The representation of Islam in the Dutch media

A couple of weeks after 9/11 six Sikhs go to a Dutch Hindu television company to voice their complaints about the way they are treated since the attacks in New York . Because they dress themselves in turbans, gowns and have long beards, people in the street take them for militant muslems, although they have got nothing to do with Islam. They find it even more grieving that they are regularly cheered by Moroccon youths who come to them, touch their clothes whilst calling ‘Ben Laden' and doing their thumbs up.

How is it possible that Sikhs who live in the Netherlands are identified with events that have taken place on an another continent? The answer might be that people in the street react when seeing Sikhs that they identify them in a with images and ideas provided by the media, be they positive or negative.

What happened to the Sikhs calls to mind a number of questions, such as: what kind of image of islam is created by the media and what effects do they have on young muslems? And: could the present representation of islam in the press cause a strengthening of political islam in the Netherlands ?

The article will try to map out how over the last 50 years the representation of islam in the Netherlands has changed as a result of events abroad. Then finally, the effects of that process will be put into a wider perspective.

The Islamic revolution

There have been Muslems in the Netherlands for quite some time now. Among the Moluccans who came to the Netherlands in 1950 there was a small group of Muslems. The next substantial but still rather small influx consisted of muslems from Dutch Guyana . A much larger group of Muslems were the migrant workers: many of the Yugoslavs and nearly all the Turks and Moroccans who migrated to the netherlands in the 1970's and 1980's were of the Islamic belief.

But still the media hardly did pay any attention to these groups. If the ‘migrants workers' got any press at all, it usually had to do with residence permits. Their spokesmen were without any exception people from left wing groups whose main focus was socialist rather than religious, as was the fashion of the day.

Thus it is no surprise that the Islamic revution in Iran , the first crisis caused by political islam, was no reason for the Dutch media to consider any possible consequences at home. The Dutch media coverage of the upheaval in Iran is rather detached. This changes drastically when in 1979 students in Tehran occupy the American embassy. Now that western interests are at stake, the media become acutely aware of the threatening character of the regime in Tehran . Still, no link was made with potical islam and the muslem presence in this country.

The Gulf War

The Gulfwar is the next possible test of the relation between muslems and non –muslems. Prior to the war the atmosphere worldwide grows more and more tense. It is perhaps for this reason that the media pay a lot of attention to the words of Alexander King, who is chairman of the Club of Rome. He vents his fears of an oncoming islamic danger and paints a picture of the south of Europe about to be overwhelmed by a wave of Islamic hordes from North-Africa.

As soon as the war has broken out, tensions in the Netherlands grow . The Palestinians with whom many Dutch Moroccans feel great empathy and side with Saddam Hussein. Dutch Moroccans follow suit and condemn the overwhelming force of arms by the International Coalition.

For the sake of siplicity, the media lump all Moroccans together, illustrated by the leading questions asked by a journalist to a Moroccan: ‘The Moroccan population is on Saddam's side, right?' And: ‘Would you carry out terrorist attacks if Saddam asked you? (Het Parool 5/2/91 ) Quite expectedly, another newspaper signals feelings of anxiety among Dutch Moroccans. Many families go back to their country for the time being.

On the same day, Het Algemeen Dagblad calls for a more nuanced approach: ‘It is unjust to condemn people only because the sympathize with the opponent in the Gulfconflict. The call for worldwide attacks doesnot appeal to that community at all. The more reason to stay calm and try to live together peacefully in our part of the world.'

However, and on the contrary, in NRC Handelsblad the MiddleEast specialist Harm Botje predicts things are only getting worse .'Before too long the media will talk us into believing that there's already a religious war going on: A jihad over there and radical muslems over here. And on television those self-proclaimed experts will soon warn us to first check whether there are jihad fighters under our beds, glistening knives between their teeths.'

