Monday, March 16, 2009

Pick up the ball

A American-Somali Connection

For the last three years, I’ve pointed to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Somali Arab taxi drivers as an example of the problem with anti-assimilation policies, meaning those that allow dual-allegiance with an immigrant’s home country and their new one, and do not instruct on the differences of American society and the expectation of assimilating to the American way of life. This approach, besides being government policy, has been advocated by most on the left and some on the right (Messrs Bush and McCain, for two) for several reasons: multiculturalism, diversity, human rights, convenience, politics, reality. To many, this loose immigration policy, that asks immigrants nothing more than to recite a pledge to the United States in their native language, poses an existential threat: the loss of Western culture, practice, and morality.

For those unaware, Minneapolis has a large Somali Arab taxi driver force, representing some 70% of taxi drivers in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. In 2006, customers started reporting that Somali taxi drivers were refusing to pick people up if they were either carrying alcohol (this became a significant problem at the airport, which handles a large amount of international flights with passengers carrying duty-free purchases) or were drunk (counter anti-drunk driving campaigns and common sense) because of religious beliefs. Passengers at the airport were subject to questioning, and in some cases search, from the driver before they were allowed to get into the cab, causing queues to extend beyond what the airport was set up to handle. Incidents of drunk driving on weekends increased.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul government held talks with representatives from the Somali Arab taxi driver community in which they reached an agreement to allow the drivers to continue doing exactly what they were doing. The problem inherent in this example is that special allowances were made to a group of people on the basis of their religion, which is in direct conflict with how our government in supposed to work, how our laws operate, and the cultural practices of American society.

Freedom of religion can mean two things: the right to be free from religion (supposedly how our country was founded) and the right of religion to be free of government (how, in this example, the Minneapolis-St. Paul government interpreted it). The interpretation and implementation of which side of this dichotomy we use ought to be clear, but when it comes to explaining and enforcing it, especially with those from a religion that reacts violently to criticism, we have failed. In no way should taxi drivers, regardless of their religion, be allowed to reject passengers if they are intoxicated or carrying alcohol, both of which are lawful activities.

I bring this issue up because of a 27 year old American Somali named Shirwa Ahmed. Ahmed blew himself up on October 29th 2008 in one of five simultaneous bombings attributed to al-Shabaab, a Somali group with close links to al Qaeda. Ahmed is from Minneapolis. The FBI has been investigating and uncovering foreign extremist networks in the wake of a large number of unexpected departures of numerous Somali American teens and young men who family members believe are in Somalia. The investigation is active in Boston, San Diego, Seattle, Columbus, and Portland (ME).

While officials are saying that this does not constitute a serious threat of domestic terrorism, they warn that the potential for this is very serious considering these are Americans with American passports who can re-enter the country much easier than non-citizens. On Feb. 25, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta told reporters that the relationship between Somalis in the United States and in Somalia "raises real concerns about the potential for terrorist activity" and "constitutes a potential threat to the security of this country."

Domestic radicalization has been a greater concern in Europe than in the United States. In the year before the 2005 London transit attack, Britain in particular struggled with reports that al-Qaeda was secretly recruiting Muslims at British universities and that up to 3,000 ticking time bomb Britons had returned to Briton from terrorist group's camps. Just imagine what would happen if the British government decided to enforce freedom of speech.

American was founded on the idea of a melting pot, but we’ve become a salad bowl. If we are not careful and deliberate in our assimilation policies, we threaten our own existence. The hijackers of 9/11 lived in this country, some for several years, among our friends and in our communities, before unleashing their hatred. The case of Minneapolis Somali Arabs is not a call for closed boarders or zero Arab immigration, but a warning of what may be to come if we allow our past failures to repeat. In this example we are seeing the growing potential of another 9/11. Presidents Clinton and Bush dropped the ball on this issue. Hopefully President Obama picks it up.

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