By Dyab Abou Jahjah
“ I went for a stroll downtown the other day, you can barely recognise the city with all these foreigners everywhere, it felt as if I was in another country”.
I remember this conversation with my Lebanese neighbour in Sidon, as if it was yesterday. It was 2013, I was still living in Lebanon back then, and I was still fully in the anti-racist activist mindset. So of course, I started preaching about tolerance and how we are all human beings. Since my neighbour was complaining about Syrian refugees I also added that we are all Arabs to my speech.
Looking back with some more perspective, I realise that my response to my neighbour was a bit arrogant and on the limit of insolence. Of course we are all human beings, my neighbour was aware of that and does not need me to imply that he did not recognise the humanity of the Syrian refugees. And of course Syrians and Lebanese are as close as Flemish and Dutch, culturally, linguistically and historically, my neighbour knew that as well. Yet what he did that day was expressing a genuine sentiment that many Lebanese share since the massive influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon end of 2011 and in the years that followed.
This very same sentiment is present in Europe and is expressed in various forms. However the reactions in Europe are often so polarised when such sentiment is expressed that people tend to hide it, or express it anonymously or within closed circles. The accusation of racism and xenophobia make people reluctant to express it openly. The far-right is the only political spectrum where this sentiment is common place and that allows far-right politicians to monopolize this discussion and transform it into an ideological tool. While in essence this sentiment is a malaise that is not ideological.
You can try to rationalise the malaise that many natives feel when confronted with a similar situation as my Lebanese neighbour in a hundred different ways. You can apply a Marxist perspective to it, a liberal perspective, or a religious perspective. You can see it from the right, left or centre. You can search for economical explanations, or for ideological ones, and you will find many. However, no matter how you look at it, that malaise is real, and is the expression of something real that existentially translates itself into a feeling of Verfremdung.
Verfremdung can be felt when you are uprooted from your home country due to war or hardship, leading to exile or immigration. The Syrian refugees in Sidon felt it for sure. I can also recall that feeling when I arrived to Belgium as a refugee myself in 1991. It was agonising.
On the other hand, Verfremdung can also be felt when you see your home country, your society, the world, change at a pace that you cannot keep up with. This can be due to generational shifts, to macro events, like the globalisation or the European unification, causing social, cultural and economic upheaval and mutation, or due to mass immigration. Or it can be due to all these factors combined. Ironically, the feeling of Verfremdung is the common denominator between the two parties standing at the opposite ends of the immigration fault-line. Both the natives and the immigrants feel it.
Who are the natives?
Before going any further let me stop at the notion of the native. Who can claim to be native and what does that actually mean? When does that starts and when does it end?
It is bon ton nowadays to qualify the “native claim” as non-sense, since we are all human beings ( yes that platitude again) and because if you go back long enough, we all came from somewhere, so we are all immigrants, hence no one is native. Yet this is all too easy. With such arguments one will deny the reality of ethnicity and identity and end up in a utopian trip to a mental world that has no resemblance to the one we live in. Such a mental trip can be fun, but it will certainly not help us solve any problems occurring in the real world. And especially it will not help us find good strategies to deal with the challenges that immigration and diversification pose worldwide. So we need to stop here and analyse that “native claim” and see if it is relevant in anyway.
Let me start by stating the obvious. Ethnic groups do exist, and most of them have ancestral lands. An ethnic group on its ancestral land is native. All other ethnic groups who move into that land from other ancestral lands are not. I am talking of groups here, because being native in a group identity sense is what is relevant. Being native in an individual sense means being born somewhere, and is not relevant to this discussion. If being born somewhere makes you a native then there is no difference between colonial settlers and the natives they are colonising. The native Americans ( the “Indians” ) and the rest of the Americans are equally natives according to that birth right logic. Individually that is true, collectively it isn’t.
In Canada the natives are called “the First Nations”, in a clear reference to what the term actually means. Worldwide, the natives claim a bond with the ancestral land and believe that it entails some rights, if not all rights. The sacred bond between people and land is still an important component of national cultures in most oriental and southern countries. The idea that Lebanon is for the Lebanese or Egypt for the Egyptian, just like that Russia is for the Russians or China for the Chinese are self-evident in these cultures, like they were once self-evident in Europe.
