Menus Subscribe Search

What Makes Somalis So Different?

• December 22, 2010 • 3:00 AM

Somali immigrants in America have followed European patterns of integration, and not the ideal of the melting pot.

The FBI last month caught a Somali-American, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, in a sting operation doing something most U.S. Muslims have tended to avoid: trying to blow up other Americans.

When he (allegedly) tried to detonate a fake bomb at a tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Ore., the story contradicted a main theme of this column — that American-raised Muslims tend to be better integrated, and more peaceful, than Muslim immigrants to Europe.

My fairly unoriginal thesis goes like this: Muslim populations in Europe look at the West as a place to earn money, not a home to adopt. But North America lies so far from Islamic parts of the world that immigrants to Canada and the U.S. have tended to move for professional or political reasons, like the Iranians who fled the Khomeini revolution. They make more money and mix more easily with North Americans than Turkish workers from rural Anatolia mix, say, with Germans.

But a right-wing blog, Jihad Watch, waxed sarcastic about this brand of thinking in November. “The drumbeat from the lovers of the religion of peace is that America does not have the problems that Europe has because our Muslims integrate so well. Muslims come here and are so overwhelmed by the wonders of America that they … get swept up into the melting pot and become as American as apple pie.” Then it went on to describe a sex-slave ring run by Muslim immigrants in Minneapolis.

What the blog failed to mention was that the criminal gangs in Minneapolis, like Mohamed Osman Mohamud, were Somali. There’s a recognizable integration problem in American Somali communities that has alarmed even the FBI. A handful of Somali teenagers not only join urban gangs but also turn radical enough on the streets of Minneapolis to move back to Somalia, to wage jihad against Somalia’s provisional government and other allies of the United States.

Why?

“I don’t know what’s going on with the community,” a Somali woman named Rahma Warfa, who lost her brother in an attempted robbery that killed three East Africans, told Minnesota Public Radio earlier this year. “It’s sad that we left a civil war to live in a peaceful country, and then we come to a peaceful country and still kill ourselves.”

[class name="dont_print_this"]

European Dispatch

EUROPEAN DISPATCH
Michael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

[/class] The first big wave of Somali immigrants came to the U.S. after the Mogadishu government collapsed in 1991, fleeing what became the most chaotic nation on Earth. You’d expect their children would be — on the whole — relieved to live in a stable Western country where even the president is black. But the Somalis who settled in Minneapolis and other selected corners of the U.S. were war refugees, with little money and not many job skills. A recent U.S. census study said Somali immigrants, statistically, were among the “youngest and poorest” newcomers to the U.S., with 82 percent of the community in Minneapolis living below the poverty line.

Somalis have followed, in other words, the pattern of Muslim immigrants to Europe. And not really on purpose.

“Many of them are just settling for whatever jobs they could get, part-time, odd jobs,” Abdi Mohamoud told KPBS in September. “You tend to see some customer service at hotels … maybe some janitorial, housekeeping, security guards.” Mohamoud directs the Horn of Africa community center in San Diego, another neighborhood where Somalis have settled.

For class reasons, Somalis don’t mix easily with other Muslims in the U.S., and for cultural reasons, they don’t automatically get along with African Americans. The New York Times described the trouble Shirwa Ahmed found at home in Minneapolis before he moved to Somalia in 2008 and became — as far as anyone knows — the world’s first American suicide bomber.

Ahmed played basketball and listened to Ice Cube; he adopted tough lingo and clothes. “Much as he tried, he failed to fit in,” the Times reported. “You’re not black, his peers taunted. Go back to Africa.”

These experiences are understandable and even normal for a poor immigrant group to the United States. Immigrants face pecking orders, which may be irritating but natural. Coming to America in the ’90s, though, was particularly bad timing for a Muslim group.

“They show up,” said education professor Dan Detzner said to Minnesota Public Radio last January, “and a few years later, Muslims attack the United States. They get looped in with the xenophobia. When you get attacked or criticized from outside of your own population, then the tendency is to turn inward.”

Still, delinquents and terrorists are an overwhelmingly small fraction of the Somali diaspora, and they can’t define Somali-Americans as a whole. They just indicate what the refugees and their children have faced over the last 20 years.

The point is that integration has less to do with religion, and more to do with culture and income, than today’s Islamophobes would care to admit.

“A lot of what we are seeing with the Somali community,” Cawo Abdi, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, said to MPR, “is very much what we have seen for other refugees and migrants in the history of migration to the U.S.”

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Michael Scott Moore
Michael Scott Moore was a 2006-2007 Fulbright fellow for journalism in Germany, and The Economist named his surf travelogue, "Sweetness and Blood," a book of the year in 2010. His first novel, "Too Much of Nothing," was published by Carroll & Graf in 2003, and he’s written about politics and travel for The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, and Spiegel Online in Berlin, where he serves as editor-at-large.

More From Michael Scott Moore

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.


September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel


September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.