About Fikrun

    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    Media Society – Knowledge Society?
    How the German Media’s Image of Islam Is Created

    Tim Otto Roth: Tristan QR. QR Code mosaic in white tiles Deploying a variety of methods and emphases, many studies in the USA, Europe, the Islamic world and elsewhere have demonstrated Islamophobic tendencies in Western media reports. So it is not surprising that a number of prominent individuals and institutions have already warned against distortions in ideas about Islam held by the Western public and particularly the Western media. After the attacks of September 11th 2001, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan drew attention to mounting Islamophobia in the West, which he condemned alongside still prevalent anti-Semitism. The British Council published manuals for journalists, presenting a differentiated interpretation of Islam and the Islamic world, and the OECD pursued similar projects. Ignatz Bubis, the former chairman of the Central Council for Jews in Germany, declared that the German public's negative view of Islam was based on the same misinformation as had previously resulted in contempt for Jews.

    ‘Enlightened Islamophobia’

    The term ‘Islamophobia’ may be disputed on the grounds that not every form of misinterpretation of the Islamic world is based on psychological defence mechanisms; unintentional misinformation also plays a part.  Nevertheless, many of the structural characteristics underlying reporting by various Western media systems provide reasons for concluding that selective perception of negative events and developments predominates, which is a typical characteristic of a ‘hostile image’. To be sure, German media discourse does not demonstrate any unified propagandistic intent, and there is also no dimension of aggressive activism, which would testify to the fully-developed expression of a hostility present in the collective social psychology. However, media reporting is currently characterised by the continued existence of long-established core clichés about Islam together with the simultaneous differentiation of this image in some fringe areas. Islam has had a bad press in the West for 1,400 years now, and modern media society has not broken with this tradition but rather constantly revitalised the ancient idea of a clash between Orient and Occident in contemporary terms. Certainly there exist small-scale media which provide differentiation: the internet, a heterogeneous book market, and occasional anti-cyclical tendencies in mass media discourse on Islam. But general media reporting embodies a form of ‘enlightened Islamophobia’ rather than a trend towards the genuine elucidation of a centuries-old one-sidedly negative image of Islam, which continues to poison the international and domestic climate.

    The following essay provides a brief survey of trends in German media reporting on Islam, including the conditions underlying this state of affairs. It will be made clear that simple causalities are certainly not at work here, but that an entire network of influences shapes today’s media image of Islam. That does not simply involve culturally learned stereotypes which the individual journalist incorporates in reporting. The media are also subject to the constraints, routines, and economic interests of today’s media groups, including their complex interactions with political and social systems, which ultimately encompass media-users and raise questions about the degree of development of German multicultural society, including primary and secondary socialisation in the family, school, work, and social surroundings. Attention will also be paid to the role of German elites and opinion-formers, who cannot be viewed overall as ‘global elites’ but frequently become sources of key ideas in the media reproduction of a hostile image of Islam.

    From image of Islam to discourse about Islam

    Media discourse is characterised by both micro- and macro-structures. The former refer to all the demonstrable characteristics of an individual text’s content – as in a newspaper article or an item on radio or television. Macrostructures either make possible systematic and comparative description of a large number of texts, or put the emphasis on relations and interactions between texts. General statements about the German media’s view of Islam can only be made when all these levels are taken into account.

