For more than two decades, Germany’s public broadcasters ARD and ZDF have jointly operated KiKA, a channel aiming at a young audience aged three to thirteen. The TV channel – whose acronym stands for “children’s channel” – has led a relatively quiet life for most of its existence. For the past two weeks, however, it has been embroiled in what is perhaps the fiercest debate of its 21-year-long existence.

“Malvina, Diaa, and Love”

At the heart of the matter lies the 25-minute documentary Malvina, Diaa und die Liebe (“Malvina, Diaa, and Love”, in a rather awkward English turn of phrase). The programme follows a German-Syrian young couple, made up of 16-year-old Malvina and 19-year-old Diaa. It seeks to show the challenges faced by couples bridging national, cultural, and religious divides.

The stage is set early on in the documentary, as Malvina’s broadly Western norms and Diaa’s religiously-infused conservatism clash. Malvina confides that she sometimes feels “led in a direction that I don’t want to go down.” For instance, she has had to give up on wearing short dresses or pants.

Diaa also feels uneasy when his girlfriend is hugged by other boys or men, such as Malvina’s best friend from school. This has led to some friction in the couple: “Diaa and I fight often”, Malvina admits, blaming cultural differences and diverging expectations for the frequent disagreements.

Clashing worldviews

Diaa feels strongly grounded in his Muslim faith: “With religion, you have a principle according to which to organise your life. Without religion you have no rules, and hence you have no life.”

As a result, he has already asked Malvina tentatively whether she would consider wearing a hijab or converting to Islam. Malvina decidedly refused both, feeling uneasy at her boyfriend’s requests. Malvina states that she self-defines as a Christian, pointing to the necklace bearing the cross that she wears around her neck – and as a feminist.

Malvina and Diaa are also divided on issues such as homosexuality. While Malvina voices her ardent support for the full social and legal equality of same-sex relationships, Diaa is visibly uncomfortable with the topic. While he avers not to object to the granting of legal rights to homosexual couples, he fears that they might still “bother” him.

Life of a couple

In spite of their differences, the two protagonists are shown in many everyday or intimate moments, including walks and picnics in the woods, cooking, listening to pop music, or hanging out. “She makes me perfect. What I don’t have, she has. That’s exactly what I’m looking for”, Diaa says.

Whilst their parents have accepted their relationship, the potential withdrawal of parental support nevertheless looms large. Malvina’s mother, who seems to have bonded with Diaa on a personal level, affirms to like him “like a son”. She is nevertheless fearful that her daughter might be compelled to pursue a conservative Islamic lifestyle: “My biggest fear is, really, this hijab-wearing.”

The father cautions his daughter not to renege on her principles and to stand up for her own life choices. Malvina herself is trying to strike a balance: “I have decided to find a compromise myself. I could have terminated it [the relationship], I could have broken up, but I consciously said ‘No, I want this because he [Diaa] is important to me’. And this is more important than wearing hotpants […] or a short dress.”

Parental reservations

Similar reservations exist among Diaa’s parents, who would favour a Syrian wife for their son. Diaa, who is talking of tying the knot with Malvina, avows that “it may be that my family will be against it, against marriage. But I’ll still do what I find right myself.”

Malvina concurs that there will be many “hurdles” to marriage from the side of both families. She also contemplates more openly than her boyfriend that their relationship might founder on these hurdles: “If we fail […], then our time together will have been truly wonderful. In that case, I wasn’t the right one, and maybe he wasn’t the right one, either.”

A belated echo

It is worth retelling the documentary’s storyline (including its ‘critical moments’ at which different culturally-shaped value systems are in tension) at considerable length. In the heated debate that has rocked the German media landscape over the past weeks, one could not escape the feeling that most commentators busy excoriating the programme had not, in fact, watched it.

The documentary first aired on November 26, 2017, receiving little notice. However, by early January right-wing bloggers started to pick up on the broadcast, denouncing it as a piece of Islamist propaganda on the part of Germany’s public broadcasters.

Politicians from the far-right AfD party were quick to jump on the bandwagon. Alice Weidel, chairwoman of the AfD’s parliamentary group, tweeted: “Is #KiKa preparing our girls for marriages with Islamic immigrants?”1) https://twitter.com/Alice_Weidel/status/950968174496841729 Fellow MP Beatrix von Storch also took to Twitter: “Our culture will perish and Germany will become Islamic as long as public state channels are […] romanticising our submission as an act of love without there being an #outcry.”2) https://twitter.com/Beatrix_vStorch/status/951055876173025280 (The hashtag #outcry refers to a well-known feminist slogan against sexism in Germany.)

