Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Radical diasporas

Hisham Melhem, writing in Politico Magazine, asks the following questions:
Who are these enraged young Muslims, and why do they feel so much hatred for their native countries? How did it happen that their parents—often first-generation immigrants just trying to get along and make a buck—kept their heads down and made no trouble, while the children who were generally better off economically were lured by a suicidal ideology networked into their minds from thousands of miles away?
In the rest of the article, Melhem details the general conditions of Muslims in America and compare this to Muslims in Europe, noting that there is significant divergence here. Muslims in America are more integrated into American culture, by and large, than are Muslims in most European countries, where they tend to live in their own communities and are (in Europe)—on average—worse off, from an economic standpoint. He also makes the following excellent observations:
Some analysts have noted that the French have met their own 9/11 on November 13th. But there is one major difference. The young terrorists of 9/11 were not of America; they came from beyond the seas, and were strangers to our ways, habits and values. The November 13th terrorists, just as the terrorists of last January, are the lost children of France; they are the descendants of those immigrants who came to the M√©tropole decades ago from the many provinces of France’s colonial empire in mostly Africa and particularly from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. They are French citizens, but some of them are not quite of France, opting or made by necessity to inhabit a parallel society, which means that their economic and cultural assimilation is either incomplete or suspect and not welcomed by a segment of the larger population because they are Muslims, and because of their lower socio-economic conditions.
Yet, the most recent Islamic terrorist attack in the United States—in San Bernardino—indicates that such differences are not sufficient in and of themselves to stop the growth in popularity of radial Islamic views among younger Muslims in the United States.

Melham concludes his piece with some recommendations on how to address the questions he raised, recommendations which fairly call for action from both the Muslims/Mulsim communities in the United States and from the rest of the nation, from the government and its leaders:
But it is morally imperative for the president and congressional leaders to inject the right inclusive tone, into the political discourse particularly in times of adversity, to guard against the politics of exclusion, fear and demonization. Those who shape opinions and attitudes, whether in the mass media, academia or civil society at large, should hold public figures who engage in demagoguery, selective outrage and outright lies accountable; scoundrels should be called out...  
Meanwhile, Muslims should accept what took Christians and Jews a long time to accept, that their religion—their sacred texts, their prophets and the whole historic experience of the faithful—can and should be critically and rationally examined, criticized and revised...

The challenge for Muslim communities in Europe and America is similar; they cannot be in France but not of France, in America but not of America. An American Islam and a French Islam should be encouraged and embraced.
These are, I think, fair recommendations. But they are also almost trite, to some extent, as they amount to a call for everyone to "just get along." Moreover, the entirety of the piece—while a welcome and well-researched bit of calm sanity in the larger discussion—fails to place this issue in a full historical context.

That context is the quite common growth of radicalism, support for the same, and/or an overly nationalistic sentiment for the "homeland" that seems to almost always be an element of various diasporas throughout history. Radicalism in the Muslim diaspora—both in the United States, in Europe, and elsewhere—is just the latest iteration of this phenomenon.

For those unclear on the terminology here, diaspora refers to a scattering of a people whose origins—cultural, racial, ethnic—have a defined geography. Traditionally, it was used mostly in reference to the Jews, i.e. the Jewish diaspora in 18th century Europe. And there is an implied element of necessity beyond the spread of a group, as well. Sometimes—as in the case of the African diaspora in the New World—the spread is completely involuntary, while other times—as with the Irish diaspora in the United States (that began withe Irish famine in the 19th century)—it is a response to local events. Right now, the Syrian refugee crisis is creating a world-wide Syrian diaspora.

Looking back at past diasporas, again there is commonality here: support for radicalism within such communities. When it comes to the Jewish diaspora, it's history goes back a long ways, to Roman times and before. But throughout the centuries, the diaspora has always been a hotbed of support for attempts to reclaim the Promised Land, long before Israel was rebirthed in the aftermath of World War II.

Irish leaders, circa 1922 (source:
UK National Archives)
In contrast, the Irish diaspora is a far more recent thing. And when the IRA was in full bloom, fighting for Irish independence, much of its support came from the diaspora in the United States. Indeed, members of the diaspora who were born in the United States still saw themselves as Irish first. Many even went to Ireland to fight for independence, including √Čamon de Valera, one of the principal leaders of the Irish struggle for independence.

