Counter-Extremism as Surveillance on the Somali Diaspora

Although not often considered a hub of the Somali diaspora in America, there are some 8,000 people of Somali descent living in the metropolitan area of Boston. This Somali community lives among many other communities of color in the culturally diverse neighborhoods of Roxbury, Charleston, and Dorchester.

Despite being one community among many in the majority-minority city of Boston, Somalis, as Black Muslims, are targeted in ways different from their other immigrant and refugee peers in the effort to tackle the threat of youth radicalism
As I spoke to many leaders and organizers in the Somali and Muslim communities about the issue of “CVE” or the federally funded Countering Violent Extremism pilot program that was introduced in the city in 2014 by the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, I was met with both anger and exasperation. I once asked Abdul, the founder and head of the oldest Somali community development non-profit and Boston resident for 31 years, if his organization had ever considered applying for a CVE grant and his response was impassioned, “This is not something that I am interested in at all! I am not interested in watching my Somali brothers and sisters and reporting on them to the Boston Police.” Abdul highlights how CVE operates as a tool of the panoptic state that, under the guise of community engagement and outreach, raises awareness of and instills hyper-vigilance against the perceived threat of violent extremism among Somali youth in the city. 

Somali communities in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, home of the largest Somali diaspora in the world, have accused CVE programming of stigmatizing and marginalizing Somali youth and potentially institutionalizing Islamophobia and racism against Somalis. Abdul, in one of our conversations, asked “Why just Somali youth up to now? Why do they target Somali, who haven’t committed any terrorist crimes on American soil? It’s something that makes me very much, angry!” Somalis in Boston are perhaps first made vulnerable to the watchful eye of the state by virtue of where they live. As one of the youth organizers I spoke with put it, “In Boston, you can tell where people of color are, ’cause that’s also where the police are. There are always cops out by my train station and on my street so as young black people in the neighborhood we always feel like we are being watched.” Federal and state-funded resettlement agencies that place Somali refugee families in communities of color, like Roxbury, Charleston, and Dorchester that are already underserved and struggling illustrates how the legacy of racial segregation in Boston continues in the twenty-first century. CVE then evokes images of Black criminality and posits the Somali community as inherently criminogenic and violent as both Black and Muslim. It thus becomes easier to portray Somali youth in particular as prone to criminal behavior and violence.  

As Somali youth become easy targets for CVE, the rhetoric and discourse of the CVE programming that is supposedly designed for youth enrichment actuality widens intergenerational divides. First, the intergenerational gap between the youth and elders and between recent refugees and first and second-generation Somali immigrants is already a salient feature in the global Somali diaspora. As such, the claims of these two groups to a homeland or a Somalinimo are different. Abdul also echoes this idea of a generational gap in understandings of homeland and belonging as he works with youth in the Boston Somali community

I think we have a new generation among or within the Somali community who define who they are or understand who they are or know what heritage they think they belong in a different kind of way. The Somali elders know who they are. The problem is the younger generations, the ones born during the civil war or were very young who did not grow up in that kind of continuation of, you know, upbringing, values, or cultural aspiration that their parents, grandparents used to have. Based on my work with these kids, a lot of them, they are suffering an identity crisis.

The discourse around intergenerational gaps, and the vulnerabilities of younger generations to cultural loss, or “identity crisis” as Abdul puts it, is echoed and re-entrenched by the discourse of CVE programming. In February 2015 the US Attorney’s Office for Massachusetts (the agency charged with prosecuting federal crimes, including terrorism-related crimes, in Massachusetts) published a framework for CVE in Massachusetts. The document paints Somali youth as having “limited understanding and knowledge of their heritage and Somalia’s history, widening the gulf between parents and children, causing significant intergenerational conflict…they are caught between two cultures adding to isolation, alienation and feeling marginalized making them more vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremists”.

CVE leverages this intergenerational divide that already exists to encourage elders in surveilling and criminalizing Somali youth. As CVE operates within Somali elder’s anxieties about Blackness and African American culture as both eroding Somali youth’s Somalinimo and even Muslimnimo. In doing so CVE is also subtly a divisive force that alienates Somalis from their other peers of color. However, a younger Somali community organizer sees the spatial proximity of the Afro-Latino and African American diasporas to the Somali diaspora in Boston as important to Somali organizing: “As being seen as the bottom of the barrel, like seeing that kind of struggle, and then seeing what’s going on in the Latino community. These all exist and everybody’s being discriminated against in this sense, but I feel like it just makes people want to work harder to claim their Americanness, more because there’s a sense of solace between communities and through communities”

As Somali youth navigate their environments and create bridges between their own afro-diasporic identities and those of their larger Black diasporic communities, their avenues of coping with their new circumstances in ways their parents or grandparents might not understand become denigrated and criminalized as CVE accesses and encourages Somali elders to act on their misgivings about their childrens’ perceived adoption of Black American culture. 

CVE, as state-sanctioned Islamophobia and anti-Black racism, continues to fracture the energies and priorities of Somali Muslims and also those of the larger Black Muslim and Muslim communities in Boston. It also then shapes the Somali diaspora experience as one isolated from the experiences of other groups and diasporas that exist in the same geographical spaces such as Boston. Abdul’s question “Why just Somali youth up to now” reveals the importance of situating the realities of Somalis within the historical and contextual complexities of being Black, immigrant, and Muslim, and is something that youth organizers can readily grasp. By nature of the interaction with peers of color on their blocks and in their school, their residence and movement within these racially segregated neighborhoods in Boston, and their embodiment of these experience and conditions, young Somalis are able to quickly appreciate what it means to be policed and under surveillance without precedent. Perhaps they are the future of resistance against CVE in Boston.  

Hanna Sheikh recently received her BA in anthropology from Dartmouth College and hopes to pursue graduate studies in African and Somali studies. She will be working this fall as a research fellow with the Love Resists Criminalization Research Project with the Muslim Justice League in Boston. The Love Resists project entails research, conducted together with other community organizations, that will map how law enforcement engages in intrusion and how communities are resisting and creating mechanisms to survive under current surveillance.

Please send column ideas, photos, research updates, and other relevant information to the AfAA section news contributing editor, Christian Vannier ([email protected]).

Cite as: Sheikh, Hanna. 2019. “Counter-Extremism as Surveillance on the Somali Diaspora.” Anthropology News website, October 4, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1273

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