Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


Follow us


Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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