The Paradox of Rebranding European Muslims

The Israeli Public Movement's campaign Rebranding European Muslims.

The documentary series “Allah Islam,” which was broadcast on Israel’s Channel 10 last month, drew high viewer ratings. Furthermore, the public discourse that followed in its wake was far more intense than is usually the case with TV series of this genre.

Still, this is no surprise, given the central theme of the series: that Islam is taking over Europe. For certain sectors of the Israeli public, there is no greater fear.

In four episodes, the series presented the emerging failure of the multicultural idea in Western Europe, as well as the phenomenon of Muslim isolationism and the motivation of some adherents of Islam to conquer the Continent and impose sharia law. Zvi Yehezkeli, one of the creators and the narrator of the series, is worried that by 2050 most countries of Europe will have a Muslim majority. He noted that there are 200,000 Iraqi migrants currently living in Sweden and that in the city of Malmo alone they constitute 20 percent of the population. In an interview he gave about the series, Yehezkeli added that already now the most common name for newborn boys in England is Mohammed. SOS!

A completely different look at “Mohammed phobia” was presented a few weeks ago in the Steirischer Herbst Festival of the arts held in Graz, Austria. In the course of a gala evening, the audience was offered three suggestions for the “rebranding” of European Muslims , prepared by agencies that specialize in this field.

The first proposal, the handiwork of Demner, Merlicek & Bergmann the largest Austrian branding firm tried to create a new typography which combines Arabic fonts and Latin letters. Metahaven , from Holland, suggested intervening via talkbacks and social networks, and with articles, campaigns and international political events related to the situation of right wing populism and Muslims in Europe. The third proposal by Guleed Mohammed was simpler: that Austrian citizens should change their names to Mohammed or Fatima. The poster for that campaign showed a man with European features holding a sign reading “Mohammed Beckenbauer” and the date on which he changed his name. Above the man’s picture was a caption: “Take part in Europe’s future!”

The initiative for the entire campaign came from Public Movement, a research and action art group led by an Israeli named Dana Yahalomi. Like Yehezkeli, Yahalomi too is not impressed by the multicultural “experiment.” However, she says she has a proposal for change ? a “redefinition of the relations between the sides,” as she puts it. She says she got the idea of rebranding European Muslims from examining similar efforts in other countries.

“By means of one brilliant sentence and a good image, you can change entire worldviews,” she says, and immediately adds, “and all without making any judgment about the brand and its values, of course.”

Yahalomi argues that the branding process allows for external observation of the subject, thereby creating a sense of detachment and distance from it. That is why most countries choose foreign companies to brand them. This was also the stance that made it possible for her to initiate the campaign as an Israeli, she says: “I do not see myself as a party here. I am not representing a political agenda and not part of the different communities" . Nor am I out to help the Muslims. That is not my role. I am suggesting a change in the angle according to which reality is seen.”

According to Yahalomi, “Branding through art ... allows a greater space to maneuver. On the one hand, it is not committed to the way the ‘client’ sees his brand; on the other hand, it is also free from the familiar models and constraints of the advertising world.”

She chose to hold a gala event to launch the campaign in Austria, which is now marking the centenary of its historic recognition of Islam as an official religion. In the course of more than a year, she met with local leaders of right-wing and left-wing political movements, and with leaders of the Muslim community. From them she learned how Islam has been perceived as a brand until now, and she asked for their cooperation in altering it. At the same time, she asked for proposals and conducted negotiations with large international branding firms. At all times, she introduced herself as the leader of Public Movement in Israel. Yahalomi says she was taken seriously and obtained cooperation in no small measure thanks to her title.

It is not easy to categorize Public Movement. Even though it engages in a range of arts and techniques, it is not a dance troupe, a circus or theater group. Yahalomi also rejects its classification as a performance group per se. The movement’s blog page states: “Public Movement is a performative research body that investigates and stages political actions in public spaces.” This is a partial, vague description; indeed, on the basis of this unbinding, abstract definition, many of the activities of the movement are devised.

The group was co-founded in 2006 by Yahalomi, an artist and choreographer, and by artist and former radio announcer Omer Krieger. Today the movement counts 7 members and one leader A recruitment ad for new members, the group in 2009 listed the following qualifications: “People who stand out amid their surroundings, are agile, possess good physical ability and a positive presence and who take an interest in conflicts, are fond of questions and are gifted with leadership capability, a moderate ego, a developed political and civic consciousness, courage, a critical sense and a love of danger.”

The group generally wears white uniforms during their activities; they use a flag and stage processions and celebratory events which could easily be taken as fascist in character. But at second glance, the “rituals” can be seen to subvert the conventions of such ceremonies and the symbolic weight they carry. In some cases, the ridicule spills over into the grotesque.

In one case, for example, the organization participated in a sort of drill, as on an army parade ground. A few participants escorted a luxury car . Then they staged a semi-erotic spectacle, were seemingly run over by the car and concluded by dancing a tempestuous hora. (Some of their activities can be seen on their blog).

Despite the radical and subversive elements, Public Movement generally tries to enlist establishment groups in its activities. In one case, with the aid of volunteers of Magen David Adom (Israel’s emergency medical service) and firefighting and rescue services, Public Movement staged an activity that resembled a mass terrorist attack. In Heidelberg, Germany they organized what seemed to be a students’ strike, which was dispersed by a special unit of the local police. Everything was arranged ahead of time, including the blows the participants took and their fictitious arrests.

For her part, Yahalomi sees no contradiction between the establishment and the group’s political messages, “as long as no conditions or creative restrictions are dictated.” She adds, “Many times it is precisely the recognition by the establishment that allows additional angles of observation to be opened up. We look, move and talk like the "state", the "power", it is only natural to work with it, some people get confused but I think it is a positive reaction. .”

Like all the activities of Public Movement, the campaign Rebranding European Muslims can be perceived as having multiple meanings and appears to be highly deceptive. It is an artistic event, yes, but all the participants treat it as the real thing.

“The negotiations with the representatives of the Muslim community [in Austria] about serving wine at the gala would not have shamed the complexity of the peace process with Egypt,” Yahalomi says.

After the presentations, the participants in the gala event, voted in favor of the proposal by the Austrian company that created the combined Arabic and Latin-alphabet typography. The poster of their campaign can be seen on Graz billboards. If in the future no funding is found to continue the entire rebranding scheme, the poster might if at all be on view only in galleries and museums. But Yahalomi is not that interested in posters

“After all, the rebranding activity always fails,” she says. “It never fully represents the thing it seeks to brand. So the project itself uncovered the paradox, the impossibility of branding the European Muslims, an effort that is being undertaken with great enthusiasm across the political spectrum. The paradox is inherent in the title of the project. The success of the process lay in the very fact of staging the Gala event and in the conflict that emerges from participation in it.”