ANALYSIS: The Islamist Media Trap—German Case Study


by Sigrid Herrmann-Marschall

Devoted activists for political Islam should not be presented to readers and viewers as normal Muslims

In the aftermath of Islamist attacks, and on issues such as Islamic religious education, the contribution of Muslim voices is seen as indispensable. Listening to those who are actually or allegedly affected is a characteristic of balanced and fair journalism. Journalists who want to report on these topics are therefore usually expected to obtain views and insights from Muslims. This puts journalists in a position of having to find Muslims who: (a) want to express themselves; and (b) do not just speak for themselves but are in some sense “representative”. Ironically, the fact that Muslim functionaries of this kind are called on to fill media slots about Islamist terrorist attacks reinforces the ideological classification that such functionaries regularly reject.

Islam in Germany is diverse: Almost all currents that exist in Islam have followers in Germany and in many places this leads to the establishment of places of prayer and association. Sunni currents are most strongly represented in Germany, with about 80% of Muslims living in Germany being Sunnis. Shiites and Alevis are other large groups. There are no official statistics on the number of Muslims in Germany, let alone their sect, since religious affiliation is not recorded by the state beyond the taxation of members of Christian churches. As a result, it is an open question how many Muslims live in Germany; the statistics are guestimates based on national origins.

The question of who does, or who can, speak for Muslims in Germany is complicated not only by the lack of data on the make-up of the community, but the fact that the best-organized elements—the people most available when politicians or the media are in need of an interlocuter—are dubiously representative. Many of these Muslim organizations want to shape society, more than reflect it; to change their own communities, and to do so beyond their own ethnic and national groups, aspiring to become a political force, not just to lobby the existing political authorities. The reason this matters is that their political vision often enough fundamentally rejects a separation between state and religion.

The Role of the Churches

German law goes further than providing equal treatment of individuals. On the basis of the state’s own ideological neutrality, religions and convictions (weltanschauungen) are also treated equally. The churches in Germany have a historically strong position thanks to compensation agreements for former properties and thus often receive public funds. Equal treatment of religious communities by the state can mean: Either at the level of the churches or at the level that public support for religious communities beyond specific social projects is dispensed with. There is, therefore, an interest for the churches in other religious communities also receiving similar privileges, because this secures their own funds over the long term.

Because of this self-interest of the churches, Muslim organizations were sought out, partly as their own inter-faith dialogue partners, similar to the way politicians and the media established contacts for “Muslim issues,” and then more broadly so the churches could, using their position, give social spaces to Muslim organizations and help them expand their reach and influence as official bodies, at local, state, and federal levels.

It is against this background that the German media act and are required to obtain Muslim statements after every terrorist attack. So, who to ask?

The Multiplicity of Islam in Germany

Organized Islam in Germany is predominantly of Turkish origin because many Muslims in Germany are from Turkey. The largest organization, the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), and the second-largest, are directly or indirectly linked to the Turkish state. Since 2016, after the attempted a coup in Turkey that Ankara says was carried out by supporters of the preacher Fethullah Gülen, both these Turkish associations and the Gülen movement have fallen into twilight. Other scandals, such as the military-style performances by children in DITIB mosques, increased the media’s unease about hearing DITIB officials on general Muslim issues.

The Milli Görüs (National Vision) movement, the nearest analogue Turkey has to the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin), and the Gray Wolves (Bozkurtlar) Turkish nationalist association, are usually regarded as unsuitable representatives for Muslims generally, since they are so specifically Turkish and they so obviously have extremist elements.

The situation is hardly any better for organized Muslims of other origins, however.

The Central Council of Muslims (Zentralrat der Muslime, ZMD) is an umbrella organization and consists of many organizations that are linked to or aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood and other problematic ideological currents. Since the end of 2016, ZMD stopped providing any information about its member associations—allegedly for security concerns, but probably so its problematic members could be concealed as the group rebranded. ZMD initially contained groups like the Islamic Center Hamburg, which has its own long-standing public profile and access to politics and the media, but found its influence dwindling within ZMD. Turkish ultra-nationalists akin to the Gray Wolves are also part of ZMD and have a significant influence. In its way, then, ZMD represented a certain breadth of Muslim life in Germany, even if Ikhwani organizations dominate.

