A working group founded by Tina Jensen, Sara Jul Jacobsen, Kathrine Vitus and Kristina Weibel of the Danish National Centre for Social Research (SFI) has analyzed four leading national papers in an attempt to determine the Danish media’s perception of Muslims and Islam from October to December 2011. The team followed the social-democrat Politiken, the liberal center-right Jyllands-Posten, the Ekstra Bladet tabloid and the conservative and religious Kristeligt Dagblad daily, reviewing news reports, opinion articles and readers’ views regarding Muslims and Islam published in the papers. In each of its annual reports published in the years 1999, 2001 and 2006, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) referred to the press as the main party responsible for the growing enmity among the Danish public vis-à-vis those from other ethnic backgrounds.
Before the research, Jensen asked for the cooperation of the media outlets included in the study, believing this would enable them to challenge the accusations lodged by the ECRI. She says she made a constructive offer asking them to extend assistance in the research process. Jensen did not receive positive responses, a fact she said disappointed her.
‘This is ignorance… nothing else’
Although the period reviewed in the research was selected at random, it spanned four major agenda items holding particular importance for Muslims: the Salafi presence in a residential neighborhood in northwestern Copenhagen, the Arab Spring, the emergence of a group in the country applying Islamic rules to divorce cases and the publication of cartoons by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo insulting to the Prophet Mohammad. The research tallied altogether 304 news reports, opinion articles and readers’ comments in the papers observed from October to December of last year. Sixty-five percent of this total consists of news reports. Jyllands-Posten, which published 141 reports on the subject of Islam or Muslims, ranked first in this category. The working group analyzed both the print and Internet versions of the papers. Interestingly, the language in Internet versions of the print version was found to be more offensive.
In reference to the public appearances made by Salafis in the Tingbjerg neighborhood in northwestern Copenhagen, Jensen notes that Jyllands-Posten covered the events most provocatively. The Salafis announced a goal of seizing control of Tingbjerg and declaring Shariah law there. In reference to the incident, Kristeligt Dagblad commented that this was an isolated incident which had not attracted the attention of mainstream Muslims, whereas Jyllands-Posten argued that the group had seized control of the neighborhood within a very short period of time. Jyllands-Posten reported the risk that the Salafis might expand their control to the entire country. But the prophecy did not come true; the group disappeared swiftly.
The awakening in the Middle East, popularly referred to as the Arab Spring, reflected differently within Denmark. As Egypt, Tunisia and Libya were moving from dictatorships to democracy, the media were expected to extend support to the process. “I thought [Danish media] would support the democratic elections. But the media proved me wrong,” comments Jensen.
With the exception of Ekstra Bladet, the three papers paid at least some attention to the democratic transformation associated with the Arab Spring; however, the way they presented the issue was peculiar. The democratic elections were presented as a choice between Islam and democracy; Jyllands-Posten went even further, arguing that the election of Islamic parties did not represent the arrival of democracy. Jensen focuses on this to make a crucial point: “Danish journalists are fairly ignorant on the subject of Muslims and Islam.”
This is indeed a strong statement. Jensen gives the following example to support her claim: “If there is a report on the [Justice and Development Party (AK Party)] and [Prime Minister] Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, the introductory sentence starts with ‘The Islamist party and its leader…’ A journalist who does this sees Turkey as an Arab country. This is ignorance — nothing else.”
The media also published offensive reports on Muslims and Islam when it came to Islamic rules on divorce and the offensive cartoons published by French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The findings over the three-month period are truly concerning. Out of the news stories analyzed in the research, 58 percent of the reports were found to be unconstructive, projecting enmity and animosity against Muslims and Islam, compared with 32 percent that were deemed impartial or neutral. But this does not mean that the reports were published objectively. In almost none of even impartial reports did the papers seek to represent the other side of the story. Only 8 percent of the reports were found to be constructive, bearing positive reference to Islam. Ekstra Bladet ranks first in the publication of negative reports, followed by Jyllands-Posten. Politiken ranks first in positive reports with 14 percent of their coverage falling into the category. Opinion articles and readers’ views found in the papers are even more unconstructive than the news reports. The language used by viewers is offensive, bearing traces of discrimination and tactics of humiliation.
The research also found that Muslims are rarely allowed to make their own statements in the press. In 75 percent of the publications, the views of Muslims were not published. In their publications, all four papers reviewed seem to have agreed that Islam is a threat to individual democracy and freedom, including freedom of expression.
Jensen says she is not surprised by the findings. Noting that the media plays a crucial role in the formation of public opinion, Jensen remarks: “Unfortunately, the press has served the polarization of Danish society. The media’s portrayal of Muslims and Islam has nothing to do with the reality.” Recalling that the Sept. 11 attacks were the start of the link made between Islam and terrorism, Jensen also says some certain circles make publications to confirm this image. “Sadly, even in an ordinary and relatively insignificant incident, the religious or ethnic identity of the perpetrator is accentuated if he or she is Muslim. The press forgets its real job when it comes to Muslims and Islam.”
Jensen has extensive familiarity with Muslims in Denmark. She reacts to how the media portrays Islam in her country. She argues that, unlike the media depictions, Muslims do not constitute a monolithic group.
Jensen’s partner in the working group, Weibel, notes that Muslims and Islam are described as elements contrary to the Danish values and culture. “[T]he media refers to Danish women as free women, whereas it is argued that Muslim women are oppressed or intimidated. They make a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ This is obviously discrimination.”
The working group announced the findings of their research in a report, which received scant attention from the media. Only the official TV station DR covered the report, and a column in Politiken referred to the findings. The working group wanted to discuss the findings with the editors-in-chief of the papers they reviewed. The papers, however, have not accepted appointments with the researchers.