Harmful myths of immigration

By Nicolai Sennels, authorised psychologist, Copenhagen
Danish original in Jyllands-Posten, March 03 2009, translation by Henrik R. Clausen

The many myths about integration constitute a serious obstacle to the social work. Problems of integration constitute a potential disaster for our welfare societies. Part of the solution is to gain more knowledge: Good social work is dependent on sufficient information, writes Nicolai Sennels.

In my job as psychologist in the Municipality of Copenhagen I have had more than 150 immigrants, refugees and descendants in treatment. Here I will provide an overview of the integration problems as they look when instead of talking about immigrants you talk with them.

While crime among immigrants, Islamic parallel societies and Islamic extremism are having an increasing negativ impact on society, the municipal efforts in the field are still stuck in a series of myths about immigrant crime, extremism and the social efforts.

* The first myth is that there is are no differences between immigrants. But of course there are: People from different cultures need different kinds of support when they face trouble. There is a world of difference between what, say, a Japanese, a Somali and an American will need if they are having or creating trouble. We need to apply cultural sensitivity towards te cultural differences that our immigrants bring along.

My own therapeutic experience with young Muslims is, that they find it extremely difficult to understand traditional Danish pedagogics and therapy. Danish youth is to a much greater extent raised with a tradition of “talking tings over” and reflect upon how they personally feel about things.

Muslims, in contrast, are raised in a culture with clear outer authorities (fathers, tradition, Islam), where the consequence is fast and immediate when the family expectations are broken. They have been raised in a firm setting, and Danish pedagogue-speak falls short towards this group.

* The second myth is that immigrant crime is caused by social problems, and that the cultural background of immigrants have no significance in the context. Also on this one the prejudice does not fit with reality: The conclusion of hundreds of psychological interviews with Muslim immigrants is that the Muslim culture accepts aggression to a very great extent.

While an uncontrollable expression of fury is the fastest way to lose face in Danish culture, it is turned around in the Muslim. The willingness to take revenge is, in Muslim culture, considered an expression of strength, and anger is clearly more socially acceptable in Muslim circles. Aggressive behaviour is considered a social tool, used to obtain ‘respect’, (not merely fear), and status.

The dramatic and destructive manner that Palestinians use to show their rage over the situation in Gaza, the imams incitements to “Holy anger”, family executions (also called ‘Honour killings’) and violent demonstrations in response to the Muhammad cartoons are all examples of how aggressive behaviour is, in Muslim culture, considered a socially acceptable means of expression.

The fact that Muslim immigrants and descendants commit two to three times as much violent crime as ethnic Danes is also partially caused by this. So, yes: The culture of immigrants is an important component in immigrant crime.

* The third myth is that religious extremism is only found in narrow circles. This is a severe mistake. Almost each and every single Muslim I had in therapy took his/her religious tradition quite seriously. In spite of the fact that most do not follow the words of the Quran, their Muslim identity is extremely strong. The Muhammad cartons the attempts to implement democracy in the Islamic world, and pressure by authorities towards integration into the Danish society have created a strong feeling of resentment against Western values.

In particular ‘rootless’ young Muslims feel the attraction of extremist circles, because they are being offered a feeling of being significant and to have a purpose, of life as well as of death, that no ’social project’ can match. Furthermore, religiousness is a source of status in Muslim circles – and intense religiousness gives high status. A dedicated religious practice and the ability to launch conspiracy theories about Western guilt in the appalling conditions in their Muslim home countries constitute an effective source of social recognition in Muslim parts of the society.

These experiences from my work in the Muslim parts of society are completely in line with similar research outside Denmark: 32 percent of Muslim university students in England consider religious killing justified, an d54 percent of French Muslims believe that Sharia law should be applied worldwide.

In Germany only about 12 percent of Muslims consider themselves ‘Germans’ and a full 6 percent are categorized as “extremely radical” with “a high degree of acceptance of religious and political violence.” 6 percent may not sound much, but if we transfer the figure to the estimated 220,000 Muslims in Denmark, which is quite reasonable, it translates into some 13,600 Islamic extremists.

* The fourth myth is that cultural and religious factors have no significance for the frequently poor social and economical situation of immigrants. The theory usually states that immigrants are poor due to causes outside their influence, and that this poverty is the cause of dysfunctional behaviour.

The correlation between poverty and social problems is real, but things are not nearly as black & white as for instance claimed by Social Mayor of Copenhagen Mikkel Warming (Enhedslisten – the Danish hard left political party). For what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Are social problems caused by poverty, or is poverty caused by social problems?

As Jyllands-Posten reported on December 19th 2008, immigrants from Muslim countries and their descendants occupy the top eight spots in the list of countries of origin for criminals – after age and social circumstances have been factored out. Figures like these put Warming and his equals to shame.

But what exactly about the Islamic culture causes humans with this background to fare so poorly economically? After hundreds of psychological interviews concerning the life in their families here in Denmark, it is clear that the primary cause of poverty in these circles is a lack of emphasis on education.

Immigrant parents could support their children in school and in higher educations much more actively. Further, it is the experience of me and many colleagues that children of Muslim immigrants lack understanding of Danish pedagogical style in schools and other educations, and that this constitutes another obstacle to their further career.

The unfortunate result is that 64 percent of children of Arab background are not able to read and write sufficiently well at their graduation from public school [9 years in Denmark], and that one third of them never receive any higher education. In a knowledge society as in Denmark, where education is a requirement for a decent salary, the economy in families becomes tight if education is not taken seriously.

The fact that up to one in four Muslim descendant of ages 20-29 received a crime sentence in the single year of 2008 does not improve employability. An individual who creates social problems and refuses to adapt to the social requirements of the society, becomes poor. These are the proper causes and effects, not the other way around.

The many myths of integration unfortunately constitute a serious obstacle in the social work in this area. When in the secure institution of Sønderbro, Copenhagen has a 70 percent share of clients with Muslim background, when LO (the Danish Labour Organisation) warns about ghettos proliferating, and when the National Bank estimates that immigrants from non-Western countries cost the Danish society Dkr 23 billion ($ 4 billion) a year, it is no exaggeration to call the integration problems a set bomb under our social society.

Part of the solution is to acquire more knowledge in the field: Good social work depends on sufficient information. We need practical research on the attitudes of various immigrant groups on their attitudes to extremism, democracy, integration, education and participation in the labour market. My on experience from hundreds of interviews is, unfortunately, that we have have a large group of immigrants who do not desire integration and are staunch opponents of democratic and humanistic values.

The battle about the causes of the failed integration is already on. Both the claims that the state gives insufficient funds to the efforts and that the municipalities do not apply the money properly are just that – claims.

After having worked for years in the largest public social organisation of Denmark, I am firmly convinced of the latter: It is our local politicans, who carry the responsibility of designing the practical integration efforts around the country.

The policies in many Danish municipalities have been to offer support and new opportunities, while only the police and the judicial system have been setting limits and showing consequences of bad behaviour. This division of labour could be adjusted with benefit.

Nicolai Sennels is author of the book “Among Criminal Muslims. Experiences of a psychologist in the municipality of Copenhagen”. His openness about the problem eventually forced him to leave his position.

You may also have a look at the EN interview with Nicolai Sennels

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