The production studio is packed with spectators. On the other side of the soundproof glass, Rushy Rashid Højbjerg is interviewing historian Lars Hedegaard about his latest book. It recounts his thoughts following the assassination attempt on his life in 2013. The door is flanked by two agents from PET, the domestic intelligence agency, who follow Hedegaard wherever he goes.
The perpetrator has yet to be apprehended, but the suspected motive is Hedegaard’s criticism of Islam and immigrants with Muslim backgrounds. Seated to his left on the debate panel is Tarek Ziad Hussein. A law student and practicing Muslim, Hussein suggests that Hedegaard’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam means the historian is actually the one who’s an Islamic extremist.
Hedegaard replies that the Islamic State need look no futher than Islam’s holy book – the Koran is to blame for inspiring the ISIS reign of terror. The heated back-and-forth continues before Hedegaard bristles with irritation, and mutters “Oh, shut up!”
In the production studio, the onlookers respond to the exchange with hoots of satisfaction.
Blood, sweat and tears
These sorts of exchanges aren’t uncommon on Rushys Roulette, Højbjerg’s weekly two-hour radio programme, which addresses immigration, integration and identity. Do Muslims want to overthrow democracy and replace it with sharia law? How many refugees should Denmark accept? Can we differentiate between desirable and undesirable immigrants simply based on their passports?
“I put my blood, sweat and tears into my programme – literally. I had the Jyllands-Posten blogger Mikael Jalving on the show to talk about a column he wrote, where he had predicted an inevitable civil war between Muslims and Danes. My voice broke when I asked him, ‘When you write things like that you tear me apart. Which bracket do you put me in? I am a Danish Muslim. Why don’t we try to stick together and fight for the same thing?’”
The merits of multiculturalism are vigorously discussed in Denmark, but the debate can often be less than subtle. Immigration opponents argue that immigrants are overly represented in criminal statistics, and bring cultural and religious baggage from parts of the world with little understanding of liberal democracy. Then there’s the other side, who argues that the world’s most successful countries encourage immigration and that cultural differences can easily be overcome.
Højbjerg doesn’t think it needs to be so polarised.
She wants to see a middle ground between naivety and prejudice emerge from the national conversation, and uses her weekly show to add nuance, identify problems but also to explore solutions. “My programme aims to show the diversity of a society – you can’t just say ‘all Muslims are like this’. Jyllands-Posten recently ran a series of stories about Muslims in Denmark, where they claimed that if there were an election tomorrow most would vote for left wing parties. But what is a Muslim voter? When you put people in a bucket with the tag Muslims, are you sure they are all the same type of Muslims?” she asks.
“That’s why I bring in my people with their funny names who speak perfect Danish who argue and discuss values, everyone from [pro-caliphate] Hizb-ut-Tahrir to [national conservative] Danskernes Parti. I want to bring in as many voices as possible to show the variety and diversity of views – some of my brown guests are whiter than the white!”
Pakistani or Danish?
Born in Pakistan, Højbjerg moved to Denmark with her parents in the 1970s and has faced the same struggles as many other immigrants who are torn between their parents’ culture and the values of their new home. As a young woman, she wasn’t allowed to have boy friends or play sports, and in later life she almost agreed to two different arranged marriages.
“I remember the crossroads where I had to decide whether to stick with my Pakistani cultural identity, or leave it behind. It was July 25, 1998. I was having lunch with my mother and afterwards I would go on television as the first ever news anchor with an immigrant background. I knew when I walked through the door that there was no going back to a life as a Pakistani woman living in the shadow of men. I would have to choose my own husband and my own life. But I decided – I live in Denmark, my life is Danish, my thoughts and feelings are Danish. I will never move to Pakistan to live the life they want me to live.”
Højbjerg’s parents didn’t plan to stay in Denmark forever. But as the years passed and Højbjerg became increasingly integrated into Danish culture, her parents views remained frozen in 1970s Pakistan. They weren’t carried along by changing attitudes in their home country, nor did they try to join Danish society. They existed as an island, alienated by both the society that they lived in and the society they left behind.
“The logic and tools they used to navigate their lives were stuck in 1970s Pakistan while my brothers and I were always referring to modern Danish values. We were pulled in different directions.”
