A bizarre new list to categorise Muslims based on their countries of origin is at the heart of what critics call an attempt to further discriminate against the community.
Two years ago, Denmark’s former Minister for Immigration and Integration Mattias Tesfaye wanted to find out if there was a connection between where people came from and how they appeared in the ministry’s crime and employment statistics.
This led to Tesfaye overseeing the creation of a new and unusual statistical measure, MENAPT: Middle East, North Africa, Pakistan and Türkiye, which is different from the classification for non-Western countries already in use by Statistics Denmark — the central authority collecting, compiling and publishing statistics on the Danish society.
MENAPT is an extension of an existing controversial term MENA (Middle East and North Africa), an European construct to club together nations of tens of millions in groups for their own foreign policy needs.
The term MENA is also seen as a colonial legacy, since it was the British India Office that first coined the term ‘Middle East’ in the 1850s, and which was later popularised by Alfred Thayer Mahan, a celebrated advocate of American naval power.
Dr Etee Bahadur, a faculty at Jamia Millia Islamia, wrote in OpIndia that the nomenclature ‘Middle East’ is somewhat reminiscent of Eurocentrism. “After all, the region can be termed ‘Middle East’ only when looked at from Europe.”
If looked at geographically, the area falling in the ‘Middle East’ region would actually be along the western periphery of Asia.
So, what’s new in the Danish list is that it targets a select few countries and only those with predominantly Muslim populations — a list of countries never classified in the same pot before. For example, Israel fails to find a place in the Danish list and so does Eritrea and Ethiopia despite being geographically placed between Egypt, Somalia and Djibouti.
Israel, Eritrea and Ethiopia are not predominantly Muslim, unlike Egypt, Somalia and Djibouti.
Though the list was introduced in 2020, it has since then become an important part of the country’s political rhetoric. Moreover, the new citizenship regulations put into effect last year indicated that applicants from MENAPT countries would be judged separately from their counterparts in the non-Western list.
Critics of MENAPT see this as an attempt that could lead to further discrimination against Muslims living in Denmark, and especially those belonging to countries on the list.
Dr Amani Hassani, a sociologist who writes on anti-Muslim racism, racialisation and spatialisation, says the worry is that the MENAPT category will become part of the evaluation of citizenship applications.
“Some politicians who are part of the citizenship approval committee have in past years admitted that they vote against applicants who originate from Muslim majority countries,” she tells TRT World.
“If politicians get a clear statistical tool to differentiate between Muslim applicants from other non-Western applicants, they will be able to reject any citizenship applications from Muslims with little oversight.”
Hassani says the category has already been used by Statistics Denmark to differentiate between non-Western and MENAPT immigrants and descendants in terms of employment rates and poverty levels.
“It is not difficult to imagine how the government will be able to interpret these numbers as a way of targeting legislation and policies towards Muslim immigrants and descendants,” she says.
European Islamophobia Report 2021, released late last month, where Hassani authored a chapter on Denmark, highlighted in reference to the MENAPT list how structural barriers for Muslims increased through new policies and legislation in Denmark.
It said the category might enable the government to specifically target Muslim citizens by inferring their Muslimness based on their countries of origin, and allowing politicians to explicitly discriminate against Muslim citizenship applicants with little public oversight.
In 2021, a report published by the Danish Institute of Human Rights revealed that 35 percent of all descendants of migrants did not possess Danish citizenship, many of whom were Muslims and born in Denmark, which hampered their prospects of participating on a level-playing field as their Danish peers.
Muslims as the quintessential ‘other’
Hassani is a Denmark born and bred after her grandparents moved to the country as labour migrants in the late 1960s.
Coming of age in the years post-9/11, Hassani says she was old enough to experience the shift in the political and media discourse on Muslims in Denmark in the early 2000s, and how it has progressively gotten worse since then.
With an increase in anti-Muslim, xenophobic and anti-immigration policies in Denmark, Hassani took interest in studying the tension between Denmark representing itself as a progressive post-racial society and the actual experiences of Muslims in everyday life.
“Denmark is similar to many other countries in Europe in relation to its growing Islamophobia. It is important to understand how Islamophobia – like other types of racism – is a way of upholding racial power dynamics within society,” she says.
“There’s a vested interest in representing Muslims as the quintessential ‘other’ in relation to the general Danish population, which is assumed to be white and non-Muslim. This type of political rhetoric trickles down to everyday interactions within the population.”
This is reflected in Ebad Pasha’s study on the lived experiences of second-generation Pakistanis in Denmark, which shows how growing racism against Muslims has impacted their sense of belonging.
Pasha is a scholar of political science, who spent two years in Denmark from 2018-2020, exploring the impact of increasing racism, and the different forms it takes, on the feelings of belonging and ontological security among second-generation Pakistanis in the country.
One of his areas of focus was to look into how those people were coping with the situation and its impact on their future plans.
“The people I spoke with were being increasingly reminded of their ‘otherness’ through media, political narratives and structural personal forms of racism that they do not belong in Denmark, especially in the past two decades,” Pasha says.
“This is happening even for those who thought that they did belong but are now beginning to learn that that may not necessarily be the case.”
In conversation with TRT World, Pasha says he finds it worrying because if the prevalent and rising racism is having an impact on ontological security and belonging of people who may otherwise be considered “well-integrated into the society”, things are probably “much worse for others”.
“Media and politicians have a major role to play in this scenario and it is the more organised and structural forms of racism that exacerbate the process of un-belonging among minorities,” he says.
The question of Danish values
When Tesfaye, who is now Denmark’s justice minister, went ahead with his plans to put into motion the MENAPT list, he argued that the new figures, or statistics, coming out “will provide a more honest political discussion about the minority of immigrants who create very big challenges for our society”.
As of January 1, 2020, people belonging to the MENAPT list made up over 54 percent of all non-Western peoples residing in Denmark.
Hassani says while anti-Muslim attitudes are represented across Denmark’s political spectrum, there is a difference among politicians in the way they categorise Muslims.
“While some politicians in the political right tend to see all Muslims in Denmark as essentially problematic, there are political liberals who differentiate between ‘good Muslims’ and ‘bad Muslims’,” she says.
What Hassani means is that Muslims who go to school, work, adopt Danish values and do not request too much religious accommodation are deemed “good”.
“But at the same time, Muslims, who are not financially independent (from welfare), who cannot afford to move out of social housing, who struggle with speaking the Danish language or whose ‘Muslimness’ is too visible, are often vilified. In other words, if you are not a successful productive Muslim, you are a problem because of your Muslimness.”
Tesfaye’s reference to a minority of immigrants as a challenge to Danish society is a part of and represents a political discourse: preserving and safeguarding Danish values.
Hassani, meanwhile, says this is a trend following across Europe. “It is turning into an ethnonationalist approach to understanding national culture and values.”
“Western nations have historically pivoted themselves against Islam and Muslims to define their own ‘liberal values’. It is not only a way of essentialising Danish values to exclude alternative expressions of Danishness, but it is often also a process that is highly racialised — our liberal values vs their illiberal values,” she says.
“It is unsurprising then that Danish values are presented in contrast to Muslims. Muslim values are represented as anti-democratic, backwards and unequal, while Danish values are democratic, progressive and equal. Muslim values are thus represented as inherently anti-Danish values.”