By Khaled Diab
The concentration of immigrants in certain poor neighbourhoods in Denmark is far more a sign of the ghetto mentality of the majority than that of minorities.
Friday 16 April 2021
Denmark's plans to break up immigrant ghettos, which it will no longer call “ghettos”, by putting a cap of 30% on the number of “non-western” residents allowed to live in these disadvantage neighbourhoods, appear to be the opposite of segregationist Jim Crow and Apartheid laws – at least at first sight.
This mix of condescension towards and fear of migrants manifests itself in Denmark's decision to become the first European country to strip Syrian refugees of their residency permits because it deems Syrian safe enough for them to return. However, Syria is still deemed unsafe for Danish officials, as reflected in the continued closure of the Danish embassy in Damascus.
This conflicted attitude is also reflected in the Danish bill's language. Rather than speaking of advancing multiculturalism, tolerance and mutual respect, the overarching and primary aim of the new legislative reforms is to combat the emergence of so-called “parallel societies”.
This echoes the “no-go zone” rhetoric that has pervaded far-right discourse for a long time, and which has seeped into mainstream politics in recent years. This kind of seepage is also apparent in other parts of Europe, such as in France, where President Emmanuel Macron has borrowed heavily from the far-right handbook in his scaremongering about “Islamist separatism” in the French republic.
As a multiculturalist through and through, I prefer that people from different backgrounds and walks of life live side by side. In my view, the richness of diversity is its own reward. Beyond that, it has been proven time and again, both empirically and anecdotally, that when people form different communities mix and interact they are less likely to harbour negative views of the terrifying “other”.
However, in a pluralist democracy founded on freedom of choice, this cannot be imposed as a top-down political decision. Sure, the government can put in place incentives to promote diversity, but it cannot force people to live somewhere they do not wish to live.
If a member of a minority finds succour, solace, convenience or a sense of community in living in proximity with people of a similar background, then they should be free to do so.
However, all the available evidence suggests that it is not immigrants and minorities that suffer a ghetto mentality, as the Danish state's efforts suggest, but the majority. Like elsewhere in Europe and America, so-called “white flight” is a major factor behind the high concentration of minorities in certain areas.
For example, one study found significant out-migration of native Danes from areas of Copenhagen with higher concentrations of minority populations. This also applies to education. Many white Danes prefer not to send their children to schools with high concentrations of immigrants.
This presents an immediate practical problem for the Danish government. Even if it manages to force “non-western” residents out of minority “ghettos”, it will need to attract whites to live there if these areas are to reach the target 70% majority population.
Given the reluctance of the majority population to leave its “white ghettos” and move into mixed neighbourhoods, the government will have to employ equally coercive policies or allow its inner cities to be depopulated, with all the social decay that involves.
Another practical difficulty with this policy is its assumption that people possess homogenous, easily classifiable identities. Not only is it unclear what “western” means when it's at home, it is even unclearer what constitutes “non-western”, which covers pretty much the entirety of the globe.
Take my own case. What if I were to decide to move to Copenhagen? Would the fact that I am an EU citizen who is married to a Belgian define me as “western” or the fact that I have an Arab name, speak Arabic and partly grew up in the Middle East lead to my classification as “non-western”?
Does the fact that I'm an atheist qualify me as “western” or does the fact that I was raised a Muslim and am not hostile to Islam disqualify me?
How about my half-Belgian, multicultural, multilingual son? Is he “western” or “non-western”, according to the Danish government's bizarre classifications?
And my situation is not unique. There is hardly anyone who belongs to a minority who has a singular identity, even among conservative Muslims.
More importantly, by fixating on petty identity politics, the Danish state is distracting attention away from the real issue: the predominant reason why minority ghettos exist is socioeconomic marginalisation.
Immigrants generally tend to concentrate in certain areas not because they want to live in these neighbourhoods, but because they have little to no other choice – either they cannot afford to move out or fear experiencing racism when they do. This reality is reflected in how, for example, immigrants who become more prosperous and successful often move out of their own volition.
In 2018, when Denmark embarked on this self-appointed quest to weed out minority ghettos, I warned about the “slippery slope” and that “what may seem a small or lesser evil today often spirals out of control to become a consuming evil”.
While Denmark has yet to fall off the edge into the abyss, the tougher bill being floated now has brought it a step closer to the cliff's edge. It must step back from the precipice before mounting authoritarianism gives way to full-blown fascism.
If the Danish state truly wishes to integrate its minorities, it must stop viewing them as potential enemies and fifth columnists that are plotting to establish “parallel societies”. Instead, it should regard them like other citizens and put in place policies that combat racism and provide them with the opportunities to live in respect and dignity as full and equal members of society.
This article was first published by The New Arab on 30 March 2021.