Sunday, July 19, 2009

When America falls short

Somalia, a country in East Africa has suffered from civil war for many years. 200,000 Somalis fled to the US; 70,000 of them live in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in the largest settlement of Somali refugees in the US. Many of these refugees came as children, often without parents. They graduated from high school here. Many are now in college. They have become American citizens.

The FBI has conducted a major investigation of the Somali community in recent years after 40 young men “disappeared”--supposedly they returned to Somalia and joined a radical Islamist organization that is trying to take power in the country. One of the young Somali-American men died on a suicide mission in Somalia last October.

The FBI is asking who persuaded these young men to return to a country they barely knew since they, after all, had been children when they left. Many of them are said not to speak Somali any more. It is clearly important to find out who is persuading these young men to leave Minnesota to return to fight for a cause they are unlikely to understand fully.

But there is another important question: what moved these 40 young men to allow themselves to be persuaded? Most of the Somali-American young people were not moved to leave their friends and their education in the US to return to their distant home land. But these forty were sufficiently unhappy here to be willing to go an fight for a cause that is remote from the life they have lived in the US. At least one of these young men was sufficiently unhappy in the US to be willing to sacrifice his young life in a terrorist bombing.

Not knowing these men personally, we cannot really answer the question about their unhappiness with any confidence. We could reject the question altogether by saying that these forty men were “misfits”, permanent malcontents, or perhaps so damaged by their war torn childhood and emigration without their families that they could never be happy anywhere. But, of course, we do not know whether that is true.

Others claim that the Somalis had more problems “integrating” themselves than other Muslim immigrant groups. But here we must remember that integration is a two-way process. I may, as an immigrant, try as hard as I can to become a regular American but if the other Americans keeping seeing me and treating me as a foreigner, all my efforts to integrate myself will fail. We must therefore ask ourselves whether these Somali young men were touched by pervasive American racism and xenophobia.

A friend of the Somali-American, Shirwa Ahmed, who returned to Somalia and died a suicide bomber, reports that when they would meet, Shirwa “ just used to encourage me to pray, and do good, and think about life." These are not the concerns of many young people in the US. Before turning to Islam and Islamic politics, Shirwa, like his friends had a job the offered little satisfaction—other than money. He worked at the airport. In their time off, they would hang out at the Mall of the Americas. Life consisted of earning money and spending it, not of doing good and thinking about life. It was a life lived by many young, and older, Americans: a lot of work—often quite boring—and some fun on the weekends. But such a life has not much meaning, it is not really a good life.

This life of work and some fun is, in the end, very isolated. You work to earn money for yourself and, at best, for your family and you spend it on yourself and on them. You are not part of a larger effort. After 9/11 people placed bumper stickers on their cars saying “United we Stand” but there were no common efforts, not citizens organizing themselves for defense or to support the families of victims. “Go shop” the President told us. Although we have been at war for 7 years now in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is no war effort at home. Communities do not come together to help returning veterans or the families of soldiers. We leave that to the government while we go to work and shop. We lack a common effort, a community.

A good life does not just consist of work that is bearable only because one gets paid for it. Good work is challenging. It requires skill. We learn new things when we do good work and at the end of the day we can be proud of what we have accomplished. Valuable work benefits someone else or the community. In the course of working you establish some important ties to people whom your work benefits, or perhaps to the employer you work for. But most employees are dispensable. The company will talk a lot about the “team spirit” but you get fired with minimal notice if the company decides to move overseas. The employer tries to make your work as routine as possible so that anyone can do it, allowing your wages to be kept as long as possible.

A good life includes plans, not just for oneself but plans for improving the community shared with one's neighbors. ( I am not referring to communities unified by narrow, hate filled ideas—I big topic I cannot explore here). It is guided by shared ideals. A good life includes moral principles and perhaps religious commitments. But most Americans believe that “everyone chooses his or her own values.” Moral values are not shared, they do not connect us with others; they are all our own—and we are all alone. Yes, some people are “activists” they work to improve their community, to make change somewhere. But they are often quite marginal. Most people react to the life of work-and-spend by being cynical--”you can't fight city hall”-- or simply disinterested--”It is no concern of mine.”

Many people lead lives, as Thoreau said, “of quiet desperation.” In response to that empty and isolated life some young men may well seek meaning and community in fighting for Islam in Somalia. For them, America did not offer the good life promised.