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A Question of Culture and Belonging: Identity and Integration in Denmark



“They were really surprised that a Pakistani girl like me can do the job that had belonged to only Danes,” recalled Rushy Rashid, a public figure and an author whose immigrant background sparked great interest and controversy in Denmark a few years ago when she appeared on television as a news anchor. “They said, ‘Look at her. She is an immigrant but she can speak perfect Danish. All those refugees and immigrants should take her example,’” she said. Her marriage had also become the talk of the town, because “She’s even married a Dane! She is a real good example of integration!” people claimed. A target of attention, Rashid wanted people to focus more on her performance as a reporter, rather than as ‘THAT’ reporter with different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Yet before Rashid became more ‘Danish’ or the ‘ideal immigrant’ in the Danes’ eyes, she had been through numerous inner conflicts, a search for self-identity, and an everlasting battle between being Pakistani and being Danish. The story is not only true to Rushy Rashid; it is a common experience of almost all immigrants: a quest to answer the questions of ‘who am I?’ and ‘where do I belong?’

How immigrants see themselves and with which culture they are able to identify are essential questions not only to them, but also to the Danish society as a whole. The immigrants need to feel secure, feel a sense of belonging, and feel accepted in order for the society to function well. This has been part of the ongoing integration debate since the so-called “Mohammad crisis.” Not until the last 20-30 years, when the flow of immigrants and refugees hit, was the word integration much mentioned in this small country. Before then Denmark had always been rather mono-cultural, monolingual, and, of course, mono-ethnic. The recent Mohammad crisis sparked a debate that burst out as if to reveal that this ‘peaceful’ country may not be as peaceful as it once took pride in claiming, if the tension between the immigrant minority and the ethnic Danish majority remains unsolved.

How immigrants see themselves and with which culture they are able to identify are essential questions not only to them, but also to the Danish society as a whole.

Although now that integration has become the key word that keeps popping up, it is ironic that no one can claim to have a universal definition for it. Many Danes seem to believe that the fully integrated immigrants are the ones who completely embrace Danish values and culture, which translates into not practicing much of their native cultures, or not practicing it at all. The above story of Rashid illustrates this common conception rather well. At the same time, from our interviews with 8 immigrants, we discovered a different angle to the story. Integration means something quite different to them — and the identities that they take pride in look different than what the society desires them to have.

Many Danes seem to believe that the fully integrated immigrants are the ones who completely embrace Danish values and culture, which translates into not practicing much of their native cultures, or not practicing it at all.

Although we had narrowed down our focus to only immigrants of Islamic background, we thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast the experience of people within this group. Therefore, we conducted the interviews with two different types of immigrants — the ones who moved to Denmark at a relatively young age (between the ages 5-9), and the ones who were born here and thus are technically Danish. We discovered that the latter group has a much clearer idea of their identity. Although both groups feel that they are neither fully Danish nor fully foreign, the second-generation immigrants seem more satisfied and express that they feel good belonging to both cultures, while the first-generation immigrants have the tendency to lean towards their native culture.

Finding a Personal and Cultural Identity

The most common plan for the immigrants who came to Denmark was: 1) work, 2) earn money and 3) go back home. The older generation of immigrants usually intended to come for only a few years but ended up staying.  This was mostly because of instability in their home country or a desire to have a better education for their children. Many of them, like Rashid’s parents, still daydream that they will soon go back to live in their home country and have become indefinitely “in transit” — the phrase used by Rashid. Many young immigrants, whose parents are still “in transit,” do not have the benefit of consciously forming their identity in isolation. They have to live within the cultural mindset that their parents create for them, which can excessively embrace their native culture and thus be hostile to Danish culture.

However, it is worth mentioning that, from the interviews, we noticed that children of political refugees are raised in a rather opposite environment. They were raised in the most Danish way possible, since their parents suffered the maltreatment from their native society, and thus do not want their children to have much to do with that particular culture. “I didn’t teach them any Arabic because I was angry with my country,” admitted Fayez Kankan, who fled to Denmark as a political refugee from Syria in 1971. Though his daughters have always been curious to know the culture, he has refused to tell them much about Syria. Our anonymous Iranian source had a similar story. Her parents were political refugees from Iran and did not teach her much about Islamic culture out of frustration with the political persecution they experienced at the hands of the extreme Islamic government of Iran.

