Immigration and Society

Anti-Muslim, Anti-Refugee Rhetoric Poses a Big Threat to Our Communities

March 21, 2017  • Mohamed Abdulkadir Ali

This commentary originally appeared in the Huffington Post. The views and opinions of the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

Last week saw a significant blow to the Trump administration’s attempts to institute a Muslim ban. A federal judge in Hawaii struck down a revised travel ban, saying it was driven by “significant and unrebutted evidence of religious animus” as evidenced by comments made by the administration and Trump himself. As a Somali-American living and working in a large refugee community, this animus has long been apparent and has deeply affected me and those in my community.

Since the launch of his presidential campaign two years ago, Donald Trump seemed to have a particularly virulent animus toward us Somalis. In stops in Minneapolis, and Lewiston, all home to large Somali refugee populations, he referred to Somalis as a “disaster” to the communities they moved to, as a dangerous threat to their neighbors, and as potential terrorists. This was underscored by repeated calls to prevent Muslims from entering the country, warnings of the dangers of Muslim refugees, and denunciations of Islam as an enemy of America. Many in our community called it hate. “Why does he hate us?” was an often-repeated question.

As a Somali-American refugee living in Ohio, I am part of a community in which people experience hate-fueled acts on a regular basis.

When the executive order was announced in January, it was clear to many of us that its creation was driven by this hatred.  Statements of securing our nation and preventing a terrorist threat, many of them baseless, could not cloak that this order was an amalgamation of Trump’s unique brand of cheap jingoism, xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia.  We were being targeted, because of our nationality, of the color of our skin, and of our religion. When the second version of the order was released, despite attempts to water down language targeting Muslims, it could not sterilize the intent. Two years of anti-Muslim speeches and rhetoric are well-documented and videos of him railing against refugees and Muslims can be easily found.

The opinion of U.S. District Court Judge Derrick Watson this week was a gratifying recognition of this intent. The opinion went beyond the written page and examined Trump’s hateful rhetoric against Muslims and refugees during his campaign and his presidency. However, while the travel ban has been put to an end, and immigrants around the country will be celebrating that fact, it is clear that Trump’s anti-Muslim, anti-refugee rhetoric will continue. It is this rhetoric, this hate extolled by Trump that poses the greatest danger. Trump’s extremist speech has served as fuel for hate groups across the country.  Following Trump’s win of the Electoral College vote,  1,094 hate-related incidents were reported that month , many  of them targeting immigrants.

As a Somali-American refugee living in Ohio, I am part of a community in which people experience hate-fueled acts on a regular basis. From a bloody pig’s head in a mosque to the tried and true “get out of our country” to spittle in the face, many of us choose to suffer these attacks quietly. We fear retribution, have no confidence in the police, or do not realize there are avenues for recourse. Our voices are rarely heard.

One story that stands out to me was when a man yelling anti-Muslim expletives drove a Somali couple off the road and into a telephone pole on their way back from Friday prayers. In another incident, a young Somali woman crossing a street by a grocery store was almost run down when a driver swerved to hit her. He demanded to know who had paid her to enter the country as she fled. None of these incidents were reported as crimes to the police.

These acts and voices of hate have always been on the fringe – most people have been welcoming to refugees – but Trump, through his rhetoric, has legitimized them. Trump’s rhetoric further tells immigrants whatever they do or however they may identify, they truly are not Americans. This, in turn, isolates immigrants from the communities they live in and prevents them from feeling truly part of this country.

In such an environment, it is important to amplify the voices of immigrant and refugee communities.  In January, as thousands across the country protested the Muslim ban, flooding airports, taking to Twitter, and organizing rallies, few seemed to be from the affected communities themselves. Many chose to stay home, fearing reprisal or generally uncertain about what they should do. As a result, many voices went unheard. Empowering these communities, and building their capacity, knowledge, and ability to engage and advocate for their rights, is an important way to do that.

Programs that teach civic leadership and activism, particularly to young immigrants, would help them engage and be involved in local government. The Somali community in Minnesota has been especially successful in doing this.  In November, Ilhan Omar, a Somali refugee and mother of three, was elected to Minnesota’s House of Representatives, making her the first Somali-American lawmaker in the United States and giving her a platform to advocate for her community. Highlighting the success stories of refugees and creating a counter-narrative is also essential. For example, the Obama Whitehouse, through its national Champions of Change program, recognized the work and achievements of four Somali-Americans, putting a spotlight on the contribution of refugees to building their communities.

Although the refugee ban has been struck down, it is clear that this administration is on path to creating a generation of American immigrants who feel stigmatized, isolated, and voiceless, unable to express their views, stand up for their rights, or advocate for themselves because of fear.

Mohamed Abdulkadir Ali, a 2013 New Voices fellow at the Aspen Institute, is the founder of the Iftiin Foundation, an organization fostering social entrepreneurship in Somalia.