Bashy Quraishy

During a recent study trip to Holland with a Danish group of adult education teachers, I had the opportunity to see, how energetic and concrete most Dutch politicians are in their work of fostering integration and preventing discrimination. We met Hedy D’Ancona, the former cultural minister of Holland, who is now leading the European parliamentary group of the Dutch labour party. She is a very active member of the parliamentary committee fighting racism and xenophobia in Europe.

Hedy D’Ancona explained to our delegation that Dutch political parties have understood - once and for all - that Holland is a multi-ethnic, multireligious and multi-cultural society. This is their starting point in all ~ -political considerations dealing with the formulation of laws and the implementation of policies. This model is an ideal for any decent and humane society in Europe, where ethnic minorities would have the same rights, same duties and most important of all, the same opportunities to take active part in the society they live in. But, reality is different.

Before I come to the subject of the relationship between ethnic minorities and political parties, I would like to briefly describe the history of migration to Denmark, where I live and work. In my opinion the subject I am going to deal with is applicable not only to Denmark, but equally to all other European countries, where ethnic minorities have made their homes over the last 25 years.

For the last decade I have had opportunity to work on a daily basis with all ethnic minorities in Europe and thus to study the problems they are facing. Whether these problems are socioeconomic, political or cultural, they are identical in nature and substance. I have noticed that when European authorities talk about integration, they are referring mainly to people from Third World countries like Sri Lanka, Turkey, Pakistan, Morocco and others from the Middle East and the African continent.

Today, such discussions take place in almost every political and social fora, dwelling on the presence of ethnic minorities from Third World countries in Europe. Whether these discussions are being held in parliament or on the street, by intellectuals or by the common people, they usually end up raising more questions than answers. Some of the questions which are most often raised by the Europeans are: Should minorities be integrated or segregated; Why don’t they organise themselves and try to work through the existing political setup? In contrast, ethnic minorities find themselves asking two very basic questions: Are we welcome in the European political parties? And if so, under what conditions and on whose terms. Not being European, but living here permanently, I am not in a position to answer the first set of questions, however, let me relate to the last two questions. First, a little background about Denmark.

It is a small country with 5. 2 million people. Despite its small size it is very interesting to recall that Denmark was a sizable colonial power. In the 1600’s the Danes were the first white people who came to India. They had colonies and built forts, still in clear evidence, on the West Coast of Africa, in the Caribbean and Norway itself. Until recently Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Iceland were under the Danish colonial rule. In spite of this contact with the outside world, Danes managed to keep their population homogeneous. This concept of one country, one language, one religion and one kingdom is deeply rooted in the Danish political and cultural consciousness. After the second world war Denmark, like other European countries, experienced a huge industrial boom that resulted in shortage of labour. First, women entered the labour market, and then in the late sixties, unskilled labour was imported from Yugoslavia, Turkey, Morocco, Pakistan and other countries. In the 1980’s Denmark also received refugees from Vietnam, South America, Iran, Sri Lanka, Palestine and later from Somalia and Iraq. So we see a long history of contact with others, right up until today.

Denmark is one of the oldest monarchies in the world. The Queen is the constitutional head of state, but the government is run by a democratically elected parliament. There are 16 established political parties but only eight of these sit in the parliament. They represent a wide spectrum of ideologies, from the ultra-liberal, anti-ethnic minority party - called Fremskridtspartiet, to a coalition of five left wing groups under the name Enhedslisten. Some parties on the surface seem to be friendly towards ethnic minorities. They ask good questions in the parliament during a debate about legislation relating to ethnic minorities, racism, asylum policies or alien laws. But that’s as far as it goes. If one studies their political programme and party manifesto, there is no formulated policy on ethnic minorities and their problems, let alone solutions to these problems. On the contrary, one will encounter the notion that ethnic minorities themselves are the main problem! There is hardly any established co-operation between the political parties and the ethnic minorities on any level. Danish political parties do not want the ethnic minorities to participate in the political process on any level where they can make a difference, or where they can relate to the problems of the minorities and formulate an independent policy.

