Christmas trees, Islam and right wing populism: a Danish Christmas story

‘Christmas takes ages and costs a lot of money…’ goes a popular Danish Christmas carol. This year, Christmas started early and revitalized old debates about failed integration, cultural incompatibility and Islamization.

Danish Muslims celebrate Ashura in Copenhagen. Demotix/Gonzales Photo. All rights reserved.Danish Muslims celebrate Ashura in Copenhagen. Demotix/Gonzales Photo. All rights reserved.

Danish electoral surveys indicate that values, and herewith issues related to immigration, integration and Islam, are no longer central determinants of the Danes' voting preferences. Their saliency has been decreasing since 2008, when the global recession hit the Danish economy. Today Danish voters are more concerned about the state of the national economy, the labour market and the welfare state. However, what just happened in recent weeks demonstrates that the rich repertoire of exclusionist politics, cultural homogeneity, anti-immigration and anti-Islam stances are only temporarily silenced under the effects of the crisis. Value-based politics are still out there, and still predominantly focused on Islam.

What happened?

On November the local newspaper Frederiksborg Amts Avis broke the story with a front page article titled: ‘Five Muslims cancel the Danish Christmas spirit (julehygge)’. The story reported that the board of a housing association in Kokkedal, north of Copenhagen had decided not to purchase a Christmas tree this year. But what attracted national attention to a local housing association's seemingly insignificant decision was that the majority of board members were Muslims - and the fact that, only a few weeks earlier, the same board dedicated 60,000 Danish kroner (about 8,000 euro) to celebrating the Muslim Eid holiday.

The story quickly found its way to most of the national media and within two weeks it had been mentioned in over a hundred articles in the Danish mainstream press. Value politics were back again on the nation's agenda, although several details of the meeting and the vote still remain unclear.    

'We told you so': populist right wing voices and the controversy

Unsurprisingly the story was soon co-opted and amplified by most of the populist right wing voices in the country. The Muslim members of the housing association board became the living evidence of what they, the ignored whistle-blowers, had predicted a long time ago. This version of events duly legitimized a new round of debate on value politics and cultural differences, the incompatibility of Islam with western, Christian values and Muslims’ undemocratic and intolerant 'nature'. The story was also used as proof of how Muslims in the west misuse democratic rules when they finally get involved in democratic organs - and operate to replace Christian traditions with Islamic ones.

This logic was clearly and immediately underscored by the Danish People’s Party (DPP), whose spokesman on immigration and integration, MP Martin Henriksen, declared that ’this is the sign of a cultural clash between the Danish and the Muslim culture that has been there a long time - and if we do not fight back, we will lose even more of our own culture’, warning that this is what happens when ‘they [Muslims] get the majority’. To tackle the case itself, the DPP suggested passing a law regulating how housing associations decide on matters of Danish values and traditions. The party also bought the residents a free Christmas tree and organized a public meeting with Danish Christmas cookies and gløgg.

On his blog, another DPP MP, Søren Espersen, criticised the people who were 'trying to minimize the event' – the same who denied the worrying 'problems' of 'the Ramadan dinner, the Muslim veil […] and the halal meat debate’. For Espersen, the build-up of these situations must be an indication of the gravity of the situation – a problem of which, of course, only the DPP had grasped the full importance.

The Christmas tree incident did fit very well into the DPP's traditional discourse, which was recently reiterated by the party's new leader, Kristian Thulesen Dahl. During his appointment speech in September, he maintained that ‘value politics and the cultural struggle remain fundamental issues for the DPP’ and that the ‘fight for our values is determinant for the future of the Danes’. He explicitly linked these values to the Danes' ‘common history and Christian cultural heritage’. Significantly, this stance was put into practice by the appointment of Dahl's predecessor, former DPP leader Pia Kjærsgaard, to the post of 'DPP values spokeswoman', a novelty in Danish politics. This might indicate a return to the DPP's foundational anti-immigration platform. In recent years, the DPP leadership has been eager to distance itself from its single-issue party image: in one of her recent weekly newsletters, Kjærsgaard had even acknowledged that the political debate had moved on after the 2008-09 crisis, determining a shift in Danish politics from value-based issues towards those dealing with the consequences of the financial crisis in Denmark and the EU. Claiming that it was in the 'DPP's DNA' to deal with issues that 'affect and interest people', Kjærsgaard asked: why should the party ‘desperately try to – say - put forward the question of judges wearing the Muslim veil’ when there are ‘other things voters are now concerned about?’

