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Denmark swings right on immigration – and Muslims feel besieged

After a burqa ban, hardline rhetoric has entered the mainstream. In one coastal town, attitudes seem increasingly polarised

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“It’s a lovely place,” says Jens Kramer, as he gazes across the harbour from his seat outside the wooden shed that serves as Holbæk’s boat club. “But I think people here are becoming more and more hostile to foreigners and I’m not proud of it. It’s not the Holbæk I love.”

Kramer is not alone in thinking that the tone of Denmark’s immigration debate has changed. In recent years, the rise of the rightwing anti-migrant Danish People’s party has led to previously radical positions becoming mainstream. And the country’s Muslim population in particular feels under siege. Earlier this month Danish MPs passed a law that, in effect, bans the burqa. It imposes a penalty of 10,000 kroner (£1,200) for repeat offenders.

In another move greeted with dismay by Denmark’s Muslims, a citizen’s proposal to ban the circumcision of children got the 50,000 signatures it needed to go to a parliamentary vote.

In Holbæk, an attractive small town in Zealand, the latest legislation has had a mixed reception. Kramer says: “On the burqa ban there were people who said, ‘if they make it law, then I’m going to leave’, and I said ‘OK, then leave.’” His companion Hanne Madsen chips in: “Jens and me, we are those who say: ‘If you have a problem come to me, but if you don’t want to take off your burqa or try to learn Danish…’” She throws up her hands in exasperation.

The ban was backed not only by both the ruling centre-right Liberal party but also by the centre-left Social Democrats, whose rhetoric on Islam has started to rival that of the populist right in the last two years.

The Social Democrats’ leader, Mette Frederiksen, has called Islam a barrier to integration, said some Muslims “do not respect the Danish judicial system”, that some Muslim women refuse to work for religious reasons, and that Muslim girls are subject to “massive social control”. She has also called for all Muslim schools in the country to be closed.

Emrah Tuncer, a local politician for the pro-immigration Social Liberal party, worries about where the two main parties’ rhetorical race to the bottom will lead. “They are almost fighting about who has the most extreme ideas,” he said. “With the burqa ban we’re talking about 40 people who are wearing it. Our government is making laws for just 40 people! And these 40 women will now be trapped in their homes from morning to evening. Does it help them? It does not.”

The day before we met, Tuncer’s party formally ended its 25-year electoral partnership with the Social Democrats over the party’s rightward turn on Islam and immigration. “I think it’s very ugly that the Social Democrats have become so extreme,” he says. “They’re worse than the [far-right] Danish People’s party.”

But he concedes that the party’s shift over the past two years has come in response to a change in public opinion. “They’ve smelt votes on this one,” he says. “It’s moved in Holbæk, like in the whole of Denmark, from: ‘Let’s help people even if they’re Muslims or immigrants’, to: ‘We have to take care of Danish people first.’”

Tuncer attributes the shift in mood to the rise of the Islamic State terror group and the refugee crisis. “It’s because of terror: 150 Danish citizens went to Syria to fight with Isis,” he said. “And of course the refugees cost a lot of money at the same time as, in Holbæk, they didn’t didn’t have money to buy paper for schools, or markers to write on the whiteboards.”

Stig Hjarvard, a professor of media at the University of Copenhagen who last year co-wrote a paper on Scandinavian attitudes to Islam, believes the antagonism goes further back. According to Hjarvard, it began with Danish troops’ involvement in the Nato-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, grew with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was further fuelled by the reaction to publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in 2005.

He also thinks that the kingmaker position that the populist Danish People’s party has enjoyed in politics recently is important. “That has of course meant that their policies in terms of immigration have spilled into the agenda of the other parties: not only the Liberal party, but also the Social Democrats. That has consistently put immigration on the agenda. It’s immigration in general and it’s Muslim immigration in particular.”

Outside Tuncer’s cafe, a couple of women in Islamic headscarves are browsing in the shops, but Holbæk is more ethnically homogenous than Denmark’s major cities. Tuncer’s brother Hikmet, who is chairman of the local mosque, says he’s not aware of anyone who wears the burqa or niqab. “I think here, it’s a bit more white and Danish,” says Dennis Petersen, who is in the harbour working on his traditional galeas schooner. “In Holbæk, it seems like we have this ghetto. They’re locked in. You don’t see them.”

Madsen refers disparagingly to Agervang, a housing estate just outside the centre. “We have this ghetto where people are talking: ‘Bap, bap bap,’” she says, miming people babbling in a foreign language with her hands.

Mina, 30, has lived in Agervang all her life after her parents came to Denmark from Turkey as children. “I think it’s so sad they call it a ghetto,” she says.

“Do you know how many lawyers, doctors and engineers have come out of these blocks? I see so many people studying, trying to become part of this country, but suddenly we’re not good enough just because we don’t eat pork.”

When she went to school, she says, teachers and other pupils were sensitive to the fact that she was a Muslim without it being a big deal. “But I went to a kindergarten for my son, and the first thing they said is: ‘Are you a Muslim?’ The very first thing! I’m a human being.”

She is particularly incensed by the recent call from Inger Støjberg, Denmark’s hardline immigration minister, for all Muslims to take holidays during this month’s Ramadan fast “to avoid negative consequences for the rest of Danish society”.

“I don’t know what this lady is doing,” Mina says. “I can’t take a vacation just because I’m fasting. It’s so ridiculous.”

Istahil Hussein, 36, says the change in Danish opinion so disturbing that she is thinking of returning to Somalia, the country she left 18 years ago. “You listen every day [about] Muslims doing this, Muslims doing that. It’s not good,” she says.

“I think about what’s coming in the future, because Denmark 10 years ago, was not talking about Muslims. If Somalia is good I will go home. I will go back like this,” she laughs, and snaps her fingers.

Each month, Holbæk council holds a meeting of its advisory committee on integration. Tuncer is a member, as is Derya Tamer, a Social Democrat councillor with a Turkish background. Tuncer thinks both the Social Democrat and Liberal groups on the town council are split on immigration. And he does not think that Christina Krzyrosiak Hansen, the town’s Social Democrat mayor (and at 25, Denmark’s youngest) backs her party’s hardline stance.

“I believe she doesn’t think this position is the right one, but she can’t do much about it,” he says.

He says he has challenged Tamer on Facebook to respond to her party’s hardline position on Islam, but without any success. “I don’t understand Muslim Social Democrats. Everybody is silent. We don’t hear them,” he says. “When they joined the party, [it] didn’t say this about Muslims, so how can they just sit there and applaud?”

He wonders when or if a breaking point will come. “Now the Danish People’s party are saying that all schools and kindergartens should have to serve pork once a week,” he says. “That’s not only not liberal, it’s crazy.”

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