Z Vgl Polit Wiss (2018) 12:263–277
Constructing cultural borders: depictions of Muslim
refugees in British and German media
Published online: 11 December 2017
© The Author(s) 2017. This article is an open access publication.
Abstract The recent migration of refugees from Muslim majority countries to
Central Europe has prompted an almost unprecedented dynamic in the British and
German public sphere and political culture. However, there exists a lack of un-
derstanding how the “refugee crisis” and Islam are linked to each other in public
discourse. This paper addresses this lacuna by seeking to answer the question how
the current refugee situation has been interpreted with regards to Islam in British
and German newspapers. A critical analysis allows to identify three major discursive
patterns that contribute to the securitisation of the refugee situation. Moreover, the
study reveals the construction of Muslim refugees as the culturally inferior “other”
to an exclusive “European Christian Culture”.
Keywords Refugees · Islam · Refugee crisis · UK · Germany · Media
Konstruktionen kultureller Grenzen: Darstellungen muslimischer
Flüchtlinge in britischen und deutschen Medien
Zusammenfassung Die derzeitige Migration von Flüchtlingen aus mehrheitlich
muslimischen Ländern nach Mitteleuropa hat eine nahezu einzigartige Dynamik
in der britischen und deutschen Öffentlichkeit und politischen Kultur in Gang ge-
bracht. Allerdings ist bislang unzureichend erforscht, wie im öffentlichen Diskurs
„Flüchtlingskrise“ und Islam miteinander in Verbindunggebracht werden. Diese For-
schungslücke wird bearbeitet, indem der Frage nachgegangen wird, wie die aktuelle
Flüchtlingssituation in Bezug auf den Islam von britischen und deutschen Tageszei-
tungen interpretiert wird. In einer kritischen Analyse werden drei diskursive Pattern
T. Müller ()
Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge, Alison Richard Building,
7 West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DT, UK
264 T. Müller
aufgezeigt, welche zur Versicherheitlichung der Flüchtlingssituation beitragen. Da-
rüber hinaus zeigt die vorliegendeStudie auf, wie muslimische Flüchtlinge als kultu-
rell minderwertige „Andere“ gegenüber einer exklusiven „europäischen christlichen
Kultur“ konstruiert werden.
Schlüsselwörter Flüchtlinge · Islam · Flüchtlingskrise · Großbritannien ·
Deutschland · Medien
The recent migration of refugees from Muslim majority countries to Western and
Central Europe has prompted an almost unprecedented dynamic in the British and
German public sphere and political culture. Contemporary phenomena such as the
rise of right-wing and anti-Islamic movements, struggles about national identities,
terrorist attacks, attacks on refugee shelters, and changing asylum laws are linked to
signiﬁcant developments of political culture in Europe. Especially the role of Islam
has been at the centre of political debates and election campaigns in both countries.
However, scholarly understanding of how the current refugee situation and Islam
are linked to each other in public discourse is insufﬁcient. There exists a dearth
of studies that analyse how politicians and the media interpret the current refugee
situation with regards to the interdependence of migration, Islam, and security.
This paper addresses this lacuna by analysing British and German newspaper
coverage on how the topics of “refugees” and “Islam” are connected. Thereby,
it seeks to answer the following research question: How has the current refugee
situation been interpreted with regards to Islam in British and German media?
In order to draw representative inferences about changes in political cultures
caused by the recent events, scholars need to conduct large-nattitudinal studies
(Pickel and Pickel 2006, p. 24). However, there still exists a dearth in data sets that
can be used to test theoretical models on attitudes towards Islam and refugees (Pickel
and Yendell 2016, p. 277). Attitudes towards component parts of the political system
such as structures, roles, incumbents of these roles and policies are only in a few
cases shaped by direct personal experiences. More often, changes in attitudes towards
certain events are inﬂuenced by opinions expressed in mediated form. In particular
media discourses play a crucial role in shaping people’s attitudes toward political
actors and structures in relation to refugees and Islam (Baker et al. 2013; Mythen
2012). Therefore, this paper seeks to investigate dominant discursive patterns in the
media linking the recent refugee situation to Islam. Thus, this paper engages with
the comparative literature on depictions of Muslims in the public sphere. Scholars
have argued that Muslims have been constructed as “suspect communities” in the
UK, parallel to Irish communities from the 1970s throughout the 1990s (Nickels
et al. 2012; Pantazis and Pemberton 2009; against this Greer 2010, p. 1186).
