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Hype and Stereotype: The Role of the Media in Shaping Public Discourse on Minorities

On Thursday, May 3, 2001, a nationally televised news program broadcasted an interview with Imam Khalil El-Moumni of Annasr mosque, in Rotterdam. When questioned about the Koran’s views on homosexuality, the religious leader stated, among other things, that it “is harmful to society,” and “if the disease spreads, everyone can be contaminated.”  His statements sparked what would soon become a highly publicized national controversy. Almost immediately after the broadcast, various forms of printed news media rushed to join the discussion, and scrutiny for the imam appeared on front pages for weeks after the event. The reactions of the press, in fact, serve as the focus of our research. “Because television combines images with information, it has a greater capacity to be emotionally moving,” notes Dr. Connie De Boer, specialist in Communications Science at the Amsterdam School of Communications Research. “On the other hand, newspapers have been shown to have a more long-term effect, because you have to make a cognitive effort to read the text. By doing so, the information processing goes deeper. You are more involved.”

The Dutch press is comprised of various daily newspapers, local newspapers, and magazines. The five major daily newspapers of the Netherlands, De Telegraaf (with a circulation of 807,800), the Algemeen Dagblad (353,756), De Volkskrant (343,373), the Trouw (125,353), and the NRC Handelsblad (270, 594), are distributed nationwide. Almost every Dutch household subscribes to a daily newspaper. News weeklies, such as the Vrij Nederland, HP/De Tijd, and Elsevier, attract a smaller readership, but remain influential in that they provide more in-depth commentaries on the news than their daily counterparts. Each publication possesses a distinct journalistic character, making for an assortment of perspectives on any given topic. Nevertheless, all aspects of the Dutch press remain undeniably linked by a common social and political context, which influences the manner in which the news media frames issues, as well as the language used to discuss these issues.

The First Month

After El-Moumni’s interview on May 3, Dutch gay and lesbian organizations threatened legal action. Two days later, the Public Attorney launched an investigation into the matter. Five days afterwards, a famous Dutch soccer arbiter and homosexual, John Blankenstein, sued the imam on grounds of discrimination. A previous Supreme Court verdict from January 2001, however, complicated the lawsuit from the start. The Supreme Court had acquitted Leen van Dijke, a Christian politician, of similar charges, after he had compared gays to thieves. As such, the court essentially gave freedom of religion priority over protection against discrimination.

Politicians were also quick to react to the statements. Member of Parliament Boris Dittrich, gay himself, called for compulsory integration-courses for imams. Two days after the interview, Roger van Boxtel, Minister of Urban Policy and Integration of Ethnic Minorities, labeled the statements ‘unacceptable.’ He invited Dutch imams and representatives of Muslim organizations to discuss the matter with him. In parliament, spokespersons of the two main coalition-parties raised the subject of expelling the imam from the Netherlands, and rethinking the relationship between the freedom of religion and the ban on discrimination. The third largest party, in conjunction with moderate Islamic organizations, began to discuss the necessity for Dutch Imam education. On the twelfth of May, prime-minister Kok spoke out in condemnation of the imams: ‘Norms have been transgressed, one should not talk about it like this.’  Soon after, representatives in the VVD, the major right wing party, and the CDA, the Christian Democrats, began attributing the intolerance they were seeing in the public with the stance of the opposing party.

At this time, it finally became public that the imam had clearly spoken against violence towards homosexuals after his initial statement, but that this part of the interview had not been broadcasted. “The Islam prohibits aggression against anyone, despite his circumstances and the diseases he has,” El-Moumni had added.

Almost two weeks after his first remarks on homosexuality, the imam publicly responded to all the consternation. In a combined statement with sixteen other mosques, the imam offered an apology for his remarks, which was accepted by Minister Van Boxtel. At this point, the BVD, the Dutch Internal Intelligence Agency, issued a report that implicated some Dutch imams and organizations in the attempts of foreign forces to frustrate the integration process of minorities in the Netherlands. 

During the final week of May, an article in the Vrij Nederland brought forth details of El-Moumni’s life and career, bringing to light the fact that he was prohibited from preaching in Morocco by the state government. The article also introduced books written by the imam, which included highly controversial comments on European society. This generated another wave of publicized criticism directed at El-Moumni, and prompted another exchange between him and Minister Van Boxtel. 

