Islamophobia, academic research and scare scenarios

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There is increasing controversy about a growing number of purportedly sociological studies that set out to either measure the propensity of Muslim minorities to ‘integrate’, or measure tendencies within Muslim communities towards ‘violent radicalisation’. Critics in a number of European countries are asking just how trustworthy research can be if it is funded by or closely linked to government, military educational establishments or private think-tanks. Three pieces of research, published in 2007 and 2008 in Germany, Austria and Sweden, can be said to have increased Islamophobia as a result of the ammunition they provided to an uncritical media to create scare scenarios about the threat posed to Europe by its Muslim minorities.

Who backed the research?

The three academic studies vary in terms of scale and funder. The largest of all the projects was carried out in Germany by Katrin Brettfeld and Peter Wetzels,1 two criminologists at the law faculty of the University of Hamburg, who were commissioned in 2003 by the German Federal Ministry of the Interior, as part of a series of studies on ‘internal security’, to carry out the first academic study on the religious and political attitudes of Muslims living in the country, and their levels of ‘socio-linguistic integration’.2 The resulting 509-page study, Muslims in Germany: integration, barriers to integration, religion and attitudes toward democracy, the rule of law, and politically/religiously motivated violence, was published in 2007. Similarly, Dr Magnus Ranstorp and Josefine Dos Santos from the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies (CATS) at the Swedish National Defence College (an educational establishment that caters inter alia for the military) were commissioned by the Swedish Government Offices to examine the effects of preventive measures taken in Sweden against violent extremism and radicalisation. As a result, a much smaller report (thirty pages) entitled Threats to Democracy and Values – the current situation in Malmö was published in January 2009.3 The third study, Islamic religious instruction between integration and a parallel society by Mouhanad Khorchide, a professor of sociology of religion at the Islamic Religion and Pedagogical Institute at Vienna University (published in early 2009 by Vs Verlag) was actually a PhD thesis, and, as such, was not commissioned by any government agency.

How was the evidence compiled?

All three reports were similar in that the evidence to justify claims of a  lack of integration or tendency towards violent extremism was based on questionnaires or surveys. At the heart of the Brettfeld and Wetzels 509-page report (it was published in 2007 with a foreword by the Minister of the Interior Wolfgang Schäuble) was an attitude survey of 1,725 Muslims living in Hamburg, Berlin, Cologne and Augsburg. Those surveyed were asked about their attitudes to integration, democracy and the rule of law and politically/religiously motivated violence, as well as questioned about their own religious orientation. (A small sample of non-Muslim school students was also surveyed for comparison.) Depending on the answers, Brettfeld and Wetzels then placed the respondents in one of a number of categories (assigned by the academics, not chosen by the interviewees) in order to identify ‘risk groups’ and the ‘attitudinal terrain’ from which tendencies towards radicalisation might emerge.

The Austrian and Swedish studies were conducted on a much smaller scale, and a very small sample of people were selected for interview. The Ranstorp/Dos Santos research was aimed at examining the effects of preventive measures taken in Sweden against violent extremism and radicalism. The focus of the research was the southern Swedish city of Malmö (very much in the news at the time the report was released due to serious clashes between police and young Muslim youth in December 2008). Ranstorp/Dos Santos carried out consultations with key stakeholders (the Ministry of Integration and Gender Equality, the Swedish Security Services and Malmö municipality) and selected thirty people working in Malmö for ‘interview studies’ (ie in-depth questionnaires, with further follow-up questioning). Those selected for interview included police and security services officers, teachers, social workers, academics and representatives of organisations working with at-risk youth. According to subsequent media reports, not one representative of the Muslim community was interviewed. It seems very strange that a study, that from the outset sought to examine government counter-terrorist policies to prevent violent radicalisation, excluded precisely the community who might have had most to say on the subject, and may have had the most critical perspectives.

The PhD thesis of Mouhanad Khorchide into Islamic religious instruction in Austria did at least have the merit of selecting 210 Islamic teachers, the subject of the study, for interview. Nevertheless, the lack of information provided to the teachers about the purpose of the research was later to prove problematic. Khorchide was a participant at a one-day conference of Islamic teachers from three different areas of Austria organised by the Austrian Islamic Denomination. Muslim teachers attending the conference were handed a questionnaire, and asked to fill it in.