Since the 1997 Runnymede Report, research on Islamophobia has sought to ex-
plain negative attitudes towards Muslims and Islam by testing intergroup contact the-
ory, socialization theory, social identity theory, and integrated threat theory, among
others (Dekker and van der Noll 2012, p. 113). From the perspective of parasocial
Constructing cultural borders: depictions of Muslim refugees in British and German media 265
contact theory, it is of pivotal importance to study “indirect” contacts to Muslims
such as those established through the consumption of mass media. According to
Pickel and Yendell, mediated parasocial contacts have contributed to an increased
threat perception related to Islam (2016, p. 299). They claim that micro-level mech-
anisms, such as media representations that connect Islam with conﬂict, violence and
anti-modernism, can have macro effects on political culture. At the same time, they
point out the lack of research scrutinizing the relation between culturally and his-
torically conﬁgured identities and contemporary socio-psychological processes of
labelling foreign groups (cf. Bleich and Maxwell 2012, p. 44). Helbling highlights
the need of qualitative research to investigate how and to what extend negative at-
titudes towards Muslims, Arabs, and refugees are linked (2012, p. 8). This paper
addresses this lacuna by conducting a qualitative comparative analysis on how media
representations portray the connection between Islam and refugees. The paper will
outline micro-level mechanisms that are related mainly to three major discursive
patterns. Through them, Muslim refugees are pitted against a Christian European
identity (3.1.), depicted as culturally radically different, self-responsible victims that
pose a security threat (3.2.) and that are responsible for the rise of far-right par-
2 Research design
This paper conducts a critical analysis of mainstream newspaper articles in order
to understand how refugees in relation to Islam are being depicted. A lot of recent
scholarship has focused on the effects of social media use on political culture and
behaviour. However, newspapers as one of the oldest forms of political communica-
tion have retained strong inﬂuence in the political life of contemporary democracies.
Many newspapers manage to establish strong relationships of identity between paper
and reader that are reinforced “through various interpellations of the reading commu-
nity (“our readers”) and opportunities for feedback and comment” (Richardson et al.
2013, p. 46). In particular, online publications of the same or similar content that
appear under the same brand expand the accessibility of news material to a broader
audience, including international readers. Scholars have argued for the persistence
of the inﬂuence of newspapers on political attitudes and voting patterns: “even short
exposure to a daily newspaper appears to inﬂuence voting behavior and may affect
turnout” (Gerber et al. 2009, p. 47). This suggests that despite the rising inﬂuence
of digital media, the analysis of newspapers promises insights into a medium that is
central in shaping political orientations (Baker et al. 2013, p. 254).
The term “political culture” refers to the “speciﬁcally political orientations-atti-
tudes towards the political system and its various parts” (Almond and Verba 1989,
p. 12). The component parts of the political system are identiﬁed by Almond and
Verba as roles and structures (e. g. legislative structures, executives), incumbents
of such roles, and public policies, decisions and enforcements (Almond and Verba
1989, p. 14). The types of political orientation towards these elements of the politi-
cal system are cognitive, comprising the knowledge of and belief about the political
system, affective, meaning the personal feelings about the political system and its
266 T. Müller
roles, and evaluational, implying the judgements and opinions about political objects
(Almond and Verba 1989, p. 14). This paper uses the three dimensions of cognitive,
affective and evaluational political orientation derived from the concept of political
culture as analytical dimensions for the analysis of the primary data.
The present hermeneutical approach seeks to understand how texts are indicative
of certain discursive sociocultural practices (cf. Fairclough 1995, p. 7). In a double
movement, “the discursive event is shaped by situations, institutions and social
structures, but it also shapes them” (Fairclough and Wodak 1997, p. 258). In the
present analysis of political culture, texts and their inherent interpretations of the
situation are analysed in terms of the arguments aiming to legitimise or deligitimise
a certain political behavior (Schwab-Trapp 2003, p. 172). This analysis does not
establish representativity and cannot be used to control certain factors while varying
others (Schwartz-Shea and Yanow 2012, p. 70). Rather, it seeks to spell out core
aspects of publicly visible and recognised communication for the construction of
collective identities and social relations (Barbehön et al. 2015, p. 240). Thus, the
study seeks to discern dominant discursive patterns used to make sense of the refugee
situation. Limits of this kind of textual analysis include the neglect of the production
processes of the texts and the perceptions by the audience (Fairclough 2003, p. 15).
