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

August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


August 20 • 8:00 AM

What the Cost of Raising a Child in America Tells Us About Income Inequality

You’ll spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid in the United States, or about five times the annual median income.


August 20 • 6:00 AM

In Praise of ‘American Greed’

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can’t claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.


August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


Follow us


How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

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