News Media Attention the Imam's Statements: A Case Study

In our research, we examined all articles regarding imam El-Moumni from five major national newspapers--- De Telegraaf, the Algemeen Dagblad, De Volkskrant, the Trouw, and the NRC Handelsblad---for one month after the interview, that is, from May 4, 2001 until May 31, 2001. During our assessment, we sought to gain a sense of how the press approached and framed the El-Moumni case. Relevant questions we asked ourselves included: what larger social issues are being associated with the Imam’s words? Which information sources are being used and quoted?  What is the tone of the article?  When and how often do the personal predispositions of the journalists surface in the articles? What is the nature of these inclinations?  As the articles progressed, the discussion concerning the imam evolved, and general trends began to emerge with each news wave. The headlines alone, the most immediately visible element of each article, give some impression of this.

Figure 1.

The headlines to all articles regarding Imam El-Moumni.

Date

 Headline/Title of article

Type

Newspaper

5-4

Gay-movement infuriated on Imam

Info

NRC

5-4

Imam: homosexuality disease

Info

AD

5-5

Homo-statement possibly punishable

Info

NRC

5-5

Imam legalizes violence against gays

Info

Volkskrant

5-5

Imam nuances statement on gays

Info

AD

5-5

Strict doctrine and differences between bishop Eijk and Sjeik

Info

Trouw

5-7

Van Boxtel wants to talk to imams quickly

Info

NRC

5-7

Tolerance for intolerance

Info

AD

5-7

Minister talks to Muslims – Van Boxtel shocked because of statements of imam on homosexuals

Info

AD

5-8

Van Boxtel: statements of imam crossed the border

Info

Trouw

5-8

Intolerance

Opin

Telegraaf

5-8

Integration is: let me learn and learn from me

Opin

NRC

5-9

Report against imam – Blankenstein says El-Moumni is discriminatory

Info

Trouw

5-9

Imams don’t like gays

Info

NRC

5-9

Imams unanimous in disapproval of homosexuality

Info

NRC

5-9

Imams against gays

Info

NRC

5-10

Anger on intolerant imams

Info

NRC

5-10

Public Attorney starts investigation statements imam

Info

Volkskrant

5-10

Investigation statements imam – colleagues support opinion on homosexuality

Info

Trouw

5-10

Imams and gays

Opin

NRC

5-10

State attributes imams with role they do not have

Opin

NRC

5-11

Discrimination of gay’s – Parliament condemns statements of imams

Info

NRC

5-11

Integration of imams not yet according to wishes

Info

NRC

5-11

Politicians are critical about opinion of imams 

Info

Trouw

5-11

Parliament: Discriminatory Imam out of the country - Van Dijke: Imam choose unhappy words

Human Interest

AD

5-11

Majority in Parliament: Imams out of the country after discrimination

Info

Telegraaf

5-11

Statements of imams ‘rhetoric of faithful’

Info

Volkskrant

5-11

Homo-hatred

Info

Trouw

5-11

Respect for gays

Opin

Volkskrant

5-12

Kok condemns imams – norms have been crossed

Info

AD

5-12

Kok: imams gone too far on gay’s

Info

NRC

5-12

Career ‘imam’ Özer in Ayasofia is over

Info

Volkskrant

5-12

Kok: statements imams on gays very offensive

Info

Volkskrant

5-12

Kok strongly condemns imams

Info

Telegraaf

5-12

Kok: imam-situation serious

Info

Trouw

5-12

Integrated imam knows where the line is

Info

AD

5-12

Old turban

Opin

NRC

5-12

Homosexuality

Opin

AD

5-15

Excuses of imam El-Moumni for hurtful statements

Info

AD

5-15

Imams make a mockery of tolerant Islam

Info

Trouw

5-15

Imam offers apologies to gays

Info

NRC

5-15

The Hague reacts, what do local politicians think?

