Muslims in the German Media
Since June 2007 I have been a member of ZDF’s ‘Church and Life’ editorial team. I find it exceptionally exciting helping to work on a new format, and shaping a new programme unparalleled in the German media landscape. Forum am Freitag [Friday Forum], as it was finally called, is unique since it gives Muslims in Germany the chance to mediate first-hand information about their beliefs, culture and traditions, as well as about their everyday life in this country. Many people talk about Muslims but no one knows exactly how Muslims think, how they feel, what their life in Germany is like. Writings about Muslims in Germany amount to only a handful of books. Scholarship about Islam also prefers to address such unusual themes as fashion in medieval Baghdad rather than conducting research into this enormously important group in German society. In this respect, Friday Forum fills a very important gap.
What is Friday Forum? It is the first programme on a German public service television in which Muslims present themselves; in which they both set and create the programme. It is part of ZDF’s online schedule (i.e. it can be viewed on the internet) and is also shown on the station’s Info Channel on satellite TV. Every Friday a conversation is devoted to a specific theme, which is available as a video on the ZDF internet page. My colleague Kamran Safiarian and I are responsible for the broadcast, and as presenters we conduct the conversations with our guests, all of whom are leading Muslims from Germany. What is on offer is completed by a so-called ‘knowledge module’ and possibilities for discussion in an internet forum. Lively dialogue thus arises, with the opportunities offered by the internet put to the best possible use. These videos are watched up to 10,000 times in a single week, and the discussion platform attracts more than 100,000 viewers per month. The programme is shown on the Info Channel at 16:15 every Friday.
Time and again the makers of the Forum are confronted with an absolutely fundamental question: who are the Muslims? Do the Muslims even exist as a group? And who speaks for the Muslims? The guests in our conversations range from representatives of the major organisations to individual personalities. Sunnis, Shiites, and Alevis are represented. There are women with headscarves and women without. For some participants religion is a matter of public concern, while others say, for example: ‘This is a private affair. I define myself primarily as a wife and mother, then as a businesswoman; only then comes religion.’ In this way what comes across is a differentiated image of Muslims, who have different mentalities and identities, both in religion and in everyday life. Depicting this plurality, and above all letting its upholders have their say, is an important journalistic objective that Friday Forum has set for itself. There is, after all, no such thing as ‘the Muslims’.
This is also reflected in the spectrum of themes presented, ranging from ‘Building Mosques in Germany’ or ‘Fasting in Ramadan’, to different interpretations of the Koran, to such themes as ‘Muslim Youth and Violence’ or ‘A Muslim Home for Senior Citizens’. Many of these themes influence the main ZDF programming, and increasingly often we are asked to make contributions to other broadcasts. The world of experience covered by ZDF is enriched by the work of our editorial team, and their special competence is tangibly apparent in the main programming - such as in the half-hour documentary on the Hadj that we made in December 2008. As journalist pilgrims we were allowed to experience and film the rituals at the holy places of Islam which are accessible only to Muslims.
Incidentally: when Friday Forum was launched, scarcely a newspaper did not carry a report on the project. The Forum caused a sensation. That seldom happens today: the programme has become part of normality. This is basically good news. Who would have thought it when it started in summer 2007?
Nevertheless, this important and well-received programme remains a peripheral one, catering to those with a particular interest. I am often asked what is the programme’s target group. Questioners then immediately supply their own answer: ‘Surely not you Muslims; you already know your religion.’ A widespread misconception: one that presumes that Muslims imbibe their faith with their mother’s milk, and that all Muslims are religious, and that they practise their faith. That is not the case. Many Muslims have only a rudimentary knowledge of Islam, sometimes knowing no more than the dates of their religion’s major festivals. A programme like the Forum is also interesting for them. And it is an enrichment for Muslims who know their faith better, since we often throw light on our themes from an unfamiliar angle. For the large number of non-Muslims interested in Christian-Islamic dialogue, the Friday Forum has become an important source of information. Week by week they can hear opinions and views on topics they’ve long been interested in – according to the motto ‘What you’ve always wanted to know about Islam but never dared to ask’. The large number of contributions to our discussion forum reflects the great interest of the users. However, controversial entries and discussion comments also reveal the difficulties people have in dealing with this subject matter.
Another question that is frequently raised is: Why is Friday Forum only accessible on the internet and the Info Channel, and not in ZDF’s main programme? Muslims are not a recognised religious community in Germany, so they are not represented on the ZDF Television Council. That means they cannot take on responsibility for the content of programmes, which is precisely what would be the prerequisite for a programme of their own. The Forum thus comes under the editorial responsibility of the ‘Church and Life’ section. ZDF therefore decided to employ two Muslim editors for this programme in order to generate trust within the Muslim community. The internet offers many advantages for users. It is available around the clock all over the world, and you can install as many bits and bytes as you like in order to archive contributions to programmes. Broadcasting the Friday Forum on the Info Channel supports this and brings the programme to a larger television audience.The positive response to the Forum since its launch in summer 2007 shows us that we are on the right path. Federal Minister of the Interior Dr. Wolfgang Schäuble’s statement that the Forum is ‘an important milestone on the way to the normalisation of Islam in Germany’ was a compliment. That and other positive declarations provide motivation and stimulus for our work, which will hopefully continue to bear much fruit in the years to come.
is the editor of Friday Forum on ZDF [Second German Television].
Translated by Tim Nevill
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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