The corpus of the analysis is formed by all newspaper articles in two one-week
periods (31st of August to 6th September in 2015 and 2016 respectively) that contain
keywords relating “refugees” and “Islam”. The four newspapers selected, Die Welt,
Süddeutsche Zeitung, The Daily Telegraph, and The Guardian, are among the most
read and inﬂuential quality newspapers in Germany and the UK (Duffy and Rowden
2005, p. 30). The rationale behind choosing broadsheet instead of tabloid newspapers
for the analysis is that this selection represents the less obvious and harder case. Ar-
guably, the association of refugees with Islam through implicit presuppositions and
suggestive causal claims is much more likely to be found in the tabloid press. How-
ever, the analysis of broadsheet newspapers that are expected to be generally more
sympathetic to refugees is likely to uncover more subtle and hidden assumptions
that might indicate effects of problematic power/knowledge formations. Choosing
two newspapers with more conservative (Die Welt, The Daily Telegraph) and more
left-leaning editorial policies (SZ, Guardian) from two countries allows to uncover
patterns differing by national context and political orientation.
The ﬁrst time period, from the 31st of August to the 6th of September 2015, was
chosen because of a series of decisive events with regards to the refugee situation
in Europe. First, in the annual summer press conference on 31st of August 2015
chancellor Merkel coined the contentious phrase “Wir schaffen das”, “we can do
this”, which has later been called the most important sentence of her time in ofﬁce
(WeltN24 2016). The context of this statement consists of the almost unprecedented
increase in incoming refugees, mainly being brought by buses and special trains
from Hungary via Austria to Germany. Moreover, the image of the dead body of
Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy of three years who was found at a beach in Turkey near
Bodrum on September 2nd, aroused international attention and reactions by leading
politicians. Finally, the chosen period witnessed ﬁerce debates between European
heads of state regarding a possible distribution mechanism among EU member states.
The second time period under scrutiny is from 31st August to 6th September 2016,
Constructing cultural borders: depictions of Muslim refugees in British and German media 267
Tab l e 1 Result of keyword searches and corpus selection
Selected for ﬁnal
Selected for ﬁnal
Welt 12 7 18 13
SZ 42 21 33 19
Teleg rap h 9 3 14 6
Guardian 137 12 27 8
Total 200 43 92 46
exactly one year after the ﬁrst one. Choosing this time period allows a diachronic
comparison that reﬂects how media discourse has changed over the course of a year.
Signiﬁcant events in that year include the terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice,
Würzburg and Ansbach, the attacks in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, and the Brexit
vote on 23rd of June 2016. Many articles in the second time period have critically
discussed the “Wir schaffen das” statement by Merkel using the opportunity of the
anniversary to reﬂect on the refugee situation, which is typically particularly urgent
in the summer months.
The corpus was built through keyword search in LexisNexis and the SZ digital
archive. Articles were included if they contained both a keyword referring to Islam
such as “Islam”, “Muslim”, “headscarf”, “hijab” and a keyword referring to refugees
such as “refugee”, “migrant”, “migrat”, or “asyl”. A second search included the
terms “extremist” and “communit” in combination with the keywords on refugees
in order to account for indirect modes of speaking about Muslims, especially in
the UK context. After gathering the large corpus with a total of 292 articles, those
articles that did not relate to the European “refugee crisis”, were removed from the
sample. As a result, the ﬁnal corpus comprised 89 articles with a total of around
83,000 words as indicated in Table 1.
3 Portraying refugees as Muslims in British and German media
In the following, the research question on the depiction of refugees as Muslims is
addressed by outlining three major discursive strands that were uncovered in the
media analysis: the construction of a “Christian European Culture” (3.1.), the con-
struction of cultural difference, self-responsible victims and a security threat (3.2.),
and attributions of responsibility linking chancellor Merkel, Muslim refugees and
the rise of the far-right (3.3.).
3.1 Constructing a “Christian European culture”
As indicated above, the search entries for the selection of the articles comprised only
keywords that were directly related to Islam. Although “Christianity” was not part
of the original search mask, it turned out that depictions of the refugee crisis were
predominantly made against the background of a purported Christian or “Judeo-
268 T. Müller
Christian” European identity (Kade 2016). For instance, the argumentative structure
of the Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán arguing against accepting more refugees
is built on the construction of a sharp differentiation between the religious identity
of refugees and of the current Hungarian and European population. He claims that
“those arriving have been raised in another religion and represent a radically different
culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims. [...] Is it not worrying in itself
that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian?” (Traynor
2015a; Bergmer 2015). This rhetorical question refers to an implicit assumption that
Europe is and even should remain Christian. Building on this assumption, Orbán
stylises himself in militaristic language as having to “defend our borders,” to defend
“European Christianity” against the “offensive” of the “Muslim inﬂux” (Traynor
An integral part of what can be called a Christians-as-insiders and Muslims-
as-outsiders rhetoric is the underlying assumption that certain countries were domi-
nated by one religion. Therefore, some articles suggest that it was normal or common
sense to try to keep out people that do not share the same religion: “Hungarians did
not want Muslims in their country” (Traynor 2015a). Some articles even attribute
responsibility for accepting refugees to countries that share the same religion or
even the same confession: “Sunni countries, headed by Saudi Arabia, should take in
Sunni refugees. Shia countries, headed by Iran, should take Shia refugees. Christian
countries should then take Christian refugees.” (Sherborne 2015;cf.Steinke2015).
