Which film represents your nation the most?

Moving Image and Political Education

Kai Hafez

Prof. Dr. Kai Hafez. Since 2003 professor for the comparative analysis of media systems / communication cultures at the University of Erfurt. Studied political science, modern history, journalism and Islamic studies, habilitation 2001. 2018 Foundation of the MA course "Global Communication: Politics & Society". Main research areas include theories of global communication, political relations between the West and the Islamic world, research on Islamophobia.

Sabrina Schmidt

Sabrina Schmidt, M.A. Study of communication and literary studies. Doctoral thesis on anti-Muslim everyday racism at the University of Erfurt. Since 2011 teaching, lecturing and research activities in the areas of media and migration, racism and popular culture.

Despite the increasing importance of social media, traditional media still determine who is publicly visible and how. For years, the public image of Islam has been dominated by conflictual narrative patterns that are far from everyday life.

Three people are watching a film on a screen. Various Hollywood productions in recent decades show that anti-Muslim narratives also flow into fictional media formats. (& copy Aneta Pawlik / Unsplash)

The social discourse about Muslims and the religion of Islam is largely determined by media images and narratives. This refers to patterns of representation, narration and interpretation that are able to thematically align both public and private perceptions and structure them in terms of content. Despite the increasing importance of social media as spaces of social negotiation, it is still the topic agendas and interpretive offers of traditional media that determine who is publicly visible and in what way. Against this background, the results of research on the media representation of "Islam" are sobering: It shows that the public image of Islam has been dominated by conflictual, everyday and often (subtle) racist narrative patterns for years. The influence of media images on everyday discourse is undisputed [1] and is also suggested by numerous studies on widespread resentment against Muslims in Germany and other industrialized nations. [2]

The importance of traditional mass media for the production and consolidation of anti-Muslim narratives cannot, however, be limited to classic journalism. Formats of popular culture such as films and entertainment series, through their easy access, their emotionality and their play with contemporary aesthetics, contribute to the establishment of problematic views of Islam in society. At the same time, however, there is also potential for more self-determination, criticism of racism and social education. In popular culture, there are narrative patterns that Muslims no longer simply describe as foreign "others". The political importance of entertainment media has been repeatedly pointed out. [3] In the context of social debates about questions of identity, belonging and recognition, they are becoming more and more important.

This article throws two spotlights on the media image of Islam: First, central discourse patterns of classic news journalism are identified. This shows that negative Islam narratives are extremely persistent, but also flexible and adaptable in some cases, as long as the dividing line between "us" and "them" remains. The reasons for this lie in specific journalistic production conditions, but also in audience expectations and knowledge environments, such as those conveyed by parents and schools. The second part deals with the popular media's image of Islam, with a focus on films and entertainment series. Using the example of internationally successful commercial productions on the one hand and contributions by migrant and Muslim filmmakers on the other, the social responsibility and the emancipatory potential of media pop culture will be discussed. The article makes two things clear: firsthow anti-Muslim narratives about Islam are continuously reproduced in (some) media discourses, whereby these are sharpened in the right-wing spectrum of opinion and supported by the latent racism of the conservative-liberal milieu. Secondly it shows how voices critical of racism, migrants and Muslims interfere in the public struggles to interpret Islam, using the media as mouthpieces and organs of representation.


  1. Politicization and demonization of Islam in news journalism [4]
  2. Stabilization and deconstruction of anti-Muslim discourses in film

Politicization and Demonization of Islam in News Journalism

The interest of German mass media in Islam aroused during the Iranian revolution of 1978/79. The Islamic reporting before this event was largely limited to regular phenomena, such as the annually recurring reporting on Ramadan or the pilgrimage. It was not until the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran that this changed abruptly and made Islam the media topic with worldwide attention that it is to this day. This development was accompanied by a strong politicization of the image of Islam and, what can be seen as the main problem of the current situation, a narrowing of the choice of topics, which is associated with questions of violence like almost no other topic. More than every second contribution on Islam addresses religion in the context of physical violence. [5] Violence occurs in various forms, as terrorism, as family violence, as violence against women or as ethnic-religious violence that endangers democracy through lawlessness (similar to the right-wing populist threat scenario of Muslim "parallel societies"). No wonder, then, that studies have been pointing to stable levels of rejection towards Muslims and Islam for years. [6]

