Reports by Western media on the violent protests in the Muslim world against the film "The Innocence of Muslims" have delivered a one-sided and over-simplified picture of the Muslims and the complex reality in which they live. By Hoda Salah
Since the start of the protests against the provocative and blasphemous film about Muhammad, I have often been contacted by European media as an "expert with Arab or Muslim background". In interviews, the first question usually is, "Ms Salah, why are the Muslims storming Western embassies?" or "Why are the Muslims so angry with the West?"
This kind of question reveals a worrying phenomenon: it suggests that many Western opinion-formers are subject to the same ways of thinking as the radical Islamists and Salafists who are responsible for the violence and for the attacks on the Western institutions. They probably don't mean to be.
All the same, this does not alter the fact that reporting by Western mainstream media on the protests against the film which have taken place in many Muslim-influenced countries has drawn a one-sided and over-simplified picture of the Muslims and the complex reality of their lives. Above all, many reports have made out that radical and violent Islamists are the same as Muslims in general.
One-dimensional point of view
The media here in Europe present Islam as is it were one single irrational, aggressive entity. This short-sighted view has little in common with the varieties of Muslim faith, with their supporters, languages, population groups and cultures.
This is the same as the radical Islamists do on the other side. These Muslim bigots also see "The West" as a single cultural and political entity which is united in despising Islam and treating it with disrespect.
In addition, radical Islamists can't (or won't) distinguish between the various Western states, governments, peoples and the fundamentalist film-makers. Both the Western mainstream media and the radical Islamists generalise where they should differentiate – and thus contribute towards the escalation.
Unfortunately, the German public television channels ARD and ZDF are no exception. The main German news bulletin on 14. September captioned the attacks on Western embassies with the words: "Muslims storm US embassies". The main Swiss television news announced that "Muslim anger now knows no bounds". The headlines in the print media across the board were similar.
Generalisation and a lack of context
Just imagine what the reaction would be if international media refused to distinguish in their reporting on attacks against foreigners in Germany between violent right-wing extremists and the German population in general! What would the response here be if foreign newspapers carried headlines like "Germans storm refugee hostels"?
Describing the perpetrators as "the Muslims" is not only incorrect, it is also far from reality. Such a description overlooks the fact that the large majority of Muslims has spoken out clearly against such acts of violence, and that most Muslims were not involved in such "mass demonstrations".
And with regard to the term "mass demonstration": what do 3,000 demonstrators in a city of 20 million like Cairo amount to? Do they represent a majority of the country's Muslims? The reports often demonstrate no sense of proportion.
One-sided coverage by the media and their focus on the events in the Muslim world, as well as their concentration on the religious factor, produce a distorted picture of reality, and promote the Islamisation of the Muslims. And that leads to the danger that, because of their lack of critical reflection on events, media can act as a sounding board for anti-Muslim feelings.
Aside from this one-dimensional view of Muslims, the media's failure to communicate the context of events is the biggest problem in the picture they present. Any serious reporting must take account of political factors such as the current weakness of the state in post-revolutionary Arab countries like Libya and Egypt if one is to present the events clearly and objectively.
But the Western mainstream media reduce the complexity of Muslim and Arab society and the variety of their people to their religious identity. They ignore the global, economic and political causes of the alarming outbreaks of violence in the region.
Who am I?
Journalists who have spoken to me have usually ended the interview by asking questions like, "Ms Salah, how can we describe you? Are you Muslim or Christian?" That annoys me, and I always answer, "Would you ask such a question of a German political scientist?"
I refuse to play this media game. I wish to be known firstly as a "strong Muslim woman", and secondly as an "enlightened Muslim" who rejects violence on principle.
Such black-and-white images damage the multiculturalism and richness of people with so-called multiple identities, to whom the media deliberately only allow one identity – that of the Muslim!
© Qantara.de 2012
The German-Egyptian political scientist Hoda Salah teaches at the Free University and the Otto Suhr Institute in Berlin. She works as a political adviser in Germany and Egypt, and is active in Amnesty International and the Arab Women's Solidarity Association. She lives in Berlin and Cairo.
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de