Many immigrants who move to different parts of the world share this experience. It is an individual and complex experience, and there is no simple way to help people navigate the different identities. Each experience is unique, says Højbjerg – she can’t explain why she made the break for Danish society, where others can’t or won’t.
The new voices of multiculturalism
In the late 1990s, Højbjerg belonged to a small grassroots group involved in the immigration debate. Everyone eventually moved on, and while she tried her hand at different jobs, the chance to host her own radio show saw her drawn back into the debate in 2012.
Højbjerg’s platform is now helping to foster a new generation of voices. Prominent voices such as Geeti Amiri, Tarek Ziad Hussein and Khatareh Parwani all appeared on her show as they started their foray into the political debate. Each has thousands of followers on Facebook and their updates can garner hundreds of likes and comments.
“Their careers took off after appearing on my show, before they moved onto larger mainstream media. But their voices would have gotten out anyway, even without my help,” she says, adding that Facebook has helped democratise the political debate.
The public can use their ‘likes’ to endorse thinkers who resonate with them, and traditional media no longer calls the shots when it comes to which stories get told, and which get silenced.
The rise of non-white participants in the political debate has helped develop a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be a Dane with an immigrant background. Prejudice and stereotyping is still widespread, however, and often just having dark skin means having to defend Islam, even when you’re not a Muslim.
One example is Poya Pakzad, political communication adviser for Action Aid Denmark, and frequent media commentator on the Middle East. In a Facebook update this October, he wrote: “I simply refuse to start a discussion by stating that I am not religious. It should be completely irrelevant.”
On Højbjerg’s show, guests are brought in to represent their own views, which may be political or religious. However, guests are never selected to act as representatives of specific ethnic, religious or political groups. This distinction is often confused in the Danish media, she argues.
“I choose people because of how qualified their views, abilities and professional talents are, not their backgrounds. It’s what I do to try and make the debate more qualified. I don’t give a damn about what people say, but how well they are able to justify their position.”
Left-right: VUC teacher Tore Lindvang, law student Tarek Ziad Hussein, Rushy Rashid Højbjerg and historian Lars Hedegaard.
Tackling immigration fears
The recent influx of refugees has sparked one of the most polarised debates in years. Thousands mobilised to support the new arrivals and many Danes broke the law to help refugees travelling via Denmark to Sweden, transporting them across the border.
But not everyone has reacted with open arms. The Syrian people are not my kin is the title of a column by Danish People’s Party (DF) MP Marie Krarup. Published last month, Krarup argued that despite her Christian convictions, Syrian refugees are so foreign that “it would be crazy to love them because I don’t know them.”
Krarup’s party, DF, emerged from the June elections as Denmark’s second largest party. The electoral surge has been interpreted as a strong public backlash against increased immigration, but Højbjerg is confident that Krarup’s views don’t define all the party’s supporters.
“That’s just the way Marie Krarup reads the Christian message, there are very few people like her in Danish society. When I give talks all over the country, I don’t meet people who share this view, I meet people who are eager to know how they can help. I see a rising movement against the xenophobia that has been part of the Danish story for many years. It’s good.”
Højbjerg understands that Krarup and anti-immigration bloggers like Jalving are scared – she is too, of the radical and extreme groups populated by white and brown Danes alike. While a radicalised young Muslim man killed two people in Denmark earlier this year, a young white Swedish man walked into a school in Sweden in October and murdered two people in a racist and politically-motivated attack.
“Me and Michael [Jalving] and Marie [Krarup] have the same challenges to fight. But won’t get anywhere if we just fight amongst ourselves. What I try to do is to put some grey shades in this debate to show that, as far as Muslims are concerned, there are many different shades.”
Denmark used to be open
With arson attacks against asylum centres in Sweden, the rise of anti-immigration movement Pegida in Germany, concerns are mounting that Denmark might also balk on its commitment to help refugees.
But Højbjerg is hopeful.
“When my father arrived in Denmark in the 1970s, he was taken in by a Danish family who had a spare room where their deceased son used to live. He was treated with kindness, and taught Danish traditions such as how to celebrate Christmas. I thought maybe we had lost that kindness over the years, but over the past six months I have seen the kindness of that generation return – even while some people support groups like Germany’s Pegida,” she says.
“You can see that there is a movement of people who want to help, who acknowledge that we are part of a global world. We are a part of the problem that brought Syrians here. So we should be finding the solutions together.” M