What Makes Somalis So Different?
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.
"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."
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."