He points to the human condition of internalization, expressed in Jill Marshall’s book, Humanity, Freedom, and Feminism, as the notion that in the formation of a human being’s sense of selfhood, one’s environment is crucial. “Thus, it is imperative that a certain type of environment and society be encouraged to thrive,” the author states. Applying this to a discussion of integration, one could argue that a socio-economically based notion of integration could never fulfill the vision of a society where all citizens live together on equal terms, since society as a whole is not prepared for the differences that inevitably exist within various ethnic groups, influenced by different cultural backgrounds. In Hassan’s own words, on a cultural level, society was not prepared or open toward him as a legitimate representation of a new and different face of Danishness. He can therefore conclude that the process of integration, as it currently exists in Denmark, is an illusion, since it is based on false expectations. In order for Hassan to be considered Danish, it would be necessary to address the prevailing conception of what it is to be “Danish.” 
This speaks to the importance of taking into account the cultural dimension of integration. In contrast to the socio-economic reading, this model takes as its point of departure the cultural differences between majority and minority. It represents a type of integration in which ethnic minorities preserve parts of their original culture, while at the same time, a close connection between the majority and minority is established through reciprocal adaptation. This cultural viewpoint is about the creation of a common cultural basis with shared, foundational values and norms, and stands in opposition to the notion of cultural assimilation.  Hassan, Bent, and Nagieb point to such a common, normative societal foundation as a way of realizing a well-integrated society, which should involve as many stakeholders as possible in order for all citizens to be able to identify with those values. Thus, all citizens of Denmark will feel as if they possess an element of Danishness, and this ownership is crucial, as Hassan has stressed. Cultural understanding, through the establishment of a common foundation, has the ability to transcend the social groupings of people who have constructed their identities in opposition each other – and for all three people interviewed, this is the key to fulfilling the objective of integration. All three mention fear as the crucial obstacle to integration today, since it excludes the minority and therefore removes that sense of ownership. This can only be transcended by a reciprocal understanding and acknowledgment. 
It is obvious that this culturally-based approach is a necessity if integration to succeed, but it must be stressed that this cannot stand alone. We suggest that cultural and socio-economic integration should not be regarded as two alternate perspectives, but as equally important dimensions which must each be included in any effort to create integration. Yildiz Agdogan, Member of Parliament for the Social Democrats, argues for a multi-dimensional understanding of the term since “the result of the one-dimensional use of integration is that ‘new-Danes’ feel segregated from the Danish society rather than integrated.” This observation drives home the point that socio-economic integration in terms of equality can never be fulfilled, if we do not address the goal of cultural integration as well. 
In Hassan’s opinion, the multidimensional concept of integration and common values require that a new awareness of shared humanity be developed among people: a link that can build bridges and bring people together. To accomplish this, we need to focus on people’s vertical rather than horizontal identities. This idea is borrowed from the Lebanese author Amin Malouf, who uses the concept of vertical identity to stress the contemporary affiliation of people in their everyday life as being most important, as opposed to a horizontal, historical identity that has little bearing on how we behave. This will, to his mind, bring us closer together in our contemporary age, which is why he calls it a wider concept: it enables us to embrace the differences in our surroundings and integrate them as part of our community, rather than excluding them because of historical preferences. 

