Islam and the Western Media

Constructed Realities and Caricatures

Ever since the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, Islam has once again been in the media spotlight. But many of the reports seem to be based on half-truths and a blinkered view of the situation. An analysis by Sabine Schiffer


photo: AP
Many reports on Muslims and Islam do not at all seem to be based on thorough research and a desire to educate, says Sabine Schiffer

​​If we are to believe what was published in Germany's Spiegel and Focus magazines last week, we would conclude not only that "the multicultural society been a failure," but also that the quintessence of a parallel society is a belief in Islam – in other words, it is Islam that hinders integration.

While we can certainly give credence to various depictions of the plight of "the Muslim woman," the impression they leave behind is deceiving, because here – as always – a generalization is being made that holds certain facts to be representative of the whole story.

It is fully justifiable to criticize the misery of some Muslim women and to want to do something about the crimes perpetrated against them – but the choice of Islam as reference point is completely misguided. Or how shall we attempt to explain similar behavior in Latin America, as well as the fact that the Chinese living in a parallel society in Germany favor arranged marriages?

The escalation in the Netherlands has shown us that confusing the act of an individual with his group affiliation is always a possibility – especially in a context where as long as anyone can remember the category of "Islamic" has been filled with the most horrible associations.

These of course include things that do exist in the wider Islamic world – just as they do in the rest of the world – but that are habitually picked out, generalized and repeated ad nauseum, until they have finally mutated into the one true "reality."

Phenomena for meaning induction

Since 9/11 we have seen a marked increase in the habit of explicitly blaming Muslims for a wide variety of misdeeds. These accusations are no different in quality, however, from the negative insinuations made on a subliminal level that could already be discerned long before. It is for precisely this reason that the many allegations being made today look to us like plausible evidence.

One effective technique for linking the most divergent areas is the so-called "meaning-induction cut" used in film, which we find not only in the documentaries of Peter Scholl-Latour, for instance in the program titled "The Battlefield of the Future," which takes us on a tour of the far-flung capitals of southern Soviet republics, climaxing in an "explosion in a Russian soldiers' camp in Kaspisk."

We are shown images of destroyed houses and bulldozers plowing through the rubble. Then a cut: "And now we are looking at a mosque, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, based on a Turkish model…" And the dome of the mosque with its half-moon comes into view, the architectonic origins of which are then explained. Is there any connection between the mosque and the explosion? No explicit reason is given why the themes of BOMBING and ISLAM are implicitly linked here with an uncommented swiftness. So, we still do not know today what caused that explosion?

But if we were of the opinion that the explosion must have something to do with so-called Islamist terrorism, then we would actually have to back up this assumption with a cogent argument. Besides, in this case the mosque as symbol for Islamism would have been a very poor choice, because what do we have left as a symbol for Islam when mosques, prayers, headscarves, and beards have to do double duty as signs of Islamism?

The headscarf in particular has proven to be a powerfully persuasive image. By now it's enough just to have a headscarf wearer scurry across the screen, and the case appears to be closed. A firmly established chain of associations is being exploited here, with methods ranging from repression to infiltration, which explains why the veil worn by Muslim women is the subject of so much vehement debate these days.

Meaning induction as device also lends itself well to print media. There as well, images, texts combined with images, or even disparate text passages can be juxtaposed without an explicit justification and with the same potential for suggestiveness.

For example, in the October 16, 2000 issue of Der Spiegel magazine there is a photo montage illustrating an article on Israel/Palestine. A comparatively large picture on the left shows Palestinian youths throwing Molotov cocktails. The key features here are flames, an aggressive mood, and hostility. Directly adjacent on the right is a picture about 1/3 the size showing an Israeli settler carrying a baby dressed all in white, turning in the direction of the "attackers" and seeming presenting the baby to them. The Kalashnikov he is carrying in his shoulder harness is partly concealed by the baby.

The subject of this picture seems to be the theme of innocent (settler) children. These images thus perceived together send out a message in advance of the text, if anyone ever actually reads it at all, saying something like "aggressive Palestinians attack innocent Israelis/settlers."

