What an airline advert revealed about Scandinavian nationalism

When the renowned Danish poet, Benny Andersen, published the poem Verdensborger i Danmark, (World Citizen in Denmark) in 1995 there was no outrage.

“The language I sing and speak is woven together by words from all over the world, not just from German, English and French,” wrote the poet, considered one of the country’s most important authors.

A quarter of a century later – in February this year – an advertisement by Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) with a similar message has drawn fury from Danes, Norwegians and Swedes. The reaction, experts argue, is a symptom of a new surge in nationalistic sentiment across Nordic countries.
The SAS commercial, which was taken down the following day amidst a huge backlash, posed the question: “What is truly Scandinavian?”, followed by the answer: “Absolutely nothing”.

Such was the rage in response, there was even a bomb threat against the headquarters of the advertising company, &Co, in Copenhagen.

What caused such offence? The almost three-minute video set about deconstructing things deemed to be truly Scandinavian – rye bread, interior design, parental leave – by showing that they were all actually brought to Scandinavia from other cultures and then adapted locally. It is what Anderson was saying all those years ago in his nationally-acclaimed poem.

Two days after the commercial aired, the spokesman for the right-wing Danish People’s Party, Soren Espersen, posted on Twitter: “SAS, with its nasty campaign film, spits on everything that is really Norwegian, Swedish and Danish.”

In an interview with the Danish news organisation, Ekstra Bladet, he called on the government – a shareholder in the airline – to intervene in the matter. When Al Jazeera contacted Espersen, he declined to comment.
Denmark was always proud, ‘but in a cosy, cute way’

Beth Merit, 61, is a US national who owns an English-language bookstore in Aarhus, a city on the Jutland peninsula and recently became a Danish citizen after 35 years of living in the country.

For Merit, however, nationalism has long been present in Denmark. “But it was in a cosy, cute way,” she says. “Now it’s more nationalism in anger to protect their way of life, their identity. Nationalism here now is more fear than just pride in their country.”

The fear she refers to is not about violence and hardship, so much as it is about losing identity.

Mette Frost, 48, a masters student at the University of Southern Denmark, living in the countryside in Mid-Jutland, is a proud Dane.

She cites the Danish culture of poetry and music as well as its long-held educational ideals as values to be upheld, but she voices some concern about how nationalism has developed in her country.

She says she wishes people would be more accepting of foreign cultures.

“There are a lot of things that I’m really proud of, but I’m really not proud of the narrow horizon that has slowly been developing in the last 20 years.”
‘Here to steal their wealth’

Amir (who did not want to use his real name) is a 37-year-old wind energy engineer from the Middle East who has been living in Aarhus for the past 18 months.

He says he believes there is a feeling among some Danes that foreigners only come to Denmark to benefit from the welfare system or, as he puts it, to “steal their wealth”.

What has surprised him, he says, is that he has heard younger people repeating these opinions, when he thought it would be restricted to older generations.

Amir sees this attitude reflected in the stance some Danes take towards refugees and asylum seekers, who “tend to be seen as lazy and only seeking to obtain government support without actually performing in society”. This affects him personally, he explains. Because he has the “looks, the name, and even the language of a refugee”; the first impression some people have is that he is one.

As a Muslim, he says he has learned to spot Islamophobia in Denmark. He sees a contradiction between discourse and practice in, for example, the way many Danes are so reserved about their personal space and value their own freedom, while the government enforces handshakes in citizenship ceremonies and prohibits the wearing of face veils – a ban that has been in place since August 2018.

His experience is borne out by the statistics. According to the European Islamophobia report published in 2018, the National Crime Prevention Centre registered 67 reported incidents of religiously motivated hate crimes targeting Muslims in 2017, a record number.

Related Articles

Back to top button