Altaf Husain: Rep. King Must Realize Somali Americans Are Allies

A Publication of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Altaf Husain: Rep. King Must Realize Somali Americans Are Allies

Despite Somali-Americans’ positive integration into the United States and little evidence of extremism in their ranks, U.S. Rep. Peter King is holding a congressional hearing Wednesday to investigate the recruitment of Somali-American youth by Al Shabaab, a terrorist organization with links to al Qaeda.

Wednesday’s hearing is the third the Republican from New York has held on radicalization within the Muslim community.

Muslim Americans shouldn’t object to the hearing, called “Al Shabaab: Recruitment and Radicalization within the Muslim American Community and the Threat to the Homeland,” which is investigating the radical organization Al Shabaab.

But King’s announcement of the proceedings indicates he will make the case that the Somali-Americans have not been cooperative with law enforcement investigations. His accounts of mosque leaders being unhelpful, and an imam advising Somalis not to cooperate with the FBI, are unhelpful and strictly anecdotal. In fact, the Somali-American community has been a law enforcement ally in countering Al Shabaab.

Rather than giving such prominence to Al Shabaab’s recruitment of a few dozen young people, King should focus on the thousands of young Somali Americans who have rejected calls to radicalism. He needs to hear firsthand from high school and college students who are succeeding daily in dismissing Al Shabaab’s recruitment efforts.

Earlier this year, young Somali-Americans took part in a summit with law enforcement officials and Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison in Minneapolis. Somalis are integrating into American culture; Homeland Security officials should appreciate their success without impugning the entire community.

In Minneapolis, local authorities, along with the FBI, the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security, launched investigations into what seemed in 2009 to be a large-scale recruitment effort by Al Shabaab to lure Somali-Americans and Muslim American converts to travel to Somalia to support its terrorist activities.

Thankfully, because of stepped-up vigilance within the Somali-American community and its cooperation with law enforcement agencies, the number of young people recruited by Al Shabaab never passed a few dozen. Talk to the community leaders and the parents of any Somali-American youth and the response will be an unequivocal yes if asked about reporting suspicious activity within their community.

Somali-American children are on a typical trajectory of adaptation, managing tensions between the Somali culture of their parents and the mainstream culture, navigating the social terrain of adolescence and striving to achieve academic excellence.

Young Somali-Americans find themselves more American than Somali. Most of them have never been to Somalia, and speak their parent’s language with difficulty. For those who migrated with their parents, life in Somalia is at best a faint memory, at worst, a nightmare of death and destruction.

Academic excellence and civic engagement are indicators of Somali rootedness and attachment to America. King would benefit from some field trips to places like the University of Maine in Lewiston, where students of Somali descent are one reason the previously declining enrollment increased by 16% between 2002-2007.

Somalis in Lewiston have been credited, at least in part, for that city being rescued from the fate of a dying mill town to being named an “All American City” by the National Civic League in 2007. The mayor and some residents did not welcome them in 2001, but the resilient immigrants persisted and never left Lewiston. Stories of successful Somali integration and the healthy development of Somali youth are unfolding throughout America.

I am familiar with Somali-Americans on a personal level and through research. During focus groups with parents, conversations with young people and in addressing community gatherings, I came to appreciate the love Somalis have for their adopted homeland and the passion with which they are pursuing the American dream. The prayers they recite for their youth represent the best of the immigrant experience in America.

King, as chairman of the congressional Homeland Security Committee, has a duty to cultivate a positive relationship with Somali-Americans and view them as key allies in the fight against Al Shabaab.

This article was first published by CNN on July 27, 2011.