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Islam as a "floating signifier": Danish right-wing populism and Muslim perceptions | Brookings

People hold banners reading "Refugees and Muslims are welcome" during a memorial service held for those killed on Saturday by a 22-year-old gunman, in Copenhagen February 16, 2015. Danish police said on Monday they had charged two people with aiding the man suspected of shooting dead two people in attacks on a synagogue and an event promoting free speech in Copenhagen at the weekend. The shootings, which Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt called acts of terrorism, sent shockwaves through Denmark and have been compared to the January attacks in Paris by Islamist militants that killed 17. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger (DENMARK  - Tags: CRIME LAW POLITICS RELIGION CIVIL UNREST)   - LR2EB2G1L133Y
  • 53 min read

Editor's note:

This working paper is part of a multi-year Brookings project—”The One Percent Problem: Muslims in the West and the Rise of the New Populists.” Other papers in the series are available here.


VIDEO: #Swefactcheck 2020 Johan Farkas
Fojo Media Institute


In her opening remarks at the Parliament on October 4th 2001, Pia Kjærsgaard, leader (1995-2012) of the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party, Dansk Folkeparti or DF, and speaker of the Parliament today, called the 9/11 terror attacks a crime against “our civilization.” Kjærsgaard also claimed:

“There is only one civilization, and it is ours. Our opponents cannot avow that they themselves belong to a civilization, as a civilized world would never accomplish such an attack, which encompasses so much hate, savagery and devilishness. Their aim is to spread violence, primitiveness, barbarity and middle age conditions. They…cannot wait to get their paradise in heaven. They want to concoct it on Earth for a thousand years and with the use of weapons, of hate and of killings.”1

According to Kjærsgaard, “Islam, with the fundamentalist pathways we have witnessed, should be resolutely fought against.” Kjærsgaard’s statements against Islam were triggered by the Islamophobic atmosphere characterizing the terror attacks’ aftermath. However, arguments about the “clash of civilizations” and the incompatibility of Islam with the West also reflected views already circulating in the party programs and documents, disseminated through the party paper Dansk Folkeblad, and voiced by DF politicians since at least the 1990s. Yet, from 2001 on, the DF position against Islam took sharper tones and turned towards culturalist and identity based standpoints. The node of the DF anti-Islam discourse is in fact not so much driven by the differences between religions, nor between religion and secularism, but rather by representing Islam as a major threat to the nation’s values, principles and cultural identity.

The 9/11 attacks served to amplify DF’s culturally framed discourses on immigration and combine them with framing of national security and debates about the totalitarian nature of Islam. The convergence of the domestic and of the international framing of Islam strengthened and deepened the construction of an overreaching “Islamic threat”2 leading to the proliferation of Islamophobic positions in Danish society. Since 2001, the politicization of Islam in the public political agenda and in media debates 3 ascended, with direct consequences for public attitudes towards Islam and for the representation of the Muslim community in politics and society.

Our aim in this paper is to give an account of the evolution of right-wing populist positions on Islam and—indirectly—the Muslim community in Denmark, by using this as a window to better understand increasingly fluid conceptions of national and cultural identity, belonging, religion, and the relationships between the majority and minority. Drawing on interviews we conducted with Danish politicians across the political spectrum, our study examines how Islam is discussed and debated. We found that for politicians at the national and local level, Islam has transformed into a floating signifier, in the sense that the different understandings of Islam seem to float between different meanings or concepts. Noteworthy is the different and interchangeable uses of Islam to indicate elements that pertain to religion, but much more often refer to cultural, socio-political, and gender issues.

Islam has transformed into a floating signifier…

Our data suggest that the right-wing populist readings of Islam as a marker of cultural, and societal difference, have spilled over from the populist right to the mainstream. In this sense, the Danish case speaks to the accommodation of right-wing populist views and framing of immigration and Islam. This makes it increasingly difficult for voters to clearly distinguish between what the main political parties stand for when it comes to questions of immigration and positions towards Islam. The debate also discloses the elaboration of similar “conventional discourses”4 which are often repeated in the public sphere and by the media, and which have become internalized. Further, incongruity often emerges regarding the narratives of the present and future role of Islam in Danish society.

The paper develops around five main sections: in the first section, we briefly analyze the DF’s rise, development and consolidation in light of the party’s ideology and in relation to the other parties’ responses to tackle right-wing populist electoral appeals. In the second section, we look at perceptions, attitudes, and framing of immigration and Islam, both within public opinion and among political parties, by referring to our interviews with party representatives and documents, as well as election surveys. We observe how Islam is represented as a main religious and cultural challenger that threatens national identity and security and negatively impacts societal cohesion and the welfare state. The third section deals with questions of community construction, national identity and belonging by addressing concepts such as being Danish, or “Danish-ness” (Danskhed), and how these are understood and debated in the interviews. Questions of identity, and inclusion/exclusion are often associated with questions of immigration, cultural differences, and the role played by Islam in society. In the fourth section, we analyze views of the future by focusing on the relationship between Denmark and the outer world and especially on the hopes, concerns, and expectations that the party representatives express about the future. The fifth and final section strives to wrap up and to offer an overview of the role of Islam in Denmark, on the basis of the observations discussed in the other sections.