Was the research objective?

Attitude surveys and questionnaires are often presented by government and the media as useful and impartial forms of empirical information gathering. But in reality such work can easily be skewed to fit a predetermined agenda and can ride roughshod over the sensibilities of the respondents. Good research would ensure that all those taking part would be clearly informed about the purpose of the research and their role in it. Survey questions would of course not be constructed to meet an existing agenda but be as open as possible, unambiguous in wording, not suggestive of a required answer nor based around false dichotomies. And academics would make absolutely sure of having a rigorous methodology in place with which to interpret respondents’ answers.

In the case of all three academic studies under review here, such criteria were not met.

In Germany, Sarah Dornhof, a PhD student at Viadrina University, Frankfurt/Oder has systematically taken apart the methodology adopted by Brettfeld and Wetzels in their survey of the religious and political attitudes of Muslims. Dornhof pays particular attention to the way these two criminologists, with no background in comparative religious studies or the sociology of religion, attempted to measure ‘religious orientation’. ‘From the outset, the research project was embedded within a specific perspective and a political discourse that defines the lack of integration of Muslims to German norms and values as a national security problem’, observes Dornhof. ‘The presuppositions of the researchers framed who was asked questions, what questions they were asked, how the respondents were defined and how their answers were interpreted’, she adds. The researchers, furthermore, used loaded questions to construct their own reality of ‘problematic attitudes’ and the relationship between them, ‘constituting such attitudes as a  “threat” … with the purported existence of such a threat then used to justify interventions directed at Muslims in Germany.’4 Social research or social control?

Dornhof concludes that the Brettfeld/Wetzels report should be understood in the context of the state’s need to ‘provide academic support for the targeting of a religious minority for this particular form of control’. Have counter-terrorism experts Ranstorp and Dos Santos, too, provided academic cover for the Swedish government’s attempts to adopt a policy that targets Muslim youth as constituting ‘threat’?

In fact, the work of Ranstorp within the contested field of ‘terrorism studies’ had already been critiqued by other European academics. Criminologists and political scientists, in particular, are not only concerned about the lack of intellectual rigour within terrorism studies (which has gained much authority since the events of September 11) but the fact that terrorism study experts are regularly called to appear as expert witnesses in the media and act as advisers to official bodies.5 CATS, the organisation Ranstorp heads is linked to the military educational establishment not just through the Swedish National Defence College, but through its relationship with organisations like the RAND Corporation (the single most important think tank for the US military and possibly the largest private research centre in the world with an estimated budget of $160 million), the University of St Andrews Centre for Studies in Terrorism and Political Violence (under attack in the UK for links to government and the armed forces) and the UK Defence Academy in Shrivenham, Oxfordshire, which is an educational institution for the military.6

In criticising CATS, criminologists are not dismissing out of hand the academic credentials of those associated with military educational establishments. They merely advocate caution and draw attention to the tendency within the media to select ‘experts’ from such institutions while passing them off as objective, conventional social scientists. For if you are linked to a military educational establishment and/or if you are close to your government, then isn’t it possible, they ask, that you will formulate a body of opinion about Muslims that reinforces the agendas of the military establishment and the government?7

Unfortunately, the way in which Ranstorp and Dos Santos went about reconstructing the views of the thirty people they interviewed for the report has made it extremely difficult for other academics to evaluate their research, as Sarah Dornhof could on the Brettfeld/Wetzels report. Shortly after the research was published, three prominent Swedish academics, Leif Stenberg, Anders Ackfeldt and Dan-Erik Anderson from the Centre for Middle East Studies and Human Rights Studies at Lund University made a request to see the project’s source material.8 They were told that the source material was so sensitive that the researchers had destroyed it in order to protect the privacy of those who had participated. This ruled out the possibility for the outside academics, who were deeply suspicious of the findings, to see whether the interviews had been edited to fit a preconceived framework, whether those professionals interviewed appeared to have been pre-selected because of existing links to CATS and known support for the security services and police or whether the attitudes of those interviewed did genuinely mirror societal Islamophobia and scare scenarios engendered by the ‘war on terror’.

