The recent arrest of three members of a Kansas militia group who planned to blow up an apartment complex occupied by over 100 Somali residents sent shockwaves through the small community of Garden City. In this rural corner of southwest Kansas, a diverse number of ethnic minorities constitute the demographic majority: a number of these are Somali immigrants. Garden City’s population of 30,000 includes nearly 500 Somali-American citizens and their American-born children. These Somali Muslims, and all residents in Garden City, have much to teach America and the world about community building, patience, hard work, and peaceful ways of living together even when we are most afraid.
Somalis fled war, famine, and the struggles of life in refugee camps. As they began to arrive in Garden City to work in Tyson’s meatpacking plants, the city’s leadership, along with resettlement organizations, welcomed them and eased their transition to life in America. Even now, in the face of religious persecution and this horrific threat of violence, residents open their doors and lives to their neighbors and hold peaceful rallies to offer gratitude to law enforcement for ensuring their safety.
For the many Somalis who have endured war and loss in Africa, security is worth everything. They understand the fragility of feeling safe because they have experienced firsthand the tragedy of losing security in their homeland. In the United States they work to overcome fear by remaining focused on building a bright future for themselves and their families. They continue to believe in the American dream even as others challenge their rights to claim it.
Americans struggle with how to speak to and make sense of a changing world amidst growing feelings of fear and an overarching sense of threats that are both external and internal. Immigrant communities like Kansan Somalis who have settled here for a more secure life are caught up in the middle of American fears about change. Especially since the emergence of ISIL, the United States has witnessed a growing wave of intolerance in the forms of hate speech, Quran burning ceremonies, Mohammed cartoon conventions, armed rallies by militias outside of mosques and Islamic centers, and attacks on communities, homes, businesses, and individuals perceived to be Muslim.
Rhetoric surrounding the issue of 'the wall' is about much more than just tighter border security.
When placed in broader national and global contexts, the anti-Muslim sentiments that fuel the kind of counter-terror terrorism we just saw in Kansas are less surprising. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent “war on terror” we are experiencing a culture of fear unlike that of earlier realities that defined the world before the twentieth century. One deeply disturbing response to this state of fear is expressed in the racist sentiments that likely motivated three Kansan American men in federal custody to call themselves the “Crusaders” and plot an attack on a group of Americans because of their identity as Muslims.
Current political debates about who may be granted entry into our borders, and who belongs here, translate into concerns for local communities as they confront the diversification of their familiar environments. Rhetoric surrounding the issue of ‘the wall’ is about much more than just tighter border security. Divisive assertions about migration reject an embrace of the differences among us and our history as a nation of immigrants. Today Somalis carry many labels, each of which conjures its own fears and stereotypes in the popular imagination: Refugee. Black. Immigrant. African. Muslim. The broader global context of these identities plays into the motivations of domestic terrorists.
Narratives of threat often lend themselves to cycles of hatred and violence, and it is through abhorrent responses that human societies become catalysts for the realization of their own worst fears about the “other.” These three “Crusaders” were not residents of Garden City. None of the men, all in their late 40s, lived or worked there. They were outsiders – intruders – who sought to wreak havoc on Somali Muslims in order to ignite a religious war. Their logic shares much in common with that espoused by ISIL radicals. We are grateful that this terrorist plot was foiled, but we should be mindful of how their plans are a threat to our nation and all of its citizens.
Marwa Ghazali is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kansas. Elizabeth MacGonagle is an associate professor and director of the Kansas African Studies Center at the University of Kansas.
The Huffington Post is documenting the rising wave of anti-Muslim bigotry and violence in America. Take a stand against hate.