Info

Trouw

5-15

Imam: I didn’t want to offend

Info

Trouw

5-15

CDA: the VVD itself is intolerant

Info

Trouw

5-15

CDA-leader feels as if he is set in the same corner as imams

Info

Volkskrant

5-15

El-Moumni offers apologies for text on gay’s

Info

Volkskrant

5-15

Imams humiliate Islam

Info

Volkskrant

5-16

Van Rij warns against prejudice

Info

Trouw

5-16

Van Boxtel talks to Muslims

Info

AD

5-16

Groninger imam in university newspaper: Homosexuality not contagious but psychological disease

Info

Telegraaf

5-16

Even recently people question homosexuality

Opin

Trouw

5-16

Be quiet

Opin

Trouw

5-16

Beware for a clash with all Muslims

Opin

Trouw

5-17

Re-education

Opin

Volkskrant

5-17

And then the mosques are empty

Human Interest

Trouw

5-18

Forum calls for withdrawal of charges against imam

Info

Volkskrant

5-18

The gay, the imam and the Dutch arrogance

Opin

Trouw

5-18

Position imams urgently need improvement

Opin

NRC

5-18

Reaction of liberals to imam evidence of self-assuredness

Opin

Volkskrant

5-19

Mosques: reaction is overstated

Info

NRC

5-19

The man as back-up – on homosexuality in Turkey

Info

NRC

5-19

Mind your own business – round table talk with administrators of mosque organizations on imam-situation

Human Interest

NRC

5-19

Tolerant society hypersensitive

Opin

AD

5-19

Reaction on imam is milestone in being frank

Opin

Volkskrant

5-21

Imam a victim of translation faults

Info

AD

5-21

BVD: imams used against integration

Info

Volkskrant

5-21

Head BVD: imams set against integration

Info

NRC

5-21

Imams under crossfire

Opin

AD

5-22

Questioned imam not allowed to preach in Morocco

Info

Volkskrant

5-22

Imam El Moumni suspended twice – El Moumni feels at home

Info

AD

5-22

Gay-hating imam not allowed to preach in Morocco

Info

Telegraaf

5-22

Van Boxtel: prefer dialogue over the knout

Info

Trouw

5-22

Expelling imam not possible

Info

Trouw

5-22

A good talk

Opin

Volkskrant

5-23

COC and Muslim organizations regret statements imam

Info

Volkskrant

5-23

Imam: Islam good for integration

Info

AD

5-23

Cautious dialogue between gays and immigrants

Human Interest

AD

5-23

Imam not expelled – insulting gays not serious enough

Info

Telegraaf

5-23

Dialogue

Opin

Telegraaf

5-25

Muslims: there is no big gay-hatred

Info

Volkskrant

5-25

Van Boxtel satisfied on talks – Muslims emphasize that they respect gays

Info

Trouw

5-25

Again irritation: ‘BVD, stay away from mosques!’

Info

Trouw

5-25

‘Islam has a PR-problem’

Human Interest

Trouw

5-25

Excuse of imam to Van Boxtel – Cabinet gives no money for imam education

Info

Telegraaf

5-25

BVD crosses Van Boxtel’s good news show

Info

AD

5-25

Muslims talk to Van Boxtel

Info

NRC

5-25

Guarding identity and integration can go together

Opin

NRC

5-26

Imams too are welcome

Opin

Telegraaf

5-26

Double life between ostriches

Human Interest

Trouw

5-28

Imam not proper, indecent and not nuanced

Info

AD

5-29

‘I prefer dialogue over knout’

Info

NRC

5-29

Function of imams in integration overestimated

Opin

NRC

5-29

Imam-mentality bad for the economy

Opin

Telegraaf

5-30

There will be more foreign imams

Opin

Trouw

5-31

Blunder of Nova

Opin

NRC

5-31

Nova: no arousal on purpose

Opin

NRC

General Trends in Press Coverage

1) Initial media reactions to the remarks of the imam addressed the specific reactions of the gay community. In these articles, the imam’s views are frequently linked to the recent and growing violence of Moroccan youth against homosexuals. 

The major newspapers focus on the voices of the Dutch Association for the Integration of Homosexuality COC (COC), and the Gay Krant, a gay newspaper. The protests of these organizations call for a more open and blunt discourse on sources of anti-homosexual violence. The Chief editor Krol from the Gay Krant is quoted “[the fact] that the attitude of a small part of the foreignerscould play an important role in [the aggression towards gays] cannot be ignored for reasons of political correctness”(AD 5-4-01). The Yoesuf Foundation, an organization for Islam and homosexuality, also enters the scene, expressing its dissatisfaction with the imam’s statements. Prosecution of the imam for his discriminatory remarks are also discussed at this time, but largely dismissed by Muslim, Christian, and general gay and lesbian organizations. 