In the area of ​​international reporting on the so-called "Islamic world", the negative values ​​due to the concentration on violent conflicts are as high as otherwise only in the area of ​​war and crisis reporting. [7] The problem is not reporting about violence and repression per se, but fixating on this narrow range of topics. In other words: what is reported about is less critical than what Not is reported. An image of violence in Islam by no means only characterizes the tabloid sector, but also shapes the serious media. Islam in the narrower sense of theology, religious cult and rite is hardly in the interests of the German mass media. A look at Islamic reporting over the past four decades almost gives the impression that Islam is not a religion at all, but a form of politics or the political ideology of violence. Theological facts, such as the fact that Jesus Christ is regarded in Islam as the prophet and predecessor of Muhammad, are largely unknown in German society. [8]

In this regard, Islam and Judaism are similar, the religious and cultural substance of which is also hardly present in the media and if so, it is often used as a background sheet for the historical analysis of the Holocaust. It is therefore not surprising that Ignatz Bubis, former chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, recognized in 1999 that today's image of Islam reminds him of the image of Judaism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Bubis's comparison finds confirmation even twenty years later. [9] This indicates the failure of a public that presents itself as liberal, although news journalism hardly does justice to its educational function when it comes to conveying non-Christian-religious content. Instead of interreligious education, the focus is on political and social conflict materials. [10]

One-sided photo journalism, lack of self-representation and media scandal
ARD talk series with Günther Jauch on "Violence in the name of Allah - how do our Muslims think?" (2014) with from left to right: Stefan Buchen (journalist), Abdul Adhim Kamouss (Imam), Özlem Gezer (journalist), Günther Jauch, Wolfgang Bosbach (CDU MdB) and Heinz Buschkowsky (District Mayor Neukölln). The German image of Islam is dominated in political talk shows by the same politicians and self-proclaimed experts on Islam (& copy picture-alliance / dpa, Paul Zinken)

Another problem with Islamic reporting is the imagery, which is of particular importance due to its apparent representational character. There are recurring impressions of veiled women, "crowds" in Mecca, during protests or on the run, armed Islamists, the magnificent buildings of the Arabian Gulf, Islamic slaughter rituals and scourge processions from Iran. A fully veiled burqa woman was found on the cover of the news magazine "Cicero" in 2014 - instead of a face, a caged dove of peace sat behind the eye grille. Only a few months later, on the cover of the same sheet of paper, there were many small gun bearers from the beard of an oversized Islamist (or Salafist). [11] Since the Iranian revolution, journalism has shown a world of images that primarily suggests foreignness. The viewer and what is shown do not meet at eye level. Often, more visual strategies of anonymization, homogenization and dehumanization are used. [12] Occasionally published photos, such as those of young Muslim women who recently talked about their fashion preferences in the mirror and looked confidently into the camera, seem like a positive shock. [13] The visual language of the media is symbolically overloaded. It hardly documents the diversity of Muslim life.

The media self-representation of Muslim voices is also structurally inconsistent. In political talk shows, for example, the German image of Islam is dominated by the same politicians and self-appointed experts on Islam. The latter characterizes less an Islamic scholarly expertise than prominence (e.g. Alice Schwarzer) or origin (e.g. Necla Kelek). Both serve as media capital that increases the journalistic market value of their statements. [14] The staging of people as Muslim key witnesses [15] for anti-Muslim attitudes follows the same logic. Their apparent cultural proximity to Islam disguises the partly openly anti-Muslim character of their statements. There is often a lack of scientifically recognized experts and voices from Muslims themselves. In contrast, preference is given to extreme positions of radical Islamic preachers and "Islamic critics", which artificially creates controversies and suggests a "cultural war". This logic of discourse also applies in cases in which Muslims are invited to talk shows, but cannot reinterpret the negative agenda in a positive way or disclose it critically. Their role is often limited to that of moderate and integrated Muslims. All of this contributes to a public alienation from the Muslim way of life, but is logical for a journalism that builds on sensationalism rather than on specialist knowledge. [16] For a differentiated image of Islam, however, significantly more nuances and media (self) criticism are required instead of polarized debates.