Interviews and other relevant data

We carried out over twenty interviews with members of the main political parties, at the national and local level, from November 2018 through January 2019. The choice to interview representatives of all main Danish political parties was prompted by our interest in considering positions and approaches toward immigration, Islam and the Muslim communities in Denmark by taking a comparative perspective cross-cutting the left-right political spectrum. We argue that right-wing populist ideas in Denmark are not alien to mainstream party ideologies, and populist right-wing attitudes are today shared by more than a tiny minority of the Danish electorate.5

The increased role played by value-based politics in Denmark in the past decades has contributed to further polarizing and amplifying issues pertaining to immigration, religion, identity and culture. Across the spectrum we are witnessing a political convergence towards more restrictive positions on immigration, asylum and integration, as exemplified by the implementation of an increasing number of laws and regulations approved with a relative broad political support, such as the law banning various sorts of full-face covering from public spaces (also known as the burqa-ban), the support for the so-called “ghetto-plan,” passed by the parliament to prevent the development of “parallel societies” in underprivileged urban areas, the tightening of asylum law regulations, including family reunions and the debated opt-out from UN yearly refugee quotas. Lately, the Liberal government has named their immigration policy a paradigm shift, an approach agreed upon also by the Social Democrats; a communication shift that reflects a significant move from an integration-based approach towards the temporary protection of refugees and their families.

Yet our interviews also reveal a few important differences in the way our respondents consider Islam’s role in contemporary Denmark. One of the main distinctions is between understanding Islam as a one-dimensional, or as a multi-dimensional body. While in the first case religious, cultural, societal and political aspects are merged together to indicate “one culture” of belonging, in the latter, the disjoining of the different components of Islam still enables considering the diversity and multiple meanings attached to the use of Islam as a main signifier.6

In addition to the data collected through our interviews, the paper is also based on party programs and papers, public statements, legislative activity and other policy documents. The Danish electoral surveys,  the European Social Survey, and the International Social Survey Program provided useful quantitative data to investigate how attitudes and behavior toward immigration issues and Islam among the Danish public opinion have evolved over time.

The Danish People’s Party rise and ideology

Within the Nordic European context, Denmark represents a paradigmatic case study for the rise and consolidation of right-wing populism. DF has since its 1995 inception fared very well (see table 1). The party achieved parliamentary representation already in 1998, gaining 7.4 percent of the vote and thirteen parliamentary seats. At the 2015 elections 7 the party garnered 21 percent of the vote, which made it the second largest political organization in Denmark, only five percentage-points behind the Social Democrats (26.3 percent). This result was historic, allowing DF to surpass the main Danish center-right Liberal Party, which had an utmost disappointing election, taking third place with 19.5 percent of the vote – the lowest level in a quarter of a century. However, next parliamentary elections due on June 5, 2019 poll DF at much lower levels,8 swinging between 11 and 13 percent, the Social Democrats between 26-28 percent, and the Liberal Party between 18-19 percent.

Table 1. DF Electoral support and mandates from parliamentary elections (FV) and European Parliament Elections (EP) (1998-2015), in percentages.

1998 1999 2001 2004 2005 2007 2009 2011 2014 2015
FV 7.4   12   13.3 13.9   12.3   21.1
MPs 13 22 24 25 22 37











MEP 1 1 4 2 4

Table 1 above shows the rise in electoral support gained by the DF since the end of the 1990, also suggesting that the party has gone through a life-phase of emergence, consolidation and today’s normalization. The DF consolidation took place in the years 2001-2018: in this period, the party acted four times as the main supporter to the minority cabinet led by the Liberals and the Conservatives. The years from 2001-11 were pivotal for DF’s development. This timespan corresponds to the phase of party growth and consolidation, at the municipal, national and European level. Vital in the first place was the opportunity DF was given to act as the main partner to the minority government formed by the Liberals and the Conservatives in 2001, whereby the center-right bloc contributed to endorseing DF with political legitimization.9

This endorsement also placed the party’s programmatic positions on immigration, integration, and Islam at the center of the Danish political agenda. Unencumbered from the direct responsibilities of holding office, DF was nonetheless given a key role of granting the survival of the center-right coalition. This allowed the party to exploit the opportunities inherent within two apparently conflicting roles: that of “government maker” and of “government shaker.”10 The strategy paid well off in the short and in the long term; in particular, it gave DF the opportunity to achieve noteworthy results on immigration, asylum, integration and citizenship politics, notably by convincingly influencing government politics during political negotiations about the national budget. The party applied a “reward-me” strategy, whereby their vote for some of the measures and reforms proposed by the government was delivered under the condition of getting something in return.

