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October 2017
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”You Are An Extremist!”

Hidden under a palm tree that barely provides protection from the bright Arabic sun, you kneel down in the direction of Mecca to do your prayers. While thanking Allah with your face pointed to the ground, eyes closed, your other senses get stronger. You hear the sounds of children and women screaming, and shots being fired in the far distance. You smell a mixed odor of fresh blood and dry dessert air. The taste in your mouth is horrible resulting from the little water and food you have had since you joined the fight. Together with your men you are responsible for the gruesome deaths of thousands of innocent civilians that refused to convert themselves. – This short fictive description of a moment in the life of a Jihadist fighting a holy war must seem like a living hell in the eyes of most of us living in western society. Still, an increasing amount of Muslims in western countries radicalize, show affiliation with terrorist groups such as Al Qaida or Islamic state (IS), and some of them even decide to fight with them. The radicalization of Muslims in western societies might be for a large part explainable trough the way Muslims are negatively portrayed and stereotyped in the media.

Terrorist organization IS, formerly known as ISIS, who strives for the death of all infidels and for the re-implementation of sharia law in large parts of Iraq and Syria, is growing in power and numbers. The success of IS can be partially explained trough the growing support it receives from extremist Muslims in western countries. An increasing number of European, American and even Australian Muslims travel to the battlefield to fight in the name of IS, kill infidels, and force their strict interpretation of Islam upon the citizens of every region they conquer. An even larger number of Muslims living in western countries express strong feelings of affiliation towards IS and its goals. Recent research that was done in the Netherlands reveals that 72% of Dutch-Turkish youth support the actions of IS. Together with other research results that points in the same direction, this clearly shows a growing tendency for  young western Muslims to radicalize. The question is, however, how do these young Muslims that grew up in western societies grow such extremist beliefs?

The answer to this question is obviously very complicated; there exists no one true factor that causes radicalization. However, from a social science point of view it can be argued that media possibly plays a significant role. Socialization is one of the key concepts in social science research, and explains how individuals learn about the values, norms and social roles of the society they live in, trough interaction with others. Media also communicates with its audience, and thus also is a socializing medium that teaches the audience about the values, norms and social roles of the society he/she lives in.

According to media and communication professional Dr. Ahmed Al-Rawi, media representations of Muslims are often very negative and reflect a public anxiety towards Islam that has been amplified by the attacks of 9-11. He goes on to explain that ‘’The problem is that some media channels try to simplify issues by stereotyping and applying generalizations, while others rarely provide a context, thus presenting some Muslims as maniacs who are blinded by their hatred of the West’’. As a result, young Muslims in western countries get a continuous stream of information trough the media about their social role as a Muslim in society. Simply put; when your grow up hearing that you hate the west, you are a religious fundamentalist, and you are not afraid to use violence, you might just end up being the person the media expects you to be! A Turkish sociology student at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, named Zakaria Faheed, tells us that ‘’as a Muslim living in a country like Holland, television and newspapers repeatedly send you the message that ‘your’ people are a risk to society, I can imagine that some Muslims get affected by this in such a way that they actually turn into a risk purely as a result of stereotyping in media’’.

Another related  line of thought is, that Muslims that are aware of their negative portrayal in the media actually grow hatred towards the west and radicalize as a result of their unfair representation. Dr. Ahmed al-Rawi explains that ‘’any negative portrayal of Muslims is viewed by them (frustrated Muslims) as a confirmation that they need to further detest the West and even become more radical’’. A Dutch-Moroccan student at Hogeschool Rotterdam, who wishes to stay anonymous, confirms this and states that ‘’ When I was in my early teenage years, I became aware of the negative way in which Muslims where represented in the media. Over time you just grow anger towards the media and the west in general, who always seem to see you as a problem. In the end you just feel like becoming a problem out of frustration.’’

 Our western fear for Muslim terrorism can be partially justified by some horrifying events that took place in the last two decennia. However, the actions of a few extremists can never be generalized to over a billion Muslims. When media keeps on stereotyping Islam practitioners, a vicious cycle that is fed by the two sides will maintain to exist and worsen the situation. When you continuously depict a religion or civilization as an enemy, it will eventually turn into one.


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