This article originally appeared on VICE Denmark.
Kashif Ahmad and his two brothers formed the National Party in 2014 because they could no longer stand by and watch populist politicians drag their country further to the right. Danes, they believed, needed a return to traditional values of tolerance and open-mindedness, values Ahmad was brought up with.
The party's founding gave a double-pronged jolt to the Danish political system. On one hand, it was an explicit call for an overhaul and the de-bureaucratization of the country's heavy-handed social system. On the other, it was a reality check that the stagnant Danish Parliament had had its day—a cry for change being delivered by three young, clean-cut Danish sons of Pakistani immigrants, standing in front of the Danish flag, declaring, "We Are Denmark."
The story of immigrants in Denmark is one of frustration, confusion, and missed opportunities. With the post-9/11 rise in Islamophobia across the Western world, radical right-wing racism was allowed to run rampant. Just recently, Denmark's Foreign Minister Inger Støjberg posted ads in Middle Eastern newspapers urging potential immigrants to stay away—a searing contrast to a country that, in the late 1960s, actually actively invited workers from Turkey, Yugoslavia, and Pakistan to immigrate and help fill thousands of vacant jobs.
Avedøre Stationsby is a small town on the outskirts of Copenhagen that feels a lot like a fortress. A handful of small, gray buildings surround rows of townhouses. The addresses begin simply with "Bymuren 1" (City Wall 1). Above it all looms the ten-story "Store Hus" (Big House)—an apartment complex with a sprawling view over the entire neighborhood. There is only one road in and out.
Ahmad grew up here. It's a part of town that was stigmatized as a ghetto for immigrants prior to the urban renewal of the 1990s, though Ahmad doesn't see it this way. It's a place of safety, openness, and solidarity for him, and the area shaped him.
"When I was a kid, there weren't really any places to hang out, so it was either the kiosk or down by the train station. So I went to the library a lot."
"Avedøre Stationsby is a place that means a lot to me," he says. "I went to school here, worked here, and still live here. So I'm thankful that I have the opportunity to represent my neighborhood."
I meet Ahmad at the neighborhood library. It's a generic-looking public building, but not to Ahmad. "When I was a kid, there weren't really any places to hang out, so it was either the kiosk or down by the train station. I went to the library a lot," he says.
Now 35, Ahmad politely greets everyone he meets and genuinely knows most people in the area. "I was always here, either reading, playing games, or chatting with the librarians. I could come in here and shut everything else out. The librarians were role models, educators, parents, and way more involved with us than I guess they were supposed to be."
Did he ever feel his neighborhood was cut off from the rest of the Denmark? "Subconsciously, I think it always played a part," he says. "People have always talked about 'them' and 'us'—even the politicians in the city council still speak that way."
Denmark wasn't in a good place when Ahmad and his brothers Aamer and Asif founded the National Party in 2014. After September 11, xenophobia went on a steady rise in Denmark: The right-wing Danish People's Party fed off people's fears and anxieties, growing larger and larger with every election.
The tone of the debate changed the Danish view on immigration dramatically. Suddenly, it became acceptable for democratically elected politicians to draw comparisons between Muslims and cancer cells and claim that Muslim fathers murdered their daughters—and alleging that they turned a blind eye to uncles raping them. The boundaries shifted. Ahmad had faced some discrimination in his youth, but the stigmatization he now faced was of an entirely different level.
"It was as if the discrimination that I myself had faced sporadically was now being blasted into my living room at home through my TV. There have been times where I didn't want to watch the news or read the paper," he says.
The leftist parties that had traditionally opposed the right either joined the conservative discourse or remained passive. By autumn 2014, Ahmad and his brothers could no longer sit by and listen.
"It got to a point that I was seen as an immigrant or a Muslim before being seen as Kashif or as a Danish Pakistani, or simply as a human being."
