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When Culture’s Soft Power Confronts Hard Limits

Music- and art-based outreach programs have been successful in combating extremism in cities like Minneapolis, but they're facing a roadblock. Stringent visa standards from the State Department are blocking many foreign artists from entering the country, and harming communities that need these programs the most.
Somali women and men performing the traditional Dhaanto dance-song in Jubaland. (Photo: Middayexpress/Wikimedia Commons)

Somali women and men performing the traditional Dhaanto dance-song in Jubaland. (Photo: Middayexpress/Wikimedia Commons)

Can world music counter Islamic extremism? That’s the question Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis is asking.

Minneapolis hosts the country’s highest population of Somali immigrants, and in recent years, “Little Somalia”—a large neighborhood of Somali refugees and asylum seekers near the University of Minnesota—has come under particular scrutiny over concerns about Islamic extremist recruitment. Since 2007, at least 23 young men from the Twin Cities have left to take up arms in the horn of Africa.

Over the past year, the Cedar Cultural Center has joined a growing list of groups and organizations using music-based outreach programs to Muslim communities to increase cultural understanding and counter extremist influences. Or at least, that’s what they’re trying to do. The problem is that in a time when cultural understanding is more critical than ever before, it’s become an uphill battle for artists from Islamic countries to obtain permission to travel to the United States.

Like the State Department’s recent Center Stage initiative, which brought international musical acts like Hoba Hoba Spirit from Morocco and noori from Pakistan to tour the U.S. to promote cultural diplomacy, Cedar—working with neighboring Augsburg College—received grant funding through the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Building Bridges Program. Cedar’s program was created to increase public understanding of Muslim cultures by bringing Somali musicians like Cali Dhaanto from around the world for week-long residencies.

Cedar’s program was created to increase public understanding of Muslim cultures by bringing Somali musicians like Cali Dhaanto from around the world for week-long residencies.

Born and still living in Ethiopia, Dhaanto is a young Somali performer who has popularized a traditional style of singing and dancing (“dhaanto”) with a new generation around the world, mostly young adults with Somali heritage. He is a refugee, like so many of his fellow countrymen, due to over 30 years of civil war in his home country. He tours extensively in Europe but has never performed in the U.S.

Residents of the Little Somalia community identified Dhaanto as a positive and popular representation of Somali culture that could appeal to all ages. When Cedar offered him a residency last year, he cut short another fellowship in Sweden to fly home to Addis Ababa for visa interviews at the U.S. Embassy there. At the conclusion of his appointment, an official handed him a letter, written in advance, that said his visa had been denied because he “had not demonstrated that he had the ties that would compel him to return to his home country after his travel to the United States.” Having immediate family and property in Ethiopia and prioritizing the U.S. program above his work in Stockholm had not been convincing.

Because decisions made by consular officers to deny visas cannot be appealed, Dhaanto’s only option is to re-apply at a future date and come to his next interview prepared with much more documentation to show his ties to his home country. But subsequent conversations between Cedar’s staff and immigration attorneys and other visa experts indicate that he may never reach Minneapolis—or any other American city.

What Dhaanto may not be able to alter is how likely those in charge are to perceive his cultural background as a potential threat. Minneapolis-based immigration attorney Laura Danielson explains, “Somalis are the new Cubans or Communists, or going way back to the railroad days, the Chinese.”

When asked for comment, an official from the State Department responded that “Religion or country of origin is not an inadmissibility or ineligibility according to the INA (Immigration and Nationality Act)” and that an application can be denied due to lack of information, because the applicant does not qualify for the visa category for which they applied, or “because the information reviewed indicates the applicant falls within the scope of one of the inadmissibility or ineligibility grounds of the law.”

This is exactly what they are supposed to say. But the fact is that groups working with funding from the same Building Bridges program have encountered similar barriers. A play scheduled in September 2014 at Georgetown University, “Syria: The Trojan Women,” was to feature the stories of a dozen female Syrian refugees from that besieged country. The run of performances had to be cancelled when none of the women could obtain visas.

Jonathan Ginsberg, a prominent immigration attorney based in the Washington, D.C., area who worked on the “Trojan Women” case, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that “what’s in play is the growing involvement of DHS [Department of Homeland Security] in visa affairs, in a post 9/11 environment, and it is affecting the arts across the board. It is more difficult than it has been in years to get the underlying petitions approved” for visas in the performing arts, Ginsberg says.

So where does that leave those in Minneapolis—from non-profits to community members to law enforcement—who wish to use the performing arts as a tool for cultural understanding? A local FBI officer who attended a Somali event at Cedar last year, for example, recently made it a point to praise the work done by Cedar and others to engage the Somali community. This agent is not alone in his belief that providing creative options for Somali youth could be a productive means to help them avoid participating in potentially destructive activities.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the West Gate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2013, even more scrutiny has been placed on the Somali communities of Minneapolis, particularly after al-Shabab claimed that several Somali Americans from the Twin Cities had been involved in the attack. But despite the efforts to counter the influence of violent extremism, and the initiation of community outreach programs to further this mission, our overly zealous post-9/11 security restrictions may actually be inadvertently thwarting these efforts and, in turn, preventing other effective means of ensuring America’s national security.

This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.