The results of the negotiations also allowed DF to justify the party’s support for unpopular welfare and labor market reforms, as indispensable trade-offs to achieve concrete policy compensation on immigration and integration matters. Boosting achievements from outside office also supported DF’s profile as the key generator of policy measures going for stricter immigration rules and for a tougher approach to labor market integration. At the same time, DF’s unbroken reputation as the toughest gatekeeper on immigration, encouraged other parties to adopt similar positions.

Today, Denmark has developed an immigration and asylum regime which is the strictest in the Scandinavian region, with regard to, for instance, asylum conditions, family reunions and naturalization criteria.11 Over the years, the conditions and rules for integration (citizenship regulations, labor migration, access to welfare benefits) and asylum (status recognition, residence permits, family reunions, start benefits) have been tightened to the extent that politicians openly speak of a “paradigm shift” in Danish immigration and asylum at odds with international asylum conventions. The overall political purpose is to make the Danish immigration system less attractive to potential immigrants 12 and more punitive toward “undesirables” still residing in the country.

What did the center-right political bloc get in return for DF’s support? Certainly, the support of larger swaths of the Danish electorate, who otherwise would be unlikely to ponder a vote for the Liberals or the Conservative Party.13 These voters include manual workers with lower educational attainment, a group whose grievances against the consequences of immigration and globalization are more strongly felt,14 but also groups of small entrepreneurs, lower middle class workers and pensioners. DF has since the late 1990s mobilized larger segments of voters who feel unheard by politicians and increasingly left-behind by the globalization processes. White male manual workers residing in the regional periphery 15 with comparatively lower levels of education 16 are more likely than others to cast a vote for DF. These voters also show comparatively lower levels of political and social trust, and they are increasingly concerned about the impact of immigration on both the country’s economy and on the national identity and culture.17 For these groups in particular, national identity and the welfare state are seen as strongly interconnected; they both identify a particular type of “welfare nationalism,” which links national and identity issues with social equality issues, democracy and gender rights. Within this perspective, cultural transformations and religious diversity are deemed to bring negative consequences upon both society and the welfare state. To a certain degree, the relationship between welfare and identity speaks in the direction traced by studies on the welfare state and diversity,18 which have emphasized the nexus between community building and interpersonal trust. This relationship is reckoned to more easily maintain ethnically and culturally homogeneous societies. Although most welfare societies have already become ethnically diverse, the framing of ethnic diversity is still associated with insurmountable cultural, identity and religious issues. In this case, statistics and successful achievements of integration still struggle to prompt media interest and positive opinions towards immigration and Islam in particular.

Muslims in Denmark and Public Opinion toward Immigration and Islam

Since the 1980s, the share of the population with an immigrant background (including immigrants and descendants) in Denmark has increased from three percent to today’s 12 percent. Demographically reliable numbers regarding religiosity in Denmark are difficult to get, as public registration does not record individual religious affiliation, besides that to the Church of Denmark (Folkekirken). As for the second largest religion in the country, Islam, numbers rely on estimates based on the central person data register (CPR) and use correlations between nationality, ethnicity and religion. In 2017, Muslims made up approximately five percent of the country population.19 This figure includes the increase registered under the so-called 2015 “refugee crisis.” The largest ethnic groups with Muslim backgrounds in Denmark are the Turks (19 percent), followed by Syrians (12 percent), Iraqis (nine percent), Lebanese (eight percent), Pakistanis (eight percent), Somalis (seven percent), Afghanis (six percent), Bosnians (four percent), Iranians (four percent), Moroccans (four percent) and others (20 percent). These groups have arrived at various moments and under diverse circumstances. The number of Danish converts to Islam range between 2,000 and 5,000. Estimates also indicate that about 45 percent of the Muslims in Denmark are Sunni, 11 percent Shi’a and about 23 percent belong to other groups (among these Ahmadiyyas, Alevis and heterodox Sufis).20 However, the Muslim share of the population needs to be taken carefully; numbers do not take into account when and how individuals counted as Muslims practice their faith. Nor does the broad definition of “Muslim” help acknowledge the inherent diversity among Muslims, whether in their practice, race, ethnic heritage, or any other marker of difference.

In his book on “New-Danes,” Zernichow Borberg 21 contends that the Muslims’ faith practice is in reality more similar to Danish members of the Protestant church (Folkekirken) than an average Dane would think. Muslims are as much (or as little) churchgoers as Danish Protestants, only a relative minority sends children to religious schools, and only a minority of the Muslim women wears religious garments.

Despite the relatively low percentages of Muslims living in the country (e.g., compared to countries such as Germany, France and Sweden) and their improving integration levels, the perceptions and framing of immigration and Islam in public opinion and political parties remains pessimistic. Surveys show that the opinion that the immigrants’ integration in Danish society has failed and that “too many asylum seekers and migrants come into the country” are still matters of concern among Danes.22 These issues were mentioned by respectively 67 percent and 65 percent of the respondents in 2017.