In addition to having to define their identity in light of their parents’, young immigrants also can have difficulty in determining what precisely a personal or cultural identity is and how it relates (or doesn’t relate) to nationality. Savas Coskun, 30, moved from Turkey to Denmark when he was 9. He is now a Danish language teacher to adult immigrants. When asked about his feeling of identity and whether he feels Danish, he gave a mixed answer: “I do and I don’t. Some people will say that they are Turkish even though they live here, and I understand that but I cannot say that I am either because I feel estranged when I am here, and sometimes also when I am in Turkey. So, I think I am both. Maybe I feel more at home here just because everything I do in my everyday life like studying or working is here. So of course, my relationship to Turkey is more like going on a holiday, and yet I still don’t feel Danish.” When asked if feeling Danish is something he strived for, he said, “I think I am alright [with my current identity].”  He then elaborated on the idea of identity, saying that, “I don’t really understand what it means to feel Danish or feel Turkish.  Nationality is one thing, but how you feel yourself as an individual is another and I can’t really connect those two.”  He did say later that he felt that there is a subtle, but palpable pressure that permeates society to become fully Danish, although what that means is different for every person, so it is a difficult pressure to acquiesce to.

“I don’t really understand what it means to feel Danish or feel Turkish.  Nationality is one thing, but how you feel yourself as an individual is another and I can’t really connect those two.”

Both first and second-generation immigrants we interviewed reported that it took a journey to their home country to develop a firm sense of their identity. It was the experience of travelling back and living one year in Turkey that convinced Coskun that whatever cultural identity meant, he had to have a mixture of both cultures in his identity.  “Until ten years ago I said I was Turkish only,” he says, “because saying that I was Danish seemed a little bit false to me.  And then I went to Turkey for a year and realized that I cannot be just Turkish.  I have to be Turkish-Danish.  I have to be both.”

Like Coskun, Sabeena Din, a 21-year-old born in Denmark, has two identities. When she is in Denmark, she feels more Pakistani. When she goes to visit Pakistan, she feels more Danish. However, Din does not feel that it is a crisis for her. “It is not a bad thing. I like having two cultures to choose from. I would be bored if I only grew up in one culture. Having two, I can choose what clothes to wear, what to eat. I take good things from both cultures.”

It appears that for all the interviewees family plays an immensely important role in determining whether or not a person will have a hard or easy time integrating into Danish society.

Din, who is of Pakistani background, owes her sense of security to her family. “I am very lucky to have very understanding and open-minded parents,” said Din. “It is very important for the parents to have a balance in two cultures, because if they do, the children too will have the balance.” Din feels that she can make her own choices. Unlike most immigrants, Din and her family have always lived in the “Danish” area–the factor she feels to have helped her sisters and brothers, who were born in Pakistan, to learn and be immersed in Danish culture.  This consequently accelerated their integration into Danish culture.

There is a popular belief that immigrants only want their children to be in a cultural box and not to have Danish values; however, some immigrant parents make a point of teaching only Danish culture to their children because they believe that this approach will help their children to be accepted by Danish society faster. Take the case of an Iranian-Danish immigrant, who gave the rather surprising comment that “my parents were almost too open. I think they forgot to raise me in an Iranian way,” she laughs. The sole reason for this, she thinks, was for her to integrate.

On the other hand, many immigrants such as Rushy Rashid have had a much harder time feeling at home in Denmark. When growing up, Rashid often felt embarrassed by her parents. “Every time we had an activity in the class, there was only one person… me… who had to have the teacher come into the house and talk to the parents, and every time you had evening social activities or working groups outside class, I was the only one, who wasn’t allowed to be outside of the house after school. That was a problem and it was very embarrassing trying to convince or explain to my Danish friends, well, that’s the way it is,” narrates Rashid, who often ended up doing her “group work” on her own at home.

When asked what it means to be integrated, our Moroccan source asked us with frustration, “I’m integrated because of what? Because I go with the Danish friends? Or because I do the things they do? What about people who are sitting at home and taking care of their tradition?” However, he later agrees that knowing and respecting the law is a very first baby step to integration, while our Iranian source thinks that “[it is important] to know the values in Denmark, to know about democracy and [to] teach your kids about democracy. . . . Democracy is more than the government.  It’s also in your approach to life in the home [so] the father won’t control everything.”  A love and respect for democracy can be combined with many aspects of Muslim culture, such as a deep respect for elders that several of our interviewees liked and found absent in Danish culture, to form a synergy of values to live one’s life by.

What is Integration for Danes and Immigrants?

There is a perception, at least on the part of some of the immigrants we interviewed, that Danes think poorly of immigrants because they don’t participate in the Danish economy.  Instead it is thought that they live off of the welfare system without getting a job or actively trying to integrate into society.  This view is echoed by the Prime Minister of Denmark, who was recently quoted as saying that immigrants “need to do everything in [their] power to be integrated” (Belien, 2006).  This idea is theoretically supported by an analysis of the integration dilemma in Denmark as a prisoners’ dilemma game, in which it is more rational for individuals to reap the gains of integration or the social welfare system without doing anything to contribute to the situation (Nannestad, 2004).  Kankan believes that this belief has a basis in historical reality, as when he arrived in Denmark in the 1970’s immigrants were abusing the system. To combat this stereotype, Kankan believes that immigrants must actively contribute to the society and the economy.  “First learn the language.  When you learn the language you know much more about the culture,” advised Kankan, who is now a successful businessman and a father of two highly accomplished daughters. “You also need to know about the system and the law.  Then you should find a way to get your own money.”  Of course contributing to the economy requires getting a job, which can be difficult because of discrimination, an issue addressed below.

Social life and daily activities have also proven to be a crucial factor used by the Danes in determining whether an immigrant is integrated or not. “Danish people socialize a lot.  They like to go out to nightclubs and bars. If you cannot do that with them, they think that you are different,” says Din. Our Iranian source confirms, “[they] look at your daily activities.”  Our Moroccan interviewee strengthens the claim, “When I am at home, I am one person. But when I am with them, I have to be what they’d like me to be.”

In this way learning Danish and acting in a manner that is understandable to Danes is a large part of becoming integrated.  A discussion of Danish values versus immigrants’ values will only come into the picture when the clashing values results in some tangible differences in action.  But simply acting like people expect one to act does not lead to a feeling of integration on the part of the immigrant.  He or she must feel that their personal identity, which can be informed by Danish and foreign traditions, is accepted as legitimate.

Plans for the future are an important indicator for how an immigrant feels in their adopted country.  Do they feel accepted enough to encourage their children to also take part in the society?  Although there was some feeling of resentment towards Denmark that involved plans to move away in the near future, many immigrants saw the future generation as another chance to integrate into Danish society in a positive, productive way.

The benefits of being multi-cultural also led most of the immigrants we interviewed to feel the need to teach their children both Danish and their native culture.  “It does help in understanding differences,” comments Coskun. “It is not just because you are from a Turkish immigrant family and you became more tolerant but you have access to different cultures and experiences, and you do become more flexible. You don’t let yourself stop at seeing differences. There is a potential there, if it is used right. In my case, I think it helps me to adapt better.”

Though feeling more Danish in many aspects, the anonymous Iranian interviewee still wants to have her children learn both Danish and Farsi “because it’s more opportunities and they can speak with my family.” She also expresses that she wants them to have respect for elderly people, and older brothers and sisters, which in her opinion is lacking in Danish culture. At the same time, she thinks it is necessary for the children to be independent — clearly a Danish value.

Din just finished her fourth semester of engineering school. She has two more years to go and intends to live in Denmark, where she feels at home, while upholding the Pakistani tradition. Her parents do not want to go back to their home country anymore. “The country they left has changed so much already. Now they have their lives here. They have friends and family. They are perfectly happy in Denmark,” said Din. When asked about the future marriage, Din said that she would prefer to marry a Pakistani boy, although that is not a requirement. The main reason is that she wants to raise her children in this mixture of cultures that she likes. “I want them to have the benefits of both cultures like I have. And I feel that the Pakistani guy will understand me better.”

