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Best Bulwark Against ISIS Radicalization in Sioux Falls: Cultural Assimilation

Why are Twin Cities Somali immigrants more likely to radicalize and join ISIS than Sioux Falls Somalis? Assimilation, says writer and researcher Justin Hienz:

[The Minneapolis Somali community] is a population that never fully assimilates, in part because the Somalis tend to congregate in closed communities, Hienz said.

Two Somali malls in Minneapolis look like they’re right out of Mogadishu with their narrow walkways and stalls, he said. There are charter schools filled with nothing but Somali students.

In such an environment, home and cultural life tend to remain largely tied to the old world. Especially for those between 16 years old and the mid-20s who are not well assimilated and living on the margins of society, it can be difficult to know what your identity is in the world, Hienz said.

“On the one hand, you’re American, and on other hand, Somali. Accepted by both. Rejected by both,” he said. “Say someone is confused about who they are, and a skilled recruiter comes along and says: ‘You’re like me. You’re not American. Look at how they insult your family.’ That lack of assimilation is when you have the opportunity to shape an identity toward being a freedom fighter.”

It’s probably less likely in Sioux Falls, Hienz said, because there are no charter schools here, no isolated Somali neighborhoods and no replica malls, though Somalis like Said Yusuf do operate their own stores.

“We’re a small community. Everyone knows each other. That is the difference here,” [Sioux Falls grocer Said] Yusuf’s wife, Sofia Mohamed, said [Steve Young, “Somalis Aware, Not Alarmed of Terror Recruting Risk,” that Sioux Falls paper, 2015.05.30].

I’ve been told since my teacher training at SDSU that the “melting pot” is no longer a viable model for including immigrant cultures in the American dream. But even the preferred metaphor, the salad bowl, doesn’t work if all the salad dressing stays in one big glob on the side or if all the craisins settle to the bottom and aren’t really part of the salad. The craisins and dressing have to mix throughout, not because the lettuce is terrified of radical Islam, but because the craisins and dressing need to believe they have a stake in the salad, just like the lettuce.

However, if Hienz’s analysis holds, should Sioux Falls cap Somali immigration at some percentage where those immigrants will still be too small a group to firm its own insular, economically and culturally self-sustaining community? Does Lutheran Social Services have an obligation to bring only so many Somalis to Sioux Falls, then start directing the others away from their predecessors, out to Brookings, Watertown, and Mobridge? Could we justify such a divide-and-assimilate policy?

Related Reading:

  • Hienz and Errol Southers produced this report on terrorist recruitment and countermeasures in the Twin Cities for the Department of Homeland Security.
  • MinnPost reads the Southers/Hienz DHS report and finds one major problem in the Twin Cities is ineffective social support organizations who take the money meant to help immigrants and run. MinnPost highlights two assumptions dispelled by the Southers/Hienz report: social media is not as big a radicalization tool as face-to-face contacts, and economic despair does not drive as much terrorist recruitment as we might think.


  1. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-06-02 23:36

    I have some disagreement with Justin Hienz. He is right about Little Mogadishu regarding its appearance. However, perhaps he is unfamiliar with the Hmong Marketplace on Como. Or perhaps Caesar Chavez south of the river in St. Paul.

    I don’t think having an ethnic marketplace or mall is a factor, otherwise we’d have radicalized Hmong, Latinas, Karens, etc.

    There may be something to the schools. But remember, Hienz has no evidence of these things, he’s making guesses. One of the parts he doesn’t mention is the very strong efforts of families who are devastated by the departures of their children. A Somali Mpls council member, whose name escapes me now, is putting a great deal of time and energy into countering ISIL’s recruiting efforts. So are other Somali individuals and groups. Local citizens and community groups who are not Somali are offering support and assistance.

    In my anecdotal observations, many east African people are quite reserved, not smiling or making eye contact. But consider this: They are people whose lives were under frequent threat, lived in the midst of war, saw family and loved ones killed, homes, shops, mosques blown to bits, lived in refugee camps, etc.

    How in hell could we expect them to be warm, friendly and open?! Yet, some of them are. That’s what I call remarkable people.

  2. Chris S. 2015-06-03 06:58

    Lutheran Social Services doesn’t “bring” refugees to any communities. LSS helps assimilate refugees in a community when the federal government decides to settle them in a given area, per government policy. Those refugees would be coming to Sioux Falls even if LSS and similar organizations didn’t exist.

    However, because LSS is perceived as “bringing” groups of minorities to places like Sioux Falls, it’s often the lightning rod for the predictable xenophobic backlash.

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-06-04 08:39

    Very interesting observation, Deb. Why don’t we see radicalized Hmong, Karen, and Latinas? Do those groups find it any easier than Somalis to integrate into American culture and maintain a healthy sense of identity?

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