Discussion-Dealing with Diasporas

 (or, Dialing for Diasporas)


Seventh World Convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities

Columbia University, New York, NY, April 11-13, 2002


Alexander H. Joffe

West Asia Environmental Security Project

New Rochelle, NY 10801


I’d like to begin my comments with a few words on the concept of diaspora and then turn to diaspora politics.


Contemporary scholarship on diasporas regards the dispersal of communities as a modern condition, intimately associated with the West, with late capitalism, or post-colonialism. Nothing could be further than the truth, for nothing could be a more common feature of human geography, demography and politics. Dispersals – including migration, expulsion, and state sponsored activities such as colonialism and conquest - are common as far back to the Bronze Age and earlier, and has always been the norm. In the final analysis we are all products of the African diaspora, of homo sapiens sapiens 100,000 years ago, which replaced the earlier dispersal of homo erectus, and so on. What distinguishes a diaspora from an ethnic group is simply a sense of dispossession, real or imagined. The key phrase is “we sat down and wept,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’d really like to go home again. The universal cycle of wash, rinse, and repeat makes each diaspora just a little less special.


But in the words of the late Speaker of the House, Thomas Tip O'Neill, all politics are local. What truly is different today is the expansion of the local, thanks to the compressions of time and space brought about by technology. No longer must members of communities at far remove from their homelands await letters or newspapers or pamphlets carried by isolated travelers, or clipper ships, or delivered narrowband through telegraph or newspaper, or even telephone and television. As Homer Simpson has put it, they have the Internet on computers now.


The immediacy of global communications and the availability of global transportation has meant a deeply new level of involvement of diaspora communities in the politics of home, and the reverse. One question is therefore how have these technologies changed diaspora politics? How does the capability to be deeply informed about issues, and to communicate and interact in highly complex manners affect the conduct of politics? And what are the consequences of diaspora groups being potentially better educated and informed about local politics than the locals, better capable of capable of entrepreneurship and development in a global economy, and not to mention non-traditional in their attitudes toward sex, gender, minorities, multiculturalism, political pluralism, and other public:private affairs? The Latvian presidency of Dr. Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a multi-lingual professional woman from Canada, is an excellent illustration of this. At the very least, technology has been a boon for the diaspora, and an occasional inconvenience to totalitarian and repressive regimes at home.


Despite the best efforts of NGOs, diaspora communities, and Western political philosophy, including liberal nationalism, local politics are local politics, a function of local ideology and social organization. In the post-colonial and post-Cold War eras the local has reemerged with a vengeance, geographically scrambled and renamed but not transformed by imperialism and global ideologies, including liberalism. Local cultures are reasserting themselves in local processes given names but not substance by the West. But the geography of the local has been changed since perhaps the time of Napoleon, through migration, warfare, expulsion, and the political horse-trading. Early modern politics take place in post-modern space.


As some of the writers have noted, this poses practical and philosophical problems since diasporas defy tidy national boundaries and international norms about sovereignty, territorialism, governance, rights, and justice. The problem is compounded in Western and Central Europe by the unraveling of the Treaty of Westphalia on the one hand, by trends toward the devolution of existing nation-states by their atomistic ethnic (and aspiring national) components, and on the other by the halting development of a kind of federalism (the EU, Hungarian Status Laws or neo-medievalism) which would, somehow, resolve the Hapsburg dilemma. Perhaps it will. But I suggest this weird harmonic between centripetal and centrifugal forces may not characterize the rest of the world. The stubborn persistence of identity politics even in Europe also supports the perennialist view that communities, including nations, are an ‘age-old’ phenomenon, a perspective not favored by the Hobsbawmian approach which regards individuals and communities as a primordial ooze without inclination, and sees residual or resurgent identity, particularly among central Europeans, and all Jews everywhere, as a threat to the great leap forward of the new, global, preferably Soviet, man. The new geography of the local has also given new urgency to the preservation of the local, not only from the tsunami of Coca-Cola and other easily hated Americanisms like globalization, but from ones’ neighbors and their tyrannical languages or writing systems. French farmers might be burning MacDonalds but until recently erstwhile Yugoslavians were burning each other.


Since the title of this session is dealing with diasporas, let me return how diasporas might fit into all this. I have already mentioned the new spatial qualities of diaspora. Another issue is how diaspora communities are transformed by their encounters with the world, and the effect that new forms of ‘hybridity’ bring to the substance and conduct of local politics. A related problem is ideology after the Cold War. In some ways this is relatively simple, since the philosophical problem and language of rights and minorities and the conflict with practical state politics dates back to the Enlightenment. The rhetoric of liberal democracy and the problems of bringing it about are not in themselves new, but the conditions across which all this is debated are. The only new ideology to come around lately is global jihad, although this too an old-new ideology, dating back to the caliphate, which has also been transformed by technology. If the window of this conference room faced south toward the Battery, the absence of the World Trade Center would demonstrate the capabilities and intentions of this transformation. Each of the authors in their own way has consciously stressed liberal democracy, but from the perspective of the rest of the world this flavor of Western political philosophy is another form of Anglo-Franco-Germanic intellectual imperialism which has been exported with great difficulty. Unlike identity politics such as nationalism, democracy and constitutionalism posit philosophies and practical politics which may fundamentally conflict with the local rent-seeking state. Diaspora politics are often at a grave disadvantage.


