Last month, on the DR2 programme Debatten (The Debate), MP Martin Henriksen cast doubt on the Danishness of high school student Jens Philip Yadani.
This was the exchange:
Yazdani: There are many of us who were brought up here after our parents moved here.
Henriksen: That doesn’t make you Danish.
Yazdani: I was born and raised in Denmark, went to Danish primary school and high school. We are just as Danish as everyone else. And those who are in my class too – the women who choose to wear headscarves because of their religion.
Henriksen: It is not possible for us to bring the whole world to Denmark, and for them to have children, and for them to become Danish. It is simply a simplification of the debate, which is offensive to the generations who helped build up this country.
Henriksen’s remarks caused an uproar, but he didn’t back down when given a chance to clarify his remarks to TV2 News.
“You cannot conclude that just because you are born and raised in Denmark, speak Danish, and go to Danish school, that you are Danish.”
This would have been an easy headline: ‘Martin Henriksen tells Danish teenager he has no right to call himself Danish’. It would have gotten loads of clicks – not least because Henriksen represents the populist Danish People’s Party – and be seen as just another example of xenophobia from a party that keeps the government in power.
Sure, I am saddened that Henriksen told a young man born in Denmark to a Danish mum and Iranian dad that he isn’t Danish. You cannot pretend to know someone based on who his parents might or might not be. It’s stupid.
But it’s also an oversimplification to dismiss Henriksen’s outburst as mere xenophobia, because it prevents us from having an important debate about what it means to be a good citizen.
If I am generous in my analysis, I understand what Henriksen means. Danish identity is not arbitrary. It’s built on a long, shared history that has shaped Denmark’s specific culture and society. As a result, the Danish people have a lot in common with each other, which fosters trust and makes the society easy to navigate.
So, Henriksen argues, just being born in Denmark is no guarantee that a person has a deep understanding of the culture that they are born into. His party often points to “parallel societies” that exist outside of mainstream Danish society – communities that are characterised by higher levels of crime and unemployment. His party often blames Islam for fostering these parallel societies. The insinuation is that Muslims are more committed to the welfare of other Muslims than to the broader Danish society.
But how then do we explain crime and anti-social behaviour among individuals who, by his own criteria, can be classified as Danish? Why does their Danish identity not prevent them from displaying selfish behaviour? From committing tax evasion, hate crimes and misogyny?
A good society is one where everyone is invested in each other. It is out of this concern that liberal values emerged, along with the idea that all people deserve rights, security and a fair legal process. And this is what makes Henriksen’s approach counterproductive: he amplifies the bad side of diversity without trying to find common ground with those he disagrees with, making already-marginalised communities feel that there’s no point in trying to join Danish society.
Finding common ground in a diverse society does not mean compromising on the central liberal values that make Denmark a wonderful country to live in. In fact, reaching out and including everyone only strengthens the argument that the best societies are built on liberal values.
If our ambition is to create a cohesive society where we are invested in each other’s success, we need to move on from the Danishness debate and instead focus on promoting the qualities that makes us better citizens. M