One could argue that the DPP has simply understood the rules of the game. The change of party leadership was also strategic and took place earlier than expected; Kristian Thulesen Dahl is considered, both within and outside the DPP, as an expert on financial issues and the public deficit (his nickname is ‘talknuser’ – 'the number-crusher'), a valuable asset in a period of economic turmoil. However, the Christmas tree story shows that this party wouldn't hesitate to refocus on 'values' if the political climate was right.

DPP members weren't the only ones to react to the Christmas tree story. In an interview on the nationwide TV channel, Conservative MP Tom Behnke called the decision of the housing board ‘intolerant and a sign that integration efforts have failed so badly that Danish traditions are instantly removed and replaced by Muslim traditions when Muslims get a majority', adding he now feared some people wanted to turn Denmark into a Muslim country.

In the columns of the Berlingske daily, Karen Jespersen, a well-known Liberal figure on questions of migration and integration in Denmark, called the Christmas tree affair a 'case in point', demonstrating how radical Muslims were overtaking more moderate positions. For Jespersen, this was the result of the laissez-faire politics promoted by the centre-left - particularly the Social Liberals, whom he claimed were ready to give up on everything when it came to Danish culture and cultural differences.

'If they do not want our Christmas, why should they get our Christmas charity?'

The culturalist view is simple: the success of an immigrant's integration crucially depends on whether his or her cultural background is compatible with the values of the majority. This logic is frequently used in Danish politics today, even to reinforce exclusionist viewpoints on other political matters, such as the welfare state. Cultural and racialist discourses are mobilised to determine if the different migrant groups are considered worthy of benefiting from welfare and public services. Recent studies confirm the close relationship between negative views of the impact of non-western immigration and attitudes towards wealth redistribution and welfare access.

This means that although there is still a generalised and positive attitude towards public spending for traditional welfare sectors, there is an increasing consensus among the population in favour of ‘dualized ’ forms of access to welfare, such as the introduction of policies that would restrict the access to welfare benefits and services for non-western immigrants - now considered to represent a socioeconomic burden and a cultural threat to Danish society. This negative approach to the economic consequences of immigration seems to thrive during times of economic hardship.

Revealing in this respect was an article published by the tabloid Ekstra Bladet only a few days after the Christmas tree incident. The story reported the follow finding: ‘90 percent of those applying for Christmas help are Muslims’. The piece reported that 20 out of 22 applications for Christmas help in a Church Salvation Army district in Northern Jutland came from persons with clear Muslim names. The link with the Christmas tree story was explicit and the underlying assumptions very clear: why should these people get our Christmas help, when they refuse to celebrate the holiday and attempt to abolish it? Shouldn't we rather help our Danish Christians? 

Why doesn't anybody stand up to these discourses?

The most worrying aspect of this controversy was the total lack of response from the other side. This national debate, triggered by a minor local decision, shows how difficult it is for voices that oppose culturalist logics to generate any significant counter-debate on these issues. Concerned about the negative reactions that this would produce among the public opinion and their potential voters, the people's representatives prefer to silence these concerns, hoping to contain the echo and keep away from discussing value politics for as long as possible. Those who violently oppose non-western immigration could make their point – extensively. And the voices that should have contradicted them were nowhere to be heard.

About the author

Susi Meret is assistant professor at the department of Culture and Global Studies, Aalborg University. She is affiliated with the COMID (Centre for the Studies of Migration and Diversity) research group.