This statement implies that it was more natural and beneﬁcial if different religious
groups remained separated. This reveals an ideal of religious homogeneity under-
lying the text which implies that a human right such as asylum should be granted
not according to need but according to religious afﬁliation. Arguing for such dis-
criminatory measures including watering down human rights standards by invoking
Christianity appears paradoxical in face of the proclaimed “Christian” values such
as liberal democracy and “dignity of every human being” (Esslinger und Steinke
2016).1Statements by senior German Christian democratic politicians reveal the
same referential mechanism that fails to specify what a Christian identity of Europe
means: “I am not of the opinion that Islam is part of the national identity of our
country. The Muslims living in Germany belong to us, they are part of our society.
But we have a Christian-Jewish tradition” (Kade 2016).
Another senior Christian democratic politician claims that the challenge to accept
refugees is now bigger compared to refugees coming from a country with Christian
tradition. Asked why this is the case, she answers that “The origin and the way of
life a human being lives in his homeland shape him. This is completely normal.
Like we Germans are shaped by the rule of law, the basic law, our civil and personal
liberties and Christianity” (Esslinger und Steinke 2016). In this statement, a dis-
cursive pattern of what could be called implication by correlation becomes visible,
which occurs on multiple occasions throughout the texts. The conservative politician
responds to the question about why it should be more challenging to integrate non-
Christian immigrants by naming generally positively evaluated concepts as part of
German identity. By implication, this suggests that non-Christians—the context of
1All quotations from German newspapers have been translated by the author.
Constructing cultural borders: depictions of Muslim refugees in British and German media 269
the interview reveals that she is talking about Muslims—are not “shaped by” or as
intimately familiar with these concepts. Pushed even further by the interviewer to
deﬁne what “Christian inﬂuence” actually means, she answers “Love of neighbour,
tolerance. The values that my parents have taught me, with respecting the dignity
of every human being, which ultimately also expresses itself in our constitution”
(Esslinger und Steinke 2016). The claims that German identity and Christian culture
mainly express themselves in the constitution expose a political theology that is at
least in tension with the self-proclaimed religious neutrality of the constitutional
In the articles under scrutiny “Christianity” is largely stripped of a genuinely
religious meaning and used to signify an indeﬁnite set of concepts and structures that
are an integral part of political culture. This change in signiﬁcation helps to construct
the cultural container “Christianity” and a culturally and religiously deﬁned border
to the “other”. Thus, because refugees do not share this religious tradition, they
also purportedly do not share the support for core principles of liberal democracy.
In other words, “Christianity” serves to proof that human dignity, rule of law and
civil liberties are unfamiliar or even alien concepts to Muslim refugees. Through this
rhetoric, talking about a “refugee inﬂux” into Europe becomes inextricably linked not
only to crossing borders of nation states but to crossing the cultural border between
“Christian liberal democracy” and the “rest”. In the argumentation quoted above,
a conﬁned territoriality (“homeland”) is connected with an exclusive community of
belonging (“we Germans” and “Christians”), and is linked with cultural superiority
(“rule of law” and “our civil and personal liberties”). This tripartite amalgamation
can be interpreted as the epitome of the discursive construction of the Muslim refugee
as the “Other”. In sum, two seemingly clear cut cultural-spatial containers are being
constructed that are marked by a sharp distinction between a “European Christian
Culture” “here” and a “Muslim Culture” “there”. This spatio-cultural construction
provides the discursive basis for arguments claiming that the integration of Muslims
was especially difﬁcult or even impossible.
3.2 Depicting refugees: cultural difference, self-responsible victims and
Muslim refugees are not only considered to be unfamiliar with tolerance and prin-
ciples of liberal democracy but also conceived as culturally “completely different”
(Braun and Roll 2016) because “The hundred thousands of Muslims, that are coming
now” (Belkin 2016) are from a “radically different culture” (Traynor et al. 2015).
