Yahya Hassan’s eponymous poetry collection has touched off a storm of debate. One of them is whether multicultural societies are a problem.
The multicultural society isn’t all bad. It engenders strongly independent individuals like Hassan. His example should show us that multiculturalism, for better or for worse, is the way forward, and that limiting diversity, dual loyalties and multiculturalism is a form of near-sightedness and dogmatism. It is time we challenge the political, academic and journalistic forces that claim there is a ‘them’ and an ‘us’, and who clearly reject multiculturalism. These are individuals who either can’t or won’t accept a new generation of global identities claiming a dual loyalty, and who are capable of concurrently holding dear two conflicting values. For this new generation, it is natural to fuse different cultures, religions, identities, values, ways of life, philosophies and ideologies. In the case of Muslims, these are individuals who both follow Islam and are secular.
The question is whether Denmark’s young minorities, or global crossroads, as I prefer to call us, are better at moving between East and West, better at navigating between multiple cultures and religions, and better equipped to deal with the realities of multiculturalism than white Danes. If this is the case, then maybe we should consider multiculturalism as a way to build bridges between different ideas and values.
Having a global identity is a necessity for many young people living between cultures. We often hear about the problems associated with living in the borderland between cultures, and the confusion and lack of association it brings along with it. But, there are also good things to be found in this borderland, such as flexibility and the ability to accept opposing ideas. These benefits, which young people with multicultural backgrounds are more likely to possess, are invaluable for meeting the challenges of globalisation and a society fraught with increasingly partisan philosophies.
Refusing to play by the rules
Hassan is a product of the multicultural society. He is not rebelling against it. He represents a new generation of global identity that neither can nor will be categorised in a particular way.
“In school we’re not allowed to speak Arabic. At home we’re not allowed to speak Danish,” Hassan writes in his poem ‘Barndom’ (Childhood). The line has been interpreted by many as a criticism of the ghetto and society’s inability to accept dual identities: in this case being proud of being bilingual. The line can also be seen as a criticism of the black-and-white views and discrimination that abounds in some Muslim homes as well as out among some members of society at large.
Hassan refuses to play by the rules of indoctrination, regardless of who sets them – be they parents, well-intentioned schools, the council, lawmakers or the media. His is constantly avoiding the rules of the game. When journalists seek to twist his words, his life story or his personality so they fit into a certain mould, he either refuses to answer or answers only curtly.
Unlike many others, I do not see Hassan as an angry young man. He is far separated from his anger, and he is well articulated about it. In order to be able to write as well as Hassan does, you need to have got past your anger. Hassan’s poetry will serve to liberate a new generation of young people from their anger.
Poetry as a literary form can achieve something that neither debate nor research can. Because it is not bound in any way, it does not seek to tell you what you should think. It does not judge, even though it may seek to cut down an entire generation. Poetry frees people to think for themselves and to reflect and it frees up points of view. As Hassan says: “People can interpret my poetry the way they want.”
Hassan and his poetry succeeds when it comes to freeing up people’s pre-conceived notions about Islam and Arabic cultures as an explanation for violence, crime and fraud. Hassan talks about social environment, class, indoctrination, passivity, bad parenting and a lack of affection as the primary sources of violence and social decay. As he sees it, the ghetto underclass has become an onlooker in regards to their children’s health and well being.
At home in Europe
As a whole new generation of global crossroads come of age, we will see many of them becoming decision-makers in fields ranging from politics to art. From these positions they will compose new narratives as they seek to tell stories that have yet to be told. The dual loyalty these individuals are born with is a seed that leads to change, innovation and balance.
Hassan is a cloud with a silver lining. He shows an angry, young generation that there is a different way. That they can write their way out of their anger, their bitterness, their violence, their crime and their abuse. He shows that poetry is not just for the white elite, and that a love of words is something that we all have the capacity for.
Denmark has contributed to the creation of new global identities, and having a Danish identity is no hindrance to being multicultural. Yahya Hassan is, in fact, proof that there is rich opportunity for multiculturalism to thrive in Denmark. Many Muslims find it a relief to be in Europe, because here they are finally seen as members of society.
For some Muslims, Europe is liberal and they are freer here than they were in the country they emigrated from. Alawites from Turkey and Kurds, for example, have the same status as other Muslims here. Ahmadi Muslims, (a vision of Islam that has been declared heretical by other Muslim groups) have had their own mosque, complete with dome, in Denmark since the 1960s. This would be impossible in Pakistan, for instance, where they are a persecuted minority. In Denmark, women can, for the most part, wear headscarves while working in public sector jobs. In Turkey, they can’t. Homosexuals enjoy rights in Europe that they wouldn’t in most Muslim countries. Denmark offers the best conditions for multiculturalism and the right to belong to two cultures at the same time.
Regardless of what you feel about Islam or multiculturalism, both have become integral parts of our society and our democracy. Yahya Hassan contributes to this by contributing to Danish literature by including ‘the outsider’, for better and for worse.