    It is impossible to investigate all the microstructures. However, it can be demonstrated that to this day images and arguments indicating a highly selective and negatively standardised image of Islam are widespread in the main German print and electronic media. Various studies have been devoted to contemporary historical media discourse on Islam, for instance concerning the Iranian Revolution of 1978/79, or they have analysed today’s media landscape. The Iranian Revolution was a wake-up call for the German media. Before that there was some reporting on the Middle East, but Islam was a peripheral theme. The emergence of political Islam brought about a fundamental change. The discursive microstructures developed during the Iranian Revolution have persisted (with modifications) up to the present day. Time and again since then the German media have assumed that politics and religion are indivisible in Islam (as also asserted by such controversial Orientalists as Bernard Lewis, advisor to George W. Bush). Also widespread is the equation of political Islam and radical fundamentalism, and of the latter with terrorism and extremism. Sabine Schiffer has devoted extensive attention to the mechanisms of ignoring, accentuating, repeating, and symbolising a part as the whole. It is an absolute exception in the German media for there to be linguistic and rational separation of the last two phenomena. Not only selective perception but also a psycho-logic that supports worst-case assumptions prevail. If Islam is equated with politics, politics are viewed as identical to fundamentalism, and this to extremism, then it is logical to conclude that Islam as a whole must be seen as being inclined towards violence – which in turn provides a link between current media discourse and Samuel Huntington’s widely disseminated thesis of a ‘Clash of Civilizations’. Huntington asserts nothing less than a fundamental and violent antagonism between Islam and the West (‘Islam’s blood-stained frontiers’) – an essentialist position which is politically one-sided since it ignores co-operative interaction and is theoretically naïve about culture in denying sub-cultural differences within Islam.

    Cultural racism?

    A striking difference between perceptions during the Cold War and the contemporary image of Islam also receives expression in the media’s visual language. Ever since the Iranian Revolution an almost identical iconography presents visual emphases shaped by such motifs as radicalised Islamic masses, processions of blood-spattered flagellants, and heavily-veiled women. This could quickly be confirmed by comparing issues of the German magazine Stern in 1979 and today. The thesis of the indivisibility of religion and politics is subtly boosted by characterising the enemy’s religion as irrational. The Soviet Union was seen as a state whose leadership cherished ideological objectives but nevertheless functioned as a modern state, but in the image of Islam the people’s significance as citizens of a state is also visually effaced. ‘Muslims’ are visually presented alongside specific leading figures (such as Osama bin Laden), suggesting that the gulf between state and people, which predominated in the Western perception of the Cold War, does not exist in Islam. Hostile depiction of an enemy state becomes a collective image deploying crypto-racist elements with a cultural ideology that replaces former biological racism by emphasis on the oneness of a religion and its adherents – a process Etienne Balibar was already calling ‘racism without races’ two decades ago.

    Nonetheless, as already said, this kind of analysis of content is only a first step towards understanding the media image of Islam, since such investigations say nothing about the frequency and weighting of such constructions in media discourse as a whole. Media discourse is more complex and does not merely reflect corresponding structures. So it is impossible to use such case studies as the basis for general statements about the German media’s view of Islam. That is made all the more difficult by the fact that alternative frames of perception can repeatedly be ascertained in modern media discourse, homing in on the failings of established discourse and seeking fresh differentiation in accordance with the slogan ‘Islam Is Not Just Islam’. For instance, just ten days after September 11th, 2001, a leading article in the newspaper Die Woche entitled ‘The Bogeyman Islam’ warned against ideological mobilisation of hostility to Islam. Do such more recent positive tendencies annul the negative psycho-logic of Islamic violence? Certainly not; they at most demonstrate current rivalry between long-established hostile images, constantly renewed and updated, and more recent counter-discourses.

    Another theoretical approach to this subject matter, known as the focus or agenda approach, shows that general pluralism can by no means be derived from that situation and thus lead to acceptance of a different media image of Islam. ‘Themes’ are clusters of frames, developing around clear-cut (i.e. physically and temporally delineable) events, or describing disputed general topics (e.g. human rights) which serve to order discourse. Themes do not determine what we say (the frames are there for that), but they do indicate what we are talking about: or, in the present case, what the media are talking about, what is on their agenda and what is not. In modern communication studies, ‘agenda-setting’ has become the central paradigm for media impact, since it does not maintain that the media can totally influence people’s thinking and behaviour, but rather that they exert a decisive influence on social and public communication. So it can be assumed that themes within the media’s Islam agenda influence what people think about and associate with Islam.

    Analysis of the press

    An extended analysis of the German national press from 1940 to the 1990s showed that around half of all items involving Islam showed it in the context of violence or some corresponding event (i.e. terrorism). A further 10% linked Islam with conflicts that did not necessarily involve physical violence (e.g. repression through tradition). This negative emphasis also predominates in all other reporting on North Africa and the Middle East. A current study on how Islam was viewed in Germany’s public television (ARD and ZDF) in 2005 and 2006 showed that this tendency seems to have intensified after the events of September 11th. More than 80% of all items on Islam put the emphasis on such negative themes as terrorism, international conflict, religious intolerance, fundamentalism, oppression of women, integration problems, and infringements of human rights.