A clear allocation of blame has thus already taken place, no matter how the article may try to present a carefully balanced assessment of the situation.

A purely text-based induction of meaning is apparent in the following example taken from a German magazine called Frau im Leben, issue 7/93, where the subject is the genital mutilation of girls in Egypt.

"In order to launch a campaign in Egypt against female circumcision, the religious leaders there would first have to be convinced of its pointlessness. Islam is the state religion. 93% of the population is of the Muslim faith."

Female circumcision is an ancient African tradition

This all happens to be true - and that is bad enough – but this tradition has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam, as a look at the countries where the practice is widespread soon shows. Female circumcision is an ancient African tradition, which indeed is practiced in some of the Islamic countries of Africa, but is found in the non-Islamic areas as well.

The fact alone that some influential religious figures are trying to make this practice seem like an "Islamic" tradition does not prove the accuracy of this allegation. We would normally be better able to see through such strategies and not let ourselves be taken in by them, if the subject matter were closer to home.

One last example from an endless repertoire: when in fall 2002 a sniper cast a pall of fear and horror over Washington, we often heard, for example on the BR 5 (Bavarian Broadcasting) radio station: "John Allan Muhammad, a convert to Islam …"

This is a clear infringement of the German Press Board Guideline Number 12.1, which prohibits the naming of group affiliations, such as nationality, religion, etc. in the context of crime reporting. The necessity for such a guideline attests to just this danger of perceiving individual acts as group phenomena.

Even today, we still know nothing about the motives of the Washington sniper and his stepson, but an implied association between the violence against other human beings and the religion of the offender remains at the back of our minds.

"Muslim profiling"

By now we are able to speak of a certain tradition of representation: if the offender is a Muslim, this will definitely be mentioned, regardless of whether it has anything to do with what has happened. We call this profiling. The same rules once applied to our Jewish fellow citizens, and that alone should be enough to give us pause.

This realization is made more complicated, however, by the fact that some perpetrators themselves invoke Islam, and it is not easy for non-Muslims to comprehend the irrelevance of Islam to their deeds. This self-profiling makes it especially difficult for those who do not belong to the group to see through this unacceptable appropriation. This phenomenon is familiar to us from the anti-Semitic discourse.

Placement and ordering

While in television the program and time slot indicate the significance and degree of attention given to an issue, in the print media placement is the decisive factor determining the apparent importance of the information provided.

A high degree of impact puts an issue on the front page, as is the case with the raids that have been conducted on mosques in the aftermath of 9/11.

What is interesting here is the following observation – described here using the example of the Nürnberger Nachrichten: by means of a representative analysis over the course of a few months in 2002, we discovered that the announcements of raids were always placed on the front page. Reports on the failure of such raids to turn up any evidence, however, were always hidden somewhere inside the newspaper or were skipped completely.

Although in most cases the suspicions turned out to be groundless, the impression was left behind that the mosques harbor a potential threat. This explains why the word 'mosque' has undergone a veritable transformation in meaning: today, instead of viewing the mosque as a place of prayer and encounter, people perceive it as the locus of conspiracy.

Metaphors and the threat scenario

Research into anti-Semitism has already shown that certain metaphors have a dehumanizing effect and can be suggestive of possible actions to take. Labeling a group of people dangerous "vermin" naturally inspires others to try to protect themselves from this menace.

If you continually call someone names coming from the pest world, then measures taken against such "pests" seem like an act of self-defense and acquire a patina of legitimacy – as demonstrated for example by Goldhagen. With regard to Muslims, one of the metaphoric realms currently in vogue is that of DISEASE.

When Islamism is referred to as a "cancerous tumor" (Der Spiegel, February 25, 2002: 172f), this fear mongering already implies the idea of eradication - or how would you treat a cancerous tumor?

One might argue here that, strictly speaking, Islamism is at issue here and not Islam. This is correct. But it is unfortunately the case that the concept of Islamism is only rarely distinguished clearly from that of Islam.