One author claims “that who comes has to accept the rules here, the liberties and
cultural codes. Who comes here a thousand kilometers by foot has to cover the
same distance in his head” (Rühle 2016). This statement suggests that the often very
dangerous journey to Europe is as big a challenge for Muslim refugees as to bridge
the gap of cultural differences.
While Muslim refugees are depicted as unfamiliar with and often not willing to
accept the rules and cultural codes of the host society, one author contends that
“Germany has a long tradition of knowing the Orient” (Krause 2016). He claims
that because Muslim people “destroy each other or are being alienated by primitive
270 T. Müller
and criminal Islamists from their best traditions, [...] we Germans actually have to
reinforce the self-consciousness of those that ﬂed to us. Namely by reminding them
of their cultural achievements” (Krause 2016). While on an evaluational level this
article positively acknowledges some elements of Muslim culture, it asserts that it
is up to Germans knowing the Orient to remind Muslims of the positive sides of
their heritage. While on a cognitive level the texts disagree fundamentally about the
existence or value of “Muslim culture”, the knowledge/power formation that they
enact has similar effects. No matter whether Muslim refugees are considered lacking
something like a positively evaluable “culture” or as just having forgotten it, both
positions result in the establishment of asymmetrical power relations. Thus, Muslim
refugees are constructed as passive postcolonial subjects that are dependent on the
rules, norms, and codes established by culturally superior Europeans (cf. Said 1978,
Addressing the policy dimension of political culture, one text directly translates
these cultural differences into a political demand for an “immigration system that is
tiered according to qualitative and cultural criteria. We should privilege well-edu-
cated refugees as well as Christians and other persecuted minorities from the Near
East that usually have a higher readiness to assimilate” and “check whether they are
culturally compatible with our basic values” (Wergin 2015). This implies the even
more demanding cognitive assertion that it was somehow possible to form and mea-
sure “cultural criteria” that on an evaluational level should be the decisive criterion
about whether refugees should be accepted or not. Therefore, not only are Christians
supposedly more familiar with elements of liberal democracy and culturally more
“advanced”, they are also supposed to be willing to give up their cultural, national,
and religious identity in order to assimilate into European societies. This, again, im-
plies a causality between religious homogeneity, cultural similarity, and successful
integration or even assimilation. The author goes even further by demanding that
those refugees who come are required to have “sufﬁcient cultural capital in order
to persist in a rapidly changing economy” (Wergin 2015). Therefore, we “need [...]
the right immigration” which means choosing “whom we can make use of” (Wergin
2015). This statement endorses the possibility and the desirability of categorizing
refugees into “needed” and “not needed”. It is therefore not only a set of cultural
codes and political values, but also a set of skills related to economic performance
that is constructed as requirement for refugees to be granted asylum.
In an amalgamation of economic, cultural, and religious argumentative snippets,
the alleged reason for immigrants’ failure to be compatible with the European eco-
nomic and cultural system is that they come from “culturally backward regions
around the Mediterranean” (Wergin 2015). This “double-bind” becomes evident in
the statement by one author: “the refugee is a victim that, however, is self-responsi-
ble. And the people come here for good reasons and not to Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.
They come here because here there are liberties, but you also have to accept them”
(Rühle 2016). The self-responsible victim turns out to be the paradox ﬁgure that is
torn between conﬂicting predications and the imperatives derived from them. On
the one hand, the Muslim refugee is seen as victim of war, structural disadvantages,
lack of cultural knowledge, deﬁcient education and religious backwardness. On the
other hand, the refugee is thought to have freely chosen to come to Europe. This
Constructing cultural borders: depictions of Muslim refugees in British and German media 271
purported act of free will is then used as an argument to claim that the Muslim
refugee is self-responsible in overcoming all obstacles and in accepting European
rules and traditions, its Christian character, and the demands of a dynamic economic
system. This means that the self-responsible victim is depicted as being restricted
and disadvantaged by deep-rooted, fundamental differences and “trenches”, while
at the same time it is equally up to her to successfully integrate according to the
vision of European societies.
Along with the cognitive assessment of deﬁcient skill sets and cultural com-
patibility, the words used to collectively describe refugees are often metaphors as-
sociated with force of nature or the movement of large material quantities. The
wordings used in both conservative and left-leaning newspapers include “refugee
wave” (Fried 2015), “stream of refugees” (Mühlfenzl 2016;Wergin2015), “refugee
ﬂood” (Schulte von Drach 2015), “mass migration [Völkerwanderung]” (Herzinger
2015; Büscher 2015), “Muslim inﬂux” (Traynor 2015a), and “onslaught of asylum
seekers” (Wergin 2015). Using these metaphors associates the situation with several
characteristics of natural forces. On the one hand, as the weather causing natural
disasters, the situation is suggested to come from outside, recalling the contrast be-
tween the untamed and wild nature and the well-ordered “civilised” human society.
