Meet the Politician Trying to Make Denmark Less Afraid of Immigrants
The founder of Denmark's National Party wants to build a country of inclusion and open-mindedness.
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 that Kashif was brought up with.
The party's birth gave a double-pronged jolt to the Danish political system. On one hand, it was an explicit call for an overhaul and de-bureaucratisation of the country's heavy-handed social system. On the other, it was a reality check that the stagnant Danish Parliament had had it's day – a powerful 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 tale 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. Only 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, grey buildings surround rows of townhouses, the addresses of which begin simply with "Bymuren 1" (The City Wall 1). Above it all looms the 10-story "Store Hus" (Big House) – an apartment complex with a view surveilling the entire neighbourhood. There is only one road in and out.
This is where Kashif Ahmad grew up. It's a part of town that was stigmatised as a ghetto for immigrants prior to the urban renewal of the 1990s, though Ahmad doesn't see it this way. For him, it's a place of safety, openness and solidarity. This is the area that shaped him – both as a politician and a human being.
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. "This is where I went to school, where I worked and where I still live. I'm thankful for the opportunity to represent my neighbourhood. It means a great deal to me."
I meet Kashif at the neighbourhood library. Made of grey floors and rows of bookshelves, it's a generic-looking public building. And yet to Kashif, the library is so much more than that. "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," he says.
Now 35, Kashif cuts a sharp silhouette in a neat suit. He politely greets everyone he meets and genuinely knows most people in the area. "I spent a lot of time in my youth in this building," he says, looking around at the books. "Either reading, playing games or chatting with the librarians. It was a world I could enter, where I could 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 neighbourhood 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. So really, this is all about politics, but also about how a neighbourhood and a family can shape a man. And how a sharp right turn in Danish politics instigated the creation of a party that proved how desperate times have become."
Denmark was in a drastically shit place when Kashif and his brothers Aamer and Asif founded The National Party in 2014. In the wake of September 11, xenophobia began to gain increasing momentum in Denmark. The right wing Danish People's Party fed off people's fears and anxieties, growing larger and larger with every election.
The way the country discussed changed 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 – even alleging that they turned a blind eye to their uncles raping them. The boundaries shifted. Kashif had faced some discrimination in his youth, but the stigmatisation he now faced was now out of control.
"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 jumped on the conservative discourse, or remained passive. By autumn 2014, Kashif 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 or as a Danish Pakistani, or simply as a human being. I constantly faced suspicion because of the colour 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."
Setting up 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 co-existence, 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 now founding a party out of love for our country. And there were people saying we ought to be shot in the back of the head," says Kashif.
"But the politicians are to blame for that, because those reactions are symptomatic of what they're doing. When democratically elected politicians are competing over who can mock minorities the most, they're green-lighting those kinds of reactions."
Before the election in June, The National Party was unsuccessful in gathering the 20,109 signatures they needed to run for office. But that's not deterred Kashif, who is now focussed on the regional and municipal elections in 2017.
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Kashif speaks a great deal about what he sees as Danish values. "Co-existing 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. And that becomes clear in times like the refugee crisis, in which the silent majority proves that Danes are, in fact, tolerant and humane people. When refugees are suddenly 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 because the wind is blowing right, they let themselves drift along with it. They abandon their core values and sell out, which makes people lose respect for them. And that only makes the situation worse."
Kashif can talk politics extensively and he's a natural orator. Ask him about any political issue – from Visa requirements of Denmark's controversial 24-year rule for migrant marriages – and he will lean across the table and dictate his stance with a clarity and directness uncommon 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.
His personal life, however, is a different matter. Kashif was greatly impacted by the death of his mother when he was only eight years old. he obviously finds talking about it difficult. When I ask, he pauses. "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 right three minutes from here in 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 and then the next minute, she was gone. Thirty-six years of age."
He pauses again. "I'm now the same age as she was then, when she was taken from her kids and life. Just imagine going through that, having to let go of your kids now and leave it all behind."
How did the death affect 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 10 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 a lot of taking care of us. We still all live within 2-3 kilometres of each other today."
His father, in particular, has played a hugely important role in his life. "He has been an utter genius," he says proudly. "He could have spiralled downwards when my mom passed away, but I can't remember him ever missing a single parent-teacher conference. I can't remember him ever missing a single football game. Even with his full-time job as a taxi driver. And he had three sons, all playing football."
"When we were 15 and told him 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. That, he said, would make us happier in the long run."
Was his father strict? "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 that turned to crime simply out of boredom. They were good people in their hearts, but just got sucked into it. My dad made sure that never happened to me or my brothers."
During Kashif'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," Kashif 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 his talks began to shift from being thankful to giving back to society through education, work and other activities. Politics," he says.
He pauses again for a moment, and smiles. "My dad had a plan. And it all turned out pretty well."