The path to multiculturalism

The creation of a truly multicultural Danish society originates from a multitude of places within Danish society. It can be concluded from the interviews and investigation described here that integration must be pursued using a dual-pronged approach. There needs to be a change in discourse across numerous fields in the direction of being fair and honest, whereby all sides take the other’s opinions seriously. Such a singular focus on socio-economic integration must be changed if this future discourse is to occur. There will need to be open dialogue and tolerance within Danish society toward cultures that are new to Denmark. Furthermore, this move toward greater acceptance must begin on all fronts, particularly among the spheres of politics, media, and civil society. If Denmark wishes to develop a truly multicultural society, it must first incorporate cultural integration into its larger discourse. In the political sphere, Denmark needs to encourage its political establishment to introduce such a debate. As Nagieb points out in his interview, the system must go beyond a singular conception of integration. Though Hassan does not agree with Nagieb that the political facet is quite so crucial to the integration debate, it is hard to imagine how successful integration would be without firm support from the dominant political structure. Bent would agree on the importance of politics to facilitating change in the methods of integration within Danish society. It is obvious, when reviewing our interviews, that alienation and exclusion remain even among those Danish minorities that have been successfully integrated. Denmark will have to change its political approach, and break its pattern of ignoring integration’s more cultural considerations, if it wishes to once again be held up as a beacon of acceptance for the rest of the world. 
The media can also play an important role in altering stereotypes about ethnic minorities, a point which Hassan touched upon repeatedly. Members of minority groups are often discussed in a negative context, and the terminologies used by the Danish media tend to reinforce the perception of them as non-Danish. Not surprisingly, then, individuals within those communities have felt increasingly marginalized by Danish society. Our interviews point to an implicit message of exclusion that has entrenched itself in the media. Nagieb brings this into clearer focus, detailing how he has started an organization, Ansvarlig presse (Responsible Press) to help combat these imbalances. When television news anchors refer to a criminal as ethnically non-Danish, it reinforces the ‘us and them’ dichotomy. In order for Denmark to move to a societal conception in which Danishness is based on a set of common values, the media has to report news in a manner which is fair to all sides concerned. 
Lastly, civil society must demand change in the prevailing discourse, and this demand must come in the form of voting and civic action. The Danish people must make a concerted effort to include ‘foreigners’ as part of its society. Still, there are bright spots, particularly among non-governmental agencies that operate in Denmark. One organization, GAM3, is doing what the government has yet to do in the field of cultural integration. GAM3 seeks to bring a diverse group of young ethnic minorities and Danish children together in the arena of basketball. It is organizations like these that bring a different language of acceptance into the Danish discourse, and underscore how inclusion is not limited to socio-economics. For integration to be a reality, there must be a mutual respect for the other’s cultural norms. It is one thing to preach acceptance, and another thing to believe it. In a world of globalization, no culture is safe from influence. Bent also touches upon this, as he actively seeks to engage different groups in a dialogue about cultural difference. 
Danish society faces the most difficult challenge for all societies – change. If Denmark seeks a real and substantive integration of its ethnic minorities, there has to be an understanding that integration is a two way-street, in which cultures adopt new norms and discard old ones as Denmark evolves towards something better and grander. These changes, in turn, will necessarily lead to a new conception of Danishness in which Danes are not be distinguishable from immigrants. According to such a vision, blood will not be the determining factor for Danish identity; instead, it will be the higher ideal of common values and ideology. Mikkel Selmar from GAM3 describes how the children playing basketball in his program regard themselves: “These kids do not see themselves as either Danish or Turkish. They see themselves as having some sort of global identity, which is not either-or, but in between – or both.” It will be difficult to evolve in the direction of these new conceptions, but if Denmark chooses to avoid the issue of multidimensional integration, the risks are great – economically, socially and culturally – to humanity.
“We try to keep our borders closed, but it is too late. It is already happening. 
Integration is going to happen.”
- Hassan Preisler



- Agdogan, Yildiz. MP for The Social Democrats. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 29, 2009.
- Khaja, Nagieb. Journalist and documentary director. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 30, 2009.
- Lassen, Hans. Integration consultant and author. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 30, 2009.
- Melchior, Bent. Former Chief-Rabbi of Denmark. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 30, 2009.
- Preisler, Hassan. Actor and filmmaker. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 29, 2009.
- Selmar, Mikkel. Coordinator in GAM3. Copenhagen, Denmark. July 1, 2009. 


Ministry of Internal Affairs, Tænketanken om udfordringer for integrationsindsatsen i Danmark (Think tank on challenges to the integration effort in Denmark): Udlændinges integration i det danske samfund (Foreigners’ integration into Danish society), published November 2000,
Ministry of Refugee, Immigration and Integration affairs: A New Chance for Everybody – the Danish Government’s Integration Plan, published May 2005, 


Jill Marshall. Humanity, freedom and feminism. England: Ashgate, 2005. 
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