Several articles explored the association between the imam’s statements and the growing violence of Moroccan youth. The articles often closed with statistics regarding the percentage of complaints of gay harassment that involved foreigners.  The proportions varied from city to city, ranging from approximately one-fifth in Rotterdam to two-thirds in Amsterdam. Fatima Elatik, a member of the Amsterdam city council, asserts that the media here “posed legitimate questions, but overreacted by linking the terrible things one imam says with the problems of another group. The problem with the youth violence is socio-economic, and related to educational systems. It has nothing to do with the imam. It’s totally different worlds.”  At the same time, Yoram Stein, a member of the Trouw Religion and Philosophy editorial staff, argues that “some say that the young people who are causing trouble don’t go to mosque, and are not the ones affected by religious leaders, but that is not completely true. When you ask the youth, ‘what is important for you?”, many say ‘being Muslim.’”  Whether or not the association between the two issues is legitimate, it cannot be denied that the relationship received notable attention in the press during the first few days after the imam’s statement.  

2)  A wave of headlines - declaring such things as “Van Boxtel wants to talk to the imams” or “Minister talks to Muslims,” followed by “Imams don’t like gays” or “Investigation on imam’s  statements: colleagues support opinion on homosexuality”- links El-Moumni’s  words  to a broader social problem, involving Islam as a whole. 

During this period, in all five newspapers, the wording of the articles shifts from using the plural version of the word ‘imams,’ when previously, debate tended to revolve around the singular ‘imam.’  This movement can be partially attributed to the initiatives of Minister Van Boxtel, who invited representatives from all branches of Islam to talk with him.

However, a May 9 article in the NRC Handelsblad entitled, “Imams unanimous in disapproval of homosexuality” spearheaded much of this change in tone, as well. The article, derived from a number of interviews, aligned the imams of four major mosques in the Netherlands with El-Moumni’s strong disapproval of homosexuality. The most moderate of the fourstated, ‘It is not allowed, that is clear. Someone who is a homosexual must be helped to stop and change, especially through a lot of discussion.’ Others were stronger in their condemnations. The expansion of the discussion from an individual imam to an entire strata of religious leaders generated another wave of reactions in other newspapers, both in confirmation or rejection of the credibility of the interviewees. Moreover, the article disturbed and offended gay organizations, because “the Rotterdam imam was apparently not on his own, they conclude” (NRC 5-10-01). 

Yasha Lange, reporter for the NRC and arbiter of the interview in question, asserts, “my articles did not start the debate. The interview was a full five days after the televised interview. What my work did was start the discussion again.”  He conducted the interviews to emphasize what, for him, was the primary motivational force behind all the media attention: not the controversy of one man’s statements, but the collision of Islam and traditional Dutch culture. Lange recalls, “after the interview was published, the prime minister decided it was not tolerable to hold such views here. But there was something behind it: a changing Dutch society with Muslims on one side and on the other side historically Dutch norms and values. One is in conflict with the other. This is what was behind the debate.”

3) Articles address more frequently  how  the Dutch society as a united whole perceives Islam. This stance highlights Islam’s influence as a foreign element in society.

Articles begin to underscore national censure of the discriminatory statements of the imams, through the opinions of government representatives. The NRC declares, “the majority of the Lower House of Parliament condemns the recent statements of Islamic religions leaders as being discriminatory against homosexuals,” although it admits that “on possible actions to be taken, the opinions are strongly divided” (NRC 5-11-01). The Trouw drew attention to how “Politicians are critical about the opinion of imams”(T 5-11-01), and turned to local politicians for their stances on the matter (T 5-15-01). The Volkskrant, meanwhile, focused on the discussion of intolerance within Dutch society within the CDA and VVD (V 5-15-01).

In addition, debate over the possibility of throwing the imams “out of the country” begins to dominate headlines and articles. The question of how Islam operates as an  external source for “the importation of intolerance” is also raised.  One Volkskrant reporter contends, for instance, “one of the new Dutch imports has been, for some time, Islamic intolerance” (V 5-11-01). 

4) Background articles with increasingly nuanced content appear in greater numbers. These articles are usually lengthier, and appear in  the form of human interest articles, opinion columns, or essays written by specialists in Islam.