Most narratives that include natural disasters imply that the only reasonable reac-
tion is to build barriers between the forces of nature “outside” and that which must
be protected “inside”. The repeated collocation of words in dominant discursive
structures make it highly unlikely that words like “ﬂood”, “wave” and “onslaught”
are used to describe a group in a neutral, let alone positive way. Using a language
of natural disasters is likely to contribute to a disregard of individual rights and
Another central pattern in the depiction of Muslim refugees is the association
with jihadist terrorism. The connection between Muslim refugees and terrorism is
established through different narrative elements and chains of association. First,
texts indirectly quote politicians warning of the so-called Islamic State smuggling
“sleeping terror cells” as refugees to Europe (Brössler et al. 2015; Schulte von
Drach 2015). One commentator claims that “the security agencies are now afraid
that radicals hide among the refugees that stream uncontrolled into Europe. [...] One
should not pretend that Europe does not have a problem with Muslim immigrants,
albeit only with a minority” (Wergin 2015). The author claims that there exists a lack
of control of refugees that travel to Europe. This ignores the fact that while there
have been a large number of people crossing borders without being registered in
transit countries, most refugees, including the attackers of Ansbach and Würzburg,
were ofﬁcially registered as refugees by the state. The statement furthermore implies
that it was possible to simply start controlling and thereby stopping the danger of
terrorists entering European countries. It remains unclear, however, where and how
these controls could be implemented and how they would identify potential terrorists.
Despite falling short of providing answers to these open questions, the statements
help to construct the idea of an easy solution in form of the undeﬁned concept of
In addition to the construction of the “sleeping terror cell” narrative, an implicit
causal link between Islam and terrorism is being established. Making use of irony
272 T. Müller
to point out the naïveté of the opposite standpoint, a text claims that “Islam is
throughout a noble and peaceful religion and culture, which is why Islamic militants
have to be incited to their infamous actions by evil powers of Western degradation”
(Herzinger 2015). Here, the text builds on the presupposition of the audience that
Islamic militants are not incited by anything else but by Islam itself. An article by
a leading British Labour politician claims that “Our security interest in tackling the
refugee crisis remains powerful, too. Criminal trafﬁcking gangs are getting stronger,
extremists are able to exploit the crisis, and the disorder of an unmanaged response
threatens community cohesion and stability” (Cooper 2016). This can be interpreted
as a securitising speech act because a topic that is not conventionally dealt with in
terms of security is now framed as a security threat (Buzan et al. 1998, pp. 23–26). By
also using “community” as key word in building the corpus, it is possible to identify
this implicit dual reference to Muslims in the context of the refugee crisis. Both
the exploiting extremists and the threatened communities are Muslims. Moreover,
both are constructed to be in need of intervention by the security apparatus: the
extremists have to be persecuted, the communities have to be protected. Therefore,
this cognitively constructed need of state intervention, complemented with a threat
aiming at creating fear on an affective level, is translated into evaluational support for
the strong security interest in the refugee crisis. Applying the Foucauldian concept
of governmentality one can argue that this power/knowledge formation constructs
Muslim refugees as a population that needs to be governed by apparatuses of security
(Foucault 1991, p. 102; 1978;1997).
3.3 Attributing responsibility: Merkel, Muslim refugees and the rise of the far-
A third major discursive strand concerns the cognitive and evaluational dimension
towards an incumbent of a political role, the German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Merkel is attributed responsibility for the inﬂux of Muslim refugees to Europe.In
addition to that, the increased presence of refugees and Merkel’s rhetoric are con-
structed as principal causes for the rise of far-right parties in Germany. In contrast
to the debates around the feared loss of European Christian identity, one article
hails Merkel as demonstrating “a little leadership, at last” in face of the “outrageous
noises coming from some capitals about admitting only Christian, and not Muslim
refugees” (Guardian 2015). Predicates and metaphors used include “Mama Merkel”,
“compassionate mother”, the “mother of the Outcasts” and “#Merkel_TheEthiopian”
referring to a Christian ruler that is reported to have given refuge to Muslim refugees
(Olterman 2015). Again, it is Merkel’s alleged Christianity that is emphasised when
refugees are framed as Muslims. In contrast, one author claims that Merkel’s “wel-
coming of refugees” to the “laid table” was a “moral defeat” (Brössler et al. 2015).
