By Cæcilie Svop Jensen

 ‘The Kurds are no longer the forgotten people. The world has opened its eyes to the Kurdish nation and undermined the saying ‘no friends but the mountains’’.

The above quote is from an online Facebook post from 2019, in which a Kurdish diaspora organization in Denmark voiced its appreciation of the support for the Kurdish struggle it had received from another Danish organization. With a history of marginalization and oppression, the Kurdish people, in particular those in Turkey, have been fighting a decades long fight for independence and rights in ‘Kurdistan’, a geographical area that spans Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran (Candar 2013). What the quote suggests, is that in the context of Denmark at least, something is happening discursively that change the conventional conflict dynamics and invokes a sense of (seemingly unprecedented) support for the Kurdish struggles. These dynamics are at the center of my research on Kurdish and Turkish diasporas in Denmark, in which I look at online mobilization patterns to investigate how the Kurdish/Turkish conflict is reflected in online mobilization of the diasporas.

Despite their large communities and decades-long migration history, little academic attention has been given to the Kurdish and Turkish diasporas in Denmark (Schøtt 2019), making a study of how they mobilize and potentially transport conflict in the Danish context of great interest. Kurdish and Turkish immigrants and descendants constitute the two largest groups of ethnic minorities in Danish society (Danmarks Statistik 2020; Serinci 2011). Despite occasional clashes between Kurds and Turks (Birk 2019), levels of direct, physical violence seem relatively low compared to for instance Germany (Baser 2017), but communities remain quite mobilized, nonetheless. The visible presence of opposing communities for instance via demonstrations or physical clashes therefore makes for an interesting study for comparative purposes (Emanuelsson et al. 2015). In my research, I tracked four diaspora organizations that are visible and active on Facebook and geographically located in Copenhagen. Online mobilization of diasporas in the context of conflict transportation is similarly rarely investigated and when it is, it is often essentialized as long-distance nationalism and seen as both removed from offline settings or as a space for radical expressions of conflict (cf. Turner 2008; Martin 2019). The choice of using online sources of data collection and digital ethnography, was therefore also an attempt to fill this gap and look at the potential of online data collection for the study of diasporas and conflict.

In Denmark, the online mobilization of Kurdish and Turkish diasporas can be seen as a reflection of conflict, with visible processes of conflict transportation taking place in on- and offline spaces. While symbols, images, group boundaries and discourses are transported and used both in online spaces as well as offline demonstrations and gatherings, mobilization patterns also suggest a much more complicated picture than a simple transportation of conflict. Rather than mobilization being the result and reproduction of the Turkish/Kurdish conflict, it is intertwined with issues such as Muslim rights, women’s rights, other conflicts, equality and Danish welfare state values. The conflict is further reframed in the context of Europe by tying the security of Europe to the security of the Kurdish population in ‘Kurdistan’, the former depending on the latter. This reconstruction of conflict narratives reflects a process of autonomization (Féron 2017), in which conflict can involve different actors and flexible or changing objectives and stakes as it is reenacted in a completely different context.

Additionally, I found that the Danish context influences the repertoires of action used by organizations who navigate in different discursive opportunity structures (Koopmans 2004) than in the countries of origin. While support for the Kurdish struggles is prevalent in Denmark (as the quote also suggests), support for the Turkish government in public discourses is almost non-existent. This affects mobilization in a way that seems to proliferate the involvement of outside actors. In Denmark, ethnic Danes in particular have embraced the support for the Kurdish struggles to an extent where they not only mobilize in collaboration with diaspora organizations, but also mobilize autonomously of them, for instance through demonstrations or even by founding their own support organizations. As such conflict transportation in Denmark is highly influenced by actors that have no prior connection to the conflict, and it influences dynamics in a way that, as the above comment suggests, can even reverse traditional perceptions of Kurdish solidarities.

Organizations mobilizing in support of the Turkish government mobilize to a much larger extent as a reaction to Kurdish mobilization in Denmark. While Kurdish mobilization is mainly triggered by events in the countries of origin, Turkish mobilization is mostly a result of Kurdish mobilization in Denmark, at least if tied directly to the conflict. Turkish organizations benefit from much less public support than Kurdish organizations and they mobilize often for other issues, causes and even conflicts. These processes of deflection or avoidance by the Turkish organizations, in which the stress is put on other issues than the ones with little public support, can therefore potentially be explained as a process of conflict autonomization, where both conflict and mobilization become influenced by and influence the Danish context.

Long-distance nationalism fails to explain the full extent of these mobilization which can be better understood in the context of conflict autonomization. This concept sheds light on more complex dynamics of transported conflicts and helps to understand them as deeply intertwined with both the Danish context and transnational events and actors. Autonomization additionally leaves room for investigating the mitigating effects of conflict transportation, namely how autonomization processes can create or be conducive to varying degrees of ‘peaceful’ co-existence, for instance through practices of avoidance or deflection in the host country context.

My research further suggest that rather than looking at online mobilization as something that is removed from the on-the-ground processes and offline actions, digital spaces allow us to look at both online and offline patterns of mobilization as they are intertwined and influence one another. As has been argued in previous blogposts on DIASCON, the use of digital ethnography, or simply looking at online data when investigating diasporas, should therefore not be seen as inferior to conventional ethnography or offline sources of data. Lastly, online mobilization should not be seen as solely a space of long-distance nationalism and radical behavior. Rather, digital ethnography can be useful as a tool to understand some processes of mobilization that are highly connected to offline mobilization and influenced by host as well as home country settings and other transnational actors.

References

Baser, B. (2017). Tailoring Strategies According to Ever-Changing Dynamics: The Evolving Image of the Kurdish Diaspora in Germany. Terrorism and Political Violence, 29 (4), 674-691, DOI: 10.1080/09546553.2015.1060226

Birk, C. (2019). Tyrkere og Kurdere har været i konflikt i årevis i Danmark: Derfor stikker de hinanden. Berlingske Tidende, published August 24 2019, available at: https://www.berlingske.dk/danmark/tyrkere-og-kurdere-har-vaeret-i-konflikt-i-aarevis-i-danmark-derfor

Candar, C. (2013). On Turkey’s Kurdish Question: Its roots, present state, prospects. In Bilgin, F., & Sarihan, A. (2013). Understanding Turkey’s Kurdish question. The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.

Danmarks Statistik. (2020), ’Folketal den 1. i kvartalet’, Statistikbanken, available at: https://www.statistikbanken.dk/FOLK1C

Emanuelsson, AC., Baser, B. & Toivanen, M., (2015). Introduction to peace-building, post-conflict reconstruction, and return migration: a multidimensional approach on the Kurdish diaspora. Special Issue. Kurdish Studies Journal. vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 128-150.

Feron, É. (2017). Transporting and re-inventing conflicts: Conflict-generated diasporas and conflict autonomization. Cooperation and Conflict, vol. 52 (3), pp 360-376

Koopmans, R. (2004). Movements and media: Selection processes and evolutionary dy-namics in the public sphere. Theory and Society 33 (3– 4), 367– 391.

Martin, M. (2019). Rwandan diaspora online: Social connections and identity narratives. Crossings (Bristol), 10(2), 223–241. https://doi.org/10.1386/cjmc_00004_1

Schøtt, A. S. (2019). Ambiguous Interplays: Kurdish Diaspora Mobilisation in Denmark from Kobane to Afrin. Københavns Universitet, published June 2019, Copehnha-gen

Serinci, D. (2011). Hvor mange Kurdere bor der i Danmark?. Jiyan, published online Oc-tober 2011, available at: https://jiyan.dk/hvor-mange-kurdere-bor-der-i-danmark/

Turner, S. (2008). Cyberwars of Words: Expressing the Unspeakable in Burundi’s Dias-pora. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies: Diasporic Tensions: The Dilemmas and Conflicts of Transnational Engagement, 34(7), 1161–1180. https://doi.org/10.1080/13691830802230455

 

Written by Bruno Lefort

 

Because the word diaspora originally designates the dispersion of peoples from their homeland, we commonly think diasporic identities in the light of a triple context: their country of settlement, their country of origin, and the transnational space in-between. This becomes even more evident when it comes to reflect on the nexus between diasporas and conflicts. The notion of conflict importation, in particular, emphasizes how the presence of populations originating from war torn areas – or sharing alleged resemblances with specific conflict zones, be it cultural, religious, or ethnic – can lead to the displacement of these battlefronts in the host societies. Although such risks exist, often due to the deployment of transnational networks of mobilization, we should be careful not to lock diasporic populations in confined identities by assuming naturalized bonds between them and their supposed homeland. In the scholarship on diaspora, this danger of essentialization has been aggravated by what Nina Glick Schiller has called the “ethnic association fetish”[1]. By focusing on organized groups, typically with strong political agenda, studies tend to overemphasize the connections that indeed exist between parts of the diasporas and distant conflicts. To avoid reducing diasporic experiences to mechanical identification with and mobilization for homeland politics or conflicts, it is important not to limit our attention to organized collectives and restitute the diversity of diasporic lived realities.

In that perspective, zooming in people’s family and personal trajectories offers an opportunity to critically reexamine the complexity of diasporic identities and, by extension, the possible dynamics shaping their relations to given conflicts. During my fieldwork among Middle Eastern diasporas in Canada, it rapidly became apparent that the general dichotomy between “home” and “host” was misleading. It tends to infer an always-identical movement, often along a North–South divide, wrongfully presented as a unidirectional displacement toward peace and/or opportunities. Dominated by the image of economic success, this trope implies that migration ultimately equates to a teleological drive toward development and security, disregarding the agency of the people on the move. In fact, microanalysis unsurprisingly establishes that migration trajectories do not track along such a simplistic path, but rather follow manifold circuits with a succession of stages and back-and-forth movements. Reconstituting these itineraries allows to grasp the complexity people’s experiences of displacement and trajectories of identification.