Earlier, the disclaimer that “the Islam has no church, and no clear hierarchy for the imam, who in principle is nothing more then the leader in prayer,” was voiced by Dr. P.T. van der Veer. “It is to be hoped that every problem with the behavior of some Turks or Moroccans is not being reduced to a problem with Islam. That easy reduction is a great danger for the debate in our multicultural society,” he said (NRC 5-10-2001). During mid-May, several other scholars, not necessarily journalists, contributed their own input. They sought to contextualize the controversy, denounce the imam, or raise awareness on the complexities of Islam. 

Dr. Bea Lalmahomed of the Free University in Amsterdam appeared in both the Trouw and the Volkskrant, declaring, “the statement that homosexuality is a disease, very bad, impudent, disgraceful and not tolerated, is absent in the Koran…the ban on homosexuality is not found in the Koran in such words.” She asserts that people often “take Koran texts out of their context and interpret them to their own liking”(T 5-15-2001). Articles also arose that expressed doubt on the role of the imam within the Muslim community. “You can safely say that in the Netherlands…the majority of the people with a religious background will hardly take the opinion of the imam to heart,” Dr. P.S. Koningsveld and Dr. W.A. Shadid claimed (NRC 5-29-01). 

5) During the last two weeks of May, media attention focused on the suitability of Islam for integration into Dutch culture.  

This trend manifested itself in three primary ways. Firstly, newspaper articles allocated a lot of attention to obstacles barring integration for the Muslim population. Numerous articles investigated the findings of S. van Hulst, director of the Dutch Internal Intelligence Agency (BVD), who stated, “a number of Dutch imams and organizations want to obstruct the integration process of minorities on purpose”(V 5-21-01). While the same report had been made in the annual reports of the two previous years, the threat at this point was emphasized as breaking news in every paper. The focus on the BVD restrained whatever optimism had been stimulated by Minister Van Boxtel’s talk with El-Moumni.

Secondly, concern for Islam’s capacity for integration emerged in discussions on reform on the part of the Islam, in order to better adapt the religion to Dutch society. Misgivings on how well foreign-trained imams could relate to a Dutch-raised populace, and the validity of imam re-education were highlighted by human interest articles in both the NRC and the Trouw, for example.

Thirdly, on some occasions, the press made direct attempts to assert the compatibility of Islam with the concept of integration. “Imam: Islam good for integration,” an Algemeen Dagblad article announced in its title(AD 5-23-01). An opinion article in the NRC contests that “guarding identity and integration can go together”(NRC 5-25-01), in an attempt to diffuse fears that a gap existed between Islam and Dutch society, and that this gap was unbridgeable. While a positive outlook can be detected in this last group of articles, “implicit in the notion that Muslims have to change their religion to reach a more ‘Dutch Islam’ is the idea that Islam is homogenous, that it is in conflict with Dutch society, and that it is highly influential among the immigrant population,” observes Peter van Rooden, professor of religion at the University of Amsterdam. “All this serves to reify Islam and define all kinds of problems in religious and cultural terms.”  Why the Hype?

Imam Khalil El-Moumni’s remarks occupied the media for weeks after the incident. “We took a little thing and blew it out of proportion,” observes Iñaki Oñorbe, minority expert and reporter at the Volkskrant. “If a Jewish or Christian priest had said it, it wouldn’t have happened,” he speculates, attributing the general overreaction to "the distorted view of Islam as being dangerous or ‘fundamentalist.’” Sensitive to how the press can get caught up with itself, Frank Renout, reporter on the imam case for the Algemeen Dagblad, states that “newspapers repeated what the others said because it already confirmed what they have said before.”  Dr. Ed van Thijn, senator and member of  the Dutch Council of Journalism, recognizes other influences on the media, stating, “it’s hard to blame the press if politicians are eager to take a stand. Politicians failed to quiet the media hype.”  

Ultimately, the amount of attention the case received is significant in and of itself. “If you note that one topic is getting a lot of attention, you think that it must be important. After that, you rate that issue high on your own agenda as well. Studies have shown this,” Dr. Connie de Boer states, even if “it hasn’t been shown that your opinion will be changed to reflect that which is most prevalent in society.” Why did this particular case attract so much attention?

“The imam case was made disturbingly and alarmingly fit to order, because it pitted Muslims against homosexuals, who had recently gained a victory in acceptance in Dutch society,” Dr. Peter van Rooden observes. The national law permitting gay marriages had just been passed in the Netherlands mere months ago. The new legislation was perceived by many as a landmark for progressive Dutch society, evidence showing how far they as a people have come. “The imam incident was made much more salient because it targeted another struggling minority,” Van Rooden continues. This additional cause for censure, in conjunction with incomplete perceptions of Islam, inflated the controversy over El-Moumni’s remarks.

