Billy O’Shea drew attention to himself this week with an opinion piece on Politken.dk, the website of one of Denmark’s leading newspapers, in which he explained why he would refuse to shake hands. The 61-year-old writer and translator, who has lived in Denmark since 1981, recently submitted his citizenship application.
DW: The Danish parliament passed legislation on Thursday making a handshake with an official mandatory at naturalization ceremonies. Why do you object to the handshake?
Billy O’Shea: For me there’s an important democratic principle involved here. The government says that the handshake is intended to show respect for Danish traditions and Danish culture, and I feel that you cannot impose respect by law. I feel that respect is something that arises in a democracy between people of equal status, equal rights, and it’s not something that can be demanded. If you demand respect of people, what you receive will not be respect but submissiveness.
There is also a further question here. In order to apply for citizenship at all in Denmark, you cannot be unemployed. You cannot have a criminal record of any kind. You must have learned the language. You must have learned about Danish history and Danish culture, and you must have recorded every time you’ve been out of the country for the past 12 years.
O’Shea has lived in Denmark for 37 years
When people have done all this, and furthermore waited up to two years to have their citizenship application approved, at the very last moment the government is now saying: But we need you to do one more thing. We need you to prove that you are not a religious extremist of some kind. I feel that this is an impertinence. It’s just too much. It is as though the government is putting one barrier after another in the path of honest, hardworking people who are just trying to become citizens of the country in which they live.
You wrote in your opinion piece in Politiken that this is un-Danish. How?
Denmark is a country with very long, very firmly democratic traditions. And I feel that this government is not sufficiently aware of its own traditions.
It is of course part of Danish culture to shake hands with somebody else. And I’m in no way at all trying to defend the religious practice of refusing to shake hands with a person of the opposite gender. I find that to be medieval and quite ridiculous, frankly. But you shake hands with someone as a form of greeting or as a sign of mutual respect. As I said in my piece, if you invite people to a party at your house, then of course you shake hands with your guests when they arrive at the door. What you do not do is put up a sign saying, “Everybody has to shake my hand or else there will be trouble,” because that is just bad behavior. It is not the way that Danish people act in my experience.
Is there any valid concern here that the government is addressing?
No, none at all. First of all, the government has been unable to come up with any kind of evidence to show that anyone at any point in any official transaction has refused to shake hands with a representative of the authorities. This has just not happened. So they are not addressing a real need here.
The second thing is, if it ever did become a real problem in Denmark, then there is nothing to stop the government addressing the problem at that time.
“Cracks have appeared in the map of Denmark. […] Throughout the country, there are parallel societies.” With these words, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen announced his government’s new “ghetto plan” during his 2018 New Year’s address. The plan was presented in one of Copenhagen’s so-called “ghettos,” Mjolnerparken.
Rasmussen’s center-right government identified 25 deprived areas, including Mjolnerparken, that fulfill three of five criteria: high unemployment, low income level, low level of education, a majority of inhabitants from non-Western countries and more than 2.7 percent of adults been convicted of crimes.
The newly introduced measures include mandatory child care for toddlers living in these areas. There they are to be taught about democracy, equality and the sentiment behind major Danish holidays, among other things. Controversial proposals to double the penalties for certain crimes committed in “ghettos” are under discussion.
Denmark is a very homogeneous society. Almost 87 percent of its population of 5.7 million people is of Danish descent. The country has struggled to integrate immigrants from outside Europe.
With its wavy line, Superkilen Park is a go-to spot for tourists in Copenhagen who want to snap cool photos. The park also directly borders the Mjolnerparken “ghetto,” which begins behind this little hill and is generally left out of the itinerary of visitors to trendy Superkilen.
Muhammed Aslam lives in Mjolnerparken. Originally from Pakistan, the father of four has been living in the very same apartment since the estate was built. He disapproves of the government targeting the area he calls home: “The politicians are taking all our freedom and democratic rights from us. They are sitting in parliament and are having a conversation without us.”
Tingbjerg is another Copenhagen neighborhood deemed a “ghetto.” Originally from Somalia, Barwaqo Jama Hussein works at a drug store and is actively engaged in Tingbjerg’s community. She is frustrated by the public discourse: “You see yourself as a negative thing. You must be a ghetto child. When you tell people that you are from Tingbjerg, a lot of them say: ‘Oh, is that the ghetto?'”
And thirdly, let’s be realistic: If you are trying to stop religious extremists from becoming citizens, this is not the way to do it. A religious extremist who genuinely objects to shaking hands with a person of the opposite gender probably would not apply for citizenship in the first place. And if they did apply, they might decide to make an exception on that one day and shake hands, if that was what it meant.
You submitted a letter to the minister for immigration and integration, Inger Stojberg. What was her response?
Her response was quite simple: If you do not shake hands with a representative of the authorities you will not be granted citizenship.
I don’t intend to change my mind on this. My application has recently gone in. The processing time in Denmark is up to two years. At the end of that two years, I will have passed all of the tests except the final one, which is to shake hands with the mayor of Copenhagen. Now I have great respect for the mayor of Copenhagen. And I have great respect for his office, and indeed I have great respect for the state of Denmark. But I will not shake his hand under compulsion. I don’t think this is something that a democracy should be doing.
Inger Stojberg of the Venstre party has become well-known for controversial statements about Muslims and migrants
Read more: Denmark to build controversial German border fence
What kind of reaction have you received to the piece in Politiken?
I’ve had a huge reaction, and frankly I was amazed. I had expected to be slaughtered in the newspaper and in social media. The reaction I received from ordinary Danish people has been quite the opposite. There’s been huge, huge support for what I said, and I was very touched and moved by those expressions of support.
A recent poll showed that 52 percent of the Danish population are against this law. Only 36 percent were for it and the rest were “don’t knows.” So there is no real support in the population for such an extreme measure. This is something the government is doing completely off its own bat.
Why after all these years are you applying for citizenship now?
After 37 years in the country I don’t think there’s any doubt that I’m going to stay here for the rest of my life. And if you’re going to stay in the country for the rest of your life then you should make the commitment to become a citizen, I feel.
Though as an EU citizen you don’t have to give up your Irish passport …
No. It’s just purely to show respect for my country, to the country I live in, and become a true part of this society.