Opinions towards immigration, asylum (and Islam) can change over time and attitudes can appear polarized and ambivalent.23 Different factors, such as mainstream media framing 24 of right-wing populist parties, and circumstances or “emergencies,” such as the 2015 refugee crisis, or the perception that the government’s measures against immigration have gone “too far” can shape public opinion on immigration issues.

Positions toward asylum and immigration also encompasses fears and concerns that span from welfare state levels, to labor market issues, including access to basic rights and questions about national security, culture and national identity, integration and social cohesion. How voters relate to immigration can influence party preferences and choice.25

Results from the Danish election surveys tend to endorse this picture. Since 2001 there has been a growing opposition against multiculturalism and increased cultural diversity in the country. Already in 2001, asked if Islam represents a threat to Danish culture, 74 percent of the DF voters said yes, 39 percent among Liberal voters agreed, and 37 percent of Conservatives. The percent difference (PDI) between those disagreeing and those agreeing with the statement that immigration represents a threat to national culture was 14 percent in 2011, but only eight percent in 2015. According to a 2017 poll, this ratio saw an eight percent difference in favor of respondents considering immigration as a cultural threat. Further, 35 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “conditions have changed so much that I often feel I am a stranger in my own country.” Of DF voters 63 percent agree with the statement and only 14 percent disagreed.

DF voters also hold that immigration represents a threat to national culture (table 2). However, a degree of concern about this issue is also to be found among Liberals and Conservative Party voters (cf. PDI table 2).

Table 2. Attitudes toward immigration among DF and other Danish party voters. PDI (Percentage who agree immigration is a cultural threat minus the percentage who disagree).

Immigration is a threat to Danish culture 2001 2005 2007 2011 2015
DF 73 76 69 72 74
V 9 16 20 6 30
K -6 -6 -15 -37 21
S -15 -17 -24 -21 -5
SF -66 -60 -55 -60 -40
EL -91 -63 -73 -73 -52
RV -81 -66 -81 -74 -61
All voters -5 -4 -12 -14 9

Source: Danish Election Surveys, 2001-2015.

DF: Danish People’s Party; V: Agrarian Liberals; K: Conservatives; S: Social Democrats; SF: Socialist People’s Party; RV: Social Liberals; EL: Left-wing Unity List. The more recent parties such as Liberal Alliance and Alternativet are not included.

With regard to the question of whether refugees and immigrants should have access to the same welfare rights as Danes, the results show that the majority of DF voters think this should not be the case, at least not for those not having Danish descent or citizenship. Liberal and Conservative voters are also among the most reluctant (table 3).

Table 3. Attitudes toward immigration and asylum among DF and other party voters. PDI (Percentage who agree immigration is a cultural threat minus the percentage who disagree).

Immigrants and refugees same social rights 2001 2005 2007 2011 2015
DF 77 68 71 76 83
V 52 38 44 58 70
K 44 38 41 46 67
S 12 3 -4 21 32
SF -28 -22 -32 -11 13
EL -67 -41 -70 -42 -14
RV -27 -22 -35 -2 -4
All voters 29 18 16 32 46

Source: Danish Election Surveys, 2001-2015.

DF: Danish People’s Party; V: Agrarian Liberals; K: Conservatives; S: Social Democrats; SF: Socialist People’s Party; RV: Social Liberals; EL: Left-wing Unity List. The more recent parties such as Liberal Alliance and Alternativet are not included.

Looking at tables 1 and 2, it is interesting to observe how the percentage results for the two items match according to party. It can be argued that voter attitudes toward cultural difference have a spillover effect on their views toward access to welfare rights for immigrants and refugees.

Public perceptions of Islam and Muslims in Denmark are however still insufficiently explored to make closer observations about relationships and causes, although studies suggest that attitudes are fluctuating over time and they are characterized by conflicting approaches.26 Earlier results27 also emphasize how lower levels of religiosity correlate with lesser acceptance/tolerance of Islam. Respondents in Denmark tend to see religion per se as a conflict-triggering factor, particularly when religion is made publicly visible.28

Respondents in Denmark tend to see religion per se as a conflict-triggering factor, particularly when religion is made publicly visible.

At the same time, European Value Surveys (EVS, 2008) indicate that the percentages of respondents in Denmark, who would not want a Muslim as neighbor are relatively low (16 percent in 1999 and 12 percent in 2008).29 Attitudes appear negatively affected when issues revert to the culturally and religiously different lifestyles, such as Islam representing a threat to the Christian way of life, or immigration representing a threat to Danish cultural values and identity. Of particular concern is also the threat that Muslim countries represent for the country’s national security,30 particularly in the aftermath of terrorist attacks abroad.

