Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

1.4. The image of the "Other" in the contacts of Europe, Asia, Africa and America
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Agata S. Nalborczyk (Warsaw)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

The Image of Islam and Muslims in the Polish Mass Media before and after 11 September 2001

Agata S. Nalborczyk (Warsaw)


1. Introduction - the mass media in a post-communist country

The history of the free Polish mass media begins in the year 1989 with the lifting of the state censorship. From that time the Polish mass media have been allowed to write, show and say whatever they want. 1989 marked also a watershed for the manner of presenting the image of Islam and Muslims in the Polish media. Because the Islamic countries belonged to the so-called Third World, which was treated by the Polish Communist regime as a friend and ally, it was forbidden to present them in an unfavourable light. The situation changed at the beginning of the 1990s with the freedom of speech and the development of private newspapers, magazines and TV programmes.

Another factor also has to be considered. After 1989 the private Polish mass media had to earn money. Consequently many journalists were made to write, for example, about Muslim women one day and about a flood in India the next day. They were expected to attract the attention of the audience, to prepare sharp `news' and catchy texts or programmes.


2. Islam and Muslims in the Polish Media before 11 September 2001

After 1989 the image of Islam and Muslims begun to differ from the one prescribed by the communist leaders and authorities. From that time on all typical themes, motives and attitudes towards Islam and Muslims found in the world mass media, i.e., the tragic fate of women in the Muslim world,(1) alleged Muslims' inclination for cruelty and quick resort to violence, their supposed hate for Christianity and Europe (the famous Islamic threat), to mention only a few, have found their place in the media reports. The news and reports were moulded into well- selling sensations and very often contained a lot of mistakes and misunderstandings. From the beginning of the time of freedom of speech we could observe a kind of reaction to the past with its prescribed positive image of Arabs and Arab countries, Islam and Muslims, of the Third World in general. Some of the specialists in Arabic and Islamic studies were surprised by the anti-Islamic attitude of the Polish media.(2)

However, until 11 September 2001 Muslim issues appeared in the Polish mass media rather incidentally. The frequency grew, of course, in the time of important international affairs and events linked directly or indirectly with Islam, such as the Rushdie affair or the wars, especially the Gulf War, the war in former Yugoslavia or the revolution in Afghanistan.

During this time we could observe the same main subjects and tendencies in writing about Islam as found in the media of other European countries:(3)

Unlike in Western Europe before 11 September 2001, the Muslim migration to Europe and the growing number of Muslims on our continent was not the issue for the Polish mass media. At that time Poland did not seem very attractive to immigrants from the Muslim world, so the increase of Muslim immigration did not concern our country. There had been a tiny Muslim minority (10,000-13,000) in Poland that did not draw public attention. That minority consisted basically of two groups: well-organized, Polish traditional Muslims, the Tartars (about 3,000-5,000 people, residing in Poland for the last 600 years), and the immigrants (former or actual students, refugees and traders - mostly Arabs, but also Bosnians, Chechens, Turks, Afghanis, Pakistanis, etc.). The debate by the French (hijab, the Islamic headscarf in public schools in 1989) or by the British (state funding of Islamic schools in 1990) seemed to belong to a distant world.(7)

Poland has a long tradition of wars with Muslims, Turks and Tatars. We read about them in novels, watch them in our films and learn about them from our schoolbooks. Everybody knows Islam; everybody could be a specialist in this matter, even after a two-weeks journey to one Muslim country. It is easy to write about the Islamic threat, harems, the position of Muslim women, cruelty of Muslim warriors, the role of "the sword" in spreading the Islamic religion - in Poland we all know it. A Muslim is the "other", but this "other" is not so distant and unknown. The Polish people had to deal and fight with Islam and Muslims for centuries, even on Polish ground, so the problem of coexisting with Islam is not new. However, it belongs to the past and is seen from another perspective than in the Western Europe. Unlike Western Europeans, the Poles have no experience of colonial contacts with Muslims. The appearance of Muslim immigrants in Poland in the 20th century has another connotation altogether, because the Western European countries are for the first time confronted with significant Muslim minorities on their own, European, territories.