    So we are completely justified in concluding that although enlightened opinions may sometimes be presented in today’s media discourse about Islam, recipients are largely led to view Islam negatively. In other words, the media avoid explicit equations of Islam and violence (probably for reasons of political correctness), but media presentation comes close to supporting such an assumption. After all, in discussion of such themes as ‘Islam and terrorism’ – ultimately absolutely a minority phenomenon, but presented in the German media as the most important single theme – what other conclusion can be reached except that Islam entails an acute danger?  Successful presentation of this theme may result in better understanding of terrorism, but it is scarcely possible to derive positive conclusions from such an emphasis.

    Too little positive news

    A wide-ranging UNESCO study comparing foreign affairs reporting in various countries already suggested that the main problem is not too much negative news but rather far too little neutral or positive information. The German media’s distorted image of Islam is not accompanied by a relativising informational context enabling recipients to evaluate the significance of a phenomenon like religious extremism correctly. Just one example: Islam’s still strong traditions of non-violent resistance have basically never been covered in Western media. In the West everyone knows about Mahatma Gandhi, but hardly anyone is aware of Badshah Khan, a Pakistani Muslim who mobilised innumerable thousands of people in peaceful protests, who was one of Gandhi’s closest comrades, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Western media show intense interest in Islamic suicide bombers, but rarely mention non-violent resistance in the daily demonstrations, sit-ins, and hunger strikes organised by many Islamic organisations. The origins of the German media’s views of Islam reveal a predominant lack of interest in Islam as a religion and its diversity of forms of social expression. The same is true of perceptions of Judaism, which are largely limited to the Holocaust and Zionism. Media interest is principally concentrated on radical facets of Islam, presenting a religion which mainly seems to serve the function of being a radically ideological antithesis to Western society. Once again the way in which Huntington’s clash of civilisations is construed by the media becomes apparent here.

    There seem to be only two logical ways out of this situation. Either political Islam once again vanishes from the scene, as authors like Gilles Kepel think possible. The German media would then lack thematic incentives and Islam would probably disappear from view, possibly leaving the way free for positive images of the Orient. Or successful normalisation of the discussion of Islam (assisted by social forces working to influence the media from outside and within) could be implemented even if re-Islamisation continues. 

    The first possible development relates to the fact that in today’s media discourse an unusually high degree of attention is being devoted to Islam, which, viewed historically, is by no means an established part of the culture. Before the 1978/79 Iranian Revolution the German and other Western media reported very little about Islam except at times of pilgrimage and fasting. Reports on the Orient – and there were many – were not concerned with Islam; they focused on a wide range of themes and events. During the 1950s, for example, exotic Orientalism was very much present in the German media, with the love affairs of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlevi and the Aga Khan generating cover stories in Der Spiegel and Stern. These accounts may have been loaded with clichés, but they were entertaining and were received positively. Such entertainment from the Orient vanished from the German press in the ‘shockwaves’ created by the 1967 Six-Day War via the Iranian Revolution and up to September 11th, 2001.

    Nevertheless, it must be remembered in discussion of media views of Islam that these constitute only part of German reporting on the Orient, which, viewed over a longer period, experienced considerable fluctuations in terms of the themes covered. There are two spheres which make it more difficult to characterise the characteristics of today’s negative media image of Islam as a constant phenomenon.

    • As just shown, the media’s image of Islam demonstrates contemporary fluctuations, with a comparison of the situation before and after the Iranian Revolution suggesting that a fully-fledged hostile image of Islam only develops in times of high politicisation (political Islam).
    • Even within politicised phases of the image of Islam – in the present case from 1978/79 up to the present day – differences in currents of opinion (as in the Right-Left make-up of the media) can influence discourse on Islam. Such influences can be demonstrated, for example, in the Salman Rushdie affair, during the controversy over the German Orientalist Annemarie Schimmel, and in the more recent ‘caricatures dispute’. They indicate differences in sensibility. Conservatives are often more likely to take religious symbols into consideration than the leftist progressive camp. ‘Minor traditions’ in German responses to the Orient, for instance German Orientalism, are then also granted a brief opportunity to publicise their views in the media, since these are actively sought in such debates.

