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.
That brings the total since 9/11 to 225 lives lost due to Muslim-American terrorism, or fewer than 20 per year.
Meanwhile, the United States must grapple with some very ugly truths. In 2013 alone, we witnessed 14,000 murders, according to the FBI. Since 9/11, America has seen more than 190,000 murders, “a shocking level of violence,” Kurzman said.
Yet, he sees what Safi sees. He calls it “a connect-the-dots phenomenon,” which is a preference by many Americans to ignore looking in the mirror and focus instead on violence among followers of Islam “that fits a certain narrative and plays into our fears, although it’s rare and concentrated.”
Safi’s research was fully supported by the McNair Scholars Program, a federal program for low-income and underrepresented students that encourages the best and brightest to conduct research with a faculty member.
She dedicated 400 hours over the summer of 2013 to her content analysis, with Pike serving as her research mentor, and has presented her findings in California and at the Minnesota State Capitol Private College Scholars event in early April.
She hopes that her research will spark a willingness among Minnesotans to learn more “about what Islam teaches and what it doesn’t,” and when violence occurs, to not assume that religion is the reason.
Nervous at first to delve into this sensitive topic, Safi said she’s built lasting bridges with fellow students at Augsburg. “Now there’s a lot more seeds on campus to understand what Islam is, to have people from different identities interact and connect.
“Even if I meet resistance, I have enough faith and support to keep going.”
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum