Rosenblum: Time to look at the coverage of Muslims and terrorism

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 16, 2014 - 11:52 PM

As the 2014 Boston Marathon approaches, opening a deep wound created by two brothers who rained down terror on an American tradition, Amineh Safi’s work only will intensify.

But she’s ready with a powerful weapon of her own: Social science.

Safi is a 21-year-old double major in psychology and pre-law at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. The Muslim daughter of a French mother and Syrian father, she moved to the Twin Cities in 2002 and graduated from Eden Prairie High School.

Safi has long been troubled by what she sees as inaccurate and stereotypical media portrayals of Muslims and followers of the Islamic faith as “violent radicals and terrorists.”

Such misrepresentations, she said, can create fear that diminishes the likelihood of understanding and respect between cultural and religious groups. Minnesota is home to the largest population of Somalis in the country, making such understanding critical.

Safi worries, too, because hate crimes against Muslims and those who associate with them have increased since 9/11.

“Even if I had a hunch that Muslims were being portrayed in a distorted way, I wanted to do this in a scholarly way,” Safi said. “You’re not going to be successful acting out of emotion.”

In the spring of 2013, Safi took a criminology course with Augsburg Prof. Diane Pike, who saw a budding social scientist in her midst.

“I remember Amineh saying that she didn’t think Muslims and the Islamic faith were being represented fairly in the newspaper. I said, Well, that’s an empirical question. What might be ways to get data to see what patterns really are?”

Under Pike’s guidance, Safi got to work. She focused on four types of crime: Terrorism, defined as “organized, planful and intentional”; violent crime, which included murder, homicide and rape; property crimes, and “other,” such as blasphemy, public indecency and cybercrimes.

Using the LexisNexis online database and the search terms “Muslim” and “Islam,” Safi collected 115 articles from January 2009 through June 20, 2013.

Safi found that the word Islam was far more likely to appear in articles about terrorism than in articles about nonterrorist crimes. When the term Islam was used, for example, the crime committed was terrorism 68 percent of the time.

Simply put, media coverage played into the stereotype of the Islamic terrorist. To put this into perspective, when was the last time you read the sentence, “The bomber, who was Lutheran …?”

“Bringing the perpetrator’s religion into the discussion is something of which we need to be aware,” Pike said. “Associating religion with terrorist crimes creates the potential for a distorted view, a view that comes from subtle patterns that are created.”

And distorted it is.

Charles Kurzman, a specialist in Islamic movements and a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has drawn similar conclusions for many years.

In his most recent report, published in February by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, he found once again that Muslim-American terrorism is rare, “and much rarer than many people feared in the days and months after 9/11.”

In fact, 16 Muslim-Americans were indicted for or killed during violent terrorist plots in 2013, similar to 14 in 2012.

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