Those surveyed by Mouhanad Khorchide for his PhD study ‘Islamic religious instruction between integration and a parallel society’ would not have known that his PhD thesis would subsequently be released to the media. Khorchide, it seems, did not select his respondents in advance or enter into any meaningful dialogue with them about the nature of his research. Rather, he attended a one-day conference of Islamic teachers from three different areas of Austria organised by the Austrian Islamic Denomination - the representative body for Islamic school teachers that the government commissions to provide Islamic religious instruction in state schools. The purpose of the questionnaire, given out at the end of the day, was not immediately apparent to the religious teachers who hurriedly filled it in. Imagine their surprise when opening up the newspaper, or turning on their car radio one morning, the teachers discovered that Austrian society’s much-cherished democracy was under grave threat from Islamic religious teachers just like themselves (actually themselves!). Khorchide’s PhD ‘survey’ was reproduced in the weekly magazine Falter which reported that over 20 per cent of Islamic religious teachers held anti-democratic beliefs and the attitudes  of one in five of them could be classified as ‘fanatical’. (And the older the teacher, the more likely he was to be a fanatic, according to Khorchide.) In the subsequent public debate in Austria, few asked whether the survey’s questions had steered the answers. It was a question that a British diplomat Henry Hogger, in Vienna to discuss recent Gallup polls on Muslim attitudes, felt the media should have asked. Hogger pointed out that the formulation of one statement in the survey was misleading as it already suggested that Islam was not compatible with democracy, something that many Muslims might disagree with.9

Islamophobia, the media and scare scenarios

Each study has given rise to very noisy media debate about Muslims. In a sense, the problem with the reports has not been so much research methods (which might have been seriously discussed) as the way the findings have been blown up by the media which swallowed the research wholesale, without criticism and without seeking counter-balancing voices. Thus, despite any avowed intentions of the authors, each report, in varying ways, has undermined attempts to promote integration and religious tolerance or greater security from terrorist attack.

Many academics working in the field of counter-terrorism or integration policy are acutely aware of the racist temperature of the society in which they work. When carrying out research into Muslims in a climate of hostility and scapegoating, such academics realise a responsibility not to replicate stereotypes which could allow irresponsible projections of research findings. For in an era of 24-hour news television, when stories are hurriedly (and some might say irresponsibly) put together, the media looks for an easy peg on which to hang stories about Muslims. Sabine Schiffer, a lecturer in media education and communication studies at Friedrich-Alexander University, Erlangen-Nürnberg, who carried out an independent assessment of the way the German media framed and illustrated stories about Muslims, revealed how the juxtaposition of certain images in news reports can contribute to ‘scare scenarios’.10 And in the UK, where privately funded research bodies have a growing influence on the media debate, academics Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning from the Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Contemporary Political Violence at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, have warned that the media is spreading misconceptions and stereotypes through the selective use of research which far from being objective is often run by private think-tanks with a political agenda, and that reports replicate stereotypes that threaten community cohesion.11

Germany: a rubber stamp for government policy

Of the three reports, certainly the most influential, and probably the most damaging, is the Brettfeld/Wetzels report. On the basis of  preconceived ideas, it has painted a picture of Muslim communities locked within a fundamentalist and unchanging Islam that is antithetical to the democratic, secular and open society that is, we are told, Germany. By projecting this message into the media, Brettfeld/Wetzels have served the deeply conservative agenda of the Christian Democratic centre-Right establishment that resists change and seeks to preserve Germany as a monocultural, monofaith society.

Thus, in evaluating the Brettfeld/Wetzels report it is necessary to situate it in the current German political orthodoxies vis à vis the integration of its minority communities and faiths. Within this, it is important to understand that Germany is neither a fully secular society (as the church has a privileged and official role within the public sphere and other religions can only gain similar rights once they have been officially recognised by the state and granted a special status), nor a genuinely pluralistic one (recognising cultural diversity does not feature in past or present government policy). In 2006, mindful that its Muslim population comprised the second largest in Europe, the German government launched the Islam Forum. Its started aim was to address domestic relations between the majority population and Islam in Germany, to define an equal status for Islam with other religions, leading to a new social contract, and eventually the formation of a new representative body for German Muslims. But what came out of the Islam Forum was a series of top-down state edicts to Muslim religious representatives about what they must do (particularly in terms of signing up to state anti-terrorist laws and programmes to combat extremism) which is hardly conducive to genuine dialogue. In effect, the government, via the Islam Forum, has offered religious Muslims the carrot of official recognition but only if they sign up wholeheartedly to an official agenda of ‘supporting and demanding integration, by fighting Islamism’.12 Now, the Brettfeld/Wetzels report, which was presented for discussion at the ‘security and Islamism’ study group of the Islam Forum, is being used by the government as ammunition to undermine Muslim religious leaders further.