Even the Social Democratic party which has a reputation for solidarity with socially disadvantaged groups in the society, seems almost frightened of their own members reaction, if the leadership sides with the ethnic minorities in a public debate. My observation is that most political parties in Denmark have a decidedly hostile policy towards ethnic minorities. For example, when well known politicians from different parties write articles, give speeches or issue statements, they are often insulting towards minority cultures, customs and religions, especially Islam. These statements are based on ignorance, lack of research and documentation, or they are simply based on personal prejudices. Nevertheless, such statements have a devastating and negative effect on public opinion which is already dosed with questionable information from the media.

Very recently, the Danish Foreign Minister, normally a very cautious and tactful politician, came Out with a statement that ‘Islam was a danger to Denmark’. I strongly believe that politicians use ethnic minorities as a scapegoat to win votes and to establish their credibility in the society, by becoming more and more hostile towards the presence of ethnic minorities.

We have noticed that most of the new laws that are making life more difficult for the minorities, are being passed with large majorities in parliament. Even the socialist parties like Socialistisk Folkeparti has voted in favour of the repatriation of minorities to their original home countries and the forced distribution of minority children in the school system.

The relationship between the political parties and the ethnic minorities is very superficial. There is no political party that has openly supported the candidacy of an ethnic person to the parliament. On the local level, however, some ethnic candidates have been accepted because they attracted minority votes in local elections. These elected local counsellors have no real say in municipality governance or policies towards ethnic minorities. They are in fact just the icing on the cake - a decoration.

In the last 25 years no political party has come up with a clear policy on integration, whether in parliament or at grassroots level. There is no visible cooperation based on equality between political parties and ethnic minority organisations or unions. Minorities point of view, their thoughts and their suggestions almost never have any influence. Though the ethnic minorities from Third World countries only make up two-percent of the Danish population, they get disproportionately large attention in all the Danish media. Coverage is often emotional, lacking objectivity and balance.

Linked to lack of minority influence in politics, is the absence of real opportunities in the labour market. Even well qualified ethnic youth with fluent Danish language skills find themselves at the back of the line, when it comes to jobs, housing, education and trainee positions. One can say, without hesitation, ethnic minorities have serious problems in every European society. These include, high unemployment, concentration in poor or deprived housing areas, lack of education among youth, a rise in crime, drug abuses, break-up of families and discrimination. All these we face on a daily basis. There is no doubt that some of these problems are created by the societies we live in, while others are created by ourselves. The important point is that these problems are piling up with no remedy in sight. Lack of consultation is also a serious problem.

The policies being implemented which influence the daily life of ethnic minorities or their future in Danish society are formulated and decided without consultation. Lest someone accuse me of being ‘the boy crying wolf’, let me say that I am personally and professionally involved and committed to Danish politics by serving as the Vice Chairman of the Ministry of Interior, Advisory Board for Ethnic Minorities; as a member of the Commission for Ethnic Equality established by the Danish Parliament; and as a board member of European Politics in Denmark. In addition, I work with the largest federation of ethnic minorities, IND-SAM, as Chief Editor. of the bilingual magazine ETNICA. Yet in all of these tasks it has never happened that a Danish politician said, Let’s sit down with the ethnic minorities and discuss the issues they find important". Instead, the operative and incorrect assumption is that minorities socioeconomic and political problems are simply a matter of cultural differences and lack of expertise of Danish language’.

Progress has been made over the years, we recognise that. The organisational life of minorities is lively. They have become actively involved in the debate but more important in initiatives concerning minorities. The Documentation and Counselling Centre (DRC), a voluntary initiative plays and important role in countering discrimination in Danish society through research and publications. The prime ministers’s anti-racist speech at the opening of parliament, the labour unions campaign "room for everyone" and the increase in political consciousness among minorities are all positive signs.