“There is no one Islam. Moroccan and Turkish Islam, for example, are very different,” Iñaki Oñorbe posits. All the journalists we interviewed attempted to address the variations of Islam within the Netherlands.  However, due to that same diversity among Muslims, finding a relevant spokesperson presents a challenge for the journalist as well as the politician. When Van Boxtel invited Muslims to discuss the imam’s remarks, Frank Renout noticed that “some Muslims took offense, and asked, why are we being held accountable for the statements of one imam?” 

The media immediately leapt to examine the situation along religious terms, interpreting the words and actions of the imams as a manifestation of a clash of cultures, and defining the opposing sides according to religious inclinations. Perhaps the emphasis on Islam as the predominant factor in the controversy over El-Moumni’s statements can be explained in part by the exaggerated estimation for religion in general in Dutch culture. Although the pillarized society, which was heavily divided along religious lines, was dismantled two decades ago, its influences remain in many aspects of Dutch life. “Religion in Dutch society is perceived as a fairly strong influence on people, not only in their convictions but also in their behavior, in a really predominantly transforming way. There is a sense that religion is a real danger, with a powerful influence on individual and social life,” argues Peter van Rooden. Islam in this sense poses an amplified threat, by virtue of its nature as a religious faith. This may also have an effect on how the media define related topics. Unfortunately, “the media do not understand how Muslims practice, or how individuality works in Islam. Each person is responsible only for his own acts and thoughts,” Fatima Elatik points out. 

The media’s extreme scrutiny of the imam and his religion also reflects a trend in recent years of shedding the restraints of political correctness. “Ten years ago one could not say that there is a problem with Moroccan boys, out of a fear for stigmatization. Now it is o.k. to describe where the problems are,” states the Trouw’s Yoram Stein. Because of the inability to name groups that required more attention, the minority problems risked being excluded from debates on social issues. “The El-Moumni case affected what you can and cannot say about minorities, as another step in making things discussible. It is important to discuss what is bubbling in society, what we never spoke about,” says Iñaki Oñorbe.

Prof. Ed van Thijn agrees, admitting that “there is a tendency in the Netherlands not to be politically correct any more...Political correctness in the first place is used to avoid stereotypes. But I think political incorrectness is going to far. Now it’s a free for all. The media takes every opportunity to be the one to tell the truth about minorities...without taking social responsibility.”  Dr. Van Rooden attests that the obsession with the behavior of Moroccan youth has escalated to “something of a moral panic.”

The El-Moumni case tackles difficult issues of violence and discrimination within ethnic, sexual, and religious minorities. The standards for political correctness in the media are changing, although the extent of this development has not yet been agreed upon. The uncertainty as to what can and cannot be said elevates the hypersensitivity of politicians, journalists and the public towards specific words and claims. In their attempts to define these disputed issues, the instinctive reliance on dividing problems along religious and cultural lines can possibly be traced to the high regard for the influence of religion in Dutch society, as well sentiments of self-preservation from a faith of which not much is known. 

The Press and Public Discourse on Minorities

Many of the journalists we interviewed believed that the intense media attention towards El-Moumni’s interview opened up the debate on minority issues. “If you don’t write about it, nothing will happen, and racism will grow in society. People say, see, that newspapers or government are not defending our rights to walk on the streets without being afraid of danger. So they take it upon themselves,” Yoram Stein of the Trouw comments. Still, Dr. Ed van Thijn remarks, “each year, it is said that we must open discussion on minorities, as if it has never been discussed before. The problem with the press is they have no memory: news is news. Thus, there is not a real debate. People are just making statements.”  The inherent role of the daily news media is to document events as they develop. The press informs the public about these incidents on a day-to-day basis, as objectively as possible, and to the best of the journalist’s ability. This cultivates an approach on the part of the media that is initially lacking in contextualization, even if nuances begin to develop as more attention gathers on a certain subject. Marnix van Rij warns, “if you start the discussion, which is now going on in the media, of only pointing out differences on an incidental basis, it’s very dangerous, because its creates images based on an accidental reality.”