The media image of Islam is determined not only by the choice of topic (agenda setting), but also by interpretations and frames of interpretation (framing). This defines the content of the "what" and "how" of Islamic reporting. It is precisely these text structures that are ultimately related to structural racisms in other areas of our society - in institutions, educational institutions, on the labor and housing market. With Michel Foucault, one can speak of a mutual influencing and strengthening of institutional and symbolic power relations. [17]
Graduates in gowns, barrettes and headscarves at a graduation ceremony for successfully passing their exams at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität zu Bonn. The visual language of the media is symbolically overloaded. It hardly documents the diversity of Muslim life. (& copy picture-alliance, Ulrich Baumgarten)

Contested tendencies to open up
German society has become more diverse in recent decades. Although important aspects of post-migrant reality are still excluded from the media, more and more Muslim or migrant voices are appearing on the communication platforms of the Internet. Online formats such as blogs, video channels, Twitter profiles and online magazines offer committed, racism-critical and everyday contributions. However, their social reach remains limited as long as they are limited to virtual publics and - as is the case with Muslim weblogs - are hardly networked. [18] Nevertheless, they have the potential to thematically expand classic media discourses, provided they are compatible with journalistic working methods and the experiences of the audience.

It is helpful here that the editorial offices of traditional media are gradually becoming more diverse. Migrants and Muslims are still severely underrepresented in German journalism. [19] Organizations like that New German media makers therefore advocate the promotion of German media professionals with migration experience. [20] After several generations of immigration and despite existing structures of inequality in the education system [21], new journalistic voices are increasingly emerging. Even for them, however, it remains a challenge not to let themselves be absorbed by the logic of negative news values, but rather to set their own debate impulses whenever possible. Whether and in what way this is possible in a media system in which anti-Muslim narratives circulate despite - or perhaps because of - advancing processes of social pluralization remains a question of future analyzes.

As much as the opening tendencies described above give reason for hope, a socially and politically established right-wing populism arouses justified concern. From the parliamentary room to the social media, he ensures that the social debate is radicalized and socially isolated. A culture of democratic debate based on shared beliefs is undermined by hate speech and fake news. Racist remarks and conspiracy narratives about migrants and Muslims are the symbolic tools for this. Attempts are made to undermine the liberal society - understood as humanitarian and pluralistic. [22] In news journalism in particular, right-wing populists have succeeded surprisingly well in taking their anti-democratic positions and thus thwarting communicative opening processes. [23]

Stabilization and deconstruction of anti-Muslim discourses in film

Filmtheater Colloseum in Berlin / Prenzlauer Berg. In terms of the portrayal of Muslims as an uncivilized mirror image of a West that perceives itself to be enlightened, little has structurally changed in the past hundred years of film history. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa, central image | Paul Zinken)

But what significance do popular cultural media discourses in films and entertainment series have for society? The ambiguous term "of the popular" provides the first answers. Sometimes condemned as an inferior counterpart to bourgeois high culture and the intoxicant of "the masses" in early sociological considerations, cultural studies in particular contributed to a theoretical revaluation of popular cultural products. [24] For them, popular culture moves in the field of tension between commercial interests, social hierarchies, emancipatory ideas and the interpretations of an active audience. Pop culture media discourses therefore always contain several socially relevant potentials: they tend to secure existing power relationships by taking up and consolidating majority beliefs. At the same time, they offer space for critical and resistant attitudes that contribute to questioning outdated "we" notions.

