Amineh Safi had suspected that there were negative patterns in the media regarding Muslims, but what she found through her research on Muslims and how the religion is associated with crime in the media was still a surprising discovery.
Safi, a recent graduate of Augsburg College and 2010 graduate of Eden Prairie High School, knows what it’s like to be a stranger in a foreign place. A Muslim herself, of Syrian and French descent, Safi came to Eden Prairie with her three siblings at the age of 10, having to adapt to an unknown language and unfamiliar culture.
The biases and stereotypes that she experienced when coming to the United States fueled her interest in this research and her passion for political science and public policy.
During a government class project on terrorism in high school, she became immensely aware of the stereotypes of Muslim culture.
“Some people don’t know the difference between Muslims and terrorists,” Safi said. “The media has a big influence.”
As a McNair Scholar, she spent three months intensively researching the portrayal of Muslims in local media outlets. Her finding: Islam and Muslim, along with Somali, are commonly connected to crime in article searches, especially terroristic crimes.
Safi gathered a total of 115 articles on the Muslim crime population, 33 articles from the Minneapolis Star Tribune and 82 articles from the St. Paul Pioneer Press newspapers for the dates January 2009 to June 20, 2013.
The Pioneer Press newspaper had articles that included both the article search terms Islam and Muslim 51.9 percent of the time in comparison to only 25.8 percent of the time in the Star Tribune newspaper, according to her research. In regards to terrorist and non-terrorist crimes committed, there was a very strong relationship with the selection criteria and the type of crime committed, Safi said.
Diane Pike, Safi’s advisor for the research and a sociology professor at Augsburg College, said the research project was a learning experience in many ways.
“I learned a lot from working with Amineh,” Pike said. “Things like Ramadan, fasting and other aspects of Islam. Now I understand better for other students.”
Throughout their research they looked at how these crimes involving Muslims or Somali people were represented in the media.
“When ‘X’ crime happens, no one says they were Lutheran or Baptist,” Pike said. “We looked at associations between crime and religion.”
And as some may have predicted, the number one crime that came up in association with Muslims was terrorism, with property crimes coming in second.
When the crime committed was terrorism, 54 percent of the time both Islam and Muslim were included in the article selection criteria, 68 percent of the time when “Islam” was the only article selection criteria, and 74 percent of the time when the article selection criteria was only “Muslim,” the crime committed was a non-terrorist crime.
Other findings included that a photo was included in the article 84 percent of the time when the article selection criteria included both Muslim and Islam. For the crime of terrorism, the search terms “Islam” or “Muslim” or “Somali” were much more likely to be included in the headline than non-terrorist crimes.
When the crime committed was terrorism, the search terms were included in the headline 70 percent of the time compared to the search terms being included in the headline 30 percent of the time when the crime committed was a non-terrorist one. A photograph was included 83 percent of the time that the headline included search terms.
With these new findings, Safi is planning to make some changes to better the community.
The political science and pre-law major says she is more interested in public policy than becoming a lawyer.
“I want to change the laws, not implement existing laws,” Safi said.
Safi has come a long way from when she first set foot in Eden Prairie without knowing any English. Her already multi-lingual background, including French and Arabic, helped, but it was the change in culture that really presented a challenge.
“There are still some things I am getting used to,” Safi said.
Syrian culture is very communal, meaning you take your family with you just about anywhere, according to Safi. Gender interactions were much different from her native country as well. A kiss on the cheek was a normal greeting between women for Safi, but often startled or confused women here. And her appearance confused her peers at school.
“A lot of people thought I was Somali,” Safi said.
To get better acclimated into the community, she didn’t start wearing her headscarf until the end of middle school.
And while Safi encountered confusion and cruelty from some students, she fondly remembers how welcoming teachers and staff were. She said she enjoyed Principal Conn McCartan’s Monday reminders: to make it a great day or not.
“There were definitely people who were actively trying to be more welcoming and open to making change,” Safi said.
But despite those willing to make change, there are still those who will continue to foster stereotypes.
So how do we combat the negative portrayal of Muslims in the media and the terroristic stereotype?
Safi and Pike have some suggestions.
“Reporters should be more engaged in the community and be held to a higher ethical standard,” Safi said. “And report about times when Muslims are doing good things.”
It’s a two-way street for both Muslims and Somali people and reporters, Safi admits. It takes greater engagement within the community on both fronts, she said.
Both Safi and Pike agree that the growing diversity that both Eden Prairie and Augsburg College have experienced is something to celebrate, not a means to discriminate.
“It’s a much different classroom than 20 years ago and it’s awesome,” Pike said.
Contact Natalie Conrad at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @EPSunCurrent.