HRS International

Same violence, new system

We see it in France, we see it in Britain, we see it in Sweden and we see it in Denmark: young male immigrants who seek to use violence and threats to secure power in the society. Professionals – including police officers, firefighters, medical personnel, bus drivers, and for that matter clergy – are chased out of areas that are almost regarded as occupied territory. Fearing reprisal, the ordinary man in the street backs off. Researchers prefer to apply old theories to a new phenomenon – the causes, they insist, are socioeconomic – while the authorities prefer to remain silent.

Rita Karlsen, HRS

Some may want to call it “a new type of violence,” as political commentator Ralf Pittelkow does at I consider this sort of designation misleading, for violence is the same as it’s always been. What’s different now is that it’s part of a new system – and it’s precisely this new organization and its irresponsible implementation that “freaks us out”. It is incomprehensible for young people to attack those whose job it is to help us, especially when their victims are professions who have no authority to use force. In such a context one might understand why police officers are attacked; but when they prevent firefighters or medical personnel from doing their jobs, that’s a new phenomenon for us. People who behave in such a way are not only punishing themselves, they may also be exposing innocent third parties to danger; for we cannot know who may need an ambulance or when a fire might be capable of developing into a major disaster.

But these “youths” are angry, it is said, as if this “anger” could in any way excuse their actions. But it is precisely here that the socioeconomic variables come in, which is especially appropriate given that these are mainly young people – young men, I mean – with immigrant backgrounds. These immigrant boys are angry because they are immigrants – which is understood to mean that they don’t enjoy the same opportunities others do. They live in greater poverty than others – which is understood to mean that immigrants can’t get an education or a job the way others can. Their parents are poorer – which is understood to be the sole reason why they have immigrated (and is also understood to indicate that they are poorly educated). They live in neighborhoods crammed with immigrants – which is understood to mean that they have no choice; they have to live there. These neighborhoods don’t offer the same opportunities that other neighborhoods do – which is understood to mean that immigrant-crammed areas aren’t prioritized by government officials and business interests. This list could go on and on, and indeed there’s a degree of truth in some of these generalizations. But do you notice the degree to which this kind of thinking degrades immigrants and their descendants? They’re viewed as victims of their own situation – as people incapable of making their own decisions or changing their own circumstances.

To explain the devastating acts of violence committed by immigrant youths (note, by the way, that many of these “youths” aren’t really all that young) by means of socioeconomic variables can be to explain them away, so that we don’t get any closer to the real core of the problem. Why, for example, do so many immigrant boys drop out of school? Since immigrant girls don’t drop out in such high numbers, could the explanation be that they’re boys? Why don’t Tamils have any problems on the labor market, even though we can hardly pronounce their names and their skin is far darker than most, while members of other immigrant groups, who have far easier names and lighter skin colors, are out of work?

To view oneself as a victim is to relieve oneself of responsibility. Then I can chase you off the map. Have you failed me? Fine, I’ll fail you. I can knock you to the ground, burn down your house, harass you and your family – who cares? I’ve got it bad, you’ll have it bad.

To get frustrated over the adversity one encounters in life is not a fate especially reserved for the people with immigrant backgrounds; such a fate is hardly conditional upon whether one is named Ali or Eva, even though the specific nature of people’s problems and challenges may differ. So when young immigrant men organize themselves and allow their frustrations to erupt in acts of violence, threats, and harassment of those around them, society can neither keep silent about it nor dismiss their conduct as boyish shenanigans. To do this is to further degrade the same people. One of the most fundamental attributes of our society is precisely that we are expected to take responsibility for our own actions.

So the key challenge is this: how to hold responsible somebody who is in a phase in which he doesn’t give a damn? It is here that I think most observers fail, especially when it comes to the way in which these acts of violence are publicly described. People don’t become more responsible because you supposedly “understand” them; on the contrary, by taking such an approach you can help legitimize unacceptable attitudes and actions. Nor does it do any good to wreathe these problems in silence, which can only cause people to feel doubly overlooked. Or as Pittelkow puts it:

The problems can’t be killed by silence. This has been made clear in other European countries, which have taken this approach in vain. Today there are areas where outsiders (including journalists) don’t dare to travel, and where the police are reluctant to get involved unless they’re strong in numbers and prepared for a fight. Denmark is not so much better off, but is moving in that direction. Conditions such as those in Tingbjerg [where the local pastor abandoned his church after being repeatedly tormented by local Muslim youths – RK] can turn out to be only the beginning. The first thing that must be done to prevent this is to look the problems right in the eye without prettifying them or shutting up about them.Free us, for example, from claims that these problems involve only tiny groups of troublemakers. If the groups were so small, it wouldn’t be so hard to get the nuisance under control. The rhetoric of the police is highly illustrative. They have tried for a long time to sweet-talk their way out of the problems by talking about “hijinks” and such. They haven’t taken the developments in Tingbjerg very seriously, for example. When, as a result, things go totally off the rails, the police say they’re holding back so as not to provoke a powerful backlash.

Aside from the fact that this reason for holding back is clearly unacceptable, the police officials’ logic raises the question: where would this “backlash” come from, if the problems are caused only by a tiny little group? The fact is that those who are causing the violence aren’t so few in numbers. And there’s a far wider circle of people who are in solidarity with them. So it is that when big kids in Mjølnerparken in Copenhagen encounter an innocent home help person, they harass her, too, so that a Danish “person in authority” won’t think she has any authority in their neighborhood. [The neighborhood of Mjølnerparken is 99% non-Danish and 80% on the dole, and has recently been plagued by assaults on home help persons, who provide domestic services for elderly people. – BB] And here’s another important feature: across Europe, young people with Muslim immigrant backgrounds are dramatically overrepresented in these conflicts. The then bishop of Rochester in England caused commotion when he said things point-blank: in many places, young Muslims seek to establish “no-go areas” for British non-Muslims.

But then we come to the point at which it’s really difficult to keep quiet, and that’s the uncomfortable fact that these devastating acts of violence incorporate an element of Islam. How extensive this Islamic element is, nobody knows. But it’s the youths themselves who link the conflicts to what they call their Muslim identity. Pittelkow notes:

Many of the youths themselves relate these conflicts to their ethnic and Muslim identity and with a struggle for power and honor. Their aggression is directed overwhelmingly at Danes, Swedes, Britons, etc. (the one major exception is feuds between rival gangs).

But perhaps the Islam card is just one more attempt to strengthen their already self-determined victim role? For if one is to be a victim, after all, one must account for one’s victimhood in some way, and in this regard Islam can also be useful – and indeed most societies in Europe have made it easy for Muslims to take this line. It may be that it is precisely in this regard that we have really made a mess of things for ourselves; we have allowed ourselves to be bamboozled by Islamic commandments and rules in the public square. We have given way when Muslims pronounce themselves “insulted,” when they claim to have been subjected to “differential treatment,” or when they demand “respect.” We have listened to endless accusations of racism and Islamophobia without subjecting this pattern of accusation to the criticism it deserves. And by behaving in this way, we have gone a long way towards putting in a place a system that codifies Muslim youth’s role as victims, even as we have betrayed the fundamental values of our society.

Translated from the Norwegian and Danish by Bruce Bawer