Orientalist longings and the terror narrative in film
Various Hollywood productions over the last few decades have shown that anti-Muslim narratives also flow into fictional media formats. Jack Shaheen's analysis of hundreds of TV and cinema films is one of the most important empirical sources for this. [25] It shows that the portrayal of Muslims as an uncivilized mirror image of a West that perceives itself to be enlightened has structurally changed little in the past hundred years of film history. Orientalist narrative patterns about Muslims and Arabs can be found in films from the 1920s [26]. As brutal slave owners, oversexual desert sheiks and sensual belly dancers (e.g. The sheikh, 1921) they are exoticized and declared culturally backward, while the Western protagonists appear cultured, progressive and morally superior.These contrasting figure drawings continue in films from the 1970s and 1980s, albeit with slight symbolic shifts: Against the background of international crises and conflicts - the Iranian revolution, the first Gulf War, the Palestinian conflict - Muslims are now increasingly appearing as terrorists (Frantic, 1988; Delta Force, 1986; Back to the Future, 1985). [27] This shows parallels to news journalism, which also experienced a symbolic turning point as a result of the Iranian Revolution (see above). With the Muslim terrorist, a media stereotype has emerged that has not lost its popularity either in journalistic reporting or in cinematic discourses to this day.

Various blockbusters from the 1990s also contributed to the cinematic transmission of anti-Muslim narrative patterns. In them, the narrative of Islam as a national and cultural threat is continued in popular culture: films like The Mummy (1999), True Lies (1994) and Not without My Daughter (1990) describe Muslim men as misogynist, violent and anti-Western [28], Muslim women as oppressed and voiceless. In addition, box office hits like that Indiana JonesSeries (1981-2008) the colonial narrative of the gloomy Orient, whose cultural heritage can be saved from oblivion only by the intervention of a white, male hero. [29] More recent examples such as the commercially successful US series 24 and Homeland also put political slogans such as the US government's "War on Terror" in the limelight through entertainment media. Although positive Muslim characters can also be found here - for example in the form of the patriotic CIA agent or the counter-terrorism specialist - the addition of a single, personable character to the known negative repertoire can quickly be exposed as a superficial narrative strategy that seeks to anticipate criticism of racism ] This is reminiscent of the mechanisms with which, as shown above, Muslim talk show guests are recruited: their role, too, is often limited to confirming a negative image of Islam.

Josefine Preuss, Elyas M. Barek, Pegan Ferydoni on the occasion of a screening of the film "Turkish for Beginners" in Berlin. The stories of migrant and other filmmakers show how stereotypical majority notions of migrant and Muslim lifestyles can be contradicted in films. (& copy picture-alliance, SCHROEWIG / CS)

So pop culture and news journalism have something in common. Entertainment media are communicative spaces in which prevailing ideas of Muslims as "culturally different" are taken up and processed fictionally. The discrimination against Muslims, which is also evident in other places in society - for example in the education system, on the housing and labor market [31] - is symbolically underpinned by such media images. In other words: the narrative patterns that circulate publicly are also reflected in everyday coexistence and actions in institutions. The media-constructed notions of Muslims as alien, culturally incompatible and threatening reinforce and normalize social inequalities. The fact that personal contact between people with and without Muslim identity references is steadily increasing, but there are still regions or population groups in Germany without direct contact experience [32], underlines the importance of differentiated, polyphonic, critical and appreciative media images. For people who get most of their knowledge about Muslims and Islam from the news and entertainment media, the socio-political responsibility of popular media discourses becomes clear.

The audience can certainly decipher fictional media content as "not real". Anti-Muslim narratives are by no means automatically transferred from entertainment formats to everyday discourses. Nevertheless, the special properties of popular media, such as their emotional attractiveness, low complexity and their tendency towards optimistic social visions, suggest that they can also be used to effectively convey real social phenomena. [33] It can happen that personal experiences of Islam are mixed up with reading memories from Karl May's oriental novels or the "fairy tales from 1001 nights". [34]

The emancipatory potential of popular film culture
However, popular cinematic culture cannot be limited to affirming social inequalities. More takes place in it than the reproduction of the negative image of Islam. Entertainment media are always places of negotiation for criticism of power, social affiliation and collective identity formation. [35] These potentials become vivid using the example of migrant German film productions that introduce the experiences of multicultural society as socially relevant topics. Through them, migrant filmmakers themselves become active voices in public discourse.