Blaming Merkel for attracting refugees and creating a “pull” effect featured in the
articles only as quotations from nationalist, right-wing, Eastern European political
leaders in September 2015. However, this has completely changed one year on. In
September 2016, there has been no mentioning of any positive predicate on an af-
fective level towards Merkel in any of the articles. To the contrary, in 2016, Merkel
is mainly remembered for two interdependent things that have turned her into the
Constructing cultural borders: depictions of Muslim refugees in British and German media 273
personiﬁcation of the “refugee crisis”. The phrase “we can do this” from 31st of
August 2015 has come to signify a whole bundle of terms that are used to criticise
government policy or to advance arguments against accepting refugees (Huggler
On the other hand, the statement that “Mrs Merkel opened Germany’s borders to
more than a million asylum seekers” (Huggler 2016) indicates on a cognitive level
that all these asylum seekers entered Germany through newly opened borders. This
depiction of the situation ignores the fact that borders between most EU member
states have been open since the Schengen agreement that came into force in 1995.
The article attributes agency to Merkel by implying that it was her actions that made
“more than a million asylum seekers” to enter Germany. This reveals a frequent pat-
tern throughout the discussions of Merkel, refugees and the rise of right-wing parties
in Germany in 2016, namely, the assumption of the manageability of migration and
especially Muslims coming to Germany.
This proposition is made even stronger in articles on the relative electoral success
of the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD). While the rise of the far-right
was not an issue mentioned in any article in 2015, the relative electoral success
in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state election on the 4th of September 2016 was
a key concern in the articles in 2016. In this election, the AfD won 21% of the
votes participating in the election for the ﬁrst time. The party programme has been
summarised as “openly anti-migrant and anti-Muslim” (Huggler 2016). The “recipe
of success” of the AfD is characterised as attacking Merkel’s refugee policies and
inciting “fear especially from Muslim migrants” (Welt 2016). Moreover, it is claimed
that “major attacks of the AfD were launched continuously and extensively against
immigration and Islam in particular” (Kamann 2016a). Thus, one AfD politician
admonishes that “our land is transformed step by step into a caliphate” (Burghardt
2016). The articles depict details of the “anti-migrant and anti-Muslim” propaganda
and claim that both the rhetoric and the topics contributed to their electoral success.
The larger causal link suggested in the articles is that since Merkel is responsible
for the large number of refugees coming to Germany, most of which are Muslim,
right-wing parties with anti-Muslim propaganda are successful.
4 Constructing cultural borders: beyond Christian Germany and
The analysis conducted on newspapers from two countries allows to point at several
differences and similarities in British and German media representations. Comple-
mentary to the three major patterns outlined above, this addresses the comparative
dimension of the research question on how the refugee situation has been interpreted
with regards to Islam in British and German media.
A ﬁrst outcome of the comparison is that refugees and Islam are much more often
discursively linked in German media. A look at the article selection along the cri-
teria mentioned above reveals that in the ﬁrst time period there were 28 articles in
German, 15 in British newspapers, in the second time period 32 in German, 14 in
British newspapers. This means that the refugee situation and Islam are much less
274 T. Müller
often associated in the British than in the German press. An obvious explanation
would be that a much larger number of refugees came to Germany than to the UK in
this period which is why the topic was more present in the press. However, given the
heated debates on migration before and after the “Brexit” vote on 23rd June 2016,
this explanation does not seem fully satisfactory. One reason could be that the debate
on immigration was not only focused on refugees coming from the Middle East and
North Africa, but also on EU migrant workers, mainly from Poland. In the British
context, the connection between anti-migrant and anti-Muslim seems to be much
less well-established than in Germany. Given the long migration history of people
with different beliefs including Muslims from former colonies, in particular India,
Pakistan, and Bangladesh, this seems plausible. This might also be an explanation
for a second conjecture: The cultural and religious composition of the receiving so-
ciety is only directly problematized in German media. This is indicated by the fact
that only in the German newspapers there were comments critical of “multicultural-
ism” (Broder 2015; Beitzer 2016; Kamann 2016b; Pröhle 2015). Also, the cultural
changes effected by more Muslim immigrants were only discussed in German me-
dia. Finally, questions like “do we really want these changes” were expressed by
politicians that are not part of the far-right, but of the ruling Christian democrats.