Austrian Islamic teachers face instant dismissal

While Khorchide’s thesis can lay far less claim to scientific rigour, it, too, is being used to support an authoritarian government stance towards Muslims. Once Mouhanad Khorchide’s narrative found its way into the media, where its line was reproduced uncontested, it became a massive story, promoting precisely the ‘scare scenarios’ Sabine Schiffer had warned against. Despite a similar history of partial-secularism to that of Germany, the facts on the ground in Austria relating to an official recognition of Islam are somewhat different. Due to the Austrian empire’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878 and the incorporation, therefore, of a Muslim minority, Islam was granted the status of an officially recognised religious community, with the right to give religious instruction in schools. But the professional education of these teachers, some of whom were recruited from abroad, has been sorely neglected and in recent months there was growing recognition of the need to improve their training opportunities and professional development. But thanks to the media representations of Khorchide’s research, this faltering dialogue has broken down. And, just as in Germany, what has emerged in place of dialogue is a series of top-down state edicts about how ‘fundamentalist’ Islamic teachers should behave, or face immediate sanction.

While the highly influential extreme-Right electoral parties have stated that ‘Religious education teachers who take pride in their radical position must be immediately deported’,13 the government has settled on the next best thing - the sack. The education ministry has announced a new action plan to improve the quality of religious education (ie Islamic religious education only, no other religious teachers have been targeted). It states that the Muslim community must revoke teaching licences of those ‘who have proved to disassociate themselves from democratic values or human rights’. And Herman Helm, the president of the Lower Austrian school council, has proposed official contracts that oblige all Islamic instructors to respect the values of democracy, or be dismissed on the spot.14 So as to reinforce that message, the federal government took the extraordinary step of intervening in a Viennese school dispute and sacking an Islamic religious teacher who has now been banned from the teaching profession without being afforded the right to a fair hearing. The teacher was accused of distributing anti-Semitic leaflets which attacked Jews (the specific allegation is unclear, some reports say the leaflets advocated a boycott of Jewish goods, others a boycott of Israeli goods; some reports say they were distributed by the teacher, others by his pupils). The Muslim Teachers’ Association has supported the teacher’s right to a fair hearing against the accusations made against him. But the education ministry say that they were justified in ordering the school city council to sack the teacher as to ‘delay would be dangerous’.15

Sweden – events demonstrate report’s bias

In Sweden, the context for the release of the Ranstorp/Dos Santos research was already one bound by fears and insecurities about young Muslims in Malmö. Here, there had been repeated clashes between police and youths in December 2008 during which explosives and stones were thrown at the police after the authorities moved in to evict young people who, for three weeks, had occupied a basement used as a mosque in Malmö’s Rosengard district. The disturbances were painted in black and white, with young people portrayed as the villains - extremist, violent and unassimilable. Ranstorp and Dos Santos reinforce these stereotypes in their report in which they conclude, on the basis of thirty anonymous interviews, that ‘the majority of Rosengard’s inhabitants believe that the Malmö suburb has undergone a radicalisation over the past five years’ and that ‘“ultra-radical” Islamists attached to basement mosques “preach isolation” and act as thought controllers while also maintaining a strong culture of threats, in which women in particular are subjected to physical and psychological harassment.’ Furthermore, the report recommends that as religious and cultural associations are ‘not what they make themselves out to be’, there should be a rigorous examination of all these organisations which should be asked to describe their activities in detail and declare their sources of financial support.

The report’s findings came as manna to a centre-Right government not overkeen to examine the wider economic and social issues that effect disadvantaged second- and third-generation ‘immigrant’ youth and might influence their encounters with police. According to Integration and Equality Minister Nyamko Sabuni, the Ranstorp/Dos Santos research proves that the situation in Rosengard was ‘completely unacceptable’ and the government would initiate coordinated measures, involving schools, social services and the police, to tackle radicalisation. Once again, warned Leif Stenberg, Anders Ackfeldt and Dan-Erik Andersson, the ‘Rosengard district in Malmö’ has ‘been the centrepoint of clichéd and poorly grounded assertions’.