In its early years, migrant cinema was still strongly characterized by problem perspectives. Movies like 40 m2 Germany (1985) by Tevfik Başer and Yasemin (1988) by the German director Hark Bohm received numerous awards, but with their oppressive portrayal of Muslim women's worlds they took up the established victim narrative of the oppressed Muslim woman and her authoritarian husbands, brothers and fathers. [36] Their stories tell of isolation and repression within Muslim family structures in a Germany that had become culturally and religiously more plural due to the immigration of so-called "guest workers", but which did not really recognize its new fellow citizens, so that social integration was blocked. [37] Correspondingly, other early films deal with exclusion (Shirin's wedding, 1976) and racist hostility (The Caraway Turk leaves, 1985, documentary). Their efforts to promote recognition in the immigration society through visualization, however, were hardly recognized in the public perception, which is why they were ultimately dismissed as "cinema concerned". [38] Rainer Werner Fassbinders set counterpoints here Katzelmacher (1969) and Fear eats up the soul (1973), who were interested in the worlds of migrant experience in post-war Germany shaped by National Socialism, without being "shaped by caring, marginalizing compassion" [39].

The comedian Bülent Ceylan during an appearance in January 2020. Humorous formats are by no means only critical of anti-Muslim narrative patterns. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa, Uwe Anspach)

At the beginning of the 1990s, the cinema of migrant authors became thematically more diverse and increasingly broke away from the genre of social drama. German-Turkish film productions, which initially focused on short films (e.g. A feast for Beyhan, 1994) presented to the public. [40] Later comedic material came about everyday life in Berlin (Me boss, you sneaker, 1997), stories about homosexual love relationships and fluid gender identities (Lola and Bilidikid, 1999) [41] as well as Fatih Akin's first box office success and gangster ballad Short and painless (1997) added. [42] From the (international) public since Against the wall (2004), Akin set new standards for a multi-themed migrant cinema that, in addition to questions of origin, generation and identity, always portrayed German society as a natural home.

The stories of migrant and other filmmakers show how stereotypical majority notions of migrant and Muslim lifestyles can be contradicted in films and how these at the same time create emotionally accessible counter-images. Cinematic pop culture always represents a "field of conflict" [43] of various interpretations. This shows its ambiguity: Where culture clash series such as Turkish for Beginners (2006-2008) remain stuck in rigid narrative patterns and figure drawings despite their humorous and enlightening tone, films like Almanya - Welcome to Germany (2011) to present the audience with their own stereotypical expectations through original-comic language games and ironic exaggerations. [44] Thereby humorous formats are by no means just critical of anti-Muslim narrative patterns. Comedians like Bülent Ceylan, for example, reproduce highly stereotypical interpretations, sometimes explicitly. [45] Disguised as a joke and presented by an artist figure staged as a Muslim, anti-Muslim discourses are reinforced by seemingly authentic Muslims.


It shows that today's image of Islam is at the crossroads between a permanent negative agenda and hesitant renewal. Thanks to the Internet, it is now increasingly possible for Muslim voices to make their own contributions and thus become publicly visible. However, as long as their perspectives are not incorporated into traditional media, their social impact remains limited.

The structural racism of the large media's image of Islam is closely related to anti-Muslim attitudes in the population as well as structural racism in other areas of society - in educational institutions, on the labor and housing market. The negative stereotypical "knowledge structures" of modern media reflect and at the same time shape the structural racism in other parts of society. Without a fundamental revision and cultural opening of our media images, we will not overcome racism. On the contrary:

Islam-related debates are becoming increasingly radical, especially in social media. Right-wing populist actors also use virtual platforms for their anti-democratic propaganda. They run the risk of permanently damaging Germany's contested self-image as a plural, open and liberal society.

A more differentiated media agenda requires an internal reorganization of Islamic reporting away from a focus on politics and conflict towards a broader social, theological and everyday range of topics and patterns of interpretation.

To this end, public broadcasters should take stock of their Islamic reporting and move programs from fringe to prime time that portray Germany's cultural and religious plurality. German private media also need a self-critical examination of structural constraints and routine editorial processes, which sensitized journalists * find it difficult to initiate changes to.

It is also central to sustainable change processes to counter the under-presentation of migrant or Muslim journalists: Existing qualification and support programs should be expanded so that a diverse range of perspectives and experiences can develop among the media professionals.

Last but not least, media discourses depend not only on the producers, but also on the knowledge and interpretive activities of the audience. Recipients should therefore be encouraged in their media skills at an early stage. This should be done especially in educational institutions such as schools and universities.