 

Example 1: Back and forth across the Atlantic

Born in Canada in the mid-1990s, Mona[2] followed her family back to Lebanon before moving to Saudi Arabia. After she completed high school, she returned to Canada with her mother and siblings. Her father stayed behind as his professional position in Saudi Arabia was considered too much of an asset for the family to abandon. Although she strongly identified as Lebanese and actively took part in the Lebanese student association of her university in Montreal, she nonetheless had strong connections with Saudi Arabia. She also noticed how much the diasporic life distorts so-called cultural identities. In particular, while the Lebanese commonly emphasize the strength of their family bonds as a point of differentiation with other Canadians, she critically reflected on the reality of this assumption. Indeed, in her own life, the distance between her father and the rest of the family generated a sense of disconnection and a growing concern of alienation.

 

Example 2: A “diaspora” within the diaspora

Sylvia was born and raised in Senegal. Her father’s and mother’s families left Lebanon for West Africa in the 1930s and 1950s respectively. After getting married, they moved to Canada for their studies. They later returned to Senegal where they pursued their professional careers. When Sylvia reached university, the entire family settled back to Canada. Once in Montreal, Sylvia tried to connect with fellow Lebanese students, but often failed to feel part of their group, mostly because she never visited Lebanon, nor spoke Arabic. It was only with Lebanese originating from the West African diasporas that she was able to find common grounds. She expressed a complicated relation to her Lebanese identity and her difficulties to understand the divisions that resulted from the history of Lebanon, explaining that for her the intergroup conflicts were unnoticeable in Senegal.

 

Example 3: Mobility and memory of a distant path

Fouad spent all his childhood and youth in Lebanon, before moving to Canada to complete a doctoral degree in Montreal. However, he nonetheless referred to a complex family itinerary. While his father was originating from Palestine, where he was born before being expelled to Lebanon in 1948, his ancestors actually travelled the other way around, leaving Mount Lebanon to establish themselves near Haifa. Fouad often insisted on this past – as well as on the fact that his parents belonged to different religious groups – to underline his ability to adapt to different surroundings. As he himself became a father in Canada, he stressed that he was careful not to confine his son to a single identity, language, or cultural heritage.

These examples of complex itineraries immediately highlight the multiplicity of the resources available for people. Individuals and families took decisions to make the most of the situations in which they were thrown. They also used these diverse experiences to make sense of their life trajectories and construct their sense of belonging, playing with manifold contours and degrees of possible identifications. Exercising their agency, people identified and refused to identify more or less strongly with particular categories of belonging allocated (or simply available) to them in everyday situations, opening up an array of “competing regimes of difference”[3] that they could use to position themselves in interactions. For many among my interlocutors, their awareness of these possibilities even incited them to revendicate alternative identifications disconnected from any personal or family national, ethnic, religious, or cultural background. As Sylvia once put it to me:

Khalil Gibran wrote in one of his books: ‘you are rich of all cultures’. (…) I grew up in Senegal, then I arrived in Montreal, and I’m originally Lebanese…this is in my blood, I cannot change it. (…) I also studied in a French school and I learned other languages like Spanish. (…) When I came to Canada, I realized that I could easily go to Cuba. So, I went and I immersed myself into the Cuban culture. Because I have a passion for dance (…) and I love Latina dances. (…) I would love to do an internship that would allow me to visit South America, but through danse. (…) It’s amazing, when you danse, you immersed yourself into cultures. (…) Yes, I’m Lebanese but as I often told my parents, if I were born in another culture, it would be the culture of Latin America…Spanish or Brazilian…that’s also my universe.[4]

The way people played with these complex identifications could of course be interpreted differently. Sometimes, it appeared that they were trying to adopt what Ranita Ray coins “identities of distance”[5], that is, definitions of identities that evade the stereotypes associated with their marginalized and racialized condition. This could help to present a non-threatening image of themselves, distanced from the dominant images associating Lebanon with conflict and more generally Arabs with radical Islam. However, their aim might also be to simply escape identity assignations imposed on them by the majority population and multicultural institutions, and, in doing so, reaffirm their sense of self and local attachment. In many ways, their efforts reminded me of the elusive move between being acted upon and taking action at the heart of Michael Jackson’s existential anthropology[6].

For us in the DIASCON project, the reality of diasporas’ complex itineraries serves as a powerful reminder. It calls for a careful reexamination of the existing understandings of diasporic identities to better take into account how people shift between multiple (and often interconnected) possible identifications in their daily lives. Fundamentally, this urges to move away from culturally and spatially essentialist concepts that presuppose natural connections between territories, cultures, and belonging. It is especially true when it comes to study the relations between diasporic populations and conflicts. In that perspective, the notion of conflict importation proves particularly problematic as it ultimately assumes a mechanical transposition of conflicting identities between contexts. Instead, we intend to focalize on the eminently political events, actors, and contingencies that shape the nexus between diasporas and conflicts.

 

[1] Nina Glick Schiller. 2013. “The Transnational Migration and Paradigm: Global Perspectives on Migration Research”, in Migration and Organized Civil Society: Rethinking National Policy, edited by Dirk Halm and Zeynep Segin, 25-44. New York: Routledge, p. 29.

[2] All names are pseudonyms to protect people’s anonymity.

[3] Neriko Musha Doerr. 2015. “Commitment of Alterity and Its Disavowal: The Politics of Display of Belonging”. Ethnos, 80 (2), 149-165, p. 162.

[4] Interview with the author (Montreal, April 2017).

[5] Ranita Ray. 2017. “Identity of distance: How economically marginalized Black and Latina women navigate risk discourse and employ feminist ideals”. Social Problems, 65 (4), 456–472.

[6] See, for example, Michael Jackson. 2005. Existential Anthropology: Events, Exigencies and Effects. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.

By Cæcilie Svop Jensen

 

Diaspora organizations face constraints in host countries, among other things with regards to their level of access to policy makers, as well to the larger political opportunity structures (POSs) in the host countries (see for instance Baser 2017; Ong’ayo 2019).  

Diaspora mobilization and behavior are directly related to the possibilities and limits imposed by the host country (Østergaard-Nielsen 2003). These larger policy structures have a very real local level impact on the everyday lives of diasporas and diaspora organizations having to navigate these, and these links are therefore important to investigate in order to fully grasp diaspora dynamics. The interviews conducted as part of the DIASCON research project, help shed light on some of the strategies developed by diasporas who operate in these structures, which in turn can help expose some of the opportunities for alleviating the negative effects of POSs at the local level. Constraints are often multi-dimensional, and several factors can influence the spaces for mobilization of diasporas simultaneously. Constraints in the host countries can pertain to for instance lack of access to resources, difficulty in getting the agendas of organizations acknowledged in policy making, or limited and difficult funding mechanisms; but the leg-room for diaspora organizations also depends on the foreign policy of the host country and the relationship of the host country with the country of origin (Baser 2017, p. 677). 

The research done by the DIASCON research project offers valuable insight into these particular dynamics. During the course of the DIASON research project, several interviews were conducted with CSOs and representatives of diaspora organizations which helped shed light on the ways exclusion from and inclusion in policy making materialize in different contexts and shape the actions of the organizations. Often, policy makers do not grasp the complexity of the diaspora communities, or as one interviewee put it, ‘sometimes policy makers do not know to whom they are speaking’. It poses challenges as organizations try to form a unified voice, but need to navigate in a highly complex and often politicized community, challenges that are likely to be even more prevalent in diasporas where conflict in the country of origin is ongoing (see for instance Féron 2017; Koinova 2016). This is only made more complicated as umbrella organizations tend to be prioritized as interlocutors by host countries over smaller organizations, because they are often perceived to be more representative. In reality however, this is rarely the case. Diasporas are heterogeneous and complex and often have multiple and contradictory agendas simultaneously, which does not fit well with a structural preference for umbrella organizations. Among diasporas originating from areas of ongoing conflict, these differing goals and agendas can be especially conflictual and needs in the country of residence can be significantly different from those diasporas who do not originate from these areas. In this context, ensuring representativity is challenging, but glossing over these processes can unintentionally fuel competition and division within or between diaspora organizations in host countries. 

Moreover, diasporas are rarely involved in policies that affect or influence their opportunities for mobilization in the country of residence, nor the foreign policies related to the country of origin. In excluding diasporas from these processes, policy makers run the risk of missing out on valuable insights and contributions, and wasting the positive potential of diasporic communities. In fact, when diasporas’ are ‘utilized’ they are often operationalized for the benefit of the home or host country, and often without direct contact between policy makers and members of the diasporas. There are also risks of perpetuating or instigating conflicts in the diasporas, when policy makers address issues in the diasporas without paying attention to their internal differences. It is therefore not just a matter of inclusion, rather inclusion in the right way. Additionally, diasporas originating from conflict areas tend to be framed by what is happening in the country of origin alone, thereby overlooking other aspects of their diasporic experience, including their interests in the country of residence. All of these processes influence the everyday behavior of diaspora organizations, how they interact with local authorities, what they do to gain access and the way they frame their activity. It also influences the issues they take up and the way they choose to do so. It is important to emphasize that diaspora organizations can themselves be excluding, for instance by lacking the representation of young people or women, and that processes of exclusion therefore should not be understood as solely a matter of policy making and structures in the country of residence. 

The ways in which policy makers engage diasporas and the influence of the opportunity structures in the country of residence on diasporas, are important yet complex dynamics that warrant more research. In order to understand and properly engage with diaspora communities, it is necessary to shed light on the ways these dynamics influence the everyday mobilization of, and strategies adopted by diaspora organizations when navigating constraints and opportunities in the host country. While existing research on diaspora mobilization, POSs and home and host state configurations embrace the need for complexity in understanding these processes, there is still much to be learned from looking at local experiences in this context.

 

References

Baser, B. 2017. ‘Tailoring Strategies According to Ever-Changing Dynamics: The Evolving Image of the Kurdish Diaspora in Germany’, Terrorism and political violence. [Online] 29 (4), 674–691.

