An exchange in a recent debate on national TV was emblematic of changing times in Danish politics. An 18-year-old high school student named Jens Philip Yazdani was pitted against Martin Henriksen, a member of Parliament for the far-right Danish People’s Party who is the chairman of an important parliamentary committee on immigration, integration and housing. When Mr. Yazdani asserted his Danish identity as someone born and brought up in Denmark, Mr. Henriksen interrupted him.
“This is not how one becomes Danish,” he said, starkly forcing to the fore the old question of what is “Danishness.” In that moment, the nationalist politician signaled an end to the uneasy truce that has long defined the immigration debate in Denmark. By rejecting the very possibility of ever “becoming” Danish, even down several generations, he effectively shelved the political project of integration of immigrants.
“One can’t say that just because one brings the whole world to Denmark,” Mr. Henriksen went on, “and they then get some children, that those children become Danish. This is a simplification of the debate, and one that is insulting to those generations that have built this land.”
What surprised many viewers is that in an earlier era, Mr. Yazdani would have been considered a poster boy for successful integration. Born to a Danish mother and an Iranian father, he speaks Danish fluently and is the chairman of his school council. Being a meaningful contributor to society was once deemed valuable in Denmark, enough to provide a sense of belonging. But now, apparently, it’s the bloodline that matters.
Some hear in this an ominous echo of Germany’s late-19th-century romance with “blut und boden” (blood and soil) as the marker of national identity. Martin Krasnik, a columnist with the newspaper Weekendavisen, noted how this biological identification of “the people” can be used to erase the rights and legalities of formal citizenship. He recalled how Karl Lueger, the mayor of Vienna at the turn of the 20th century, claimed that “I decide who is a Jew.” This time, Mr. Krasnik wrote ruefully, what has come to define Danish immigration politics today is the phrase “I decide who is a Dane.”
The new brashness in immigration politics has been emboldened by the widespread talk of a “migrant crisis” said to be choking Europe. This, despite the fact that Denmark’s intake of refugees is one of the lowest among the European member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and markedly lower than its neighbors Germany and Sweden.
The migrant, nevertheless, is the new figure of loathing. At the recent convention of the Danish People’s Party, one of its rising stars, Cheanne Nielsen, made headlines when she told an applauding audience that foreigners are welfare moochers who “spread filth, they cheat, they steal, they rape and they kill.” Another speaker, Marlene Harpsoe, a member of Parliament, said that asylum seekers should be given a pair of sneakers: “If they can walk all the way up here, they can also walk back home.”
The party chairman, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, admitted that some of the speakers had perhaps gone a bit far, but he explained away their excesses as humor. Others are calling it the “Trump effect,” but anti-immigrant far-right politics in Denmark predates the arrival of Donald J. Trump on the global stage by several decades. The difference this time is that xenophobia is no longer a dark art practiced by an unpredictable fringe; it has moved center stage in Danish political life.
An anti-immigrant stance in Denmark is now neither masked in clumsy euphemisms nor accompanied by halfhearted gestures of conciliation toward the “New Danes,” as the old assimilationist term put it. The message is now delivered rough and raw by a new generation of outspoken politicians.
Humor has been weaponized. The ability to joke and deploy sarcasm is increasingly claimed as a sign of essential Danishness. But there’s nothing self-deprecating about this joking; it is hostile mocking, aimed at the most vulnerable in society, a way of putting migrants in their place.
That anti-immigration politics is more influential than ever is borne out by the emergence, just weeks ago, of a new far-right party called the New Conservatives. Among other hard-line policies, it advocates a ban on head scarves worn by Muslim women who work in the public sector and in schools and colleges, and a halt to granting asylum to refugees. The party has not only secured the degree of support required by law for it to contest parliamentary elections, but has also already seen a surge in opinion polls.
With the boundaries of acceptable discourse constantly prodded and pushed, Danish society is becoming ever more inured to xenophobia, says Brian Arly Jacobsen, a sociologist who studies the role of religion in the public sphere. Part of the explanation is the muted response of the center-left parties that have traditionally championed progressive policies. The decision by the Social Democrats to collaborate with the Danish People’s Party on a package of welfare programs has weakened its ideological position: The unsavory compromise it has accepted is to be willing to turn a blind eye to the far right’s xenophobia in order to safeguard the rights of the poor.
If there is a silver lining in the new political reality, it is that it has forced much more public discussion about what it means to be Danish. Perhaps the best response to this debate was captured in a satirical online test called “Am I Danish?” and devised by a young photographer named Magnus Kristoffersen. The questionnaire invites people to evaluate themselves by choosing from a variety of options. But whatever you click, the result is the same: You can never be Danish.
Ravinder Kaur is an associate professor of modern South Asian studies at the University of Copenhagen.