Former Icelandic television personality Guðmundur Steingrímsson, writing a column in Fréttablaðið on 4 February called “Muslims,” once again demonstrated his tendency towards oversimplification, comparing the Muslims outraged over political cartoons in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (and reprinted in others) to “a grumpy old relative who is easily offended.” At the same time, it should be noted that Steingrímsson is the only columnist in the Icelandic media to say that these cartoons should not have been printed. Steingrímsson’s column is an indication – albeit a tiny one – of the cultural crossroads where Iceland finds itself. Foreigners might be nothing new to Iceland – they’ve been visiting these shores for as long as Iceland has existed – but with an immigrant population of about 10%, Iceland now must choose between actively working towards a harmonious multicultural society, or living in denial until riots start.
I’ve seen the cartoons in question. Whether or not I found them offensive is irrelevant. No one has the right to tell someone else that a statement directed at them shouldn’t offend them – you can only comment on how they react. I believe there is an innate sense of proportion that most of us have, which is why protests outside the offices of a newspaper (a notoriously right-wing paper that once celebrated the rise to power of Hitler and Mussolini) seem a much more reasonable response than storming and setting fire to embassies. But at the same time, one has to wonder – would so many people have reacted so strongly to a series of drawings? Or was this just one offence too many?
Denmark has a race problem. This is no great secret. Go through any of the poorer neighbourhoods of Copenhagen and see what kind of people live there. Nobody chooses to live in poverty when they have the opportunity to live otherwise – it is obvious that the immigrant community of Denmark (especially the non-Scandinavians) are not afforded the same opportunities as the Danes. Yet instead of taking real steps to level the playing field, the Danish government continues to pass stricter and stricter immigration laws, many of which are adopted by the Icelandic government.
Minister of Justice Björn Bjarnason told the Grapevine last year that such immigration laws as the “age 66 law” – wherein the parents of an immigrant cannot come to this country on a family residence permit unless they’re older than 66 years of age – were literally copied from Danish law. Not only does Denmark have a completely separate set of circumstances from Iceland, but the Danish government has been recognised as failing both its immigrant community and the country as a whole. For Iceland to adopt the same immigration policies as Denmark is ludicrous and potentially disastrous.
Iceland needs to do more to support multiculturalism. Such a statement might seem obvious, but when the same government that requires foreigners to take 150 hours of language classes in order to receive permanent resident status does nothing to lower or at least cap the cost of language classes, while Minister of Social Affairs Árni Magnússon responds by saying, “That’s life,” it becomes clear that the Icelandic government cannot even grasp the obvious. It seems they would prefer instead to adopt the laws of a country that is clearly failing to address the needs of its immigrant population, or to assume that everyone coming to Iceland will simply surrender their identities and become obedient little Jóns and Guðrúns. Neither outcome is realistic. Serious repercussions – worse even than Mr. Steingrímsson’s column – could be the result in the not so distant future.
Iceland is in the unique position of being able to learn from the mistakes of those countries that were in Iceland’s place decades ago. This will take hard work and imagination, but there are plenty of people up to the task, both within and outside the halls of parliament. What form these actions will take remains to be seen, but the time to act is now, for the good of the country as a whole, and not in response to a domestic disaster brought about by years of ignorance and denial.