Anti-Islamophobia: A nuanced portrayal of Syrian refugees in the heart of red-state America

Stereotypes plague so much news coverage of Muslims in Donald Trump's America.

I'm talking about negative pieces that attempt to turn every conservative state into a bastion of hatred toward Islam and its followers.

These are the type of stories that take a single case — or a few random incidents — and scream, "Islamophobia!" See examples here, here, here, here and here. Too often, these articles rely on squishy generalizations when what readers really need — and deserve — are hard facts.

So what's the antidote to such poor journalism?

Well, reporting that focuses on real people — with real context and real nuance — would be a nice place to start.

Speaking of which, the Washington Post (for which I occasionally freelance) featured just such a story on its front page Monday.

Post national writer Robert Samuels enlightens and surprises — both nice traits for a newspaper story — as he paints a portrait of Syrian refugees in a state where nearly three out of five voters supported Trump:

OMAHA — The rice and chicken were steaming on the stove. The twins chased each other around the apartment and the 2-year-old watched Mickey Mouse on the donated television.
Their mother, Fatema Aljasem, 29, sat at the kitchen table with two women from the local synagogue. Since the Syrian was granted asylum in September, the women had been helping her learn English. She pulled at her hijab and pointed at the words, mouthing ways of conjugating the verb “to go.”
“Shadi goes to school. Ahmad goes to work.”
The one that seemed especially challenging these days, though, was the verb “to be.” How to be calm in the daily chaos of motherhood. How to be comfortable in this new place where the president had just banned refugees like her. How to be an American.
Here in deeply conservative Nebraska, President Trump’s executive order banning refugees and people from seven majority-Muslim nations elicited complicated feelings about the state’s relationship with refugees. Many Nebraskans had supported attempts to keep the country safe but still wanted to show their heart for people fleeing terrorism and war. Their state has taken in more refugees per capita than any other.
During the presidential campaign, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) became a prime critic of Trump in large part because of his plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States. When Trump signed the executive order, Sasse criticized it as “too broad.” On Sunday, Sasse criticized Trump again, this time for tweeting about the “so-called judge” who halted the order late Friday.
Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican who has supported a ban on Syrians from the moment Trump first pitched it, has also talked about welcoming refugees already here as a source of statewide pride.

Keep reading, and there's much to appreciate about the Post story: For example, when it mentions anti-Muslim incidents, it puts them in context:

Nebraska has long been a draw for refugees. Unemployment is low, rent is affordable, and manufacturing and service jobs are plentiful, according to Lacey Studnicka, a program development officer at Lutheran Family Services.
Not that Omaha has been immune to the uptick in bias incidents seen across the country, according to reports from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Someone recently left raw bacon — those who practice Islam do not consume pork products — on the front door of a mosque, according to local news reports. It was the fourth time since August that the mosque had been targeted.
Studnicka sees those incidents as isolated. “For every negative phone call we get, we get 10 nice ones,” she said.

And later in the piece, Samuels illustrates that people are complex — and just maybe, a bigot can change:

A few blocks away from Aljasem, John Dutcher, a 61-year-old house cleaner, lives in a complex of low-rise apartments in a neighborhood where American flags flapped on porches. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Dutcher said he was “one of those guys who would want to put a pig’s head on a mosque. I never acted on it, but I played it in my head.”
“I hated Muslims,” he said.
For years, Dutcher’s neighbors were meth addicts and rowdy alcoholics. Slobs. In June, a Syrian family who spoke no English moved in. Another family moved in after that, then another. Now there are six.
Soon enough, Dutcher said, empty bottles in the hallway were replaced with children’s bicycles. The loud arguments of a ­drug-addicted couple were replaced by the sounds of children’s laughter.
“The Muslims here were all about family and they just loved everyone,” Dutcher said. “I remember the people who lived here before; they took for granted everything this country gave them. These people, they really changed my heart.”

Not every news report can be a colorful takeout. I recognize that. But I think there is a lesson in this: Journalism is better when a reporter actually spends time with live humans and accurately describes their thoughts and experiences in revealing ways.

Suddenly, the stereotypes disappear — and reality, as messed up as it can be, takes the stage.

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