In a longer version of these remarks I have attempted to show how throughout the Middle East two features are paramount when thinking about diasporas, the return of the local and the wildcard of ideology. And example of the return of the local is Afghanistan after liberation from the Taliban which has again its traditional organization based on kin, clan and tribe, where authority is again chaotic warlordism that characterized it for centuries. Even the diaspora politics of Osama Bin Laden is operates globally but resonates locally, first and foremost among the enormous educated undermiddleclass in Saudi Arabia.


With regard to ideology and adaptation to diaspora, Palestinian politics are an example of how the assimilation and hybridization typical of diaspora identity formation was deliberately truncated. This developed through a sort of imposed neo-medievalism by neighboring Arab societies, who kept Palestinians in refugee camps and limited their rights, and then by ideological monopolization of identity formation by the PLO, a unique Third World liberation movement which learned its practical politics from the KGB. Now when the PLO returned to the West Bank in 1994 as the PA it encountered other elements, diaspora technocrats returned from the West, traditional patrimonial, clan, kin and village based organization, growing Islamist movements, and a younger swing generation. But the PA developed the same way as post-Soviet era nomeklatura, they immediately privatized state resources and allied themselves with or became oligarchs, monopolizing lucrative industries such as construction and auto theft. Upward mobility for some, downward for others. Interestingly, the various intelligence and security services, which emerged by design as means of coup-proofing, as fronts for plausible deniability, and through genuine ideological differences, replicated and then incorporated the preexisting clan, kin and village structure. The various security services, subgroups and factions are, to a surprisingly large degree, family affairs, a condition eerily similar to the 19th century and earlier. The reaction of Western diaspora returnees has been to flee in droves, along with a new wave of Palestinian Christians. The loss of human resources is significant.


But ironically, the diaspora communities of two of the most repressive Middle Eastern societies, Iran and Iraq, are the most lively, democratic, and forward-looking. Why democratic diaspora cultures should exist for these countries, one ideologically saturated and the other outright genocidal, rather than for, say Syria, is a problem. Obvious although incomplete answers are possible. Despite their obviously recent and imagined character, and legacies of minority rule, these are two of the largest and most ethnically diverse Middle Eastern states, perhaps the most deeply involved with the West before and after independence. As counter-examples, however, we must point to Lebanon, where if the cosmopolitanism of the Francophile confessional state was real, it was also predictably fragile and brief. The Hariri regime is an excellent example of carpetbagger diaspora politics at work; the billionaire construction magnate may have returned to rebuild Lebanon's infrastructure for his own profit, but Lebanese politics now resemble those of the 1860s. At another extreme, despite two centuries of profound involvement with the West, the most vocal Egyptian diaspora communities are Islamists who seek to overthrow Mubarak’s pharonic state and restore the caliphate. In the end, the ideological and practical monopolization of diaspora or dissent is as dangerous the continuation of local patterns of rivalry. Only the scale of the profits or blood feuds may differ.


We could look around the world, to Angola, South Africa and Zimbabwe, Kazakhstan, Uzebistan, Belarus and Ukraine and see parallel developments. Who your neighbors are, where your diaspora communities live, and what your political history and traditions and predominant political ideologies really do count. But if the politics of much of Asia and Africa are coming to resemble those of the pre-Westphalian era, or the Middle Ages, this does not mean there is a crude essentialism at work. It simply means that the imposed ideologies and political artifices of the past few centuries have proved weaker than either die-hard capitalists or unreconstructed Marxists would have liked. The conceit of the West was and is that the truths of liberalism are somehow self-evident. They are not, particularly if, as in much of Central Asia and all of the Middle East, the new boss is the same as the old boss, and the world looks just the same. The Hapsburg and Ottoman dilemmas have not been solved by Wilsonianism and most Western political theory. This, and other zero-sum facts of life, seem not to have been adequately appreciated, particularly by those living in trans- and post-national fantasy worlds that are the latest manifestations of traditional Enlightenment thinking.


What then are the sources of hope for the future? To return to the features emphasized at the outset, global communication and global movement are informing local communities and the world about conditions at home, and are permitting diaspora communities to make new and substantive contributions to the political and cultural life in their homeland, and also hybridized identities and new values. Indeed, diaspora politics may be the last, best hope for many societies. In the Middle East at least this means criticizing not only maximum leaders, but also fundamentals of traditional society, including blood feuding, female circumcision, the suppression of women and dissent, intolerance of minorities, occasionally slavery, and so on. But if diaspora Iraqis can call for a Westphalian style democratic, federal state which, among other things, protects the rights of women and minorities, everyone can. Civil society in a sense begins abroad.


For example, demands for governmental transparency and accountability, financial management, and other structural and legal changes are routinely made by international organizations such as the IMF and in country-to-country agreements. While these are frequently given only lip service, such reciprocal, bilateral procedures do give some hope for improvements at home. Here the contribution of diaspora communities could be extraordinary, but only if substance is placed before symbolism (and perhaps even liberalism before liberty). National narratives rarely organize weekly trash collection. Exercising influence on bilateral relationships from both home and away seems more likely to produce results than grandiose and ineffective multilaterialism. 


If this means that we rooting for Western intellectual imperialism, then so be it. Rather than promoting liberalism through the kinder and gentler form of imperialism, the NGOs, diaspora communities can and should be bringing liberal values back home. We may hope that the successes and failures discussed here today help clarify this important task.