There were numerous mistakes in the texts or programs about Islam, e.g. Muslims pray four times during the day, temporary marriages were invented by the ayatollahs at the end of the 20th century in Iran, Mecca is the holy place only for Sunnis, there is no law in Islam, it is forbidden for all Muslims to marry Christians. Journalists quote passages from the Qur'an concerning pagans and apply them to Christians. The lack of knowledge in these matters is concealed by the repetition and reduplication of already existing stereotypes and prejudices. Not knowing the subject properly, journalists quite often omitted consulting the most suitable experts on the topic, and consequently they gathered only negative and inaccurate information. The time pressure under which journalists constantly have to operate quite often forces them to turn to the most accessible, mostly secondary sources, which are already replete with prejudices about the Muslims.

It is interesting that most of the subjects and themes presented above were already present in the writings of the early Christian theologians, who were engaged in polemics with Islam and Muslims,(8) and also in the works of the early Orientalists and Romantic writers, poets, painters and sculptors. For the early Christian theologians sexuality and violence were the basic characteristics of Islam (fornications et furta). For example, they viewed the use of force as the predominant constituent of the Islamic religion and, of course, as an evident sign of its error.(9) Christians propagated this view in Europe, but at the same time they praised with enthusiasm almost identical doctrines of the Crusades. Muslim morality and social life were examined by Western theologians and writers almost invariably with the closest attention, especially sexual morality (Muhammad taught a `new licence of promiscuous intercourse', as revealed in order to gain more believers). The life of the Prophet was also examined from this point of view.(10) It was felt that this subject was very stimulating to the imagination of the writers (e.g. they wondered how many wives and concubines were allowed for a Muslim - 4, 10, 100? - it was generally implied, that the Muslims would always enjoy in practice as many women as they could by law). The Romantic writers or artists used Islamic background to express their imagination (women in harems, waiting naked for the sultan, moving ponderously and lustfully or lazily lying on a bed etc.).


3. The changes in the image of Islam and Muslims in the Polish media after 11 September 2001

The tragic events of 11 September 2001 influenced the image and especially the method of the presentation of Islam and Muslims in the Polish media.(11)

After this day there was an influx of texts, TV and radio broadcasts about Islam and Muslims. Of course everywhere the agglomeration of (the connection between) "Islam", "fundamentalism" and "terrorism" was repeated time and again. However, when the first wave of fear and hate passed, a lot of decent texts were published and many good programmes broadcasted. Every journal or a magazine presented material about Islam as a religion, described its history and characteristics. Knowledge about Islam has become more widespread. One observes fewer mistakes or misunderstandings concerning Islam and the Muslims in the Polish mass media nowadays.

We could say that after the 11 September 2001 journalists paradoxically know more about Muslims and their religion and so does their audience. And when they write about Muslims they do it with more respect. They try more to examine all socio-economic circumstances and to ask opinions of the specialists. As a matter of fact the specialists have been asked so often, that almost everybody knows their names and faces. It is impossible or at least less possible to write improperly researched texts or fabrications based only on stereotypes and prejudices; if such things happen, they are rare.


4. Conclusions

Of course, among Polish journalists there have always been those who do make efforts to understand the culture, religion and people they write about and to present them with respect. But they first have to learn a great deal and approach another culture, while leaving behind the values and images of their own culture - a very difficult but not impossible task, as evidenced by writers like Ryszard Kapuscinski, Wojciech Jagielski, Olga Stanislawska, to mention only a few names.

In order to avoid the development of new prejudices about Islam and Muslims, especially after 11 September 2001, it is necessary for the media to adjust their existing incorrect views and procedures and adopt a preventive strategy, i.e., a well-balanced and prejudice-sensitive approach. Also, oversimplification and generalization should be avoided as much as possible, while at the same time the stress should be put on the socio-economic and religious diversity within as well as between the groups and countries concerned. Writing about a real terrorist threat, a journalist must not forget that terrorists constitute but a small part of all Muslims. Most Muslims are ordinary people like us. The media should start differentiating in their texts between various Muslim movements and groups/trends, and emphasise the existing diversity of opinions in the Muslim world. Improving the knowledge of reporters on this topic during their vocational training would greatly help this process.

