In her opening remarks at the Parliament on October 4th 2001, Pia Kjærsgaard, leader (1995-2012) of the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party, Dansk Folkeparti or DF, and speaker of the Parliament today, called the 9/11 terror attacks a crime against “our civilization.” Kjærsgaard also claimed:
“There is only one civilization, and it is ours. Our opponents cannot avow that they themselves belong to a civilization, as a civilized world would never accomplish such an attack, which encompasses so much hate, savagery and devilishness. Their aim is to spread violence, primitiveness, barbarity and middle age conditions. They…cannot wait to get their paradise in heaven. They want to concoct it on Earth for a thousand years and with the use of weapons, of hate and of killings.”1
According to Kjærsgaard, “Islam, with the fundamentalist pathways we have witnessed, should be resolutely fought against.” Kjærsgaard’s statements against Islam were triggered by the Islamophobic atmosphere characterizing the terror attacks’ aftermath. However, arguments about the “clash of civilizations” and the incompatibility of Islam with the West also reflected views already circulating in the party programs and documents, disseminated through the party paper Dansk Folkeblad, and voiced by DF politicians since at least the 1990s. Yet, from 2001 on, the DF position against Islam took sharper tones and turned towards culturalist and identity based standpoints. The node of the DF anti-Islam discourse is in fact not so much driven by the differences between religions, nor between religion and secularism, but rather by representing Islam as a major threat to the nation’s values, principles and cultural identity.
The 9/11 attacks served to amplify DF’s culturally-framed discourses on immigration and to combine them with framings of national security and debates about the totalitarian nature of Islam. The convergence of the domestic and of the international framing of Islam strengthened and deepened the construction of an overreaching “Islamic threat”2 leading to the proliferation of Islamophobic positions in Danish society. Since 2001, the politicization of Islam in the public political agenda and in media debates3 ascended, with direct consequences for public attitudes towards Islam and for the representation of the Muslim community in politics and society.
Our aim in this paper is to give an account of the evolution of right-wing populist positions on Islam and—indirectly—the Muslim community in Denmark, by using this as a window to better understand increasingly fluid conceptions of national and cultural identity, belonging, religion, and the relationships between the majority and minority. Drawing on interviews we conducted with Danish politicians across the political spectrum, our study examines how Islam is discussed and debated. We found that for politicians at the national and local level, Islam has transformed into a floating signifier, in the sense that the different understandings of Islam seem to float between different meanings or concepts. Noteworthy is the different and interchangeable uses of Islam to indicate elements that pertain to religion, but much more often refer to cultural, socio-political, and gender issues.
Our data suggest that the right-wing populist readings of Islam as a marker of cultural, and societal difference, have spilled over from the populist right to the mainstream. In this sense, the Danish case speaks to the accommodation of right-wing populist views and framings about immigration and Islam. This makes it increasingly difficult for voters to clearly distinguish between what the main political parties stand for when it comes to questions of immigration and positions towards Islam. The debate also discloses the elaboration of similar “conventional discourses”4 which are often repeated in the public sphere and by the media, and which have become internalized. Further, incongruity often emerges regarding the narratives of the present and future role of Islam in Danish society.
The paper develops around five main sections: in the first section, we briefly analyze the DF’s rise, development and consolidation in light of the party’s ideology and in relation to the other parties’ responses to tackle right-wing populist electoral appeals. In the second section, we look at perceptions, attitudes, and framings of immigration and Islam, both within public opinion and among political parties, by referring to our interviews with party representatives and documents, as well as election surveys. We observe how Islam is represented as a main religious and cultural challenger that threatens national identity and security and negatively impacts societal cohesion and the welfare state. The third section deals with questions of community construction, national identity and belonging by addressing concepts such as being Danish, or “Danish-ness” (Danskhed), and how these are understood and debated in the interviews. Questions of identity, and inclusion/exclusion are often associated with questions of immigration, cultural differences, and the role played by Islam in society. In the fourth section, we analyze views of the future by focusing on the relationship between Denmark and the outer world and especially on the hopes, concerns, and expectations that the party representatives express about the future. The fifth and final section strives to wrap up and to offer an overview of the role of Islam in Denmark, on the basis of the observations discussed in the other sections.