    It is doubtful whether such brief openings of the media to more differentiated images of Islam exert a broad educational impact on society, especially as that discourse mainly reaches the elite press rather than more popular newspapers. All the same, the great demand for relevant study-courses and qualifications resulting from such controversies, and the many conferences held in what is known as the intermediate sector (foundations, associations, etc), show that a minority but often highly educated counter-public is constantly reconstituting and rejuvenating itself. 

    Media society – knowledge society

    There is little point in detaching the debate about the image of Islam in the German mass media from the very much broader context of the overall German view of Islam. The fact is that the structural causes which led to current reporting on Islam are only partly to be found within the media themselves. From a historical perspective it is very easy to demonstrate that most of the negative images of Islam in today’s media have essentially been virulently active within the German cultural sphere for centuries. Synchronised comparison of the media image with that of other segments of society – politics, educational institutions, churches, other intellectual elites, and (as cannot be left out of account today) discourse about Islam popularised by way of the internet – would very quickly show that the mass media of television, radio, and press are merely a building-block in an all-embracing knowledge society where the majority tend to see Islam as a negative and hostile counterforce to modernity. 

    Viewed in theoretical terms, influences on media content can be located on three different levels:

    • micro-level: influences exerted by individuals involved in journalism, above all the journalists themselves whose personal and vocational socialisation becomes apparent in media production;
    • meso-level: influences exerted by the media organisations, their resources, information processes, and social interactions, which can also be typologically distinguished as in the dualism of private and public media;
    • macro-level: influences exerted on the media where a distinction must be made between interactions with the opinions of citizens and elites, and with the political and economic systems.

    In recent decades criticism of views of Islam in the German mass media has mainly been directed towards the micro-level.  In the Nineties in particular the stereotypes deployed by such leading German journalists as Peter Scholl-Latour and Gerhard Konzelmann, who long dominated television reporting on the Middle East, were subjected to serious criticism. The titles of such programme series as Scholl-Latour’s The Sword of Islam during the 1991 Gulf War already reveal the predominance of culturally biased and essentialist views of the world – with Islam seen as a unified force. The assumption that German journalists allowed personal prejudices to influence their reporting on Islam has been confirmed elsewhere in more extensive studies. One of the reasons for the high incidence of personal ideology in journalism can surely be sought in the fact that in general no corrective develops out of the professional training journalists receive. The stereotyped attitudes of primary and secondary socialisations in the family, school, and social environment are given no balance through professional socialisation as a journalist.

    Journalists may learn general maxims concerning neutrality, objectivity, and balance, but for the most part they lack the background knowledge for developing alternative attitudes towards Islam, making them capable of pluralistic, critical, and appreciative reporting. To this day none of the German schools of journalism offer regular courses on Islam. Reporting on what is happening in other countries has increasingly become a shadow of what it once was in German journalism, and that is reflected in the training provided. The extent to which specialised studies, pursued by journalists before their professional training, can supply the necessary knowledge still needs to be investigated in detail, since there can be great differences in the expertise regarding Islam provided in, for example, political science courses at different universities. However, for German journalists such specialised studies are certainly marginal.

    Organisation or individual?

    Micro-theory observations concerning journalists do not supply adequate explanations for the current state of German media views of Islam. In journalistic theory, researchers have long been asking whether the individual predominates over the media organisation or the organisation over the individual with regard to the exertion of influence. The reason for this uncertainty lies in the specific character of present-day journalism, which functions as a borderline occupation between a liberal profession and dependence on highly-regulated employment. On the one hand journalism, like other professions, is only answerable to its own set of ethics, and self-regulation through vocational associations and press councils is highly developed, but it is the media organisation that lays down the material framework on which employment depends. In other words, the media enterprise may be dependent on the creative, intellectual, and linguistic autonomy of its journalists, but it can respond to what is seen as excessive deviation from the organisational norm with material sanctions which are largely anticipated by journalists and avoided through self-censorship. So even the most enlightened of journalists can come to grief because of media regulations, or eke out a peripheral existence at work, above all when a medium’s commercial decisions point in a different direction.