Féron, É. 2017. ‘Transporting and re-inventing conflicts: Conflict-generated diasporas and conflict autonomisation’, Cooperation and conflict. [Online] 52 (3), 360–376.

Koinova, M. 2016. ‘Sustained vs. Episodic Mobilization among Conflict-Generated Diasporas’ International Political Science Review 37 (4): 500–516. 36. doi: 10.1177/0192512115591641

Ong’ayo, A.O. 2019, ‘Diasporic civic agency and participation: inclusive policy-making and common solutions in a Dutch municipality’, Social Inclusion, vol. 7 (4), pp. 152-163 

Østergaard-Nielsen, E. 2003. The Politics of Migrants’ Transnational Political Practices. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

 

 

 

By Bruno Lefort

 

In the spring 2017, a few months after I settled in Montreal to conduct fieldwork among diasporic youth form the Middle East, I learned that, in 2009, the city had commissioned a monument to honor its Lebanese heritage. Inaugurated in 2010, the art piece was intended to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the arrival of Montreal’s first “Lebanese immigrant”. Immediately, I decided to pay a visit to the Marcelin-Wilson park where the monument was erected.

 

When arriving from the main avenue, the monument was still not visible contrary to a memorial for the Armenian genocide. I wandered deeper into the park and started to discern the dark 3-meter-high sculpture. As I came closer, I caught sight of a pyramid-shape monument, crowned with a Cedar tree, the national emblem of Lebanon. An engravement of the Phoenician alphabet stretched vertically from the bottom of the Cedar. On one side of the pyramid, a rank of three oars obviously evoked the Phoenician vessels. On the other, a print of an old Phoenician statue completed the monument. There was no inscription to explain the purpose of the construction. I took many pictures from the different sides and went home to learn more about the monument.

 

photo by Bruno Lefort

 

Forcing diasporas into national identities

Finding information on the monument was easy as the city of Montreal displays the list of all its public art monument online. I learned that the sculpture was entitled Daleth, after a letter Phoenician alphabet that also means “Door”. It was realized by the Montreal-born artist Gilles Mihalcean. Today, the official web page still reads:

 

Daleth presents three tableaux. On one side, a road in perspective leads toward the top of a triangular mountain, at the summit of which is a cedar tree, the emblem of Lebanon. This road is the symbol of peddling, the trade practised by the first Lebanese in Montréal and a gateway to the encounter of diverse cultures that is immigration. On the second face, three oars emerging from the granite structure refer to the history of the Phoenicians, ancestors of the Lebanese, who used boats to conduct their trade in cedar wood. On the third face are the 22 graphemes of the Phoenician alphabet, one of the earliest writing systems.[1]

 

In fact, despite the intension of the artist, Daleth symbolizes a conflict of memory. The exclusive allusions to so-called “Lebanese national symbols” ignores the complex history of migration from the Levantine region. Indeed, Lebanon as a country did not exist when the first “Lebanese” immigrants landed in Montreal during the 1880s. At that time, the territory of modern-day Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire and divided between three administrative entities: the wilaya of Beirut, the wilaya of Damascus and the semi-autonomous Mutasarrifate (province) of Mount Lebanon. For the Canadian authorities, these people were considered as Ottoman citizens, but also designated as “Arabs” or “Syrians”, sometimes “Levantines”[2]. More generally, their entries were soon subjected to the regulations and restrictions imposed on “Asians”.

 

To identify, the immigrants generally used the word “Syrians”. They established themselves in number around the Notre-Dame street, which became known as “La petite Syrie” [Little Syria] at the turn of the 20th century[3]. It was only in 1920, after the creation of the state of Lebanon under a French mandate that the former Ottoman citizens from greater Syria living in Canada were asked to opt for either the Lebanese or the Syrian citizenship. In case they failed to make a choice in due time, they would automatically become Turkish nationals. Afterwards, the denomination “Lebanese” imposed itself gradually in the second half of the 20th century following new waves of immigration from Lebanon.

 

This complex history has been materialized in particular in the names chosen by the immigrants for their communal associations[4]. One the first secular organizations they founded was the “Syrian National Society”, established in 1910. In the 1950s, it became the “Syrian Canadian Association”. Its name changed to the “Lebanese-Syrian Canadian Association” in the 1970s, under the influence of growing Lebanese immigration. International politics also played a role in this evolution, in particular the intensification of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Finally, the association was renamed “Lebanese Canadian Heritage Association” in  2006 following the disengagement of the Syrian armed forces from Lebanon, where they were stationed since the end of the Lebanese civil wars (1975-1990). These transformations denote a re-reading of the migration memory in the light of an exclusive Lebanese identity narrative. A trend that the Daleth monument equally illustrates.

 

Diasporas and the politics of memory

The limited vision of the Levantine heritage in Montreal expressed by Daleth also resonates with political conflicts that have structured the ideological debates since the creation of Lebanon in 1920. The foundation of the state rested on a political pact sealed between France and the elites of the Christian Maronite community. It was also imposed by force after the French military victory over the self-proclaimed Arab ruler of Syria, Faysal al-Hashemi. In this context, the reference to the Phoenician origins of Lebanon was an attempt to legitimize the invention of a state separated from the rest of Syria. Cultivated among the Maronite elites since the end of the 19th century the myth of the Phoenician roots was put forward as the basis of a Lebanese national identity distinguished from its Arab surroundings. Although historically fallacious[5], this narrative could be compared to other mythologies that are at the core of almost every national imaginary. However, in the case of Lebanon, this myth did not help to forge unity but instead intended to justify the political, cultural, and economic domination of the Maronite elites over the rest of the population, in particular its Muslim components. It became the heart of a symbolic struggle throughout the history of Lebanon between two visions of the country: on one side, a view defining Lebanon as integrated into the Arab world, with which it shared a common historical and cultural heritage; on the other side, an exclusive conception of a Lebanese identity strictly embedded into a Maronite political and religious ideology. This tension, often summarized by the over-simplifying opposition between Arabist and Lebanonist movements, has played a central role in the identity conflicts that precipitated the Lebanese civil wars between 1975 and 1990.

 

 

Therefore, the problem with Daleth is not only the reference to an anachronistic national myth that silences the complexity of the origins of the Levantine diasporas in Montreal. It is also that the symbols put forward to express the Lebanese presence in the city are closely associated with a powerful ideological struggle that has shaped the political landscape of Lebanon for decades. Daleth hence promotes a conflicting vision of history, exclusive of all Arab and Syrian experiences. It revisits the rich past of the Levantine communities in Montreal in the light of a nationalistic as well as chauvinistic trope. It essentializes 125 years of immigration under a single label, while in fact populations from the Levant have never constituted one single community mostly because they were constituted through a series of successive inflows that did not have much in common.

 

Drawing on family and life trajectories to embrace complexity

Contrary to the essentializing vision of Daleth, other memory works in Montreal have attempted to embrace the plurality of memories coexisting among the diasporic communities from the former Levant. It was in particular the case of the exhibition Min Zamaan [So long ago] organized at the Centre d’Histoire de Montréal[6] by Brian Aboud, a sociologist who specializes in ethnicity, migration, and racism studies, and himself originating from a Levantine family established in Canada in the 1900s. The exhibition intended to represent the kaleidoscopic memory existing in fragments among the diasporas. Drawing on a myriad of family stories and daily life objects, it brought to light a past that had until then remained largely invisible. Reconstructing narratives from scratches,  “Min Zamaan” offered an alternative to the template of the exclusively Phoenicianist Lebanese identity suggested by Daleth. It provided a framework in which people could incorporate their family or personal memories in all their diversity[7].

 

For me as a member of the DIASCON project, the lesson from Daleth is obvious. Studying diasporas from the standpoint of national categories bears the risk of shaping essentialist visions. Instead, I draw on family and personal trajectories as a way to incorporate the complexity of memories coexisting in all human communities. The stories shared with me during my fieldwork depict these complex itineraries that challenge both the discourses of fixed origins and the dominant vision of migration as a linear, unidirectional movement from the global south to the north. It is only by embracing complexity that it becomes possible to understand diasporic experiences in their varied forms.

 

References

All photos by the author

[1] https://artpublic.ville.montreal.qc.ca/en/oeuvre/daleth/ [last accessed February 2, 2021]

[2] See, for example, B. Abu Laban (1980) An Olive Branch on the Family Tree. The Arabs in Canada (McClellan&Stewart), p. 87.

[3] Ibid., p. 105.

[4] The following details come from an interview with Dr Brian Aboud. Montreal, May 23, 2017.

[5] See, in particular the work of the great Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi. K. Salibi (1989) A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered (University of California Press). More recently, the work of the British historian Josephine Crawley Quinn also claims that the “Phoenicians” as represented in particular in the Lebanese national myth never existed. See J. C. Quinn (2018) In Search of the Phoenicians (Princeton University Press).

[6] “Min zamaan – Depuis longtemps. La présence syrienne-libanaise à Montréal entre 1882 et 1940”. From October 10, 2002 to June 8, 2003. http://ville.montreal.qc.ca/portal/page?_pageid=8757,110299570&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL [last accessed February 2, 2021]

[7] Interview with Dr Brian Aboud. Montreal, May 23, 2017.

By Bahar Baser and Élise Féron

 

Over the past weeks, and even after the permanent ceasefire agreement signed on November 9th under the aegis of Moscow, we have witnessed a strong mobilization among the Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Turkish diasporas which has been kindled by the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh. Although the conflict has been taking place in the homeland, besides material contributions, diasporas are excellent assets for homeland actors to sustain PR wars outside the borders of the homeland. In Armenia the Diaspora High Commissioner’s Office had issued at the end of September a thinly veiled call to arms to the diaspora[1]. Even before this homeland calling, the Armenian diaspora had been eager to contribute to the cause either by sending remittances or by joining the war themselves as fighters.[2][3] The Azerbaijani diaspora had also been more active than ever, especially in the US where a highly educated diaspora community resides. They have been sending letters to the Senate, organizing demonstrations and collecting humanitarian aid for the wounded soldiers and their families through diaspora organizations.[4] Although the conflict is specific to the Azerbaijan-Armenian context, Turkey is also heavily involved with its state mechanisms as well as its domestic and diaspora populations.