These ﬁndings suggest that at least in quality newspapers, religious and ethnic di-
versity per se is not contested in the UK, at least in relation to refugees. In contrast
to that, in Germany the refugee situation has sparked a discussion about whether
the increasing religious diversiﬁcation is something that should be welcomed or
Another substantial difference lies in the culturalist rhetoric that re-constructs
German national identity: The reference to a (Judeo-)Christian heritage is only used
in Germany to mark the difference between Muslim refugees and the host society.
It seems that the construction of the “other” in Germany is much more focused on
Muslim refugees as non-Christians. Also, only in German media the “cultural com-
patibility” of Muslim refugees was questioned. The cognitive distinction is based on
the discursive reconstruction of “Christian Europe”, in particular by leading Chris-
tian democratic politicians. The more frequent occurrence of refugees as Muslims in
German newspapers could also be explained by the fact that mainly conservative and
far-right politicians were given the opportunity to express their opinions on the topic
in Germany. In contrast to that, a leading Labour politician and a pro-immigration
priest from the Church of England were among the voices talking about Muslim
refugees in the British newspapers. No conservative politician featured in any article
in the British news that directly addressed or implied the fact that many refugees
were Muslims. An explanation could be that high awareness of racism and Islamo-
phobia in the UK makes it less beneﬁcial or less accepted to talk about the religious
afﬁliation of refugees. Another reason for this could be that the group of Muslims
mentioned most often in British public discourse is not refugees, but the often well-
established communities from Commonwealth countries, in particular from South
The analysis of the data reveals that both in British and German media Muslim
refugees are linked to terrorism on a cognitive and an affective level. Articles from
both national contexts feature the fear of “sleeper cells” hiding among the “masses”
Constructing cultural borders: depictions of Muslim refugees in British and German media 275
of incoming refugees. Therefore, on an evaluational level, Muslim refugees are
constructed as a population that needs to be governed by the state. This includes
for instance the reintroduction and reinforcement of border controls and checks on
the “compatibility” and “willingness to assimilate”. Thus, in what can be called
a process of securitisation, Muslim refugees are discussed as a security problem for
Europe in the UK and Germany. The discursive patterns suggests that the “Muslim
refugee problem” has to be dealt with by means of security. This requires exceptional
measures that transgress the rules of regular politics such as discrimination on
the basis of religious afﬁliation, curtailing universal human rights, and abandoning
foundational international treaties. The strong connection between Muslim refugees
and terrorism has been established by statements from top government ofﬁcials,
leading party members, journalists and ordinary citizens in both countries. Thus, the
empirical evidence presented here supports both the “state version” and the “civil
society version” of the “suspect community thesis” (Greer 2010, p. 1172).
The construction of a “European Culture”, with an emphasis on its distinctive
“Christian” character in the case of Germany, is a crucial foundation for the se-
curitizing argumentation. In both countries, the association of the territoriality of
a European, British or German “homeland” with certain cultural and political ele-
ments such as liberal democracy and rule of law constructs a socio-cultural border.
In this “culture war” (Beitzer 2016), the “we”, the non-Muslim Europeans-as-in-
siders, have to be defended against the Muslims-as-outsiders. Only by establishing
these culturally and religiously deﬁned boundaries, the exclusion of “them” that do
not “ﬁt” appears to be both feasible and desirable. The role of European societies is
predominantly constructed as having to defend Christian culture and to manage and
to control refugees. European societies have to intervene in Muslims communities
to protect and to persecute. They must become active against “them” coming to
Europe and to prevent “what happened in the summer of 2015”. Muslim refugees,
in turn, are constructed as subjects that are self-responsible victims and that have
to assimilate into a diffuse bricolage of European history and culture. They are ex-
pected to gather economic skills so that they can be useful to the majority society.
Also, they are constructed as the cause for electoral success of far-right parties.
The analysis of media representation of refugees as Muslims has highlighted the
immediate salience of what Olivier Roy has called Europe’s identity crisis (Roy
2013, pp. 61–65). The importance of a better understanding of this crisis and its
relation to the discourse on refugees and Islam cannot be overstated given the rapid
changes in public opinion in Germany and the UK. Politics emerging from the
highly problematic and emotionally charged depictions of Muslim refugees have
the potential to have disastrous effects for both new and well-established citizens
and political cultures of both countries. It is up to further research to scrutinise to
what extent the discursive patterns outlined above translate into changes in public
opinion, voting behavior and legislation targeting both refugees and Muslims.
Acknowledgements I am grateful to Sybille Münch, Sebastian Scholl, two anonymous reviewers, and
the participants of the workshop “Migration und Integration als politische Herausforderungen” in Leipzig,
June 2016, for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.
276 T. Müller
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