On Muslim youth growing up on the front lines of nationalist politics in Denmark.
In 1943, when other European governments watched while Jews in their country were rounded up and deported to concentration camps, the Danish organized a nation-wide effort in which Danish fisherman carried close to 8,000 Jews across the Oresund sea to safety in nearby Sweden. Similarly, in 1983 when refugees were fleeing the Iran/Iraq war and violence in Palestine, Denmark welcomed them and led Europe in having the most generous humanitarian refugee policies offering the right to asylum, full legal rights and the same social benefits as Danish citizens.
Today, in stark contrast, Denmark has some of the most restrictive immigration and refugee policies in Europe. These policies reflect a dramatic shift from a posture of humanitarian outreach and compassion towards refugees to one focused on the increased restriction and policing of migrants and immigrants. Danish police patrol the border and the bridge between Sweden and Denmark to prevent Syrian refugees from entering. New laws emerge to deter migrants from seeking refuge in Denmark—such as the passage of a national law allowing the government to seize the personal assets of those applying for refugee status. Other laws, meanwhile, target Muslims already living in Denmark—including local mandates targeting school-age children that require that pork be served in elementary school lunch programs.
Denmark has some of the most restrictive immigration and refugee policies in Europe.
The “meatball wars,” as they’ve been dubbed, are not the only instance in which we see nationalist politics playing out in schools. During my ethnographic research in Danish schools I observed educators—whether conservative or liberal minded—perpetuate age-old stereotypes about Muslims in their classrooms. Teachers’ descriptions of immigrant students positioned Muslim girls as oppressed, captive to their culture, and Muslim boys and men as violent and oppressive. Alongside these racialized descriptions of Muslim students, I heard teachers describe how these students were out of place in a nation committed to gender equality and openness. They spoke of their efforts to assimilate youth to Danish norms of belonging, all in an effort to encourage their “integration.” In one case, a fourteen-year-old female Palestinian student was critically questioned about her future choice of marriage partner and then counseled to accept Danish norms of premarital sex. The students in this class described how they experienced this teacher’s work as an assimilative critique of their identities.
Muslim youth are at the front lines of migration.
The students I observed also described the myriad ways that they were told that they didn’t belong, that their identities were a “problem.” One Palestinian student Dhalia wearing hijab described how a Danish woman stopped her on the street and whispered in her ear, “You live in Denmark now, you are free and don’t have to wear that here.” These students expressed frustration and anger about the assumptions that others made about their identities; some were angry at their parents for bringing them to live in countries where they felt that they would never truly belong. Sara who identifies as Palestinian, but who came to Denmark from Lebanon said, “I don’t think Danish people hate us because we come from another country; it is because they want Denmark to be one language and they are afraid there will be more immigrants than Danish people.”
I asked the students to create identity maps that provide a visual representation of the messages that they received about their identities. In describing her map, one of the Ethiopian students, Aliyah said, “When I’m in Ethiopia, I feel like I belong, but here, I feel like they hate me.” On the left side of her map, in Denmark, she drew a black heart with the words, “people hate me because of my hijab” and on the right in Ethiopia, she drew a red heart with the words, “I am human.” In writing, “I think I am nothing” she signals how the anti-immigrant discourse is affecting her.
Like Aliyah, Dhalia—who was born in Denmark, identifies as a Palestinian, and has strong family ties to Lebanon—depicts a self in sunny Lebanon in contrast to the “dark/night” of Denmark, which she described to me:
Here this is in Denmark [on the right] and this is me and here they are thinking that we immigrants only come here for money. They think that immigrants are going to destroy Denmark because there are some immigrant boys who are criminals. It’s dark and night and I feel ensomhed [alone] and nobody wants to speak to me. This side is in Lebanon [on the left] and I feel very happy and the green color symbolizes hope and everybody likes me and nobody would look down on me. And all in Lebanon have the same traditions but it is also hard because sometimes there is war and you can’t get money if you don’t have work. But there is love and family.
Dhalia’s images of the dark night on the right side of the map convey the negative messages and isolation she feels living in Denmark. In particular, she takes up the discursive narrative that immigrants are “uninvited guests,” laborers who come to Denmark “only for money” and overstay their welcome. The left side of Dhalia’s map shows a sense of happiness and well-being in Lebanon despite the challenges of economic uncertainty and war. Although Dhalia was born in Denmark and has visited Lebanon only for visits in the summer, it seems that she, like Aliyah and Sara, narrates connections to a “home country” that serve to insulate her from the negative messages she experiences in Denmark. Above the figure of herself in Denmark, Dhalia asks, “Why [do] I live here?”—thus expressing her struggle with psychological assaults in a place that she didn’t choose to live.
The experiences and emotions of Aliyah, Dhalia, and Sara are not unique. Muslim youth are at the front lines of migration and assaults on their sense of belonging and self-worth are casualties of the virulent anti-immigration, Islamophobic discourse that surrounds us. Some dismiss this discourse as reflecting the views of those on the political margins, or of extremist politicians but these false scripts about who immigrant and refugee youth are and the types of intervention that they require is far more culturally pervasive. They’re scripts espoused by our educators and promoted from on high by increasingly mainstream political voices.
And Denmark is not alone. The rhetoric of the Republican presidential candidates in the US has mirrored that of European politicians, with calls to extend walls at the border and to bar Muslims from entering the country. A number of state governors issued public statements declaring their refusal to permit Syrian migrants to enter their states. Their words, designed to reassure their constituents that they would be safe from the threat of terrorism, from “immigrant takeover,” imagine tighter borders around their communities, their states, and their nations. There is no question; talk about getting tough on immigration, about protecting citizens from the putative threat of Muslim takeover surrounds us.
As seen in the identity maps and comments of the students just described, this anti-Muslim, xenophobic rhetoric inspires feelings of racialization and exclusion. But despite this there are those who resist this exclusion to insist on their right to belong. Aliyah, for example, came to Denmark from Somalia when she was one year old in the early 1990s as a refugee. She is now twenty-one and completing her final year of schooling in social work. One of her ambitions is to address the needs of immigrant communities in Denmark. I wish that those who express hatred and fear towards migrants and refugees could meet Aliyah, to know her and to recognize all that she has to offer. The anthropologist Marjorie Faulstich Orellena writes about the importance of intercultural understanding and speaks of the importance of “seeing with our hearts.” Rather than viewing immigrant youth and refugees through stereotypes drummed up to frighten and divide, it’s critical that we develop new ways of seeing and hearing, to recognize the gifts they carry and the potential contributions that they are poised to make.
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