Although the Nagorno Karabakh conflict had been mostly dormant for the last couple of decades, tensions among diasporas due to other issues including the recognition of 1915 events as genocide had remained considerable. All three groups’ collective memory is stained by past atrocities, territorial conflict, as well as open wounds which are not cured by coming to terms with the past. During the last decades Turkish diaspora organizations were working in cooperation with the Azeri diaspora to organize counter-lobby activities against the Armenian diaspora in the US as well as in Europe.[5] Since Armenia and Turkey have sizable diasporas, the transportation of this conflict to the transnational space seemed inevitable, especially during times of escalation and on-going warfare.

 

The escalation of tensions between diaspora groups

On October 28, it was reported that Turkish and Azerbaijani diaspora members in France and Austria had marched towards Armenian neighbourhoods. Turkish and Azeri groups in Lyon were filmed marching towards Armenian neighbourhoods chanting slogans of “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) and asking each other “where are the Armenians”. On October 31, a French memorial to the Armenian genocide was defaced with slogans promoting the Turkish ultra-nationalist organization the Grey Wolves. As a result, the French government immediately decided to ban the group.[6] Prior to this event, there had been violent clashes between the two groups also in Lyon (France) when Armenian protestors blocked a highway, generating fighting with Turkish diasporans who reacted to their demonstration while passing by. Another incident was also noted in the French town of Vienne.[7]

The incidents that occured in France this week did not occur in a vacuum. The Armenian diaspora has a strong presence in France (estimated around 600,000, 3rd largest Armenian diaspora after Russia and the US), and they also have a strong influence at the political level, e.g. in Parliament through MP groups such as “Groupe d’amitié France-Arménie”. The Turkish diaspora in France is also one of the largest diasporas in Europe, and as the latest 2018 expatriate voting results show, there is strong support for the current government in Turkey and its president Erdogan. The Azerbaijani diaspora in France is relatively small compared to these two groups, around 70.000.[8]

The French context can also be interpreted as a specific case considering the recent beheading of a French professor who showed Mahomet caricatures, and Turkey’s diplomatic tensions with France over Erdogan’s comments about President Macron who supported the principle of laïcité and the cartoons themselves. This led Turkey and other countries with a Muslim majority to call for a boycott of France and French products. Recent tensions in the Mediterranean over the past few months, where Macron had taken sides with Greece and Cyprus against Turkey, also play a role. Tensions between Armenians and Turks in France have thus to be understood within this rather strained context, as far as Turkish-French relations are concerned.

But these were not the first diaspora-related clashes, and France is not the only affected country. Since the conflict re-escalated, other incidents have been noted in Belgium, in Russia, and especially in the US where a sizable Armenian community resides.[9] In Boston for instance, Armenian demonstrations were interrupted by Azeri diaspora members.[10] In Brentwood, clashes made it to the evening news headlines.[11] In Brussels, seventeen Armenians were arrested for attacking Azerbaijani diasporans.[12]

 

Complexities of diaspora politics

The violent encounters, discursive wars, and lobbying and counter-lobbying efforts can be analysed within the framework of diasporas and transported conflicts as the escalation of events clearly shows that the contestations are rooted in both the conflict dynamics in the Caucasus, and the diaspora settings. One may ask, how spontaneous are these gatherings and non-systematic violent contentions? And, more importantly, why do tensions also occur between Armenians and Turks in the diaspora and not just between Armenians and Azerbaijanis? One explanation could be the smaller size of the Azerbaijani diaspora in the concerned countries (notably France and the US), as compared to Armenian/Turkish ones. It is no coincidence that Turkey has been investing in developing its relations with its own diaspora during the last decade with the aim of creating loyal communities to the new regime and its foreign and domestic agenda and therefore it has the capacity to organize such demonstrations of power which sends clear messages to the Armenian community and the host country about Turkey’s might and scope in this conflict at all levels. Another explanation could be that the Azeri and Turkish diasporas have been cooperating for decades when it comes to countering Armenian narratives about both the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and the 1915 genocide recognition. Both diasporas, for instance, were active in several European countries, jointly arguing that the Khocali events must also be recognized as genocide[13].[14]

The facts on the ground are very telling in terms of showing Turkish interests in the current conflict in Nagorno Karabakh and beyond. However, it is not only the Turkish diaspora which gets involved in this transported conflict. It is also the Armenain diaspora itself who frames the current clashes within the framework of a larger dispute between the Turks (including Azeris) and Armenians. Current tensions have to be read in light of pre-existing hostility between Armenians and Turks, in their home countries but also in diaspora settings. Members of the Armenian diaspora read what is happening in Nagorno Karabakh through the prism of historical Armenian-Turkish relations, and not so much in terms of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. For instance, Armenian protestors tend to frame the current events by referring to the 1915 genocide, although it does not have anything to do with the current conflict, and to treat the Azeri-Turkish block as a monolithic threat towards Armenian existence and survival. It is also interesting to note that the verbal hostility of Armenians, as expressed through slogans for instance, seems to be primarily directed towards Erdogan or Aliyev, rather than towards the Azerbaijani nation as a whole. In demonstrations and media outlets where Armenian diasporans are given a voice, it is observable that the accusations are usually against Turkey, in a way undermining Azerbaijan’s own agency in the conflict.

 

Conclusions

The recent events show that homeland conflicts can easily be transported to the transnational space especially at times of escalation in the homeland. Although it seems like there is no conflict among diaspora communities, dormant tensions can be rekindled within minutes and the relations can quickly worsen. For host countries, controlling these outbursts of hostility and violence proves tricky, as local security institutions are rarely equipped with the knowledge necessary for understanding why and how these tensions develop. Trying to prevent home countries from mobilising their own diasporas can also trigger international tensions and prevent effective mediation from taking place in conflict areas.

In many ways, diaspora clashes can be interpreted as proxy wars where homeland actors subcontract certain agendas to their diasporas either by strongly encouraging them to mobilise or by systematically designing their repertoires of action. This case shows us that not only war rhetoric but also historical narratives of oppression and injustices can be reproduced by diaspora members and used to serve certain aims when needed. Deescalation is expected now that a permanent ceasefire has been signed under the aegis of Russia, however this does not mean that the diasporas’ proxy wars will end. Deeper lobbying activities, canvassing allies (with other diaspora groups as well as host country policy makers), re-mobilisation of dormant diaspora members and state-led diaspora engagement activities will only accelerate further.

 

[1] https://www.facebook.com/DiasporaHighCommissionerOfficeArmenia/

[2]https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/03/armenian-diaspora-feels-pull-of-another-war-kardashian-azerbaijan

[3]https://uk.reuters.com/article/armenia-azerbaijan-volunteers-int/armenian-diaspora-rushes-to-nagorno-karabakh-to-back-troops-idUSKBN26U13N

[4] https://www.facebook.com/donate/363684671730953/10157888254413277/

[5]https://azertag.az/en/xeber/TURKISH_AND_AZERBAIJANI_DIASPORA_IN_EUROPE_AGAINST_OPENING_OF_BORDERS_WITH_ARMENIA-586927?__cf_chl_jschl_tk__=18d382fd58af266ddee5be601a85cfce5f64ecba-1604073638-0-ATDwPAL3ddvXzyIO_TVPe-Tk1mzC5378I_uHmaiu5zstnHhh8YT8huBqXkuJLlBe69d7cAqJ8aFeT-qUxHGpqfPpuBR7cj6ryTcXyRmoraDpuwaXcLepDdejRdxhon1qC5S1gqIClIhYre7PogxVYSuMcFITDDGDQWANMra0NCqNEwMSFUJxs3aIepxIJoEeoGoDxov9CW5GPpzOGSVslrUuUCSDj3rFTjsIifWFAVL9BOTGKLAOVEY9YEDyU4dMTWXeHcxbvqbTzdllNQYrzjVTSODcBdmFaf4c8PcFarMO6EeFnnkGwmxlpL6lx25pkGwLOAiJgptQa0hV2x-MALeQMZc7OScH7i8tylsevDR1FDNyAZ8Qjezycu_yoeL_g3JSrFaBWZBXUWZM9Y3Wf1Q

[6]https://www.news18.com/amp/news/world/france-to-ban-turkish-ultra-nationalist-grey-wolves-group-says-interior-minister-3034811.html

[7]https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/turks-azeris-lyon-france-armenians-vienne-video-b1422175.html

[8] https://tel.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-00834990/document

[9]https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/10/09/metro/boston-area-armenians-are-mobilizing-response-conflict-with-azerbaijan/

[10] https://mirrorspectator.com/2020/07/28/azerbaijanis-attempt-to-counter-two-boston-armenian-demonstrations/

[11] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jgX3XHjkIJs&ab_channel=NBCLA

[12] https://eutoday.net/news/security-defence/2020/violent-demonstrations-by-armenian-groups

[13] http://www.turan.az/ext/news/2019/2/free/politics%20news/en/79064.htm

[14] https://report.az/en/diaspora/finnish-parliament-to-discuss-khojaly-genocide/

 

By Gözde Böcü (PhD Candidate, University of Toronto) & Bahar Baser (Associate Professor, Coventry University)

 

In late June 2020, episodes of violent clashes erupted between members of Turkey’s diaspora in the neighborhood of Favoriten in Vienna, Austria. The clashes between Kurdish and Turkish ultranationalist groups lasted for four consecutive days after leftist groups including Austria’s Antifa and several Kurdish and leftist groups had organized a demonstration against fascism.[i] While tensions between Turkey and European states that arose during Turkey’s recent elections are not forgotten, spill-over of Turkey’s domestic conflicts to Europe continues to damage the country’s invested interests in diaspora diplomacy and soft power. While the Austrian and Turkish government summoned their respective ambassadors, and blamed each other for the violence, the incident only highlights the tip of the iceberg in the growing intra-diasporic polarization within Turkey’s communities in Europe, and perpetuates ongoing skepticism towards Turkey’s new state-led engagement with its diaspora in Europe. Although many states around the world now engage their diasporas, Turkey’s investment in reclaiming its diaspora in the last two decades has been perceived by European policy-makers as Erdogan’s attempt to consolidate his power through strengthening Turkish nationalism on European soil. 