    That is the only explanation for the fact that, on the one hand, the era of dominance by just a few foreign correspondents has been over for decades now in Germany, because there are more and more media outlets.  Today a wide range of journalists are involved in the construction of an image of Islam in the print and electronic sector. On the other hand, no increase in individual freedom is apparent here. The old themes and patterns of media discourse also still hold good amid constantly self-renewing conditions of production. Not even the slight increase in the number of trained Arabists and Orientalists, as well as Muslim immigrants, has led to any substantial change. Those groups still only constitute a small minority in terms of numbers, and they are subject to organisational interests and pressures. A magazine like Stern, which in recent years has employed a number of Orientalists, must ultimately assert itself on the market. Under the pressure of a ‘crisis in the press’ and the economic demands of popularisation, the freedoms gained by vocational qualifications vanish once again. Probably nothing does greater harm to German media’s view of Islam, resulting in negative one-sidedness, than continued prevalence of ‘conflict’ as a well-established news value despite changes in personnel.

    Market logic also prevails in another sphere, with ever-reduced resources for foreign correspondents and the resultant strengthened position of news agencies as external sources of information. These agencies are nodal points within media discourse, mainly responsible for the fact that the German mass media’s views of Islam are so uniformly dominated by a few constantly repeated themes and viewpoints. It is true that by supplying leading themes and important material news agencies make an important contribution towards the emergence of ‘public discussion’, whose formation would be endangered by excessive thematic heterogeneity and too radical a definition of journalists’ own interests. However, at the same time there is a danger that media pressure regarding time and money means that agency secondary sources are not sufficiently checked or subjected to diverse and deep interpretation. Journalistic traditions of plagiarising such sources, euphemistically termed ‘secondary gatekeeping’ in earlier communications studies, are not only to be found and deplored in the realm of views of Islam; they promote thematic stagnation within the entire profession, which is denounced by some journalists and critical members of the public.

    There is another aspect which is frequently overlooked. Journalists don’t only seek orientation in external sources of information, but also to a high degree within their own profession. Within journalism opinion-forming elements are well-established, and regular empirical studies have shown that such publications as Der Spiegel, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, and for some years now the Bildzeitung have presented themes and viewpoints which are then taken up and duplicated by the rest of the established mass media. It may be the case that following journalistic opinion-leaders does not exclude the adoption of one’s own opinions, which can be the outcome of ideological differences within the media and a corresponding demand for presentation of a right-left spectrum in society, but thematic emphases seem to dominate. Themes that Der Spiegel takes up in a big way, preferably as a cover story, spark off a great deal of public debate; topics that are ignored quickly vanish. Recently the Spiegel cover invoking ‘Germany as Mecca: Silent Islamisation’ presented an image of Islamic infiltration of the country. That example is all the more significant since several studies have demonstrated that Der Spiegel exhibits a preference for showing Islam in conjunction with such classic negative themes as violence, terrorism, oppression, and the religious nature of Islamic societies.

    The influence of hierarchies

    Many other hierarchical power constellations are apparent within media organisations alongside news agencies and opinion-makers, and these often exert a highly questionable impact with regard to maintenance of quality. It has been empirically demonstrated that in the big national newspapers and political magazines a specific section is responsible for daily reporting on Islam (which does not mean that those involved are necessarily Islam experts, but at least responsibility is assigned). However, at moments of crisis or animated debate over Islam – the Rushdie affair, the caricatures dispute, and of course after September 11th – editors-in-chief and writers of leading articles intervene as upholders of a pronouncedly anti-Islam and often highly generalised status quo of social perception. Whether it is the editor of Die Zeit, Theo Sommer, warning in 1989 against ‘shoots of alien culture’ in our midst during the Rushdie affair, or almost twenty years later the editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Frank Schirrmacher, stating that young Muslims are the main danger among criminals from their age group, conservative forces always deploy the same approach when assuring their journalistic hegemony at decisive moments. On the front page and in the leading article there is sweeping criticism of Islam, and on ‘page 3’ – if you are lucky – a differentiated article; and on a very unusual day in the magazine section a contribution by a scholarly expert. That sums up – at the height of debates - the occasionally apparent strengths but also the self-reproducing weaknesses of journalists who lack expert knowledge.