Thankfully, however, reality has now broken through to demolish the one-dimensional stereotypical portrait of ‘immigrant’ life in Malmö as represented by Ranstorp/Dos Santos and the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies. This time, sections of the media should be thanked for highlighting a previously little-discussed issue, namely police racism. In February 2009, Sweden’s national police commissioner, Bengt Svensson, was forced to make a public statement promising to investigate allegations of racism within the police. A video of the disturbances in Rosengard, Malmö, that preceded the release of the Ranstorp/Dos Santos research by just one month, has now seen the light of day. It shows several police officers shouting racist and abusive language at young people. One word used was blattejävlar, that roughly translates as ‘damned coloured people’ or ‘damn immigrants’.16

Another investigation by the Dagens Nyheter has exposed high levels of racism within the Swedish National Police Academy. (One police recruit, named only as Ahmed, told the newspaper that he had never experienced racism of the like that he endured while at the police academy.)17 And during a training exercise conducted in Malmö, some police recruits, acting in a role-playing exercise the part of criminals and suspects, adopted racist names. When other police recruits complained, no action was taken.18 What all three pieces of research demonstrate is the danger posed by an uncritical acceptance of certain purportedly academic studies, which, far from being impartial or scientific, are based on preconception and/or can be embedded within government or security services’ programmes, whether in the field of counter-terrorism or the field of integration.

References

1 Katrin Brettfeld and Peter Wetzels, Muslime in Deutschland – Integration, Integrations-barrieren, Religion and Einstellungen zu Demokratie, Rechtsstaat und politisch-religiös motivierter Gewalt (University of Hamburg, Faculty of Law, 2007), <http://www.bmi.bund.de>.

2 The critique here is taken from Sarah Dornhof, ‘Germany: constructing a sociology of Islamist radicalisation’ in Race & Class, Volume 50, no. 4, April-June 2009.

3 Available for download on the website of the Swedish National Defence College <http://www.fhs.se/en/>.

4 Sarah Dornhof, ‘Germany: constructing a sociology of Islamist radicalisation’, op.cit

5 See, in particular, Jonny Burnett and Dave Whyte, ‘Embedded Expertise and the New Terrorism’ in Journal for Crime, Conflict and the Media (2005); Richard Jackson, ‘Religion, Politics and Terrorism: A Critical Analysis of Narratives of “Islamic Terrorism”’, Centre for International Politics, University of Manchester, Working Paper Series No. 21, October 2006.

6 These links are acknowledged on the Swedish National Defence College website.

7 See Jonny Burnett and Dave Whyte, ‘Embedded Expertise and the New Terrorism’, op.cit

8 The Local 28.30 January 2009. The newspaper Arbetaren (<http://www.arbetaren.se/>) was one of the few media outlets to voice criticism of the research.

9 Reuters 5 February 2009.

10 Sabine Schiffer, ‘Muslims, Islam and the media: taking the initiative against scare scenarios’ <http://www.qantara.de/webcom/show_article.php/_c-478/_nr-308/i.html> For a discussion of the role of the media, the market and the academy in promoting scare scenarios about Muslims, see Liz Fekete Integration, Islamophobia and civil rights in Europe (IRR, 2008).

11 Marie Smyth and Jeroen Gunning, ‘The abuse of research’, Guardian (13 February 2007).

12 Resolution C34 of the 18th Political Convention of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Germany, is headed ‘For German public benefit: supporting and demanding integration, fighting Islamism’.

13 The words are those of Monica Muelwerth, education spokesperson of the Freedom Party. Gerald Grosz, an MP for the Alliance for the Future of Austria, has warned that radical Islamists should not be allowed to ‘slowly poison’ society. Both comments reported by the German Press Agency 28 January 2009.

14 As quoted in Austrian Times 16 April 2009.

15 As quoted in Austrian Times 30 March 2009.

16 The Local 5 February 2009.

17 The Local 21 February 2009.

18 As reported by BBC News 8 February 2009.

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