Aptitude for a young audience

A number of more specific criticisms have been directed at the documentary, too. Some viewed it as too complex for KiKA’s young age group. Particularly the fact that the broadcast did not include any outside commentary by experts or educators was criticised.

Defending itself against these accusations, the editorial board responded that first-person narration was the hallmark of KiKA’s “Look into my world!” series, of which the controversial documentary had been an instalment. The series aims to offer an unadulterated insight into protagonists’ lives, as well as a first-person reflection on their part. 3) https://www.kika.de/erwachsene/begleitmaterial/sendungen/schau-in-meine-welt/einordnung100.html

The refugee as the dangerous predator

Subsequent attacks against the TV channel became increasingly hysteric, however. Many – including Weidel in the abovementioned tweet – began to question Diaa’s age. This connected the documentary to a debate on the suspected ‘age fraud’ of male refugees in Germany: It has become a standard claim (generally not backed up by any empirical evidence) that many refugees are fraudulently claiming to be underage when they arrive in Germany in order to ‘scrounge’ protection while engaging in criminal activities.

In an embarrassing turn of events, the KiKA channel was forced to concede that it had mistakenly referred to Diaa as aged 17 in one of its publications. In fact, 17 had been the young man’s age when he first met Malvina, while he was already 19 when the documentary was shot.

Irrespective of the channel’s attempt to rectify its mistake, the damage was done. In the hullabaloo surrounding the documentary, Diaa was now cast as a dishonest sexual predator and placed in the same category as the young Afghan who had killed his ex-girlfriend in late December in the town of Kandel. Making this link explicit, a right-wing vlogger accused KiKA of “aiding and abetting murder”.4) https://uebermedien.de/24344/malvina-diaa-und-der-hass/

The refugee as the insincere terrorist

Further debates ensued, first over Diaa’s name. His full given name appears to be Muhammad Diaa, although he goes by Diaa in the documentary. Given the fact that Muhammad is the most common name in the Arab world this seems understandable; yet he was still suspected by some commentators of living in Germany under a false identity.

Finally, the fact that the young man had liked the Facebook page of Pierre Vogel, a well-known German Salafi preacher, caused further outrage. According to the young man, this had been in order to participate in a lottery promising flights to Makkah as a prize.

Even though he denied having sympathies for Islamist or Salafist ideologies, the accusation of radicalism nevertheless stuck.5) http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/medien/umstrittener-kika-film-malvina-diaa-und-die-liebe-problembewusst-15400411.html (He also liked the Facebook presence of the “Network against Homophobia” of his small town. Tellingly enough, no one asked whether Diaa was perhaps not so homophobic after all.6) http://www.hr.de/unternehmen/backstage-und-meldungen/engel-fragt–spezial-aktuelle-diskussion-ueber-malvina-diaa-und-die-liebe,engel-fragt-spezial-100.html#Wie-kam-es-zu-der-Verwirrung-um-sein-Alter )

Couple under police protection

As a result, the couple has experienced massive hostilities online, which have led them to delete their social media profiles. They also received police protection, as death threats grew more serious. Particular ire has been directed at Diaa, mostly from the far right. However – and perhaps incomprehensible to those who see Diaa as a terrorist in waiting – some of the threats also emanated from the Salafi spectrum.7) http://www.hr.de/unternehmen/backstage-und-meldungen/engel-fragt–spezial-aktuelle-diskussion-ueber-malvina-diaa-und-die-liebe,engel-fragt-spezial-100.html

Ferda Ataman of the Neue Deutsche Medienmacher project – a watchdog working for increased diversity in the German media landscape – bemoaned that xenophobic and Islamophobic hatred had gone completely unchallenged in the public debate. Diaa had immediately and enduringly been cast as a liar, a terrorist, a potential murderer, and a sexual predator, even though there was no evidence allowing the drawing of such conclusions.8) http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/malvina-diaa-und-die-liebe-kritik-an-medialem-umgang-mit.2849.de.html?drn:news_id=840994

By then, the meaningful conversation about the cultural differences that the KiKA documentary had originally sought to stimulate in a somewhat clumsy way had of course become impossible.

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