Decades of efforts by the churches to set up this Central Council as a point of contact with Islam for the reasons mentioned above have made it the first port of call for the media in many cases, despite its problematic nature. The chairman of the ZMD is an extremely public figure, regularly in the media pushing his own agenda. Outwardly democracy-friendly to -compatible, a clear identity politics is practiced internally in ZMD.

ZMD’s aggressive public diplomacy is, in addition to the support it gets from church circles, an important reason why the media repeatedly use the ZMD as a representative for Muslim affairs. Formally, it only represents around 20,000 Muslims, but due to its name-recognition and the lack of other reliable contact persons, it has made itself almost indispensable in the view of some media.

Another umbrella organization—which has both ZMD and the other aforementioned Turkish-origin organizations as members—is the so-called Coordination Council of Muslims (Koordinationsrat der Muslime, KRM). It has been an association for over ten years that wants to represent all Muslims in Germany. However, since the spokespersons of this council changes every six months, political leaders and the media have to deal with two different people every year, and personal relations count for a great deal in these fields. This may be one reason why the ZMD is preferred in the media.

The Journalist Trap

Journalists are now faced with the dilemma of relying on individual actors or well-known association representatives in their commentary and reporting. Many individuals speak for nobody but themselves, lacking acceptance in the broader Muslim community. And many associations speak for sectional interests that are hardly representative.

The interests of journalists can also blur with the interests of their profession. For example, if a journalist has spent time investing in building a contact, whether an individual or an association, then finds that that person or group is really a front for Turkey or is a Muslim Brother or is an agent of the Iranian government, and the journalist publicly discloses this, he then cannot use this person in future as a “Muslim voice” to the general public. Time and effort then have to be devoted to making new contacts, and as mentioned above all of the associations have their own problems, which can provide a relativizing self-justification for not naming the problems of any one of them.

An alternate practice is for the media to say of a spokesman that the association he works for has problems that are generally known, even if these are not usually specified or are declared irrelevant in the present case. This practice is legalistic, and has the effect of dampening challenges to these associations, rather than highlighting their problems.

The overall problem is this: the media needs Muslim spokesmen to fill air time and column inches, and it needs such functionaries to be considered credible. When looking around for well-known Muslim functionaries, many of the organizations they come from are deeply problematic, but they can claim to speak for the community in some way. And the media is, therefore, incentivized to walk straight into the trap of taking these functionaries at their own self-portrayal—and thereby legitimizing that portrayal.

Is There A Way Out?

Some editorial offices solve this dilemma by hiring Muslim journalists to report on these matters. But whether they are satisfied with being pigeonholed for an aspect of their identity that may not play such a big role for them is another question. Many editorial teams have acted identically on this point, but it is flawed and accepts much of the logic of the fundamentalists, be they nationalistic or religious. This type of “solution” creates another new problem in the media because it opens space to activists to pose as journalists in advancing their own identity agenda. For example, the previous Khalif of the Ahmadiyya called in 2006, in reaction to the Danish caricatures, for his supporters to study journalism—with the aim of crowding out critics of Islam on editorial boards.

Non-Muslim journalists are now sometimes accused of being “structurally racist” when reporting about Islamic topics. Interestingly enough, this reproach only occurs in reaction to critical reports, never in reaction to positive articles. Simple, unopinionated reporting on the clan structures of certain organized crime elements has been said to be racist, for example.

In Germany, the “Mediendienst Integration” want to influence journalists. They want to be able to decide how Muslims and Islam are reported. In 2016 and 2019, long papers were written specifically targeted at journalists, which—disguised as an aid—were intended to demarcate the acceptable views of Islam and Islamic organizations. Some of the above-described problematic organizations were described in terms of their own public presentation and journalists were told to accept this—after all, the information was now endorsed by the Mediendienst Integration. The situation has not become any easier.

Journalist can escape this trap by not adhering to the format that says “a Muslim voice” must be heard in all matters that have an Islamic connection. If this mold cannot be broken, there should at least be greater discussion in editorial offices about how the functionaries of Muslim umbrella organizations are described. Devoted activists for political Islam should not be presented to readers and viewers as normal Muslims; it is an injustice the Muslim community to continue doing this, and it is adding to suspicion and fear, instead of reducing it. These steps would begin to assist the cohesion of democrats—democrats of all origins.

Article first published on European Eye on Radicalization.

Sigrid Herrmann-Marschall is an independent writer on Islamist organizations and structure analyst of Islamist movements, living in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.

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