"It got to a point that I was seen as an immigrant or a Muslim before being seen as Kashif, as a Danish Pakistani, or simply as a human being. I constantly faced suspicion because of the color of my skin. It was a huge weight on my shoulders. Every time I went out the house, I had to have my guard up. It felt like living in a boxing match."
The founding of the National Party in itself became proof of the country's need for a party to champion "true Danish values." When the three brothers went on national television and explained their plans to build a party around respect, tolerance, and peaceful coexistence, they were met with the opposite—death threats.
"Something was way off. I was on TV with a Danish flag behind me, explaining that we were Danes, who wished to put a stop to the sharp political lunge to the right, and that we were founding a party out of love for our country. But there were people saying we ought to be shot in the back of the head," says Ahmad.
"Politicians are to blame for that, because those reactions are symptomatic of what they're doing. When democratically elected politicians are competing over who's the best at mocking minorities, they're green-lighting those kinds of reactions."
The National Party didn't manage to gather the 20,109 signatures needed to run for office by the time the elections were up in June. But it hasn't deterred Ahmad, who is now focused on the regional and municipal elections in 2017.
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Ahmad speaks a great deal about what he sees as Danish values. "Coexisting in society without conflict," he says. "It can sound very definitive and authoritarian when we call those the true values, but they are way more Danish than the xenophobic brand of hate instigated by this turn to the right. That is so clear to see with situations like the refugee crisis, in which the silent majority proves that Danes are, in fact, tolerant and humane people. When refugees are actually walking our streets with their kids, we're there and we're helping."
When I ask him whether he thinks all Danish politicians are populists, he's quick to answer. "To a certain degree, I think so, yes. As I've said, everything points back to them, because they're the ones who can actually do something. But they abandon their core values and sell out, which makes people lose respect for them. That only makes the situation worse."
Ahmad can talk politics extensively, and he's a natural orator. Ask him about any political issue—visa requirements, or Denmark's controversial 24-year rule for migrant marriages, for example—and he will lean across the table and explain his stance with a clarity and directness that is pretty rare in most politicians.
"When we were 15 and told our father that we'd like to do a paper round, he said that he'd rather work more hours to give us the money so we could spend our time studying instead."
Ahmad's mother died when he was eight, which naturally made a lasting impact on him. When I ask him about it, it's clear that it's not easy for him to talk about it. "She had an asthma attack. It was horrible, because she was eight months pregnant," he says slowly.
"It was just a regular summer day. We had guests. We lived three minutes from here at number 21. Suddenly, she was having trouble breathing and just collapsed. It took a long time for the ambulance to arrive—they couldn't find us. The next minute, she was gone. She was 36, like I am now."
The death of his mother greatly affected the rest of his family. "My siblings and I have a very close-knit relationship because of it, and I definitely think it made us more grown up. My sister, who was ten at the time, is a kind of mother to us boys today because my dad had to work. He would rush home at the end of every shift, but my sister did take care of us a lot. We still all live in the same area today."
"My father could have spiraled downward when my mom passed away, but I can't remember him ever missing a parent-teacher conference or a soccer game. Even though he was a full time taxi driver with three sons who played soccer.
"When we were 15, we told him that we wanted to do a paper round, but he said that he'd rather work more hours to give us the money, so we could spend our time studying instead. He said that would make us happier in the long run."
His dad was strict, in a way. "We weren't allowed to just loiter around the street until midnight every night, because we had to get up early for school," he says. "I've had friends who turned to crime simply out of boredom. They were good people, but just got sucked into it. My dad made sure that never happened to me or my brothers."
During Ahmad's childhood, his father would take the family to Pakistan every year so they could see the towns that his father and grandfather had grown up in—towns that had no running water or electricity.
"We hated it," Ahmad admits." We just wanted to go home. But our dad said it was important that we saw the country so we could compare it to the life we had and be thankful for it. And as we got older, the focus of those speeches began to shift from being thankful to giving back to society through education, work, and other activities. Like politics," he says."My dad had a plan. And it turned out pretty well."