Coincidence or not, the same week the popular magazine Aktueel prints an extensive photo- story under the heading: ‘The Arabs and their customs'. For pages on end the reader can see bloody images depicting among other ‘islamic cruelties' the cutting off of hands in Saud Arabia. Possible criticism is cleverly forestalled by the remark:'Aktueel Magazine investigated how people view Arabs.' Another more serious magazine, Elsevier also publishes a special entitled ‘Allah in Europe .'

The first attack on the WTC

Right after the Gulfwar, the then leader of the Dutch Conservative Party Bolkestein makes his controversial speech in Luzern. In it he puts forward his idea that islam pose a serious threat to the political foundations of European civilisation. He draws the conclusion that ‘ It used to be taken for granted that there should be ‘integration whilst maintaning identity'. Now one can see that the latter is an obstacle to the former and vice versa. Therefore our objective should solely be integration.

His adress stirred up the media. One could tentatively conclude that Bolkestein reaped the benefits of what was sown by the media during the Gulf war.

When the dust has finally settled it takes quite some time before the media pick up the theme of Dutch islam again. In any case, the first WTC attack doesnot cause any serious discussions.

After the attack the Arab and Islam lector Hans Jansen from Leyden University even rejects the idea of there being a link with islamic militants. He said in an interview with de Volkskrant: 'If indeed it was true that islamic fundamentalist have by attacking the WTC declared war on both secular muslems as well as on non-muslems, that would be breaking news. But to be frank that is highly unlikely.' Still Jansen realizes that attacks of this kind have a negative impact on the mind of the public. ‘ Whatever the case,it is hard these days for the avarage muslem. Even without the attacks, islamic authorities suach as Khomeiny and Dr. Omar could made responsible for damaging the perception of islam in both muslem and non-muslem circles.

Van de Vijver whose thesis deals with the role of the media during the Rushdie affair, the Gulf War and the WTC bombing, concludes that in particular television coverage of the islam is dominated by imposing 'a feeling of immanent threat by the islamic world and the muslem communities in the Netherlands. Over and over again the same images of anti-western demonstrations, raging masses at prayer and corporal punishment were televized. Over the years, according to Van de Vijver the picture the media paint of islam has become more negative and tendentious.

Damaging effects

The survey of political islam in the Netherlands, published by the Dutch Intelligence Service in June, 1998 contradicts newspaper reports suggesting the islam act be a fifth column in this country. The service think there is no ground for supposing that islamic militants will gather substantial support within the near future, although these factions could in the longer term profit from social economic problems, marginalization and the exclusion of certain groups of muslem migrants. ‘Such circumstances provide a fertile feeding ground for polarisation and could put the process of integration at risk.'

At the same time, the service doesnot underestimate the possible effectiveness of existing small groups of islamic militants at all. ‘Their stamina and powerful network make them unmistakable factor. Furthermore, the damaging impact of their actions upon the representation of islam and the effect of the latter on the integration of muslems in Dutch society is not to be underestimated either.'

The fact that the Intelligence Service gives weight to the notion of ‘representation' being a major factor in the dynamic process of integration of muslems in the Netherlands , is perhaps the most remarkable thing about the survey.

Christian Democratic EU parlementarian Arie Oostlander picks up the representation theme from the survey. In a comment on the survey in Trouw (July,11 1998) he remarks: ‘ It is about time the media stop their tendentious reports about the so-called 'dangers of encroaching fundamentalism'.

The El Moumni affair

After the Rushdie affair and the Gulfwar there is hardly any discussion in the media as far as Dutch muslems are concerned. The press does write about immigration, asylum seekers and criminal Moroccan youths.

The next real clash finds is cause in an event in the Netherlands : in Rotterdam the Indepedent Theatre Company is working on a performance of the opera Aisha in the framework of Rotterdam Cultural Capital 2001. When part of the cast from Morocco withdraws itself fom the production, company director Gerrit Timmers decides to cancel the production altogether.

