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Islamophobia, academic research and scare scenarios PDF Print E-mail
Written by Liz Fekete   
Wednesday, 20 January 2010
Islamophobia, academic research and scare scenarios


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

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
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’
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.

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), <>.
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 <>.
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
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
(<>) 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’
<> 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.

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 20 January 2010 )
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