It is, I think, worthwhile to note the last, insofar as we are seeing something similar today. Indeed, with regard to the Israel/Palestine conflict, we have been seeing it for decades, as members from both diasporas are heavily involved, vocally, financially, and on occasion physically. Now, we also have a more general involvement of the Muslim diaspora—sometimes a nation or ethnic-specific subgroup within it—with a number of conflicts throughout the globe, though mostly centered around ISIS.

But getting back to history and diasporas, there is also the Cuban diaspora who fled the island nation in fear of Castro's rise, various ethnic diasporas created by the Soviets (Estonians, Georgians, etc.) who continued to self-identify as members of their ethnic community, supported radicalism (in this case, "radicalism" was an antagonistic approach to the radicalism of the Soviets) and were at the forefront when these nations shook off the Soviet yoke (also true of the Chechens, by the way, whose failure to achieved statehood led to greater radicalism).

Then there is the diaspora of Native Americans within the United States, proper. As is the case for those groups mistreated by the Soviets, the case can be made here that Native Americans were wholly justified in actions they took, but that is besides the point, which is that the forced relocation of peoples here led to a rise of radicalism, from one point of view or another.

Indeed, it can be fairly said that the English—or even Christian—diaspora who settled the northern Colonies exhibited this same tendency: a turn to radicalism. Only in this case, the radicalism was dumping the idea of divine right and never really led to a need to reclaim their homeland, probably because there were too many options to offset this (like westward expansion and the their eventual ability to dominate the Native Americans through force of arms). Still, the attachment to England has never really faded and continues to this day.

And maybe that's the real nut of the problem, the core as it were: the continuous attachment of a diaspora to its place of origin, regardless of generational factors. Indeed, oftentimes, it seems that such attachment grows in future generations, rather than recedes, as was the case for the Irish and now seems to be the case for many Muslims.

An awful lot of time has been devoted to talk of how this rise of Islamic extremism has a large economic component, how it is a product of a moment when young men have limited opportunities, are living "lives of quite desperation." Yet as Melhem notes, such is not really the case for Muslims in America. Such was not the case for the Irish in America of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, either. At least not when their situations here are compared to what their situations would be back in their "homeland." In the case of the San Bernardino shooters, we're not talking about poverty-stricken, unemployed people with no other options in the least.

No, the economic component is being vastly overstated, in my opinion. The issue is ultimately tribal; it is the need for people to group themselves, to belong to a "tribe," be that tribe ethnic, religious, or nationalistic. And on its own, this isn't necessarily a horrible thing. I think, however, that the distance of the diaspora from its perceived place of origin accentuates these tribal instincts. There is a supposition of purity in the place of origin, a purity that can exist there and nowhere else. I hear it from my Cuban friends all of the time, I've heard it from Irish friends as well, and from Muslim ones.

Idealization is the real enemy here, an idealization that is buttressed by tales of the past, by story and song, by food and cultural practices. It's not that members of a diaspora are unwilling to adapt, it's that they are fixed on their identity, often need that identity to steel themselves in the face of change and adversity. Because remember, by and large the initial members did not leave just because they felt like a change; they left because they were forced to, because they had to, or because they felt they truly needed to leave their homelands. Understandably, they still want what they lost or what they imagine they lost. By and large, their children learn this same worldview. So when there is a reason to radicalize, these children are prime candidates.

The fix? I don't know that there really is one, apart from time.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, Rob
    I have a couple of issues with your piece here. First, "Mulim Diaspora" is somewhat of a problematic concept. Syrians have zero affinity to Iran, and Yemenites don't have much affinity to Kuwait. Nasser tried to create Pan-Arabism. It failed. Islamists try to create a unified "Muslim" identity. To a large degree, I think this will fail as well.
    The second problem is somewhat bigger. The major difference between most of the cases you state are whether "radicalism" (a somewhat vague concept here in itself) is directed towards the host country. Let's leave the Native Americans to the side since their case is a very different one. If you compare supposed Jewish radicalism, or even a Palestinian one, to what Melhem is talking about, it is apples and oranges. The former is directed at a problem removed from the host country. In the latter case the radicalization leads to rejection of the host country's foundational principles etc. So, the two are not the same at all