Again and again, terms such as "Islamic terror," "Moslem extremist," "Islamist suicide bomber" etc. are simply used interchangeably.

The French press as well provides plenty of provocative examples of these mix-ups, such as the oft-cited "fever of Islam" (La fièvre de l’islam, L’Express November 1, 2001: front page), which surely refers to Islamism instead and which was meant in this case to justify Putin’s foreign policy.

Reshaping stereotypes

When certain aspects of reality can no longer be ignored, there often occurs a kind of mending of the established worldview. This is once again an automatism that we are subject to.

Facts that clash with our customary expectations, i.e. those that contradict the stereotypes, can in this way be quickly and conveniently brought into harmony with our cherished stereotypes. This mechanism can be illustrated using the example of Benazir Bhutto.

When Bhutto became Prime Minister of Pakistan, this did not fit in with our conventional concept of the role of the Muslim woman. In order to avoid having to completely rethink this "truth," the following explanations were put forth for why Ms. Bhutto had been able to achieve this high office.

Reference was made to "the legacy of her father," the "illiteracy of the people," and to her "Oxford education" – all in an effort to play down her accomplishment as a Muslim woman.

There was even talk of the "election strategy of the Shiites," whose supportive behavior was apparently particularly in need of explanation.

All in all, people were able to satisfy themselves, after making a few nips and tucks to the old stereotype, that there was no need to call into question their firm conviction that a woman in this high position was antithetical to Islam.

Bhutto was the exception, and, as we know, the exceptions prove the rule – as attested to by the many heads of state in the so-called West.

This is once again only one example of many, showing clearly that it is not the facts that are crucial to our perception of a subject, but rather that our way of ordering our world always precedes our perception of information, and that it is an artificial one.

Since our benevolent or mistrusting eye always decides in advance how a subject will be perceived – i.e. interpreted – this means for our view of Muslims today that no matter what they do, it's wrong!

Our preconceived attitude is one of mistrust and this mistrust casts a pall on all of the efforts anyone can undertake to prove it wrong: If a Muslim woman insists on wearing a headscarf, for example, this can be construed as a sign of her turning away from – or even rejecting – the society of the non-Muslim majority.

If she dispenses with her headscarf, on the other hand, this can be dismissed as a clever camouflage, a disguise in an effort to infiltrate our society unrecognized.

Similar arguments could be read recently in a prominent German weekly paper: "Sleepers try particularly hard to obtain citizenship." But if the willingness to integrate is interpreted as an attempt at infiltration, which positive options for action do the Muslims have left?

Here we must carefully examine whether demands made on the Muslims and the consequences promised in return have any relationship at all – something that has been completely neglected in the debate on integration.

Conversely, we need to convey to Muslims that a fear of Islam is based more on misunderstanding than on malicious intent.

Because, from the observations we have made above, we can derive at least two points.

For one, the imagined threat scenario through Islam and its followers is a fatal mechanism that continues to be fed afresh through individual deeds and our focus on these as symptomatic of the impending menace.

And second, this means at the same time that there is no conspiracy against Islam and the Muslims.

Fact and conclusion

This information should not serve to allay our fears, for if we assume that politicians and media players are acting to the best of their knowledge and in good faith, we have to concede not only that much educational work still needs to be done, but that the ability of self-criticism must also be cultivated in order to break through this mechanism.

We have seen clearly how the seemingly innocuous stating of pure facts can lead to false conclusions.

Calling upon facts alone as a sufficient means for fighting discrimination and racism is never enough. Taking effective action against a confrontational development requires cognizance of the unfavorable interplay between fact and framing, in order to be able to work out constructive solutions.

For this we need people who are prepared to take others seriously, with their different needs, concerns, desires and ideas – no matter how these have come about – and who do not let themselves be discouraged by previous missteps.

This goes for everyone, because the mechanisms described here unfortunately work in the other direction as well, where the politics of George Bush increasingly stand for the world's view of "the West."

Sabine Schiffer

© 2004

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

Sabine Schiffer is a lecturer in media education and communication studies at Friedrich-Alexander University, Nürnberg/Erlangen, Germany.

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