Denmark has problems with ethnic and religious minorities who are the newcomers to Denmark. This country has had the picture of itself as a culturally homogenous society. It would like to keep that picture.
Live together and recognize
Interview with Mandana Zarrehparvar, Senior adviser of Equal opportunities national department at Danish Institute for Human Rights*
Denmark has been famous as a liberal country, were human rights and freedom are highly respected. Resent development of cartoons publication showed some problems and contradictions. How you would assess the situation from the point of view of a human right expert and also representative of minority. What is the situation of minorities in Denmark in practice?
Denmark can still see itself as a protector and a fighter for human rights in the global world. And we have a great deal of potential and we have a great deal of expertise to be able to help other states to build up democracy, a human rights regime, the civil society and access to justice.
But we have the problem if we are talking about minorities – the newcomers to Denmark. These are ethnic minorities and religious minorities specifically. Denmark has had the picture of itself as a culturally homogenous society. It would like to keep that picture, because that society has created a democratic and stable society were the equality is a top priority. They do not want to have instability. They are afraid if we recognize the different cultures and religions we are going to have instability in Denmark. If we are going to have the new ideas and values, the norms and values that we have built up in democratic society, are going to be undermined. The problem is contrary. In Denmark we have the freedom of religion and the minorities have the same rights, as all other Danes. The exception is that they do not have the Danish nationality, so they cannot vote; otherwise in every other aspect formally they have the same rights. I think it is great, that we include. Minorities, who lived in Denmark for 3 years, can go on the local election in contrary to many other countries.
But substantially there are problems to recognize that people have cultural differences, that they do have needs that are related to the religion or the cultural traditions or background. For example, the official language in Denmark is Danish, so if you come form another country, let’s say Turkey, you speak Turkish and you have learned Danish. The Turkish language is not regarded as positive asset. A child that grows up in Denmark with two-language background experiences that the language, the culture, the traditions that he or she comes with are not given the asset. He or she cannot use it as an asset to the society.
Are there concrete cases of discrimination?
The problem is that it is very difficult to prove. We can see the children who know the Danish very well. We can see ethnic minority children that are not doing well enough in school and not many of them continue to the higher education. The Danish politicians say that is because they do not speak Danish well enough and do not know enough about Danish society. But our practitioners and human rights people say, the reason is because they are not recognized – as the language is not recognized as an asset. Many of so-called “two language children” know two or several languages. But if they do not know the Danish they are not accepted, that gives the child a very low self-esteem and self-confidence.
That gives the effect to that child, gives the way to understand the world he or she lives in, and in that world he or she has to be active citizen in the future. If you don’t have self-esteem, self-confidence built up because you are not recognized socially and culturally, then you will not have the confidence to become an active citizen in the way the Danish society actually needs them to be.
How could you comment on the publication of scandalous cartoons in Danish newspaper and the global consequences it has raised? What is the attitude of minorities to that?
First, it is very important to look at the cartoons as twelve separate pictures. I personally felt offended by some of the pictures, not all of them. Because it defected me as a Muslim, it defected me as a person. It was strange because I am not a practising Muslim; I am what you call a cultural Muslim. Despite that I felt offended, because I felt that I was depicted as a terrorist.
Professionally I thought you could not forbid the pictures from coming, I think that it was persons right to bring the pictures. I cannot admit how it was done. It has been undermined what is going on in the society and in the world after September 11 (2001- ed.). They undermined how oppressed the ethnic minorities, especially Muslim community feels. They are undermining that Islam is not only about Islamists, but also about just normal people trying to have a normal life in the Danish society and out in the world. And they got being chosen to be terrorists or being a threat to society or global peace.
Maybe Danish government should react in a different way than they did?
No, the government is totally correct in the assessment that they cannot go and tell what to print and what not to print. That is holy. The state must not mix in to what printed press can give or not. I am the first one to fight for that. I think the government can go in and say: we have to protect also our minorities, they are also citizens in this society and how can we protect them. They have not done so.
What are the protection mechanisms in Denmark in case of hate speech and discrimination?
In Denmark we have a long range of protection mechanisms – we have a Criminal code were there is a paragraph 140 – against blasphemy. Then we have paragraph 266b – on hate speech and propaganda in public. These two protect people from being subject to demeaning and propaganda or hate speech – against their religion, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, and so on. So if you are in public being subject to hate speech and you feel dement, threatened or the propaganda being issued on the group, you are part of, you can complain to police to the public prosecutor. The public prosecutor will assess whether the complaint is compatible with the legislation. If it is, then the public prosecutor to the court brings the case. If the public prosecutor thinks that it is not compatible to proceed in the court, then the person cannot bring it up to court by himself, because it is criminal law.
But if you are on the other hand the subject of discrimination because of your ethnicity or race, for example, at a job, you can make a case your own in the civil procedure. If you go that way, you will have the possibility to bring your case, first of all, to administrative system court complaint body (Complaints committee on the equality), they can give the opinion weather there has been committed a discriminatory act or not. If they do think that, the person can go through to civil court system and gets most probably few proceedings to do that.
I practice there are hardly any cases on this subject. We had one case and two more are on its way. But it is recently new law, due to the transposition of EU directives to Danish law since June 2003.
How could you comment on the global consequences caused by the cartoon issue?
It is all easier to look into the back life to that has happened, saying this should be done. I cannot blame the government, not knowing myself in any of country. Not even anybody, or I my work or network has proceeded of the wildest imagination what would happen within demonstrations and boycott. I think that we all undermine the globalisation; we have people from all over the world in Denmark and we have all Denmark in the world – people working out in the fields. How could we have not seen that something like that goes out and is offending to the Muslim community of Denmark could not be just offending to the rest of the world? Especially to the rest of the world that is not as democratic as us.
Did it change the attitude of people in Denmark towards minority?
Time will show. But we see that there is radicalisation to the right wing – people are voting for a People’s party. They would have six or seven mandates extra if there would be elections today. It is not just because of cartoons. But we feel the Muslims anger and the reaction of Muslims, not only in Denmark, but also in the rest of world. In the Denmark there were just very peaceful demonstrations. But Muslims in Denmark are paying the price for what Muslims have done in Palestine. And they are mixing us again and again for being Islamists that we are not.
What do you think are the most effective mechanisms to prevent such situation?
No I don’t think that there should be stronger law neither self-censuring of mass media. I think that we have to start the process of recognition of people and their religious beliefs as being something important for them for that individual and for those groups of people. Recognize them not only legitimately, but also socially and give them a legitimate room or place in a society by not calling them foreigners, second-generation immigrants, refugees or migrants, but call them citizens. Start a new language that does take them in and make them more a part of society more than outsiders. I think that this is a process we have to start and to start it from the school.
* It is national governmental human rights institute and has a mandate for specialized body for equal treatment.