But, and this is an important but, - after all these years of political hardship and begging, I am convinced that in this present rigid European state of affairs, negative political development, Eurocentric cultural arrogance, rise in racism and a tussle between the rich North and the poor South, - the ethnic minorities from Third World countries living in Europe have no hopeful future to look forward to. It would be naive and politically immature to believe that the majority society, which has all the cards and the power in it’s hand, would voluntarily share it with ethnic minorities. In view of this, my advice to ethnic minorities has always been to stop begging and start organising.

The time has come when we should formulate our demands to the society we live in, and take active part in the local and national political process through our own party political platforms. The Norwegian initiative to form INLO is a step in the right direction. It is supported and encouraged by all Danish ethnic minorities.

Our struggle from being guest workers to becoming ethnic minorities has been a very hard one. Organising began in 1981, when several immigrant unions from Turkey, Morocco and Greece among others, founded IND-sam. The first joint organisation was GFD: the Guest Workers Counsel in Denmark, formed in 1976, today called IFD: The Immigrants Council in Denmark. IFD had it’s breakthrough in the 1980 debate about a ministerial report entitled "Report on Foreign Workers Social Adjustment in the Country." IFD worked out an alternative report, and thereby, the first suggestions to solve the immigrant problems put forward by their own organisation. Those who worked actively on the report, found that the organisation was not sufficiently active, and so they founded a new federation, IND-sam.

Today, IND-sam is the largest federation of ethnic minorities in Denmark comprising nearly 40 individual organisations. We do lobby work in the parliament, among the political parties, and with individual party members. We have close contact with the labour unions, municipal councils, solidarity organisations, and different institutions. We engage the media about the quality of reporting ethnic minority issues in Denmark. Our bimonthly and bilingual magazine ETNICA is highly respected in Danish political circles. We have close contacts with international minority groups and anti-racist organisations and take part in international conferences.

Despite all this effort and marked success, we often feel that ongoing development is beyond our reach. Perhaps, it is time to change our tactics. Until now all our energy and the focus of our efforts have been to inform the Danish public, in the hopeful expectation that they would accept us as equal citizens. In this struggle we probably and unintentionally, neglected the most important actor in the play, namely the ethnic minorities themselves. The man and woman on the street, who bear the brunt of Danish societal discrimination, who have nowhere to turn to and who’s voice no one hears.

We must focus on these people. The biggest responsibility for minority organisations today is to inform their own members about their legal rights, and the political situation in the country they live in, but also about Europe as a whole.

In order to survive as a marginalised group or individual in a hostile society, it is vital to maintain your self respect, cultural roots and family ties. A few months back there was a great debate in the Danish media about minority organisations. We suggested that it is time now that minorities establish their own party-political platform. With this step we can set our own agenda, negotiate with other political parties, contact the press freely and bring forward our own suggestions for solutions and for new legislation. This is bound to develop and strengthen the self-confidence of the minorities both politically and socially.

Organising politically is an important and necessary step for ethnic minorities today. I believe that time is ripe for it. We see all around us people organising. Yesterdays enemies in Europe, are today partners in the EU. The Scandinavian countries are famous for their coordinated policies in every facet of political and social life. Minorities should face this challenge by organising themselves, not only on local and national level, but also on a pan-Scandinavian and pan-European level. Only by creating a common front will minorities be able to get the influence which they need and should have. I want to take the liberty to suggest that all ethnic minorities in Scandinavia should get together and form a Scandinavian Ethnic Minority Counsel.

Our organisations in Denmark would do every thing in our capacity to achieve this objective. In order to influence a political system, one must first understand how it works; something that can only be learned through experience. Therefore, ethnic minorities must demand the right to be represented by themselves and not by surrogates. We have to protest publicly, through the media and through the political system. It may not be easy. Influence is not served up on a silver plater; it has to earned through mature and democratic action in the political arena.