Against Immigration and Against Islam

The 2001 parliamentary election in Denmark represented something of a turning point in Danish politics: it placed value-based politics at the very core of the political agenda, and in particular the immigration question became among the most relevant issues. Since then, immigration has been among the main subjects of the political debate and campaigning.

Since 2001, DF increasingly focused on the relationship between immigration, cultural/religious diversity and the welfare state. DF discourse on immigration and integration tightly knits these elements together. When it comes to Islam, religious differences are interpreted in terms of a “cultural clash” primarily between Western democracies and Islam and the Muslim world. Western culture is portrayed as the positive carrier of progressive, open, equal, and tolerant values such as democracy, gender equality, freedom of speech, and the rule of law. Islam is instead represented as the backward bearer of medieval, primitive, rigid, and intolerant views of the world and especially of society.31 DF considers immigration as a potential “national catastrophe.” This leads to the need to strictly regulate, control and tighten asylum and immigration laws to prevent “too many immigrants” getting into the country. As formulated in an early DF document:

“Denmark is not and has never been an immigration country, and the DF is against the development of Denmark into a multicultural society…To the extent immigrants can maintain themselves and their families, they can get a temporary permit to stay and to work…Refugees must not be turned into immigrants.”32

For DF, the portrayal of Denmark as a historically and until recently racially, ethnically and religiously homogeneous country entails per se the necessity for the country to avoid “mass immigration” for the survival of its national identity and welfare. The party understands the Danish population as homogeneous, harmonious, and characterized by a common set of values, principles and traditions that supply internal societal cohesion. This construct of the community of the People is understood as the backbone behind the country’s democratic stability, its welfare achievements and civic friendship and solidarity. DF has often represented this imagined community 33 through videos and images of a bucolic countryside inhabited by routinely familiar activities and symbolized by the historical sites that the party considers cues of memory, nationhood, homeland and belonging.34 These images are accompanied by the flagging of small words–such as tryghed/safety; sikkerhed/security–by the use of symbols such as the national flag (Dannebrog) and through representations of white men and women acting as strong reminders of ethno-national belonging and identity.35 Within this frame, Islam is the destabilizer, the potentially threatening “other.” A recent DF poster reproduces this in a drawing of DF MP Martin Henriksen, the party immigration and integration spokesperson, with the caption: “Take the Muslim headscarf off and join Denmark.”36 This also refers to the gender-based readings of Islam as an oppressive and misogynistic culture, which is also one of the main gender frames used by DF to criticize Islam.37

One of the leading and most influential far-right intellectuals debating the incompatibility between the Christian Protestant world and Islam was Søren Krarup, a protestant priest and intellectual, who joined DF in 2001. In his writings, Krarup understands Islam as a religion, a culture, and an identity marker completely antithetical to Christianity. Not only is Islam is seen at the antipode of the Christian world, it is also perceived as a real danger to the West, if societies continue tolerating its presence. He argues: “If a Christian country continues to allow the formation of Mohammedan congregations, we end in endless conflicts, which can result in a civil war. We have been cowardly and miserable, because we have worshiped human rights.”38

Krarup’s positions against Islam encompassed both what he portrays as the demographic threat that can bring Denmark to social unrest, itself the result of the too lenient Danish immigration policy, as well as a  critique against human rights, which Krarup maintains have played a major role in opening the country to an illiberal and fundamentalist ideology.39

In this way, the faith side of Islam is conflated into Islam understood as a monolithic and fundamentalist culture and ideology. This makes Muslims more susceptible to fundamentalist and intolerant positions and eventually to terrorism than any other faith. This reading of Islam gained ground particularly after the 2005 Mohammed cartoon crisis, triggered by the publication of the twelve cartoons in the Danish broadsheet Jyllands Posten. These events replenished the anti-Islam discourses initiated in the 2000s and building on the conflict lines represented on the one side by democracy, distinguished by freedom of speech, tolerance, rights, gender equality and free expression incarnated by the West. On the other side, Islam is seen as a carrier of intolerance, bigotry, and fundamentalism. This framing was initially criticized by the party, mainly to avoid being accused of discrimination and racism against Muslims. An internal DF email circulated in 2007 for instance warned DF MPs: “the criticism of Islam as such and of Muslims in general does not help the Danish People’s Party political task. Instead, a clear-cut criticism and distancing from Islamism and Islamists is both welcomed and necessary. [The] right thing to do [is] that our criticism of Islam addresses Islamism and the extremist interpreters of Islam, the Islamists.” 

Despite this, DF party members and MPs routinely blurred the distinction. MP Søren Espersen replied in an op-ed arguing against separating “Islam as a world religion and Islamism as a political movement with sharia as its working program.”40 In 2014, DF leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl felt it was necessary to remind party fellows that:41“[DF] will not differentiate on the basis of religion. There is religious freedom in Denmark, and you can believe in what you want, and be a Muslim if you are a Muslim. Instead, our aim is to ensure that the people who come to Denmark can actually integrate in Danish society and instead use the terminology Western vs. non-Western.”