    The hegemonic discourse emerging here receives support from a network of informal relationships between the mass media and intellectuals, who as successful authors working the book, press, and radio markets enjoy a high reputation among decision-makers in the big media concerns and are therefore accorded considerable space for presentation of their frequently highly anti-Islamic positions. For legitimation and sanctioning of their reporting the media depend on external elites whose lack of ties with other specific social systems (such as political parties and churches) means that they enjoy an aura of intellectual independence. They function quasi as éminences grises in public discourse. However, these relations are sometimes problematic, as the best-known intellectuals do not come from established scholarship but are more or less private scholars whose calibre is not assured by the academic community. That does not necessarily affect the quality of their often original analyses, but there is no guarantee that their essays and other contributions keep up with scholarly research.

    In recent years intellectuals formerly close to the left – such as Alice Schwarzer, Ralph Giordano, Henryk M. Broder, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, or Günther Wallraff – have come to the fore as fundamentally critical of Islam. Particularly problematic is the fact that with regard to Islam these leading progressive critics of society express solidarity with the conservative views of a primarily Christian (or Christian-Jewish) stance on Western politics and society. That way of seeing things has been represented for decades by the leadership of the German Protestant Church and by leading politicians from Helmut Kohl to Helmut Schmidt – for instance regarding Turkish membership of the European Union. Henryk Broder crudely warns in the Spiegel – and in his books too – against ‘capitulating’ to Islam. Ralph Giordano opposes the construction of mosques because he believes that the integration of Islam has been a failure. Alice Schwarzer talks of an Islamic ‘infiltration’ of the German legal system. There are certainly diverse reasons for these former advocates of a modern German culture of tolerance and emancipation having adopted political views previously associated with the conservative right, but one of them certainly entails the fact that they no longer want to see formerly achieved virtues (such as emancipation and reconciliation with the Jews) endangered by often very much more conservative immigrants – a view that does not take into account the possibility that a democratic public constantly renews itself and that it is precisely through this that societal integration can be realised. The one-sided shaping of public opinion by a hegemonic educated elite exerts great, perhaps even decisive, influence on media views of Islam, which of course also means that it would be particularly important to launch intensive dialogue about Islam with this specific grouping, pointing beyond large-scale, volatile debates. Certainly there are a considerable number of journalists urging a balanced image of Islam – the German-Iranian intellectual Navid Kermani is just one example. However, these people are by no means as well-known or influential as the previously mentioned intellectuals.

    Political influence  

    Reflection on the role of the opinion-forming elite has already brought us to the macro-level of theory, and now attention must turn to the influence the political system has on the media image of Islam. Seen in terms of systems theory, the political world is the environment in which the media exist. The interconnections are highly diverse here, especially as many strong statements by politicians about Islam also find their way into the media. Just think of Minister of the Interior Wolfgang Schäuble’s frequent remarks about the terrorist danger posed by converts to Islam. Further examples of such stereotypes and hostile images among politicians are easily found, such as former Bavarian Minister of the Interior Günther Beckstein’s statement about the ‘Anatolian architecture’ of a planned mosque which did not accord with ‘the feelings of a semi-normal human being’. Nevertheless, it must be said that there is no Islamophobic consensus in Germany within publicised political opinion on Islam. Presidents Herzog and Rau have sought reconciliation with Islam, and numerous other declarations from different political camps have revealed – and still do – respect and readiness for dialogue alongside often generalised criticism. Here too Minister of the Interior Schäuble provides an example, in his attempt to promote social recognition of the German Islamic Conference.