With the foundation of various new institutions which aim to re-strengthen ties with the Turkish community abroad and tap their social, political and economic resources Turkey continues to enhance its influence in Europe. A significant portion of its policies have been dedicated to diaspora youth with the hope that future generations in the diaspora could help Turkey to create a more positive image by bridging differences between generations and countries in the transnational sphere. In this context, Turkey’s diaspora actors, for instance, recently made news across Europe for their unprecedented response in the fight against COVD-19 within their communities across host country contexts.[ii] A pivotal but unusual actor, in both negative and positive contexts was diaspora youth. While some youth actors violently clashed with members of their own community in Vienna,[iii] others provided masks, distributed food or offered additional services to the most vulnerable parts of society.[iv] How can we make sense of such ambiguous forms that Turkey’s immigrant youth take on the diaspora? Can positive actions by diaspora youth ameliorate security concerns among European policy makers and public opinion? 

 

Old Patterns, New Dynamics: Turkey’s New Diasporas and Youth Engagement 

In Europe, diaspora youth from Turkey has traditionally been approached by their respective host countries through a racialized and securitized perspective depicting immigrant youth as unassimilable despite living in various host country contexts in the third and fourth generation. With the impact of 9/11, followed by rising Islamophobia as well as the rise of an authoritarian regime in Turkey, these trends have only deepened. The historical roots of securitized approaches towards diaspora youth, however, go far back into the 1980s. Already in the 1980s when the Turkish-Kurdish conflict erupted in Turkey, radical groups clashed in violent street fights across different European host country contexts. Most prominently in Germany, ultranationalist Turkish groups often hijacked pro-Kurdish demonstrations, while Kurdish ultranationalists attacked Turkish shops and diplomatic representations abroad. In this context, it was predominantly young actors who engaged in contentious politics, often triggering debates on their ability to integrate into their respective host countries accompanied by sharp surveillance and security measures. In the old debates, it was the diasporas themselves that were accused of importing conflicts from their home countries. In current debates, however, we observe that  it is the Turkish state and its ruling elite that are blamed for exporting conflicts to Europe. How did this discursive change come into play? We argue that Turkey’s diaspora engagement policy, with its institutions and versatile actors are the main reason for this perception change. We further stipulate that even positive engagement by the Turkish state in youth’s transnational space are shadowed by the ideological burden of the diaspora engagement policy and the current Turkish regime’s political agenda in and outside Turkey.  

 

Turkey’s New Diasporas and Youth Engagement  

Although intra-diasporic conflict between diaspora youth is not a new phenomenon, there is  a new component that requires imminent attention by both academics and policy-makers alike. While Turkey adopted a rather reactive and passive stance towards citizens abroad over the last decades, in the 2000s the AKP has been highly proactive in reaching out to its diaspora – most prominently through electoral mobilization. A recent claim, however, targets future generations in the diaspora, namely young diasporans abroad. President Erdogan’s growing interest in shaping a pious generation of young citizens in Turkey as well as the regime’s concerns of brain drain into the West, have resulted in a growing interest to engage the youth both at home and abroad. In this context, youth actors in Turkey’s diasporas around the world are being increasingly mobilized through state-led initiatives spearheaded by Turkey’s Presidency For Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB). A review of Turkey’s diaspora policies reveals not only that the Turkish government has steadily expanded its outreach towards young diasporans since 2013, but that initiatives launched target a specific kind of audience susceptible to regime-loyal propaganda. In order to form a regime-loyal generation of young diasporans to come, Turkey has launched various programs that reveal its intentions to mobilize Muslim youth in favor of Turkey by putting emphasis on Islamophobia and exclusionary discourses in European host country contexts. In this context, initiatives such as homeland tours, stipends, international conferences and educational fairs are used to brand Turkey as an economically strong nation leading the Muslim world counting on its global diaspora youth to carry its message into the foreign policy sphere.  

 

Most recently, youth actors have also become prominent in the context of Turkey’s transnational efforts to foster closer ties with diasporans, and present itself strong developmental actor during the COVID-19 pandemic. Amongst Turkey’s transnational responses to the pandemic such as the repatriation of citizens abroad and the establishment of various new and at times digitalized services to diasporans,[v] Turkey also actively incentivized the involvement of young citizens abroad in the fight against the pandemic. With the establishment of a COVID-19 response fund initiated by the YTB on April 3rd, 2020, for instance, Turkey asked diaspora actors to get actively involved in activities to prevent the spread of the pandemic within their diaspora communities, and called for projects from within the diaspora to support diasporans during the pandemic.[vi] In this context, youth actors across Europe became frequently involved in various pandemic related campaigns such as producing and distributing masks and health equipment to diasporans, while also reaching out to the most vulnerable parts of the diaspora by taking on grocery shopping responsibilities.[vii] Moreover, Turkey’s YTB also incentivized young diasporans involvement throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic by using existing digitalized spaces such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, while also introducing new digitized formats such as digital concerts ‘Dijital Konserler’ by famous diaspora artists and young talents[viii] or by offering Turkish language education ‘Türkçe Saati Dersleri’ to engage the youth throughout the pandemic.[ix] In addition, YTB established a children’s program ‘YTB Çocuk’ offering series of Turkish language fairytales for Turkish speaking children covering fairytales from Turkey to Central Asia.[x] While the main purpose of Turkey’s new digitalized outreach was to ensure continued presence in and access to the diaspora, the majority of initiatives clearly targeted Turkey’s ongoing identity building efforts towards young members in the diaspora through the newly emerging digitalized sphere. By investing in such initiatives, the state authorities make sure to strengthen ties between the diaspora and the homeland, spread domestic propaganda abroad and work towards creating loyal communities outside its borders. These efforts do not go unnoticed by European policy makers who perceive Turkish diaspora youth as a tool under the pawns of the Turkish regime and as a threat to these young people‘s loyalties towards the country that they currently reside.  

 

Conclusion 

Turkey’s new transnational strategy towards young diasporans could be perceived as a benevolent attempt to empower marginalized immigrant youth in Europe. Taken as a whole, however, the content and target of its new youth engagement reflects an ambiguous form of engagement. On the one hand, Turkey’s attempts to generate gains from future generations during crucial domestic elections serves the purpose of legitimizing the competitive authoritarian regime. In addition, diaspora youth are used as brand ambassadors who may successfully lobby host country governments and further Erdogan’s foreign policy gains in Europe. On the other hand, however, by constructing a homogenous type of pious and regime-loyal diaspora youth, the regime seeks to generate future generations which will operate as guardians of the Turkish regime abroad. Thus, regime-loyal youth become multipliers of regime propaganda and repression who are ready to partake in violent clashes on behalf of the regime abroad.  

By engaging in such ambiguous forms of engagement, Turkey’s policies not only impede with the integration policies of host countries, but also deepen skepticism and prejudice among European policy-makers. Moreover, as Turkey’s new diaspora engagement towards pious and nationalist youth continues, youth actors that oppose the authoritarian regime such as Leftist, Kurdish or Alevite diaspora youth who are often excluded and at times repressed by Turkish state actors, continue to join forces against the regime. Ultimately, Turkey’s recent attempts to use diaspora youth for the benefit appear to backfire, and generate outcomes that do not really go hand in hand with the objectives of creating a soft power tool. 

 

References for Further Reading

Adamson, F. B. (2019). Sending states and the making of intra-diasporic politics: Turkey and its diaspora (s). International Migration Review53(1), 210-236.

Baser, B., & Ozturk, A. E. (2020). Positive and Negative Diaspora Governance in Context: From Public Diplomacy to Transnational Authoritarianism. Middle East Critique, 1-16.

Baser, B. (2015). Diasporas and homeland conflicts: A comparative perspective. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Eccarius-Kelly, V. (2002). Political movements and leverage points: Kurdish activism in the European diaspora. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs22(1), 91-118.

Féron, É. (2017). Transporting and re-inventing conflicts: Conflict-generated diasporas and conflict autonomisation. Cooperation and Conflict52(3), 360-376.

Öztürk, A. E., & Sözeri, S. (2018). Diyanet as a Turkish foreign policy tool: Evidence from the Netherlands and Bulgaria. Politics and Religion11(3), 624-648.

Østergaard‐Nielsen, E. K. (2001). Transnational political practices and the receiving state: Turks and Kurds in Germany and the Netherlands. Global Networks1(3), 261-282.

 

Footnotes

[i] https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/turkey-austria-trade-barbs-over-kurdish-turkish-clashes-in-vienna/

[ii] https://www.hurriyet.com.tr/avrupa/fransada-yasayan-turklerden-saglikcilara-yardim-41491367

[iii] https://kurier.at/chronik/wien/krawalle-in-wien-favoriten-wer-sind-die-akteure/400957196

[iv] https://www.sabah.com.tr/dunya/2020/03/20/almanyadaki-turklerden-corona-virus-yardimi

[v] https://www.dailysabah.com/opinion/op-ed/closer-transnational-ties-during-pandemic-turkeys-diaspora-engagement-policy

[vi] https://www.ytb.gov.tr/guncel/diaspora-covid-19-destek-ve-is-birligi-programi

[vii] https://www.aa.com.tr/tr/dunya/ytbden-almanyadaki-turklerin-sadaka-dolabi-projesine-gida-yardimi/1830983

[viii] https://www.ytb.gov.tr/haberler/ytbden-dijital-konserler

[ix] https://www.ytb.gov.tr/haberler/ytbnin-turkce-saati-proje-destek-programina-basvurular-basladi

[x] http://www.ytbcocuk.com/

By Cæcilie Svop Jensen and Élise Féron

 

Over the past few decades, the ways in which diasporas engage with politics in their countries of origin have frequently been explained and understood by researchers through the concept of long-distance nationalism. How has this concept been defined, and is it still useful for understanding today’s diaspora politics?