Using Islam as synonymous for Islamism allowed the party to take the next step, thus establishing a direct relationship between Islam and the totalitarian ideologies of the past: Nazism and Communism. Already in 2007, Søren Krarup grabbed headlines, comparing in a parliamentary debate the Koran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Shortly after he likened the use of the Muslim headscarf to the use of the Nazi-swastika.42

This radical rhetoric contributed to legitimizing positions on Islam that were previously unheard. However, the widespread skepticism towards religion held by Danes, particularly when this is visible in the public space, might have contributed to making the idea that Islam is not only a religion, but a totalitarian ideology, become a staple of the populist right’s case against Western Europe’s Muslim community, not only in Denmark.43

In our interviews, we asked several questions explicitly mentioning “Islam.” We started by simply inquiring what Islam is or means to our respondents. Although many of them initially describe Islam as a religion, many also characterize Islam as something more encompassing, broader than a faith. In this regard, some of the respondents speak for instance of an “Islamic culture,” of “Muslim countries,” making Islam as the main component of a society, its politics and institutions. Such a perspective infers with an interpretation of Islam as a religion that historically has transgressed the modern secular division between the public and the private sphere, or between politics and religion. Particularly among DF politicians the reference to Islam goes far beyond the religious denomination, and stands for a “political ideology,” a “totalitarian form of government.”44

Rhetorically, the idea of Islam as a cultural, societal and ideological totality manifests itself in some of the descriptions of Islam that our interviewees further elaborated upon, whereby Islam functions as an actor, or a subject in itself. DF MP Alex Ahrendtsen, party spokesperson on culture affairs, makes for instance use of such rhetoric when asked about the future of Islam in Denmark and abroad: “what you have to recognize is that Islam cannot tolerate others. It is in fact jealous towards others, and especially if it is not itself in charge. And it only aims to grow, like a political movement and to acquire more and more followers.”45

Islam is in the above quotes and across different interviews used as a floating signifier in the sense that the word Islam is interchangeably used to mean: 1) its function as a religion; 2) a set of values 3) a trope for culture, identity and politics. The different conceptions of Islam correspond therefore also to different understandings concerning the relationship between Islam and Christianity. Those who designate Islam mainly as a religion, also emphasize the similarities between the history and practice of these two as world religions. Meanwhile, those who clearly speak of Islam as a culture, or political system, tend to emphasize the fundamental difference with regard to the cultural, political and ideological role of religion in society. DF politician Kenneth Kristensen Berth, MP and spokesperson on EU, puts it rather bluntly: “Christianity is a religion that frees people, while Islam oppositely enslaves everyone.”46

Others in our interviews do not essentialize Islam in the same way, but claim that, contrary to Islam, Christianity has undergone an evolutionary pattern in history that brought it from the Protestant Reformation, through the Enlightenment and over to Modernity. In their view this laid the ground for today’s Western democratic and liberal structures.47 This version argues that Islam was historically similar to Christianity, but that while the former did not evolve, remaining “stuck in the Middle Ages,” the latter continued its progress and evolution toward Modernity. In this respect, several of the politicians we have interviewed emphasize that Islam is not necessarily the same as Muslim individuals or groups – individuals may have the will and agency to change, but the culture they “come from” does not transform and reform together with them.48

Other politicians, particularly on the populist right, go as far as to define Islam as a “built-in code” which exists almost independently of the freewill of a Muslim. DF MP Marie Krarup  openly argues:

“when we speak of integration, we actually mean assimilation, which for us means to be loyal to Denmark. To hold with and for Denmark. And by doing this, one overtakes many of the things that typify us Danes, such as loving this country, respecting the culture we have here. But the issue is that, if you are a Muslim…you have an innate Islamic code, which makes you act against yourself and your decisions, whether you are served roast pork, or prompted to react against religion…and all such things that we consider normal here [in Denmark]. Islam is coded to do the opposite. It is Allah who made the laws in the Koran, the hadiths, which are communicated by the imams and so forth. And these cannot be changed by humans, and therefore the laws cannot be made by the Parliament.”49

Marie Krarup’s definition suggests that Muslims carry this “code” within themselves; they embody it in a way that requires Western countries to put a limit and regulate, if not to forbid altogether the immigration from the Muslim countries. It is an understanding of Islam that reminds of a racialized “biological imprint,” that potentially can influence Danish society and eventually spread the political system with a foreign and aggressive ideology. A candidate of the newly formed far-right party New Right50 (Nye Borgerlige, NB) Lars Boje Mathiesen describes a similar process:

“And there I see the major differences…a democratic secular society, such as Denmark is not compatible with a totalitarian ideology because the totalitarian ideology will never ever compromise. So when we mistakenly make more and more room for this totalitarian ideology as we do in Danish society today and have done so for the last forty years, then this totalitarian ideology thanks us for that.”51

Identity, Belonging and the role of Islam

Danish politics builds upon… three main components: the nation, the people and the welfare state.