The experience of personal discrimination and general discrimination appears to have different impacts on different immigrants. Nonetheless, both kinds of discrimination harm their sense of security, and create a bitter feeling against Denmark. “I have been thinking to move for the last five years,” says an immigrant from Morocco. The turning point that made him decide he would not raise his children in Denmark was when one day, during the Mohammad crisis, his four-year-old son came and said to him, “Daddy, you are black. You are Muslim.” Although he never experienced personal discrimination in the job market or everyday life, this Moroccan interviewee believes that the Mohammad crisis convinced him that it was time to leave. “I can feel it [the discrimination] now with the cartoons. Everything is tense now….I prefer that my children will not live here. I have a deadline. When he is six, I will move. He will have a better life here [in Morocco] away from all this integration,” he said.  In this way, although immigrants may act like Danes expect them to act and are members of the workforce, they still don’t feel integrated in society, because they feel that society can’t accept them equally as someone with the personal identity of an immigrant.

Government Intervention in Integration: The Immigrants’ Perspective

A question that plagues politicians and citizens everywhere in Denmark is: what can the government legitimately do to integrate immigrants into Danish society in a meaningful way?  This question is made more complicated because of the complex nature of integration.  Many people, such as our Iranian source, believe that the government is only interested in quantitative indicators of integration, saying, “In the law it says you are integrated if you have a job.”  The government therefore has to deal with ensuring that immigrant populations can be self-supporting and free of discrimination in that respect.  But, according to many of our interviewees, merely getting a job does not necessitate a nuanced personal identity that is rooted in Danish and foreign cultures.  These nuanced identities have to be culturally accepted in Denmark, and having a government affect cultural acceptance is a much murkier, although no less important issue.

Job discrimination is difficult to quantify.  From a legal standpoint discrimination in hiring decisions based on national origin is illegal, but there is still a perception that “hidden discrimination” exists in the job market that is difficult to prove, but impossible to ignore (Axelsen).  Statistics on discrimination are not available because no statistical data on ethnic background is collected by the Danish government.  This does not imply that people with immigrant backgrounds are never able to find jobs.  Sana Kiani related that she was recently competing with several ethnic Danes for a salesperson’s job at a shop in central Copenhagen and got the job over all of the ethnic Danes.  But she also knows that several of her friends have been denied jobs even though they were highly qualified.  The government in its most recent written immigration policy emphasized enrolling immigrants in educational and training programs to make them more employable, but did not address inherent job discrimination, although it did mention encouraging local municipalities to actively find jobs for immigrants (Ministry of Integration, p. 4-5).

The group of immigrants that we interviewed had much more to say on the less tangible aspects of cultural integration and acceptance than on easily quantifiable government action relating to employment.  They identified a prevailing sense in Denmark that immigrants needed to adapt completely to Danish culture and society.  Such a complete adaptation is not possible while still maintaining a sense of self that is derived partially from non-Danish sources.  Every single person that we interviewed called for Danes to learn about the cultural identities and values of other countries so they could learn both not to be threatened by these values and cultures and see how they can be joined with Danish values to form a unified whole.  Such an effort to educate Danes should start first in the schools, says Coskun.  “[The government] should do more of teaching other cultures in education but the trend now is going in the opposite direction.  They set up the things that they think are Danish things and they think that they are cultured.  That doesn’t work.  It is too narrow-minded.”  The desire “for conformity to an unchanging and homogeneous cultural norm” (Kofman, p. 462), which is now present in Danish society, can be detrimental to the process of forming a mixed cultural identity.