This triggers a heated debate about the relation between culture and religion. “ Tehran on the Meuse ‘, reads one of NRC Handelsblad's wry headlines.

Another clash occurs on May, 3, 2001 when on the eve of the annual WW 2 commemoration, Nova, a Dutch television programma, shows a item about violence against Moroccan

homosexuals. In an interview with the Rotterdam based imam El Moumni the latter characterises homosexuality as being a disease. The fragment in which the imam expressly condems violence is omitted from the televised interview. Many young muslems view the ensuing El Moumni affair as one that poisoned circumstances completely. Hundreds of young muslems write a letter of support to El Moumni, in which the negative representation of islam in the press features. ‘We are young people who visit the al Nasr mosque frequently. The purpose of this letter is to express our complete amazement at the present negative representation of islam in the media. The accusations against imam El Moumni are absolutely at odds with what we have seen of him over the last nine years: he is a capable, tolerant and socially concerned man.' It is striking to find that many muslems feel indignated because they are under the impression that the media misused the imam, rather than feel the need to distance themselves from his ideas.

Ben Laden in Ede

A short impression of how things stand in society when New York and Washington are attacked on 9/11. Previously, the publicist Pim Fortuyn had written in Elsevier an article entitled ‘The Cold War with Islam'. In it, he argued that Europe in assisting the creation of a Greater Albania , a large islamic state on the bordering on the free West that would trample the rest of the EU underfoot. Fortuyn also about possible links with terrorist organisations that need to be closely watched. After the attacks Fortuyn writes in a CDA magazine:' We will have to stand on the barricades if we want to protect and spread our ethics and ideas. Fortuyn's ideas are circulated by the media over and over and they aren't they only ones that stir up social unrest. Amsterdam chief inspector De Wit says in a Volkskrant interview: ‘We have a warfare blueprint ready for immanent disturbances by muslems. ‘We are prepared for anything: violence, hostage taking…

The most attention is paid to a group of nine Moroccan boys in Ede that supposedly celebrated the 9/11 attacks. Nearly all papers feature this story prominently, although there is hardly any evidence. Finally a local policespokesman proves to be the only source.

Two different newspaper headings from NRC Handelsblad are illustrative: ‘Ben Laden's following in Ede ' and ‘No celebrations of the attacks in Ede '. According to many muslems media reporting following the attack caused much bad blood between them and Dutch people.

After a fortnight the majority of national newspapers put the facts right, but the damage had already been done. The dancing Moroccans from Ede have already become proverbial.


Two public surveys cause many discussions. A week after the attacks, Contrast, a multicultural magazine, published the results of a survey among muslems. A majority says they ‘understand' the motives for the attacks. This is highlighted by the media. What is not is the outcome of the survey that a majority of those interviewed disapproves of the attacks. Aonther survey by the Volkskrant causes turbulance. On September, 26 the opening headline reads: ‘Radical muslems have to leave the country'. A survey by NIPO shows that 60 % of the Dutch think that muslems who with anti-western ideas should be extradited. Bas a matter of fact, experts characterise these surveys as being unreliable. Even the Volkskrant's ombudsman distances himself from its survey.

De Telegraaf has a shocking headline on the day of the Volkskrant's survey: ‘Hate calendar found in muslem school'. The story is quite vague: ‘a calendar was ditributed near or in an islamic school' and ‘a copy of it arrived at the newspaper'. Among other pictures it supposedly contained one of a crashing airplane near New York . The accompanying text in Arabic was said to mean: ‘I trust in Allah to die for Allah'. It is not clear from the article whether the calendar was distributed widely and whether it was actually found in the school. Later it became clear thet the calendar dated from May 2001 and that the picture referred to an Egyptian pilot who is said to have committed suicide. There was no connection watsover with 9/11.

An unique event in the world of the media: The 8'o clock news think this calendar item is over the top and decides to have a media expert explain that it all is a hype.

Outlawing islam?

