A social media campaign is calling for the boycott of Chobani yogurt and targeting Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya for his support of refugees around the world. Ulukaya is a Muslim Kurd who grew up in Turkey and has built a hugely successful business that employs thousands of people in New York State and Idaho. The campaign against him reflects the twin threats of anti-immigrant bigotry and anti-Muslim extremism.
In 2015, the image of a Syrian Kurd toddler lying dead on a Turkish beach sparked near-universal horror, and prompted efforts worldwide to help the flood of Syrian refugees fleeing their country’s violence. Hamdi Ulukaya led a number of these efforts, investing generously in aid programs and visiting refugee camps. He launched a foundation to support displaced people, and pledged to give away most of his wealth to programs that assist refugee families. His advocacy extends to his own company and factories, where he employs more than 300 refugees.
Anti-Muslim extremists, on the other hand, responded by accelerating their attacks on refugees and their supporters, including Ulukaya; in a campaign that appears to have started in early 2016. On January 20, 2016, the right-wing online newspaper WND published an article titled “U.S. Yogurt billionaire asks businesses to hire more foreign refugees” which included an ad hominem attack on Ulukaya, accusing him of turning the Twin Falls, Idaho area into “a prime spot for refugees for years to come.”
According to the article, “Ulukaya opened the world’s largest yogurt factory in Twin Falls about two years ago, and the plant now employs 600 people with about 30 percent of those jobs filled by foreign refugees shipped to the U.S. from United Nations camps in the Middle East and Africa.” The article went on to claim “Ulukaya’s efforts appear spurred by his own cultural background as a Kurdish Muslim.”
The author of the WND article, Leo Hohmann, has a history of anti-Muslim bigotry, and has been cited by prominent anti-Muslim extremists, including Frank Gaffney, founder of the anti-Muslim think tank Center for Security Policy.
In the wake of the WND story, other anti-Muslim extremists began to escalate their attacks on Ulukaya. Notorious anti-Muslim bigot Pamela Geller posted a blog piece attacking him for his call to American businesses to help refugees; Geller described Ulukaya’s activism as “stealth jihad.”
Other prominent names in the world of anti-Muslim extremism have joined the chorus of attacks on Ulukaya. In September 2016, Bridget Gabriel, founder of the anti-Muslim organization Act for America, gave a speech warning of the threat immigrants pose to America. In her speech, she accused Muslim refugees of raping children and bringing illnesses to the US.
Gabriel then launched a venomous attack on businesses that support refugee resettlement – including Chobani. “Next time you buy Chobani yogurt, I want you to remember that Chobani yogurt is one of the largest employers of these refugees,” she told an applauding audience.
Months before Gabriel’s speech, the Idaho Chapter of Act for America was already promoting the hashtag #BoycotChobani. Others in the Alt Right jumped on the hashtag and helped advance the boycott calls, as did articles on the right-wing website Breitbart. Other anti-Muslim extremists, including Walid Shoebat and Robert Spencer, have also attacked Ulukaya for his efforts to help refugee communities. Thanks to this encouragement, the Chobani Facebook and Twitter pages were peppered with bigoted, angry comments.
It appears that Geller, Spencer, Shoebat and the rest of America’s anti-Muslim xenophobes have forgotten that they live in a country built by refugees and immigrants -- including people like Hamdi Ulukaya.