Danish politics builds upon the close ideological and discursive construction that articulates the relationship of three main components: the nation, the people and the welfare state. The combination of the national question with democracy and the welfare state has historical legacies in the Scandinavian countries and it is deeply rooted in the social and political reforms characterizing the interwar period, upon which the Social Democratic Party relied to resolve the spreading of class-based conflicts. This historical phase contributed to the shaping of an ideal community of the People, which in recent times has been coopted and re-interpreted by the populist right.

The notion of “welfare nationalism” joins culture and identity with economy and welfare constituting the foundation of the belonging to the “people’s home” (Folkhemmet). The implications of this approach range broad within the Scandinavian context, and particularly so in Denmark and Sweden.

Our interviews point to different conceptions of being Danish. Yet, many of them explicitly suggest that the meaning of Danishness is self-evident. “Being Danish” is then associated with an indefinite set of traditions, norms, and lifestyles in Denmark that are “not really something that you can give evidence of such as a mathematical equation,” as DF MP Kenneth Kristensen Berth underlines. Apart from the broad and often approximate characterization of the term, in several of the interviews we conducted with DF politicians, Christianity is often mentioned as a central marker of Danish identity.52 Others point to the function of traditional institutions such as the royal family, democracy and the welfare state, the Danish language and gender equality to indicate some of the main features of what is to be understood as uniquely “Danish” respondents from the Social Democrats and the Liberal Party tend instead to underline the role played by social cohesion, by community belonging as key markers of the welfare state system; particularly among local level Social Democrats and trade unionists, the criticism to essentialist and oversimplified understanding of being Danish is outspoken. For some, the political debate about belonging and identity is seen as a way to avoid dealing with important problems such as growing individualism and social inequalities.53

As to factual requirements, “being Danish” is by many of the interviewed derived from birth and upbringing within the community, rather than something that can be learned and acquired, e.g., by naturalization. In the former one is born and raised in Denmark, and most importantly raised within the Danish culture, with a Danish set of values and principles. If not, one must demonstrate merit. This envisages positions going from full adaptation/assimilation of “common Danish norms and values” to learning the language and adjusting to the Danish way of life and habits. DF Kristoffer Hjort Storm, a member of the Aalborg city council observes:

“If it is not because you biologically already are, then you have to prove to the surrounding society that you actually are Denmark and want Denmark, because if you do not want the best for Denmark – if you want to change Denmark fundamentally – then I find it difficult to see why you should really call yourself Danish.”54

Storm uses a common expression in political debates about immigration and integration in Denmark, “to want the best for Denmark” (“at ville Danmark det godt”), which to him means not attempting to alter the country on a fundamental level. However, even though many respondents like Hjort Storm emphasize the normative demands that in the last instance expect immigrants to assimilate,55 other interviews  emphasize the difficulties met by immigrants from both non-Western but especially Muslim countries in becoming Danish even when the motivation and the formal conditions are in place. According to those who conceptualize Islam as a political ideology, this relates to the aforementioned “inscribed code” in Muslim immigrants. DF MP Christian Langballe, party spokesperson on naturalization, argues that not only Muslims, but also Chinese immigrants have problems integrating, albeit—he argues—they do not have “the same problem-potential built into them” as Muslims: “If there were 500,000 Chinese people in Denmark, then I also believe that there would be a problem. I really believe that there would. However, there is not. And therefore, we do not talk so much about them.”56

The specific problem with Muslims for many of the respondents is that “there are too many of them,” “they will be too many” and “too little integrated” or willing to, in the Danish society. That is, they both isolate themselves in so-called “parallel societies,” in “enclaves” and “ghettos” and at the same time they cause problems everywhere, e.g., by rising claims and demands about for example which type of meat to be served in public institutions, such as in kindergartens, or what religious celebrations to observe and how.

Our Social Democrat and Liberal Party respondents do not share such an all-round negative picture of Islam, which is presumably connected to the fact that they do not envisage Islam as a political ideology that stands in radical opposition to Danish democracy and national culture. Yet, they express serious concerns about Muslims that other respondents also articulate, namely about gender equality, or rather a lack thereof. Gender equality and especially the conditions of women are taken as a measure of how progressive or modern Islam and Muslims are. For example, when talking about positive currents within Islam, a Social Democrat we interviewed 57 mentioned the acceptance of female imams and of gender equality in Islam as steps in the right direction, although she also recognized that the imams and Islamic scholars who accept female imams or homosexual marriages constitute a tiny minority that goes “against the tide.” Interestingly, several other respondents also mentioned that the modern reform of Islam should come from Muslim women rather than men.58

Future outlook

Speaking about the future of society in relation to immigration and to Islam, several of our interviewees hold dystopian views of society, in which immigration flows have grown out of control, social cohesion has collapsed, and integration failed. Within this picture the European Union is seen as an aggravator of the chaos, rather than a facilitator of collective policy decisions. This is mainly due to the EU’s policy interference with national sovereignty over the regulation and control of migration.

