Immigrants in the Distorting Mirror of the Media

Stirring Things Up for Immigrants

Media reporting on immigrants has taken on a harsher tone since the terrorist attacks of September 11. Some old prejudices are back in fashion and being joined by some that are completely new. Christoph Butterwegge has been assessing the mood in Germany

The attitude of the German mass media to foreigners living in Germany is much the same as their attitude to reporting on foreign countries – it is only done in exceptional circumstances, should be as spectacular as possible, and ideally have a touch of catastrophe thrown in for good measure.

There is a tendency to associate immigrants with chaos and crime: Mafia murders, gang robberies and asylum fraud. If it's true that "only bad news are good news," then, as far as the German press is concerned, one might say that only bad foreigners are good foreigners!

Journalists tend to judge immigrants according to two criteria: their use to Germany, or, more precisely, to the German economy, and their ethnic origin. Migration may be portrayed as a threat or as an advantage to the native population, but it is only seldom presented as the normality of a globalised world.

Whilst capital crosses borders in fractions of a second, immigrants, particularly those from poorer countries, remain undesirable – unless of course they are highly qualified or young families who are welcome to fill the role of demographic stopgaps.

Islamophobia as a consequence of 9/11

The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon constituted a turning point for media coverage of the topic of immigration. Since then, in West Germany at least, the Arab or Turkish Muslim has replaced the southern European immigrant worker and the black asylum seeker as the country's favourite foreigner stereotype.

Since then a triple modification of the way in which migration is reported on has become discernible. Firstly, the migration and criminality discourses have now become even more closely interlinked than they were during the asylum debate of 1991/92.

Cover Spiegel (image: Der Spiegel)
Creating one-dimensional stereotypes: Germany's "Der Spiegel". The headline reads: "Allah's bloody nation"

​​Secondly, the discourse on criminality has become politically and ideologically charged, has intensified into a terrorism discourse and, through the mass dissemination of the "clash of cultures" metaphor, become a global discourse on war.

Thirdly, both the migration and the criminality discourses have been Islamicised. Plans for Turkish membership of the EU have played a crucial role in terms of foreign policy, as have Muslim headscarves, "honour" killings and forced marriages on the domestic policy front.

Now, the image of Islam in the German media is not simply becoming darker, the media is even joyfully subscribing to the unhappy revival of interpretations of world politics as a "clash of civilizations" (Samuel P. Huntington) or a "war of civilizations" (Bassam Tibi).

DIE ZEIT magazine, in a bout of uncharacteristic sensationalism, published an editorial on September 13, 2001. Its title, in red print, the headline announced that war had been declared on USA read: "The Target: Our Civilization. Total and Global Terror".

Symbols of the culture clash

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida became bywords for terror, symbols of a "clash of cultures" between Islam and the West. For much of the media, terrorism, fundamentalism and Islamism became omnipresent dangers to be robustly opposed in pugnacious solidarity with US President George W. Bush.

Prevailing liberal attitudes in migration policy fell casualty to the new bogeyman of the "sleeper" after 9/11. From now on, immigrants were to become even more strongly associated with criminality, irrationality, backwardness, religious fundamentalism and ideological fanaticism.

For a long time after the attacks, the German mass media was dominated by images of the burning twin towers, by military metaphors and martial language.

The Turks as domestic and foreign policy problem

One year after the terror attacks in New York, DIE ZEIT published an article by Hans-Ulrich Wehler on what he called "Das Türkenproblem" (The problem of the Turks). In the article, he claimed, "the West needs Turkey as a front-line state, a buffer against Iraq. But the Muslim country should never be allowed entry to the EU." The anti-Islamic thrust of the piece was already clear from the title.

Wehler identifies a clear "cultural frontier" between Europe and Turkey, and uses this to justify his claim that: "Muslim minorities all over Europe are proving resistant to assimilation, and are withdrawing into their own subculture. "Germany, too," he says, "as is well known, does not have a problem with foreigners, it has a problem with Turks."

When the bombers came to Europe, blowing up trains in Madrid on March 11, 2004, migration policy became an even hotter political potato. Following the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on November 2, 2004, a new media term, "parallel society" entered the fray as a counterpoint to the notion of the "multicultural society".

Modernised bogeyman

The debate culminated in the article, "Die Schlacht um Europa" (The Battle for Europe) by Gilles Kepel in the Welt am Sonntag newspaper of November 21, 2004, and in the title page headline of Focus magazine on the following day: "Sinister Guests. Muslim Counterculture in Germany". The old Cold War bogeyman was being resurrected and modernised.

Media open season on Muslims had been declared. Dramatist Botho Strauss did his bit to nourish fears of an Islamisation of the West through his historical reminiscences on crusades, Turkish wars and the Reconquista (medieval expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula) when, in Der Spiegel of February 13, 2006, he posed the question whether "looked at from today's point of view, the successful defences of Christian Europe against the onslaught of the Arab hordes had not all been in vain. With the Muslim populations of Amsterdam and other major cities moving towards a majority position, they will soon no longer be in need of our tolerance," he claimed.

Whilst it is certainly possible that immigrants could represent a majority of the population at some point in the distant future, they will certainly not all be of the same religion, nor is it very likely that they will all feel compelled to convert to Islam.

The mass coverage of topics such as "forced marriages" or "honour killings" was also replete with racist undertones. Muslim immigrants, Turks especially, were being stigmatised by a media that was reinforcing the impression of entrenched groups, walled off in their "parallel societies", oppressing their women, and generally not fitting in with "us", being more suited to the places they had originally come from.

Mosques, minarets and muezzins

In March 2007, a Frankfurt divorce court judge denied a battered wife the right to a quick divorce on the grounds that she should have been aware of her violent Moroccan husband's religiously given right to beat her. And though the media duly expressed their outrage, it was not the judge's inadequate and unhistorical interpretation of the Koran that raised their ire, but rather the fact that the judge had taken a foreign interpretation of law into consideration.

It is the terms in which the media choose to engage in the public discourse on foreigners, refugees, migrant workers and ethnic minorities, but also on the possibility of a successful coexistence with them, that will be crucial in deciding whether "foreign" will become synonymous with "exclusion zone".

The media has a responsibility towards society, playing an important role in determining whether it breaks down entirely or evolves a common perspective for all its members. In the light of what happened in the town of Mügeln recently when eight Indian immigrants were subjected to a mob assault, journalists should have become more aware than ever of the responsibility they carry for ensuring the success of integration.

Christoph Butterwegge

© Christoph Butterwegge 2007

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Professor Christoph Butterwegge teaches political science at the University of Cologne.

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