    Schäuble paradigmatically embodies a culture within the political establishment that abuses an undifferentiated image of Islam but at the same time seeks improved relations with Muslims and recognition of Islam in Germany. The pragmatism of political elites is illustrated by the fact that, in its foreign policy, the political system has good relations with many Islamic states and at home increasingly establishes contact at least with the organised elements of the Muslim community. Jochen Hippler has drawn attention to similar functional duplicity in American politics. He says that ‘a hostile image of Islam’ is not an omnipresent ideology within American politics; it is only constructed when the intention is to mobilise the American public in some conflict with a predominantly Muslim state. In that analysis, the co-existence of a latent hostile image in the media and public with a rationally informed political apparatus becomes apparent.

    That basic comprehension is confirmed by the diversity of statements about Islam in the German political system, but must be differentiated and complemented in some respects. Firstly, there are also examples of the media being able to reverse the direction political activity is taking, as during the German Federal Government’s ‘critical dialogue’ with Iran in the 1990s when public opposition led the government to distance itself from this process – a fairly rare mechanism which reveals that in principle there is a possibility of the media exerting a strong political impact on specific situations (lack of political involvement, distance from acute security crises, etc). Secondly, there have not as yet been any investigations of the extent to which Islamophobia might influence individual politicians in the taking of political decisions. The idea that political systems and the people involved act rationally is disputed among theoreticians, since values, perceptions, and socialisation play a part in political decision-making. Thirdly, as Hippler suggests, the political temptation of making use of negative images of Islam is not completely arbitrary and utilitarian, since specific political and ideological constellations can pave the way for instrumentalisation of a hostile image of Islam (such as the existence of Islamic fundamentalism, or a boom in clashing cultural ideologies as in Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’). Without fundamentalism and Western preoccupation with culture wars, the German media’s image of Islam would scarcely be as accentuated as it is at present.

    That aspect could be attributed to the ‘spirit of the age’, with the media playing a leading part in its dissemination. The interaction between media and society must be examined more closely as a concluding element in the conditions underlying the creation of the German media’s image of Islam. It must be asked whether today’s media operate in a civil society that can be regarded as reasonably informed about Islam. A critical and differentiated environment would make it more difficult for the mass media of press, radio, and television to disseminate simplified views, and would beyond that stimulate pluralistic debate in the media system. On the other hand, journalists could ask: how is it possible for balanced journalism to develop as long as virulent propaganda like Oriana Fallaci’s The Rage and the Pride or Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations sell like hot cakes at any station kiosk?

    Unmistakable fears

    The situation facing civil society is too complex to be resolved here. Nevertheless, public opinion surveys show that aversions and anxieties regarding Islam are widespread among around two-thirds of the German population. Surveys of textbooks in the Eighties revealed striking deficiencies in the transmission of relevant knowledge in German schools. That situation has changed for the better in some subjects and curriculums in individual federal states, but is still in need of fundamental evaluation. School is a place where a critical consumer of media either develops or fails to do so. The intellectual foundations of a critical but pluralistic understanding of Islam must be established here. Educated German society – and that is also partly true of scholarship – is still only just starting to develop well-founded cultures of knowledge, which must also prevail against images of Islam deeply rooted in the national legacy. Just think of Martin Luther’s views on Islam, or Max Weber’s controversial response to Islam.

    It is doubtful whether the new era of supposed globalisation will provide assistance here. People travel more, but whether tourism in general will lead to a dismantling of stereotypes is highly contestable, since the kind of contact established with a ‘foreign’ culture is the decisive factor. Is it a question of nature and ancient culture (the Pyramids?), or of land and people? And if the latter, which people, and how will communication be established? Other possibilities of interaction sound more hopeful; for instance, the expansion of an internet public that could bring about more differentiated counter-publics. Today, information that has not been taken up by the traditional media can already be disseminated more easily by way of the internet – which is simultaneously a gateway for extreme Islamophobia.
    Kai Hafez
    is a political scientist and professor of comparative media research at Erfurt University. His most recent book is Heiliger Krieg und Demokratie. Radikalität und politischer Wandel im islamisch-westlichen Vergleich [Holy War and Democracy: A Comparison of Radicalism and Political Change in Islam and the West], Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 2009.

    Translated by Tim Nevill
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2010

    Your opinion concerning this topic? Write to