The stereotypical image of Islam and Muslims is particularly dangerous nowadays.(12) People start hating "others" just because they are differently dressed, have a different appearance and have different beliefs. This distorted image of Islam and Muslims could be even more dangerous in the future, when more Muslims choose Poland, the new member state of the EU, as the country of their residence.

As stated above, the image of Islam in the Polish media after 11 September 2001 has become better, more accurate and more real. Some of the journalists have also discovered that there cannot be any dialogue between cultures and religions without respect shown to each other and without deepening the knowledge about the other. Dialogue is the only lasting solution to the problems emerging from the meeting of cultures and civilizations in the globalized world.

© Agata S. Nalborczyk (Warsaw)


(1) For details see: Agata Nalborczyk, Sytuacja kobiety w islamie i spoleczenstwie muzulmanskim - obraz w polskiej prasie przed 11.09.2001, [in:] Danuta Chmielowska, Barbara Grabowska, Ewa Machut-Mendecka (eds.), Byc kobieta w Oriencie, DIALOG, Warszawa 2001, pp. 57-76.

(2) Prof. Janusz Danecki, (head of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Oriental Institute, Warsaw University) noticed in 1994: "Poland should not be afraid of Islam. Neither the German press, nor the English one, i.e. in the countries, where theoretically there are bigger problems with immigrants and the Muslim world, is that sharp". "Rzeczpospolita", 15.12.1994.

(3) Compare with e.g.: Wasif Shadid, Sjoerd van Koningsveld, The negative image of Islam and Muslims in the West: causes and solutions, [in:] Wasif A.R. Shadid, Sjoerd van Koningsveld (eds.), Religious freedom and the neutrality of the state: the position of Islam in the European Union, Peeters, Leuven 2001, pp. 174-194; Francis Ghiles, Reporting the Muslim world in the Western Media, [in:] Jorgen S. Nielsen, Sami A. Khasawnih (eds.), Arabs and the West: mutual images, University of Jordan Press, Amman 1998, pp. 15-28; Eva-Maria von Kemnitz, Muslims as seen by the Portuguese Press 1974-1999: Changes in the Perception of Islam, [in:] Wasif A.R. Shadid, Sjoerd van Koningsveld (eds.), Intercultural relation and religious minorities: Muslims in the European Union, Peeters, Leuven 2002, pp. 7-26; Werner Ruf (ed.), Islam and the West. Judgments, prejudices, political perspectives, agenda Verlag, Muenster 2002.

(4) Like the Falangis, who killed many Palestinians in the camps of Sabra and Shatila 16-18.09.1982.

(5) For details see: Agata S. Nalborczyk, Polski dziennikarz patrzy na islam, "Tygodnik Powszechny", 37/2002 (2775), p. 18.

(6) For further details see: Agata S. Nalborczyk, Sytuacja kobiety w islamie i spoleczenstwie...

(7) About the French and British cases see: Lina Molokotos Liederman, Pluralism in education; the display of Islamic affiliation in French and British schools, "Islam and Christian Muslim Relations", 11:1, 2000, pp. 105-113.

(8) Norman Daniel, Islam and the West. The making of an image, Oneworld, Oxford 1993 (1960), pp. 302-337; Kate Zebiri, Approaches to Islam by Christian Islamicists and Theologians, [in:] Kate Zebiri, Muslims and Christians face to face, Oneworld, Oxford 1997, pp. 183-229.

(9) For details see: Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford 1993, p. 61 n.; Norman Daniel, Islam and the West..., p. 131 n.; R.W. Southern, Western views of Islam in the Middle Ages, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1962.

(10) See for example: Jabal Muhammad Buaben, Image of the prophet Muhammad in the West. A study of Muir, Margoliouth and Watt, The Islamic Foundation, Leicester 1996.

(11) For details see: Agata S. Nalborczyk, Obraz islamu i muzulmanów w polskich mediach przed i po 11.09.2001, [in:] Zrozumiec ró¿norodno_c. VII Festiwal Nauki, Instytut Orientalistyczny UW, Warszawa 2003, pp. 22-29.

(12) Compare with e.g.: Steven Vertovec, Islamophobia and Muslim Recognition in Britain, [in:] Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Muslims in the West. From sojourners to citizens, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2002, pp. 23-28.

1.4. The image of the "Other" in the contacts of Europe, Asia, Africa and America

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