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A tale of stereotypes

Naomi Conrad
March 18, 2015

Germany’s media and school textbooks often misrepresent Islam and Muslims, focusing on extremist organizations. Muslim organizations rarely have a voice. This may be fueling anti-Islam sentiments, writes Naomi Conrad.

Paparazzi with camera
Image: Fotolia/rosental

At a press conference in Berlin this week, Aydan Ozoguz, the German government's top official for integration, recalled attending her school's religious education classes in the 1970s and early 80s. Back then, she was the only Muslim student in her class. "It was terrible", she said. Ozoguz, an eloquent politician who is of Turkish origin but was born and raised in Hamburg, shrugged: "The only representation of Muslims was that of a man holding a saber."

Fortunately, she added, things had moved on since then. But change is still slow, says Inga Niehaus from the George Eckert Institute for International Research, pointing to a preliminary study conducted in 2011. The representation of Islam and Muslims in German textbooks, she said, "was far from balanced". Islam, she explained, was often linked to terrorism, while little to no mention made of the reform process the religion underwent in the modern age.

This ties in with an often one-sided representation of migration and integration in German textbooks more generally, according to a study conducted by Niehaus and several of her colleagues which was released this week.

Accordingly, migrants are all too often represented as a passive group, rather than individual actors. Overall, migration was portrayed as something “conflictual and critical” rather than focusing on its positive implications, according to Niehaus. Text books, she said, failed to portray "diversity as the normality that it has become."

German newspaper magazines (foto: Naomi Conrad/DW)
German media outlets often link Islam with violenceImage: DW/N. Conrad

Coming to terms with the reality of immigration

Germany has long struggled to come to terms with the reality of being a country of immigration: One in five Germans has foreign origins, the number is even higher among younger Germans, where as many as one in three have a migrant background, but German politicians have only recently, and mostly very grudgingly, started labeling Germany an “Einwanderungsland”.

This may explain the slow change in German textbooks: Peter Schell, who heads the publishing house Westermann, points to a certain "time-lack" when it comes to mirroring societal changes, given publishing constraints and cycles. However, publishing houses had “come a long way in recent years”, he said. His counterpart at Cornelsen publishing house, Anja Hagen, admitted that "there was room for improvement", while stressing that modern textbooks did show diversity.

But the authors of textbooks are not the only ones who still have to do their homework, it seems: Naika Foroutan, from the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research, points to an often stereotypical representation of Muslims in the media: She pointed to several recent magazine covers, explicitly liking Islam to violence and terror. Others showed alluring women in headscarves. This "mysterious and exotic portrayal", Foroutan said, made Muslims seem "somehow ominous and intangible."

Violent groups dominate reporting

A recent study conducted by the Swiss monitoring group Media Tenor, which analyzed the coverage of Islam and Muslims in Germany, the UK and US between 2001 and 2014, corroborates her observations. The report finds that violent groups dominate reporting about Islam since 2001, while religious leaders and Muslim organizations are rarely given a voice. Accordingly, coverage of Islam focuses mainly on violence, war and terrorism, while the contribution of Islam and Muslims to social and cultural life in Western society is virtually absent from the news.

Foroutan on a panel with other political scientists (Foto: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa)
Foroutan (left): Journalists fail to distinguish between Islam and IslamismImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Bernd von Jutrczenka

And this is worrying, Foroutan said, given that many Germans say they draw their knowledge about Islam from the news. At the same time, some 77 percent of Germans said they knew only very little about Islam. Germany's media, Foroutan said, just wasn't doing its job.

Mustafa Yoldas, a medical doctor who heads Schura, an umbrella organization of Muslim organizations in Hamburg, recalled his anger and incredulity at finding out that a popular TV show had canceled its invitation to take part in a debate on Islam - only to invite a radical Salafist preacher instead. "This happened twice", he said, shaking his head. "The third time they called to get me on the show I told them to, pardon my French, get lost."

It was hardly surprising, he said, that many young Muslims were turning away from the traditional media that misrepresented their religion, instead turning to Youtube and other social media.


This misrepresentation may be fueling resentment and anti-Islam sentiments in Germany: According to a recent study by the Bertelsmann Foundation, 61 percent of those interviewed said that they believed Islam did not belong to the West. 40 percent said that, faced with the Muslim presence, they felt like foreigners in their own countries. This, however, is in stark contrast to the actual figures: Only five percent of those living in Germany are Muslim, a figure that is set to rise to somewhere between 5,5 and 7 percent by 2030, Foroutan said.

However, Muslims are still underrepresented in Germany's media outlets, journalist Konstantina Vassiliou-Enz said. "Germany's editorial offices are far too homogenous." This means newsrooms miss out on interesting stories, but also lack access to Muslim communities.

Vassiliou-Enz is a member of Neue Deutsche Medienmacher, which translates as new German media-makers, a network of journalists campaigning for more diversity in the media. Her organization has drawn up a database of experts on a wide-range of topics, ranging from spinal cord specialists to scientists researching renewables. What unites them is their migration background. She shrugs: "The idea is to show Germany's reality in its many facets - and to mirror normality." Muslims, she added, were capable of speaking out on any topic - not only crime, violence and integration.

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