European Youth & Extremism: Is Western Media to Blame?
The latest wave of terrorism promoted by extremist groups such as ISIS took its toll on Europe as the numbers of European Muslim youth who join forces with extremists continue to rise. Case studies have shown that extremist groups target age groups ranging from 15 to 21, exploiting their socio-economic, psycho-social, and ideological desperations and vulnerabilities.
Western media is another factor that has played a great role in the success of extremists to reach potential young Muslim recruits and supporters. The promotion a dichotomous religion-based “us vs. them” culture portrays Muslims as terrorists while at the same time it repairs the image of non-Muslim perpetrators by shifting attention from their criminal actions to their personal circumstances. This “narrative repair” in European media comes in stark contrast to the professional norms of impartiality and objectivity and the pursuit of truth and accuracy in news coverage. The pervasive “double standards” attitude exercised by Western media has major societal implications, creating an image of Western civilization and values as being endangered by acts of terrorism committed by Muslims. Some specialists argue that since the 1972 Palestinian Liberation Organization terror attack in Munich and the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis, the US media has been fixated on the “Muslims=terrorism” notion and on the dominant depictions of “terrorists” as always Arab Muslims. A study was conducted on the coverage of post 9/11 domestic terror events on US evening network news broadcasts found that attacks carried out by individuals who were identified as “Muslim” were systematically more likely to be labeled “terrorism” than those in which news coverage did not identify the religious identity of the culprit. For example, in the hours following the Oklahoma bombing which left 168 killed and more than 500 injured, the media framed the incident as a terrorist act committed by a Muslim. When later the perpetrator turned out to be a Gulf War veteran of European descent, the crime was reframed as the act of an evil mad man who acted alone. Similarly, in the case of Ted Kaczynski who sent 16 letter bombs that killed three persons and injured 23 others, the US mass media even gave the perpetrator an opportunity to make his case to the public when he was interviewed by Time Magazine and elaborated on his anti-technology attitude that prompted his actions.
The same practice extends to violent attacks by Jewish Israelis against Arabs. By focusing on the fact that Jewish settlers commit the crimes on Arab territory and by diverting attention to Jewish fears of Arab retaliation and violence, journalists create dominant images of Jew-as-victim and Arab-as-aggressor. Studies revealed that the US media persistently favors Israeli sources and narratives and excuses Jewish perpetrators by portraying them as victims of an environment saturated with Arab perpetrated violence.
In Western media coverage, the dominant discourse on Muslims and Islam is negative. Muslims and Arabs have become the predominant “other” and everything that “we” are not. “They” are supposedly violent, irrational, and inclined to terror. They only understand force and are static, stagnant, misogynic, superstitious, and despotic. According to Edward Said’s book “Orientalism”, Western discourse on Muslims became more diffused, pervasive, and influential since the same pattern of bigotry is reproduced by discursive elites such as the academy, the government, poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists and the media. Muslims are portrayed as threatening to Western mainstream values. This image is not always fashioned through explicit statements but more often emphasized through giving space to negative reports and little or no weight to non-Western sources. Furthermore, the way certain news stories are labeled reveals the interpretive logic governing media. A murder within a Muslim family is routinely labeled as an honor killing, highlighting the role of culture and religion in the crime. Individual crimes, as with killing, are described as something typical of the group and contribute to stereotypes.
On a general level, academic literature suggests that violent discourses such as Islamophobia has three effects: first, it affects our ethics and restructures value hierarchies, it preaches, teaches, admonishes, encourages, and dulls us into seeing exploitation and repression as normal and natural. It makes direct and structural violence look, even feel right, or at least not wrong. It changes the moral color of an act and legitimizes oppression. Thus, ethical considerations and individual rights become subordinate. Injustice, even war, becomes necessity and justified. Second, a hostile discourse tends to influence and even distort the way we understand and interpret social reality. It makes reality opaque and can blind us to existing oppression. Third, hostile discourse does not only precede or pave the way to violent behavior or oppressive structure but there is a strong correlation between discrimination and oppressive language. Thus, oppressive language has a system justification function, giving legitimacy to existing social arrangements. This means that disadvantaged groups are stereotyped in ways that justify their social position, since people cannot endure political systems harming a person who seems like oneself, because it would arouse feelings of repentance and pain.
This problem of Islamophobia is further aggravated by the fact that European Muslims do not possess tools to articulate alternative public images. Statements might go unchallenged and contribute to an anti-Muslim discourse. The missing representation of the Muslim’s standpoint in Western media is causing a further problem especially with the advancement of means of communication in the virtual space. Social media such as blogs, chat rooms, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and Flicker attract millions of users globally and are seen as an increasingly popular and important platform promoting civil engagement and the development of political discourse in the public sphere. Nevertheless, radical opinions can also be publicized through social media attracting broader adherents, and occasionally drawing mass media attention and affecting public discourse. In some cases, extremists on social media succeed in generating public support for prejudicial opinions and often lead to violent and civil unrest. A famous case study is the proposed project of establishing an Islamic community center two and a half blocks from ground zero in lower Manhattan. The earliest news coverage of the project received little attention. After five months, the New York City community board approved the project unanimously and the case was picked up and featured on an anti-Islamic blog with the sensational title “Monster mosque pushes ahead in shadow of ‘World Trade Center Islamic death and destruction”. The blog attracted a considerable number of followers and grabbed the attention of mainstream media and gradually became a political issue. During and after the controversy, incidences of hate crimes against Muslims, protests and Quran burning were reported around the US.
Studies show that although the original aim of social media is to create a virtual space for exchanging social and political ideologies across the spectrum and to help people from different backgrounds to engage in healthy debates, the reality is otherwise. The reality shows that the holders of radical opinions develop a sense of polarization where they confine themselves to only radical networks with members sharing the same extremist view. In short, studies suggest that communicators tend to connect with like-minded others on the blogosphere and other types of new media. Especially when it comes to political discussions where clear ideological differences often exist, actors are likely to use their connections to signal their affiliations, reinforce their perspectives, and echo with others who share their points of view.
These online groups exchange news links and opinion pieces from different media outlets which support and influence their radical stances. Thus, mainstream media help blogs to attract visitors as the bloggers rely heavily on mainstream media to disseminate information and build their arguments.
With the advancement of communication in the virtual space and the adamant criminalization of Muslim perpetrators and “narrative repair” of non-Muslim perpetrators in Western mainstream media, Muslims find themselves in thin air where they are unable to advance their point of view in the media and are pounded heavily by distorted portrayals and misrepresentation by right-wing extremists in social media who are heavily influenced by mainstream media’s malicious representation of Muslims.
Therefore young, weak-minded, ignorant Muslims in Europe get easily lured in by extremist groups as they find some safe haven for their religious identity without being attacked, denigrated or demonized. That being said, it is the collective responsibility of both Western governments and mainstream media to stand and meet their moral responsibility of abolishing the long pervasive historical double standards discourse in news coverage and to introduce new policies which assure the integration of Muslims in their respective societies to avoid the dreadful consequences resulting from young European citizens falling prey to extremism.