Coined by Benedict Anderson (1992), the idea of long-distance nationalism refers to the continued engagement of diasporas in homeland politics, and to the idea that diasporas somehow become gradually more radical than those who have stayed in their countries of origin. Long-distance nationalism, Anderson argued, ‘creates a serious politics that is at the same time radically unaccountable’, and this unaccountability adds to processes of radicalization (1998, p. 74). According to some authors, guilt also plays a role for explaining the radicalism of diasporas when a conflict occurs in their home countries, as their relatives in countries of origin are facing the consequences of a brutal struggle, whereas diaspora members tend to enjoy a safer environment in their host countries (see, e.g., Byman et al. 2001, 55). Demmers (2002) notes how the process of globalization makes it possible for nationalists to carry out their struggles on a global scale and how communities are being imagined in a new delocalized way (p. 93). She argues that this process is accelerated by advances in technology, increasing both impact and visibility of long-distance nationalism (ibid, p. 94). Similarly, Glick-Schiller and Fouron (2002) notes how long-distance nationalists are engaged in ‘some form of political project oriented specifically toward the territory they designate as homeland’ (p. 571) and that this engagement includes situating the center of identity in the homeland as well. 

While long-distance nationalism might be useful to understand some facets of diaspora behavior, there are important problems and challenges to consider when using this concept. First, long-distance nationalism contributes to the association that is often made between diasporas, violence, and even terrorism, and to crystallizing diasporas as unmoving objects that are forever stuck in long-gone representations of their countries of origin. Empirical evidence suggests that on the contrary diasporas are historical agents and dynamic formations, whose opinions and representations vary with time, and according to what is happening in their countries of origin, but also in their countries of settlement and in the transnational space. In addition, diasporas are more often than not deeply divided by political cleavages related to their countries of origin, demonstrating the necessity to understand long-distance nationalism as a category of potential practices rather than as a unified political stance. This suggests that the concept of nationalism tends to be used here in a very loose, and possibly unoperationalizable, manner. Further, the concept of long-distance nationalism is exemplary of a certain tradition in diaspora studies to analyze diasporas as receptacles of events that are happening elsewhere, and as primarily defined by their (national) origins.   

As has been well documented, diasporas often spend a lot of time engaging in politics of the host country, rather than being ‘long-distance nationalists’. This includes lobbying for improved conditions in terms of integration or welfare or engaging in and facilitating community-building activities. Additionally, diasporas do not exclusively engage in home country conflicts, but mobilize for conflicts in countries from which they do not originate. This is exemplified for instance in the mobilization of the Chechen diaspora for the conflict in Syria, or the solidarity movements for the Palestinian cause. 

In parallel, diasporas are very often major actors in peace and development and can occasionally be described as peace makers. However, this engagement for peace and reconciliation is often overlooked. In their comparison of Sri Lankan and Irish diasporas’ contributions to peace, Cochrane, Baser, and Swain (2009) show for instance that the Irish diaspora in the US has sent much more money for peace activities or cross-community initiatives than to the IRA or other armed groups in Northern Ireland. But this aspect of their engagement has often been glossed over, by researchers and policy makers alike, thereby contributing to the portrayal of diasporas as radical.

Additionally, research has shown instances of diasporas mobilizing as a response to activities not directly connected to the country of origin. Baser (2016) shows how Turkish mobilization in Sweden developed as a reaction to Kurdish mobilization rather than being a result of long-distance nationalism. Stressing the importance of long-distance nationalism similarly falls short of fully explaining how diasporas can be brought into being long after migration has taken place. This is exemplified for instance in the increased identification of migrants from Azad Kashmir as Kashmiri rather than Pakistani in the wake of the insurgency against Indian control in Jammu and Kashmir in 1989 (Ali, Ellis and Kahn 1996), or the mobilization and development of a distinct Kurdish community and identity in the 1980’s in Denmark as a reaction to escalated conflict in Turkey (Schøtt 2019, p. 93). Another process exemplifying the complex relationship between diasporas and home country politics is that of ‘conflict autonomization’, namely how the transportation of conflicts to host country settings might involve a deep change in narratives and structures of the so-called ‘transported’ conflicts, as compared to those happening in home countries (Féron 2017). 

In fact, the idea of long-distance nationalism is based on a supposed discrepancy between diasporas’ beliefs and representations regarding their countries of origin, and the reality on the ground. Recent research, however, suggests that members of diasporas tend to be exposed to more information, and to more diverse sources of information, than people directly experiencing the conflict back home. In that sense, information technologies which have dramatically increased diasporas’ capacities to have access to information, and to fact check it, have played a paramount role in reshaping their relations to home country politics. Over the past decades, the notion of “transmigrants” notably developed by Glick Schiller and others (2004), has also challenged the idea of diasporas as far removed from what is happening in their home countries. The notion of transmigrant puts the stress on the increasing number of people who are no longer physically detached from their countries of origin, but commute on a regular basis, and thereby develop a transnational identity. ‘Transmigrants’ build social fields, maintain relationships that span borders and develop identities that connect them to two or more societies simultaneously (p. 214). 

Although the idea of long-distance nationalism continues to be prevalent in approaches to understanding diaspora behavior, recent research suggests it does not fully capture the many ways diasporas express and conduct their political participation in both home and host country settings. While the concept can be useful to analyse some aspects of diaspora mobilization, and to map ideological discrepancies between home country and diaspora actors, it should be handled with caution. If not, it might add to stigmatizing and somewhat simplified views of diaspora behavior, and help perpetuate securitized understandings of diasporas. 

 

References

Ali, Nasreen, Patricia Ellis and Zafar Khan (1996) The 1990s: A time to separate British Punjabi and British Kashmiri identity. In: Singh, Gurharpal and Ian Talbot (eds.): Punjabi identity: continuity and change. Delhi: Manohar: pp. 229-256

Anderson, B. (1998). The spectre of comparisons : nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the world . Verso.

Anderson, B. (1992). The new world disorder. New Left Review, 193, 3–.

Bahar Baser. (2016). Diasporas and Homeland Conflicts: A Comparative Perspective. Taylor and Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315577012

Byman, Daniel, Chalk, Peter, Hoffman, Bruce, Rosenau, William, Brannan, David. (2001) ‘Trends in Outside Support for Insurgent Movements’ (Rand Corporation Report).

Cochrane, Feargal, Baser, Bahar, and Swain, Ashok. (2009) ‘Home thoughts from abroad: Diasporas and peace-building in Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka.’ Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 32(8), pp. 681-704.

Demmers, J. (2002). Diaspora and Conflict: Locality, Long-Distance Nationalism, and Delocalisation of Conflict Dynamics. Javnost – The Public: Diasporic Communication, 9(1), 85–96. https://doi.org/10.1080/13183222.2002.11008795

Féron, É. (2017). Transporting and re-inventing conflicts: Conflict-generated diasporas and conflict autonomisation. Cooperation and Conflict, 52(3), 360–376. https://doi.org/10.1177/0010836716671759

Glick Schiller, Nina & Fouron, George. (2002). Long-Distance Nationalism. The anthropology of politics : a reader in ethnography, theory, and critique, 356-365 (2002). 10.1007/978-0-387-29904-4_59.

Glick Schiller, Nina, Basch, Linda, and Blanc-Szanton, Cristina. (2004) ‘Transnationalism: A New Analytic Framework for Understanding Migration,’ in Mobasher, M., and Sadri., M. (eds.) Migration, Globalization, and Ethnic Relations. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, pp. 213–27.

Schøtt, A. S. (2019). Ambiguous Interplays: Kurdish Diaspora Mobilisation in Denmark from Kobane to Afrin. Det Humanistiske Fakultet, Københavns Universitet.

 

By Anna Quattrone

 

Despite a three-decade long ethnic conflict, Sri Lanka is a multicultural country characterised by the peaceful coexistence of different religious worships. Although «the social landscape of the country tends to show an association between ethnicity and religion», as Sinhalese people mainly practice Buddhism (70,2%) and Tamils primarily follow Hinduism (12,6%), syncretic practices are widespread and in some cases both ethnicities are Catholic believers (Scroope 2016). Since worship practices in the homeland as well as in diaspora settings display fluid interactions, the possibility of investigating whether religious syncretism and intersectionality have the potential to overcome ethnic cleavages in the hostland is of great interest.

For Sri Lankan communities living in Italy “religious syncretism” and “spiritual cosmopolitanism” are important elements of identity building and communal cohesion, as they allow migrants to reproduce in the hostland the religious practices and relations with the sacred that characterise the homeland, while appropriating new social spaces and resisting cultural assimilation (Benadusi 2015; Burgio 2003, 2016; Goreau-Ponceaud 2018). Although religiosity is an essential element of identification processes, it does not have the effect of dividing communities, instead it contributes to create bonding relationships and shared practices of worshipping. In this sense, an interesting case is represented by Hindu Tamils living in Palermo -a town in southern Italy- who do not have a specific place where they can celebrate their religious rituals. Hence, they have to share their place of worship with other Hindu believers belonging to different ethnicities and, in addition, they usually participate in Catholic rituals (Altavilla, Mazza, Mercatanti 2012; Brunetto 2005; Burgio 2003). For instance, on Sundays some Hindu Tamils wake up early to join the procession toward the Pilgrim Mount, which is held in worship of Saint Rosalia according to the Catholic ritual (Burgio 2003; Colosi 2000; Interview A). In a festive and spiritual atmosphere, Tamil families meet at the slopes of the mount and begin the ascent together: when they arrive in proximity of the sanctuary, they kneel to complete the path toward the cavern of the Saint and the altar where they light a candle (Brunetto 2005). The sanctuary carved in the rock reminds Hindu Tamils of their homeland temples and it has a deep symbolic value for them, as it represents an emotional threshold to Sri Lanka: on the Pilgrim Mount Tamils could formerly hope for the end of the war and the advent of peace, and nowadays they can pray for their beloved people far away, and they can offer to the Saint their most intimate feelings (Brunetto 2005).

