Islam as a “floating signifier”: Right-wing populism and perceptions of Muslims in Denmark

Editor’s Note:This working paper is part of a multi-year Brookings project—”The One Percent Problem: Muslims in the West and the Rise of the New Populists.” Other papers in the series are available here.


  1. Introduction 
  2. Interviews and other relevant data
  3. The Danish People’s Party rise and ideology
  4. Muslims in Denmark and public opinion toward immigration and Islam
  5. Against immigration and against Islam
  6. Identity, belonging, and the role of Islam
  7. Future outlook
  8. Conclusion


In her opening remarks at the Parliament on October 4th 2001, Pia Kjærsgaard, leader (1995-2012) of the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party, Dansk Folkeparti or DF, and speaker of the Parliament today, called the 9/11 terror attacks a crime against “our civilization.” Kjærsgaard also claimed:

“There is only one civilization, and it is ours. Our opponents cannot avow that they themselves belong to a civilization, as a civilized world would never accomplish such an attack, which encompasses so much hate, savagery and devilishness. Their aim is to spread violence, primitiveness, barbarity and middle age conditions. They…cannot wait to get their paradise in heaven. They want to concoct it on Earth for a thousand years and with the use of weapons, of hate and of killings.”[1]

According to Kjærsgaard, “Islam, with the fundamentalist pathways we have witnessed, should be resolutely fought against.” Kjærsgaard’s statements against Islam were triggered by the Islamophobic atmosphere characterizing the terror attacks’ aftermath. However, arguments about the “clash of civilizations” and the incompatibility of Islam with the West also reflected views already circulating in the party programs and documents, disseminated through the party paper Dansk Folkeblad, and voiced by DF politicians since at least the 1990s. Yet, from 2001 on, the DF position against Islam took sharper tones and turned towards culturalist and identity based standpoints. The node of the DF anti-Islam discourse is in fact not so much driven by the differences between religions, nor between religion and secularism, but rather by representing Islam as a major threat to the nation’s values, principles and cultural identity.


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