Islam in the Media:  Neo-Orientalizing Images

Sonja Hegasy

Posted Feb 12, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Islam in the Media:  Neo-Orientalizing Images

It is a bitter irony that only after 9/11 Western media developed a hitherto unparalleled and genuine interest in Islamic culture. But still journalists are struggling with stereotypes. Sonja Hegasy about the pitfalls of journalism dealing with Islam

When Jürgen Chrobog asked whether he was supposed to travel home from Yemen on a flying carpet, he neatly summed up the problem: when it comes to reports about the Arab world, we are always presented with the same images and backdrops. It is always the flying carpet, the thief of Baghdad, women in veils, and praying men.

Whether it be the “terrorism of the veil” or the “veil of terrorism” (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany), the same shorthand is always used to describe the Muslim world. The intention is to provide a description that corresponds to what we are used to seeing and hearing and that matches neo-orientalizing images. Anything that doesn’t fit into this image is conveniently erased as being contrary to the images in our heads. This means that there can’t be any surprises.

Orientals as a law-abiding people

The other strange thing about reports on the Arab world is the fact that it is obviously perceived as being a stronghold of law-abiding people. When describing what apparently happens in the Arab world, we (and by “we” I mean both academics and journalists) like to refer to legal and religious texts: The Sharia says … the Koran demands … family law stipulates … satellite dishes are banned … the Internet is censored … premarital sex is not allowed etc. The only thing is that very few people realise that people in the Arab world get around these standards and laws just as frequently and creatively as people in western society.

When we hear that “women are not allowed to …” in the Arab world, we automatically believe that they don’t do whatever it is that they are not allowed to do. But one cannot understand the Islamic world if one doesn’t know both the big and little tricks that are used to get around bans. Anyone who really believes that there is no premarital sex in the Arab world should seriously reconsider their image of the Near East.

A text that repeatedly uses Arab terms always unconsciously gives German readers the impression that Arab society is a substantially different society. I am against the culturalization of global conflicts in the academic and publishing context. A differentiated style of reporting does not mean that conflicts are talked away or made to appear better than they actually are. But it does mean that Islamic societies deserve the same differentiated style of reporting that is used for the society in which we live.

The observation that there are nudist beaches on Germany’s Baltic coast does not mean that Christianity prescribes nudist bathing in cold water.

The meaning of “fatwah”

The words “Sharia” or “Kadi” may now be part of the German language, but the knowledge of what such words mean often abruptly ends when it comes to the word “fatwa”. The reason being that since the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the word is often translated as “death penalty” rather than as “legal pronouncement”.

In other words, the sentence “the Kadi went to the Bazaar to issue a just fatwa” evokes the impression of something foreign and will probably conjure up the image in the mind of the reader or listener of a chubby man in a turban pushing his way through a labyrinth of crowded streets. No-one considers that the sentence refers to an independent, civil judge.

The use of “Arab” words is often mistaken for expertise. Knowledge is something completely different: knowing what the word “ulema” means does not make one an expert in Muslim societies. It means that one has the ability to translate the word correctly as someone who has a special knowledge of Islamic sacred law and theology.

In my experience, it is much more difficult to influence television images. Most films have lengthy shots showing praying Muslims from behind. There are hardly any books about women in the Arab world that don’t have a picture of a veiled woman on the cover. However, feedback from the sector indicates that editorial teams are increasingly becoming interested in texts that they consider to be “anti-intuitive” or “thought-provoking”.

That being said, there is one sentence that journalists in all media seem unable to do without: whenever they write about women in the Arab world, they write that “they still always stand with their backs to the wall.” That is one of the meaningless images that has become par for the course when talking about Muslim women.

Sonja Hegasy

© 2006

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

The author of this article works for the directorate of the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies (ZMO) and is head of the centre’s Public Relations department.

Originally published at and reprinted in TAM with permission.