The syncretism emerging from this description can be explained by the nature of Hinduism whose theology is open to dialogue with other faiths. Although for Tamil believers there is a difference between being Catholic or Hindu, it is not irreconcilable: this is because Deity is unique but has many expressions and Tamils respect any of them, included Saint Rosalia (Burgio 2003; Interviews A and B). This attitude is reciprocated by Catholic Tamils who participate in Hindu rituals, as they believe that faith is a universal force encompassing different worships (Burgio 2003): this conception is further reinforced by the educational patterns experienced in Sri Lanka, as in homeland schools Tamil students are taught both Hinduism and Catholicism in order to have a comprehensive knowledge of the two religions (Burgio 2003; Interviews A and B). This is what happened to two Tamil sisters, who have grown up with the idea that «there is no difference between religions» and that «although any worship has its name and its God, faith is unique and universal». For this reason, they were encouraged to attend classes of Catholic religion at Italian schools and syncretism became part of their daily rituals in many forms: in their prayer rooms Hindu Deities lay side by side with the Crucifix and both women usually go both to Hindu temples and Catholic churches, as the form of religiosity is not important, but rather «with what heart, with what purity you pray» (Interviews A and B). This configuration is common within Sinhalese communities as well: a Catholic interviewee who married a Buddhist woman told me that Sinhalese people share many social spaces and organise activities together despite their different worships (Interview C).

When investigating whether shared practices of worship have the potential to overcome ethnic and identity tensions in order to achieve an encompassing integration in the hostland, based on mutual respect for differences, it is important to consider the influence of the hostland context. In Italy indeed, where homeland sacrality and rituals of daily religiosity are missing, it may be more difficult for Sri Lankans to practice their native worships and the need for spirituality might find new forms of expression, especially since the presence of Buddhist and Hindu temples is limited (Interviews D, C and A). Although in rare and contingent occasions religious syncretism and intersectionality prevails over ethnicity, for instance during special Catholic pilgrimages in Sri Lanka (Interview E) or with mixed diasporic communities in Northern Italy, the healing potential of shared religiosity is limited. Empirical evidence show that different worships coexist and merge only within the same ethnic group, while Sinhalese and Tamil believers tend to remain separate even if they belong to the same faith. This is mainly due to the fact that the two ethnic communities often live in separate neighbourhoods and they celebrate the same rituals in different languages (Interview F): these obstacles significantly reduce opportunities to meet and interact, and therefore to build bridging relationships with both the other ethnicity and the local society. In conclusion, in Italy religion does not succeed in creating new spaces for mutual recognition and dialogue conducive to more peaceful relations between Sinhalese and Tamil diasporas; on the contrary, it may involuntarily end in perpetuating patterns of ethnic segregation.

References

Altavilla, Anna Maria and Mazza, Angelo and Mercatanti, Leonardo. 2012. “Two solitudes: Singalesi e Tamil tra Catania e Palermo”. Geotema, 43-44-45: 52-57.

Benadusi, Mara. 2015. “Sacred spaces and border crossing: Sinhalese dreams of a Sri Lanka-Sicily round trip”. Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences, 38(2): 95-105.

Brunetto, Claudia. 2005. “Gli Indù di Palermo hanno scoperto Rosalia”. La Repubblica, September 2nd 2005. Accessed on January 27th 2020. https://ricerca.repubblica.it/repubblica/archivio/repubblica/2005/09/02/gli-indu-di-palermo-hanno-scoperto-rosalia.html.

Burgio, Giuseppe. 2003. “Tra Ganesh e S. Rosalia. La comunità dei Tamil a Palermo”. In Religione popolare in Sicilia, edited by Francesco Cultrera, 119-141. Palermo: Provincia Regionale di Palermo.

Burgio, Giuseppe. 2016. “When interculturality faces a diaspora. The transnational Tamil identity”. Encyclopaideia, 20(44): 106-128.

Colosi, Francesca. 2000. “Santa Rosalia adottata dai Tamil. L’abbiamo ricoperta d’oro”. La Repubblica, April 16th 2000. Accessed on January 27th 2020. https://ricerca.repubblica.it/repubblica/archivio/repubblica/2000/04/16/santa-rosalia-adottata-dai-tamil-abbiamo-ricoperta.html.

Goreau-Ponceaud, Anthony. 2018. “Religious dynamics of Sri Lankan Hindu Tamils in Paris: constructions of the self and the Other”. The South Asianist Journal, University of Edinburgh, 6: 120-149.

Scroope, Chara. 2016. “Sri Lankan culture”. The Cultural Atlas. Accessed on August 11th 2020. https://culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/sri-lankan-culture.

By Anna Quattrone

 

I recently analysed the processes of identification and mobilisation of Sri Lankan diasporas in Italy. It has proved of great interest, given the lack of comprehensive academic work on their political engagement in home and host countries beyond the peace vs war maker dichotomisation and the LTTE’s politics. My objective was to explore how Sri Lankans in Italy perceive themselves in relation to both their countries of origin and of settlement, and how their social and political participation is configured. Particularly, the aim was to investigate whether the homeland inequalities and lines of tension have been transported to the hostland, or whether they have taken different configurations under the influence of new asymmetries of power.

Italy represents an especially interesting case in relation to Sri Lankan diasporas as, conversely to traditional patterns of migratory segregation, it hosts both Sinhalese and Tamil communities. These connections were built on a history of migration and education inspired by the Catholic Church, whose ecumenical policies allowed foreign priests to take educational trips to Italian cities (Benadusi 2015; Brown 2011; Pathirage, Collyer 2011; Interview E). Hence, when Sri Lankan priests who travelled to Italy in the late 1970s met Italian families interested in hiring domestic workers, they helped to establish transnational employment networks between the two countries (Brown 2014; Ferrario 2019; Pathirage, Collyer 2011). While first migratory generations were induced to leave Sri Lanka because of their socioeconomic hardship in the homeland and the desire to uplift their status, following flows mainly comprised both Sinhalese and Tamils forced to flee by violence escalation and insecurity during the civil war (Benadusi 2015; Brown 2012, 2014; Dissanayake, Senadhi 2018; Henayaka-Lochbihler, Lambusta 2004). Therefore, the situation in Italy allows to overcome the dichotomisation usually associated with the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and to appreciate the political activism of Sinhalese and Tamils in Italy: in fact, their complex and nuanced understanding of Sri Lankan conflictual dynamics significantly influences their forms of mobilisation in Italy.

In the hostland, Sri Lankan diasporans belonging to the first generation often hold a more nationalist and conservative view as compared to their compatriots in the homeland (Interview A), showing a form of long distance nationalism (Baser 2014, 2017; Demmers 2002; Féron 2013; Féron, Lefort 2019). This is because they have remained rooted in crystallised conceptions of the homeland and its contentious politics (Interview A): according to these static imaginaries, Tamils usually describe the Sri Lankan government as a dictatorship that perpetrated a genocide against them, while Sinhalese often consider Tamils as those who have supported the civil war and terrorism in the homeland (Interview F). The political activism of Sri Lankan diasporas has also entailed the transportation of homeland conflictual dynamics to the hostland, even though this process has been highly context-dependent. In northern and central Italy, conflict transportation seems almost absent, as both groups coexist peacefully and their relationships are characterised by practices of mutual sharing. This process might be the result of the interaction between the pluralistic and welcoming societies of these regions and, perhaps, the more economically oriented diaspora sections settled there. Conversely, in southern Italy the homeland conflict has been transported at the social and discursive levels, taking the form of mutual avoidance, spatial segregation and inter-group distrust. In this case, the more conservative and traditionalist attitudes that sometimes characterise southern regions might have nurtured the already existing cleavages, making diasporic communities reinforce their crystallised views of homeland dynamics (Interviews B and A).

Moreover, in the Italian context the transported conflict has taken different configurations as compared to Sri Lanka: discriminatory practices and violent behaviours have disappeared, while new issues and repertoires of action have emerged (what we can call conflict autonomisation). In fact, both Tamil and Sinhalese diasporans are becoming engaged in Italian politics as well, focusing their activism on the achievement of a better socioeconomic (racism and discrimination) and political (citizenship) integration into the hostland (Interviews D, B, A and C). Furthermore, the political activism of Tamil second generations has taken new forms and issues, as they actively lobby Italian institutions for the recognition of their peculiar identity and of the genocide -«a second silent Shoah»- perpetrated against their people in Sri Lanka (Interviews B and C). To mobilise in different contexts of settlement, they have opted for more effective repertoires of action rooted in the hostland: in contrast to the militant nationalism and public protests of first generations, young diasporans have begun to pool their competencies together in order to find a political solution to Sri Lankan contentious dynamics (Hess, Korf 2014; Rasaratnam 2011; Interview B).

