By Sune Haugbolle.
On Thursday night, al-Jazeera aired its much touted and feared programme about racism in Denmark. The trailers aired in the last week had sent alarm bells ringing among both politicians and media here in Denmark. The programme promised to expose Danish racism, intolerance, and Islamophobia, and could maybe trigger negative reactions in the region?
So far, no sign of an uproar from that notorious Arab street that should cause Danes to be alarmed… First of all, because people in the Middle East have much more important things to worry about than Danes and Denmark (I know this is hard to believe for some). And second, because the programme did not touch on any of the religiously fused issues that brought matters to a head during the Muhammad cartoon crisis. The story about failed integration in Western Europe is not a new one, even though the programme probably added to any dismay Arabs may already have felt towards Denmark. And maybe just because a lot of people will have found the tone a little shrill – certainly if they have any personal experience with Denmark.
I personally found instructor Awad Jouma’s portrayal of our problems with immigration, racism and crime in Denmark really black and white, both in content and form. The programme zoomed in on the most negative aspects and blew them out of proportion. Talk about al-rai wal-rai al-akher… For example, there was an unreasonably large focus on the Danish Nazi party, a tiny group of lunatics and not in any way representative of neither Danish attitudes towards immigrants nor the real political issues at stake.
Namely, principally, the Danish People’s Party and its central position in Danish politics since 2001. The regime change in 2001 was touched upon, but not analysed in any details that could have helped Arab viewers understand the situation. If any one thing about Denmark and Muslims would be worth communicating to the Arab world, it would be a nuanced, detailed story of how an extreme right wing party (Fremskridtspartiet) in the mid-1990s morphed into what has become the deciding factor in Danish immigration policies. How fears of Islam among some population groups have been blown out of proportion and used politically, and in the process changed the basic rules of public debate in Denmark.
As it was presented here, the viewer had no chance of understanding why around 10% of the Danish population vote for this party, how it conquered parts of the middle ground, and what relation this change has to racism. And, not least, how a large part of the Danish population is both alarmed and ashamed about our right-wing turn. The viewers of this programme would have learned little about neither the Danish “Kulturkampf” between left and right, nor the important implications it has had on politics and media in the last seven years. And it is no excuse that the director was an outsider: indeed, he was not. Awad Jouma lived most of his life in Denmark, and has previously shown some of the more positive aspects of that experience in a documentary about his father, also shown on al-Jazeera.
What we got instead was a vaguely formulated thesis, sustained by the usual fare of over-dramatizing background music, about how racism in the Danish population, broadly speaking, has lead to a number of things: to failed immigration, to crime among young immigrants, to the Danish police assisting ostensibly racist biker gangs like Hell’s Angels in their ongoing war against immigrant gangs, and how Danish foreign policy has become completely entangled with American and Israeli interests. All a result of racism in Danish society, mind you. The blame fell squarely on the Danish population.
There is of course racism, and there are anti-Muslim sentiments in Denmark, which is something we are all struggling with. And there is, in my opinion, way too little debate about it in the Danish media which appear to have agreed that tackling racism amounts to “political correctness,” a “Swedish” stage of development which Danish society has luckily long surpassed, as the Danish immigrant politician Nasser Khader formulated it on the news show DR2 deadline Thursday night. We should face our demons, (even if that makes us Swedes in the eyes of some), by all means, and we and outsiders interested in Danish affairs should understand how mainstream politics became infused with fear of “the other.” Not least because it not a purely Danish issue, but a problem in all of Europe. Therefore TV documentaries, very influential media forms in today’s world, are welcome.
But such a project calls for a nuanced and sensitive critique, not sensationalistic TV journalism. Where the programme worked tremendously well was in the parts where it talked about conditions in Denmark’s Sandholm asylum seekers center, which like other such centres truly is a shame and a crime. But mostly, we were served a spicy sauce of conspiracy theories, racist bikers, and the gloomiest shots of wonderful Copenhagen I have ever seen in my life! Every single image was of grimy suburban streets in February. Having seen this programme I think more than one Arab viewer would have been left wondering why anyone would have wanted to leave the Middle East for Denmark in the first place.
Understanding the roots of violence, racism and cultural divides in our societies can never be a blame game. The first thing we must realise is that they are shared predicaments, and that we must look for the answers, in a careful and nuanced way, both in Europe and in the Middle East.