Press coverage of the imam El-Moumni case initially reacted by embarking on a one-sided scrutiny of Islamic beliefs regarding homosexuality. In all news, “everyone at first jumps on it, and doesn’t have the time and energy to step back and explore the nuances of the issue,” Renout says. It took time for the press as a whole to begin placing the case in the context of other issues, and questioning the validity of their own assumptions. However, “once the damage is done, it’s difficult to repair what has been said. Initial reports confirmed prejudices. It took a while, and then the nuances and details came out, but by then, no one was interested anymore,” notes Frank Renout. Yasha Lange adds, “often, Islam appeared in the headlines, but the apologies came up on page two, at the bottom of the article.”

Moreover, the very process of constructing a public debate from an incidental event risks the unintentional perpetuation of stereotypes. Ed van Thijn comments, “people are getting more and more intolerant because of the immigration issue...politics and the press have to respond to this; newspapers are run in a common way, in that they have to attract new readers. It’s cutthroat competition...so they can’t ignore trends of public opinion.” De Boer expounds, “Journalists are a part of the public as well.  They know what stigmatization process are prevalent in the public, and use that to connect and communicate with readers.”  The utilization of a common communicational context to convey news, even news that defies conventional prejudices, can therefore work to reinforce stereotypes of minorities. 

“The media coverage only reflected a preexisting sentiment,” Hans Siepel, spokesperson for Minister Van Boxtel claims. The public is by and large not informed about the diversity of the Muslim community within the Netherlands, and thus tends to group branches of Islam together that in reality have very little to do with each other. “We always speak, write, and report on foreigners in pluralis. We never see a foreigner like you or me, a face. He is always part of a bigger group: migrants, allochtonen (foreigners), asylum seekers, refugees,” Van Thijn relates. Unfortunately, the generalization of certain groups essentially stigmatizes them; such stigmatization can have negative effects on one’s self-identity. As a Muslim, “you get approached as a member of a group and not as an individual,” recounts Fatima Elatik, whereas “if a lunatic from Drenthe calls for all Jews to be gassed, we don’t ask the entire population about their accountability to it.”  Such treatment can serve to marginalize certain groups, encouraging dogmatic people among minorities to isolate themselves further, and forcing the more moderate into a more defensive position. 

The path of media coverage as it struggles to establish a forum of discussion for the impact of the imam’s statements, and all the greater issues associated with it, may inadvertently serve to further entrench the use of stereotypes in public discourse. Of course, the media is not the sole - or perhaps not even the dominant - factor in this process. The ultimate impact of an article depends on who is reading it, and even more on the personal motivations of the reader. People who have a vested interest in the topic, such as someone who is part of the group being targeted, will read the article with more interest, and will be compelled to continue reading the next article. However, another reader might come away from an article with only the data that simply confirms what they already believe, which might very well be the only thing they’re looking for. Such a reader might be compelled to merely skim the headlines afterwards, and miss further nuances in media coverage. As such, a reader is, in the end, responsible for what he or she internalizes when taking in the words of the press. 

References

Bibliography

The Lower House of Parliament, Information Services, Central Information Point, Official File of Newspaper Articles on Imam and Homosexuality, articles from Trouw, NRC Handelsblad, Volkskrant, Algemeen Dagblad, Telegraaf from May 4th 2001 to May 31st, 2001

Interviews

Iñaki Oñorbe Genovesi, journalist for Volkskrant, Minorities Expert

Frank Renout, journalist for Algemeen Dagblad

Yasha Lange, journalist for NRC Handelsblad, Minorities Specialist 

Yoram Stein, journalist for Trouw, Religion & Philosophy editorial staff

Ed van Thijn, member of the Dutch Council of Journalism, Senator PVDA (Social-Democrats) 

Marnix van Rij, president of the CDA (Christian-Democrats)

Hans Siepel, Deputy Director of the Department of Information and Communication, Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, and spokesman for Roger van Boxtel, Minister for Urban Policy and Integration of Ethnic Minorities 

Fatima Elatik, member of Amsterdam City Council, PVDA (Social-Democrats) 

Dr. Peter van Rooden, Research Center Religion and Society, University of Amsterdam 

Dr. Connie de Boer, The Amsterdam School of Communications Research, University of Amsterdam

Websites

http://www.villamedia.nl

http://www.netherlands-embassy.org

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Netherlands Netherlands 2001

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