Both Sinhalese and Tamils in Italy display a significant open-mindedness in relation to the civil war, as they blame the homeland government for capitalising on ethnic differences and express the wish for a future of peaceful coexistence, where all ethnicities would be equally granted rights and citizenship (Coccaro 2009; Interviews D and G). Although the legacy of the conflict is still burdensome and continues to be present in the imaginary of diasporans, the sense of estrangement and the need to overcome common difficulties in the hostland may have promoted new inter-ethnic alliances, in the absence of new lines of tension based on the situation in Italy. In this context, diasporic activism has developed on two political fronts -Sri Lanka and Italy- and young generations have begun to look at their homeland as a land of opportunities (Interview A). Perhaps, with their new competences and different attitudes they may pave the way for a bottom-up change in inter-ethnic relations and power structures, although political parties and identity entrepreneurs are powerful actors that cannot be overlooked when analysing the future of Sri Lankan society.

References

Baser, Bahar. 2014. “The awakening of a latent diaspora: the political mobilisation of first and second generation Turkish migrants in Sweden”. Ethnopolitics: Formerly Global Review of Ethnopolitics, 13(4): 355-376.

Baser, Bahar. 2017. “Intricacies of engaging diasporas in conflict resolution and transitional justice: the Kurdish diaspora and the peace process in Turkey”. Civil wars, 19(4): 470-494.

Benadusi, Mara. 2015. “Sacred spaces and border crossing: Sinhalese dreams of a Sri Lankan-Sicily round trip”. Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences, 38(2): 95-105.

Brown, Bernardo. 2011. “Indifference with Sri Lankan migrants”. Ethnology, 50(1): 43-58.

Brown, Bernardo. 2012. “Undocumented Sri Lankan migration to Italy: its rise and fall”. Groundviews, Journalism for Citizens, February 8th 2012. Accessed on January 16th 2020. https://groundviews.org/2012/08/02/the-rise-and-fall-of-sri-lankan-undocumented-migration-to-italy/

Brown, Bernardo. 2014. “From Guru Gama to Punchi Italia: changing dreams of Sri Lankan transnational youth”. Contemporary South Asia, 22(4): 335-349.

Coccaro, Assunta. 2009. “Sri Lanka, una comunità a Salerno. Il lavoro si cerca porta a porta”. La Città, March 6th 2009. Accessed on June 5th 2020. https://www.lacittadisalerno.it/cronaca/sri-lanka-una-comunit%C3%A0-a-salernoil-lavoro-si-cerca-porta-a-porta-1.1216174

Demmers, Jolle. 2002. “Diaspora and conflict: locality, long-distance nationalism and delocalisation of conflict dynamics”. Javnost – The Public: Journal of the European Institute for Communication and Culture, 9(1): 85-96.

Dissanayake, Lakshman and Senadhi, Nethra. 2018. “Social consequences of Sri Lankan migration to Italy: an exploratory study”. International Journal of Advanced Research and Review, 3(9): 7-16.

Féron, Élise. 2013. “Diaspora politics: from ‘long distance nationalism’ to autonomisation”. In Migration and organised civil society – Rethinking national policy, edited by Dirk Halm and Zeynep Sezgin. London: Routledge: 63-78.

Féron, Élise and Lefort, Bruno. 2019. “Diasporas and conflicts – Understanding the nexus”. Diaspora Studies, 12(1): 34-51.

Ferrario, Donatella. 2019. “Comunità Srilankese di Milano”. Milano Attraverso, August 6th 2019. Accessed on June 3rd 2020. https://www.milanoattraverso.it/ma-comunita/10/comunit%C3%A0-srilankese-di-milano/

Henayaka-Lochbihler, Ranjith and Lambusta, Miriam. 2004. “The Sri Lankan diaspora in Italy”. Explorative mapping submitted to the Berghof Research Centre for Conflict Management.

Hess, Monika and Korf, Benedikt. 2014. “Tamil diaspora and the political spaces of second-generation activism in Switzerland”. Global Networks, 14(4): 419-437.

Pathirage, Jagath and Collyer, Michael. 2011. “Capitalising social networks: Sri Lankan migration to Italy”. Ethnography, 12(3): 315-333.

Rasaratnam, Madurika. 2011. “Political identity of the British Tamil diaspora: implications for engagement”. Diaspora Dialogues for Development and Peace Project. Berghof Peace Support and Centre for Just Peace and Democracy.

By Cæcilie Svop Jensen

Methodological nationalism is often mentioned as one of the pitfalls in research on diasporas and although it has been amply problematized in recent years, it continues to pose a challenge to diaspora research. Schrooten notes how moving towards methodological transnationalism opens up possibilities of research and generates new spaces in which to investigate diaspora behavior (Schrooten 2012, p. 1796). She uses the notion of methodological transnationalism to refer to an approach to diaspora research rooted in transnationalism and while this is not a new approach, Schrooten emphasizes how this involves the study of online communities. Often, ethnographic research on diasporas is situated in the context of offline activities. While understanding the offline activities of diaspora communities is vital, a disregard for online ethnography means leaving out important aspects of diaspora behavior. 

Diasporas are multi-sited, deterritorialized and operate in multiple spaces and arenas simultaneously. Bearing this in mind, researching diasporas through on-the-ground fieldwork alone seems insufficient. Multi-sited ethnography should include the study of online activity, especially in the context of researching diasporas and their relation to homeland conflicts as that relationship has the potential to be situated as much online as offline.   

Digital ethnography adapts conventional ethnographic methods to the study of communities created through computer-mediated social interaction. This refers to, for instance, the study of online social media, such as Facebook and Twitter as well as websites representing communities in other ways, such as blogs and opinion pieces and visual data, such as video and pictures. As already mentioned, ethnographic research on diaspora activity online is scarce. Turner (2008) argues that the online activity of Burundian diasporas takes on a life on its own, freed from the constraints of time and space, and removed from the reality on-the-ground in Burundi (p. 1176). Turner’s argument, however, presents online diaspora behavior as somewhat removed from reality which undermines the very real influence on our lives that communicating online has. Brinkerhoff (2009) investigates diaspora-websites and ‘cybercommunities’ and how the internet helps shape identities and behavior in diasporas. Other studies show the importance of diaspora media in contributing (positively and negatively) to conflicts ‘back home’ (Ogunyemi 2017). The existing digital ethnography studies on diasporas demonstrate their potential for data collection and analysis. 

I am currently studying online communities of Kurdish and Turkish diasporas in Denmark and have been both prior to and during the Covid-19 pandemic. In these communities, it seems online activity did not greatly increase in the phases of lock-down but was very much present and flourishing before as well. This includes posting on Facebook pages of organizations; sharing videos of demonstrations held in different parts of Denmark; sharing events from associated organizations and hosting online events; sharing news of relevance to the communities; informing of events happening in the countries of origin; and calls for online action, such as donations and information sharing. In addition to Facebook activity, there are online news platforms by diaspora members which include blog posts and opinion pieces and pictures from events. Using digital ethnography, you can locate and map out networks of organizations by looking at how they interact on social media and websites. Backtracking online activity provides the opportunity to locate important events and examine peaks of mobilization, and through comparing blogs, websites of organizations, social media and diasporas-led news channels it is possible to identify key actors or ‘political entrepreneurs’ in the communities. Using the available textual material on websites of diaspora organizations or posts on Facebook it is possible to analyze discourses, narratives and framings of for instance conflicts in the homeland. Visuals such as pictures and symbols figuring on websites, in discussion forums and blogs makes semiotic analysis possible. Murthy (2008) mentions more interactive kinds of digital ethnography such as Facebook pages created by researchers for online focus groups (p. 845).

While the visual and textual data is plentiful there are important considerations to point out when conducting online fieldwork. One of the issues worth mentioning is its lack of locality, the exploration of the unspecified space that constitutes the internet. When conducting digital ethnography, you are accessing communities not limited to a physical space. People are in contact with and access people across cities, borders, regions, create new constellations and connections that transcend offline settings. With this in mind, when studying diasporas online, what parts of a diaspora are you really looking at? How do you define or delimit the communities in question? Contrarily, with the weight of online communication in our everyday lives, how do we conduct ethnographic research without taking this into account? Conventional ethnography focuses on the ‘direct and sustained contact with human agents in the context of their daily lives’ (O’Reilly 2004, p. 3) and digital ethnography does exactly this, only mediated through online channels of communication. Digital ethnography requires a reimagination of traditional perceptions of ‘the field’ that properly embraces online activity as useful spaces or sites of research. Another thing to consider is of course the ethical considerations associated with conducting online research, particularly the concept of ‘lurking’ on online communities and consent when using material that is shared online. 

In a previous blogpost Élise Féron, Anna Quattrone and I discussed the challenges and opportunities of researching diasporas in times of Covid-19. The current pandemic is a chance to reflect not only on the potential of researching online diaspora activity, but also on the necessity of this to properly understand the intricate workings of diaspora communities. Of course, digital ethnography cannot, nor should it, substitute traditional on-the-ground ethnography, but it does offer insights into diaspora communities not graspable from a conventional approach. In addition, a focus on digital ethnography in the study of diasporas inevitably brings with it a transnational approach and unlocks a universe of diaspora activity worth complementing offline ethnography.  

References

Brinkerhoff, J. (2009). Digital Diasporas: Identity and Transnational Engagement. In Digital Diasporas. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511805158

Murthy, D. (2008). Digital Ethnography. Sociology (Oxford), 42(5), 837–855. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038508094565

Schrooten, M. (2012). Moving ethnography online: researching Brazilian migrants’ online togetherness. Ethnic and Racial Studies: Methodologies on the Move: The Transnational Turn in Empirical Migration Research, 35(10), 1794–1809. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2012.659271

Turner, S. (2008). Cyberwars of Words: Expressing the Unspeakable in Burundi’s Diaspora. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies: Diasporic Tensions: The Dilemmas and Conflicts of Transnational Engagement, 34(7), 1161–1180. https://doi.org/10.1080/13691830802230455

Ogunyemi, O. (2017). Media, Diaspora and Conflict. In Media, Diaspora and Conflict. Springer International Publishing AG. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-56642-9

O’Reilly, K. (2004). Ethnographic Methods. In Ethnographic Methods. Taylor and Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203320068