A true multi-cultural education would expose children to the realities of non-Danish cultures and value systems so that Danes would not think of immigrants as having backward values that cannot possibly coexist with Danish culture and values.  Unfortunately, as far as integration is concerned, the government only considers education an avenue to employment and a way for immigrants to gain an equal economic footing with Danes: “the Government will strengthen its efforts to give more young people from immigrant families training and education to improve their qualifications for employment” (Ministry of Integration, p. 1-2).  The government seems to consider integration an issue of addressing individual access to society and jobs, while neglecting to recognize the issue as one involving conflict between different groups of people (Fukuyama, p. 6). It fails to realize that different groups of immigrants with different cultures sense the monolithic Danish culture attacking them as a group, and that individuals cannot rectify this situation simply by gaining employment, but that some means must be taken to dull the sense of cultural misunderstanding.  Even more alarming is the fact that it is also official Danish education policy to emphasize the schooling of Danish cultures and values over other cultures (Jensen).  Therefore, from the integration perspective, the government only recognizes the problems of individuals and does not understand group affiliations and dynamics.  However, from the educational policy perspective, the importance of group affiliation is recognized to the exclusion of non-Danish groups.  An effective solution would be to recognize integration as both a group and individual process, and encourage broad-based understanding and acceptance of the cultures of different groups in an educational framework.  This would allow for individuals to construct their individual identity based upon the cultural systems that they find in the various groups they are members of, so that a nuanced definition of self could emerge and be broadly accepted in Danish society.

A true multi-cultural education would expose children to the realities of non-Danish cultures and value systems so that Danes would not think of immigrants as having backward values that cannot possibly coexist with Danish culture and values.

As for a solution on a more personal level, “Dialogue is the key,” insists Din. When she meets some skeptical Danes, she is more than happy to explain to them her culture and make them see her as a person, rather than as a Pakistani girl. At the same time, the Danes need to stop making the assumption that all immigrants only want to hang out among themselves. “We have to look past nationality. The problem that exists in Denmark right now is because both the Danes and the immigrants have prejudices against one another, and we have to overcome that. However, this thing takes time and we have to give it time,” suggests Din.

Ending on a positive note, Din believes that the future will be better. “People are more open now than the older generation, and that’s very important,” says Din confidently.



Savas Coskun: a 30-year-old Masters candidate studying History and Russian at Copenhagen University, who also teaches Danish to adult immigrants.  He was born in Turkey and moved to Denmark when he was 9. Interviewed 22 June, 2006.

Sabeena Din: a 21-year-old studying in the Engineering School at Copenhagen University.  Her family is from Pakistan, but she was born in Denmark.  Interviewed 25 June, 2006.

Fayez Kankan: a 60-year-old political refugee from Syria.  He came to Denmark in 1971.  In a Syria he was a journalist, which led to political persecution.  In Denmark he is a successful shop owner and businessman. Interviewed 25 June, 2006.

Sana Kiani: a 20-year-old studying Engineering School at Copenhagen University.  Her family is from Pakistan, but she was born in England while her parents were on holiday, and quickly moved to Denmark. Interviewed 25 June, 2006.

Rushy Rashid: a prominent television journalist, journalist and writer.  She was born in Pakistan, but moved to Denmark at a young age.  Interviewed 22 June, 2006.

We also interviewed three people, a Moroccan man, an Iranian woman, and another Pakistani engineering student, who requested that we not publish their names.  All interviewed on 25 June, 2006.


Søren Axelsen, President, Copenhagen City Court.  Lecture given 19 June, 2006.

Tim Jensen, Lecturer at University of Southern Denmark at the Institute for Philosophy.  Lecture given on 19 June, 2006.

Printed Material

Belien, Paul.  “Denmark’s Intifada.”  The American Conservative 13 Mar. 2006.

Denmark. Ministry of Integration. A New Chance for Everyone: The Danish Government’s Integration Plan.  Copenhagen: Denmark, 2005.

Fukuyama, Francis. “Identity, Integration, and Liberal Democracy.”  Journal of Democracy 17.2 (2006): 5-20.

Kofman, Eleonore. “Citizenship, Migration, and the Reassertion of National Identity.” Citizenship Studies 9 (2005) 453-467.

Nannestad, Peter. “A Game Real Actors Won’t Play?  Integration of Ethnic Minorities in Denmark as a Collective Action Dilema.”  International Migration Review 38 (2004): 287-308.