As unique is the Trouw's publication of the translation in Arabic of the ‘Open letter to the muslems in the Netherlands ' written by Sylvain Ephimenco. He remarks the growing polarisation between ‘them muslems' and the majority of the non-muslems. His letter intends to try to make muslems distance themselves from the attacks, since ‘the ability to be nuanced is not made any easier by the present facts'. After all, the attackers used to be well- behaving citizens'? For Ephimenco it is devastating that so little research has been done of how one's religion has given birth to a monster'. ‘This is very dangerous for among other things one's self-esteem'. Since muslem leaders in the Netherlands do not recognize the fact that there is a violent faction among the believers, they are ‘partly responsible for received ideas about muslems', writes Ephimenco. His iniatiative is met with. both appreciation as well as criticism and not all muslems feel appealed by it. ‘ If a Serb kills a muslem, Dutch christian do not feel any responsibilty, do they?', is their reply.

Where Ephimenco tries to establish a dialogue, HP Detijd, a newsmagazine tries another tactic. “There is something rotten in Islam', says a frontpage in full. Even their telvision commenrcials carry the same message. If islam is such a peaceful religion, why do we have these scary fundamentalist? The frontpage article was written by Paul Frentrop and he favours the possibilty to outlaw islam: Were we to arrive at the conclusion that islamic ideas are uncouth, then we would have to act accordingly. Islam should be outlawed just like a political party that is at loggerheads with our judicial system.


Finally, a consideration of the possible consequences of the attitude of media for the building of the identity of muslems in this country. There is the danger that Dutch muslem youths will become susceptible to the programme of radical islam as a result of, among other things, their presentation in the media. Then they will increasingly identify themselves with ideas, persons and organisations with which popular thinking associate them. In a televisionprogramme Peter van Ingen elaborates on this question and asks for an evaluation of the Arab culture. ‘Paul Scheffer, if you say that the west is superior, what does that mean for the rest of the world, especially since we, and America , have the technological upperhand?'

In a nutshell, it is the possible radicalization caused by negative representation. At present, there a no signs of that yet, apart from widespread dissatisfaction in young muslems about the media. Professor Entzinger et al. compiled a review, ‘Islam in a multicultural society'. In it research was published about the willingness to in both Dutch youths and youths from foreign origin to be active in illegal activities. It appeared that only 5 % of them doesnot have problems if they have molest property or people for political purposes. More telling is that the researchers didnot find any difference in this percentage as regards ethnicity, religion or nationality. It is only a tiny minority, in particular men under 25, that is prepared to break the law.

They donot need any political or ethnic cultural motives for that. The conclusion of the survey is: ‘ Many young Turks and Moroccans identify themselves with islam and remain to do so, even in the longer run. Young islamists, especially the better educated, have other ideas about their religion than their fathers'. Their islam is much more individual and pluralistic, with room for a personal, eclectic way of believing , discussion, different opinions and tolerance towards dissenters. In short, an islam made in Holland .

Nevertheless, one should be at one's guard. Michael Verkuylen researched ‘ethnic identity in the Netherlands '. His conclusion is that muslems have the idea that they're either personally or ethnically not accepted, be it factually or only conditionally. This has its impact. Uncertainty about acceptance and respect is constantly present, with ensuing mental and social consequences. Ethnic identity demands constant defense and clarification, thus making it not easy to meet other people. When young people are not accepted by the media, this can happen. Whether this affect really occurs, is not clear yet. It will take much more research on the representation by the media. This is also true for research on the affect of the latter.

This overview shows that any international crises concerning political islam lead to negative, rejective and sometimes even anti- islamists utterances. Therefore it is not amazing that young muslems vent their indignation of their dissatisfaction with the media. This fact itself should be a great concern to the media. In the end it comes down to whether young people could play a role as users of the media or fall foul to militant islam.

Translation of a text published in: Islam, de woede en het westen, uitgeverij Bulaaq

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