When asked whether Islam fits into Europe or the West, respondents from DF and NB explicitly draw connections between problems in Denmark and in other countries to conclude that Islam does not fit in the West writ large. Islam is from this perspective portrayed as an overall threat to both Europe and the West, but for different reasons. For some Islam is a political threat to liberal democracy, while for others it is in particular the lack of integration in society and in the labor market and the problem represented by the Muslim “ghettos” to constitute a major threat to the future security and stability of Danish society. Other respondents point instead to specific problems such as Islam’s view of women, as something that is unfit to Danish gender equality and principles and which therefore needs to be changed.

However, for those who see Muslim immigration as the biggest challenge today and Islam as incompatible with Europe or the West, the situation is so dire that we are standing at a crossroads. We either “get the invasion of Western Europe to stop,” as DF Kenneth Kristensen argues, or we will witness an unstoppable escalation of conflicts, violence and Islam conquering countries like Denmark. According to NB candidate Lars Boje Mathiesen, it is therefore important to avoid getting to a “point of no return.” In his view, Sweden has already trespassed the threshold and it is heading towards a “civil war-like situation.” Erik Sørensen59 speaks for example about the likelihood of a civil war even though neither him, nor Mathiesen specify what they actually mean by a “civil war” and thereby whether it should be understood as a regular armed conflict such as in Syria today, or of  a society increasingly plagued by high rates of violence, terror attacks and civil unrest. Asked about the future role of Islam in Denmark, Sørensen answers that if things do not change quickly, the majority will at some point vote to make Denmark a Muslim country and thereby abolish democracy as such. To this dystopian scenario, reminding a lot of the society portrayed by French author Michel Houellebecq in his book Submission,60 Sørensen comments laconically: “I expect…because you see, I believe it will end in a civil war. And I think that there will be civil war in France before the next five years.”61

Henrik Buchhave,62 a Liberal Party member of the regional council in Northern Jutland emphasizes the “insanely long process” engaging Muslims in the cultural adaption that is required to fit them into Europe and the West. According to Buchhave, it is however also a process that our society has undergone with regard to, for example, getting more and more Muslim women into the labor market. So again, Islam is placed on an earlier developmental stage when compared to the history of the West and Christianity, albeit a positive achievement might lie ahead – in the sense that Islam can potentially evolve in the “right direction” by learning from the west.


Questions around Islam, the role of the Muslim community, and of religion in the public space have become divisive political issues in Denmark, particularly over the past decades. Since 2001, Danish society has increasingly engaged in a discussion about Islam’s role. Most of the politicians we have interviewed, albeit giving different accounts for this, argue—somehow contradictory—that Islam takes too much space in Danish politics, particularly when considering the relatively small number of Muslims living in the country. For DF MPs such as Søren Espersen or Alex Ahrendtsen, it is undoubtedly the fault of Muslims if Islam continues making headlines in Denmark. This incongruity has much to do with the way understandings of Islam have developed over time and become mainstream in Denmark. Particularly among right-wing populist voters and politicians, Islam is translated into a main cultural and identity signifier, whose fundamental principles and values are deemed as the antipode to those distinguishing Danish identity and culture. It is particularly around cultural, identitarian and security threats that positions against Islam in Denmark have developed. Nonetheless, our results show the coexistence in the political debate of the following distinct around Islam:

    • Islam as a totalitarian ideology and as such, the antithesis of a liberal and secularized democracy such as Denmark.
    • Islam as a demographic threat that might result with Muslims taking control over politics and society.
    • Islam as a religion and culture at a lower evolutionary stage of development than Western, Christian, and modern societies.
    • Islam as a carrier of authoritarian and illiberal views, e.g., in relation to gender equality and freedom of expression that need to be “reformed.”

The right-wing populist parties’ representation of the native people as an ethnically and culturally homogeneous and cohesive group takes advantage by constructing Islam as the conflicting other. At the same time, the centrality given to cultural and religious differences allows removing awareness and attention from social, racial and class based inequalities and differences in society, particularly when these are sparked by globalization processes. Some of the discourses against Islam have thus become proxies for migration issues, when cultural and identity concerns come to the fore and need to be countered by an antagonist and “tangibly” threatening other.

Our interviews also show that mainstream parties have borrowed from right-wing anti-Islam discourses, in an attempt to win back voters who are concerned about immigration and the role of Islam and now support the populist right. However, this strategy seems not to have gained traction among the local level social democrats and trade unionists we interviewed, who critically address simplified understandings of belonging and identity that target the Muslim community. In the interviews, they emphasize the need to focus on traditional left-wing economic viewpoints, in which social justice, welfare and integration remain strongly interrelated and core concerns.


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