The death of George Floyd during a botched arrest propelled Minneapolis into the headlines as the city became the centerpiece in a debate about persistent, if not systematic, racism in the United States as well as the nature of policing today. In politics, however, Minneapolis has become ground zero in a different conflict originating more than 8,000 miles away.
Speaking at his first post-pandemic campaign rally in Tulsa, President Donald Trump raged against Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Somalia: “She would like to make the government of our country just like the country from where she came. Somalia,” he declared.
For Trump, Omar is both a political and an ethnic target. On Nov. 6, 2018, Omar became the first Somali-American and, alongside Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. Her home city Minneapolis hosts the largest Somali community in North America, and the United States itself hosts 7 percent of Somali migrants worldwide.
Trump may see in Omar all Somalis, but within her own district the situation is far more nuanced. Hyphenated identities are problematic, because they elide diversity within nations and communities. Suffice to say, Somalia is an extremely complex society. Somalia’s political orientations are generally formed by clan, expediency, and opportunism rather than by ideology, and different clans dominate other regions and leave their marks.
The country is today comprised of six states. Somaliland — the northern-most state which declared its independence in 1991 — was a victim of genocide perpetrated against the Isaaq clan by Cold War-era dictator Siad Barre. Now, however, it is a peaceful and thriving democracy counting five peaceful transfers of powers and elections secured by biometric iris-scans. Siad Barre’s nephew Abdullahi Farmajo is today president in Mogadishu, and presides over a very different political culture. Puntland — best known to Americans as the former center of piracy in Somalia — is today increasingly defined by the inroads the Islamic State has made in the region.
Over the past 16 months, I have made multiple trips to both Somaliland and to Kenya to interview current and former officials and civil society activists in Somalia, Somaliland, and Kenya about issues involving Somali politics, great power competition, the fight against terrorism, and U.S. national security. The trips to Somaliland were self-funded, although a development conference at which I spoke in Nairobi provided roundtrip economy class airfare there. I receive no compensation for any work or analysis about the Horn of Africa. Everywhere I went, Somalis were as anxious to talk about U.S. politics as I was about Somali politics.
Just as the U.S. political press celebrated Omar as a pathbreaker, Somalis from across Somalia were also proud of her rise. Her subsequent family turmoil, embrace of progressive social causes, and foreign policy focus, however, have led to criticism among some Somalis in Somalia, who point out that Omar won a seat not only on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, but also on its Africa subcommittee. With the Horn of Africa receiving little U.S. attention since the post-“Black Hawk Down” withdrawal from Somalia more than 25 years ago, many Somalis among the more than four dozen I spoke to hoped that Omar would focus sustained attention on the region and on diplomatic efforts to restore democracy to Somalia and advance U.S.-Somali ties.
Instead, Omar made the Palestinian issue a cornerstone of her congressional activism.
Omar’s foreign policy partisanship in the broader Middle East also raised suspicion among some Somalis. Somalis and Somalilanders both suggested to me that Omar continues to internalize local divisiveness — and some Somalilanders suspect that her partisan approach in the Horn of Africa context leads her to ignore if not seek to undercut Somaliland’s more liberal democracy and democratic progress.
Somalilanders with family back in the United States often asked me about the candidacy of Leila Shukri Adan, a Minneapolis community activist whose family came from Somaliland — largely because they hoped she might better promote Horn of Africa stability as a foreign policy focus (Shukri Adan has since withdrawn).
Once again, one of the problems with the term Somali-American is that it ignores Somalia and Somaliland’s political diversity.
It is insulting to assume that hyphenated Americans will prioritize the countries of their birth. I may be Jewish with family from what is now Ukraine, for example, but I seldom work on Israel or Ukraine. At the same time, it is natural for politicians elected on the strength of a diaspora community and with family remaining in the region to be informed about and invested in that region and to focus the limelight that comes with higher office upon the country to which their community maintains cultural, if not political, ties.
Minnesota’s 5th District may have other priorities, but in Somalia, there remains hope that someday those who migrated might work both to promote democracy and also to develop closer ties between the United States and the Horn of Africa.
Alas, as Omar’s first term draws to an end, Somalis within the district are divided, and many of those back in Somalia appear disappointed that Omar’s Middle East activism represented a missed opportunity for U.S. ties to a long-neglected region of Africa.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, he teaches classes on terrorism for the FBI and on security, politics, religion and history for U.S. and NATO military units. He has a Ph.D. in history from Yale University.