Ethnicity, Nationality and Citizenship
With modernity and the rise of liberalism, the concept of citizenship was introduced as a legal relationship between an individual and the state. Citizenship replaced ethnicity as a determining factor of nationality. In the west nationality and citizenship grew towards each other and became synonymous, just as nation and state mostly coincided. Only in places where the state and the nation did not match, ethnic claims were advanced in terms of nationalism. German and Italian nationalisms in the 19th century aimed at uniting the fragmented nation/ethnicity into one state. After these unifications became a reality and after fascisms took over ethnic nationalism and turned it into a war ideology, ethnic nationalism was condemned and discredited. Only in nations without a state a sense of militant nationalism continued to thrive. Catalunya, The Basque country, Flanders, Wales, Scotland and of course Ireland were all living examples of the struggle of native ethnic communities to be recognised as national communities on their ancestral land.
If we take a close look at these histories in Europe we can conclude that liberalism while maintaining that the main relationship between an individual and the state is the legal frame of citizenship, assimilated the concept of ethnicity into that of nationality. Hence the ethnic community became the national community. The legalistic frame of citizenship was just a political modus operandi, while the cultural content of nationality remained predominantly ethnic. With the immigration waves of the sixties in Europe, a new situation occurred, when people who were not ethnically French or German, for instance, acquired the French or German nationalities. They became citizens, but they had, and kept, another ethnicity. They were often Algerians, Turks or Moroccans. Ethnicity and nationality were no more synonymous, and this immediately created confusion and tension within the notion of citizenship.
Immigration and the "native claim"
Due to the big cultural and civilisational distance between these ethnicities and the European ethnicities, assimilation did not occur after one or two generations. At best a certain hybridity manifested itself starting with the second generation and further on, but the ethnic distinction persisted. This created tension and revitalised the “native claim” across the continent. It also challenged the liberal order from two perspectives. That of the natives who challenged the very foundation of the idea of citizenship in favour of an ethnic understanding of nationality. And that of the new non-native citizens who challenged the idea of nationality in favour of a pure legalistic approach, accommodating multiculturalism and dual citizenship.
In the popular culture this was translated by the sarcastic reaction of the natives whenever a non-native is referred to as French or Belgian. And from the non-native side, it is manifested by the schizophrenic reaction of the non-native being offended when being called Moroccan or a Turk by the native, instead of Belgian or Flemish. While in other contexts insisting on being called Moroccan or Turk and even being offended by being called Belgian or Flemish. This is all very revealing of a confusion In terms of understanding a complex relation between ethnicity, nationality and citizenship.
This confusion led people to the point where they had to make choices between the three concepts. Some rejected the notion of citizenship in favour of ethnicity and a classical understanding of nationality as emanating from nationalism, and others rejected this understanding and focussed exclusively on the citizenship dimension and its legalistic frame.
In most of my past debates with right wing politicians I mostly adopted this legalistic approach. I refused to acknowledge any claim to nationhood or native ethnicity and asserted that all citizens are equal, hence all communities of citizens and all expressions of communitarianism of citizens must be equal. And if that is not the case, I pleaded for abolishing any reference to community, whether national or regional. This was an understandable reaction from my perspective as immigrant, and as someone who doesn’t belong to the native ethnicity. It was my answer to the native claim, that was advanced mainly by the right and that stated that this land had a people and a culture and that immigrants had to take this into consideration. The far-right version of this native claim being that the native population is boss on its own land and that it must have preferential treatment always.
Such a claim is not even debated in Lebanon, Morocco or Turkey, but taken for granted. This is why most first generation immigrants would tend to agree with its soft version and sometimes even with the far right version. “It’s their country” is the familiar response of a first generation father or mother to their second generation children complaining about discrimination. “It is also my country, I am a citizen too” is the answer of the younger generations. It seems as an unbridgeable position.
In Belgium you have three native ethnic communities, The Flemish, The Francophone, and the German speaking. You also have many other non native ethnic communities, like the Moroccan, the Turk, the Congolese, etc. All the Belgians belonging to these communities, native or not, are equal as individual Belgian citizens. Yet the communities are not equal. The constitution does not and should not differentiate between individual Belgians based on ethnic background. However, in Belgium, the native ethnic communities are recognised by law and institutionalised into language based cultural communities. Rigid language laws are in place reflecting this communitarian system.
This situation is not limited to Belgium. In countries where only one native ethnic community exists, the same recognition is in place, albeit less explicitly stated. In Germany it is the Germanic ethnic community and its language and national symbols that are recognised by the State. Not the language and symbols of the Turkish or Lebanese communities to name only two.
Unlike settler colonial societies in the Americas, Australia and elsewhere, the ethnic Europeans in Europe are living on their ancestral land. Recognising this fact does not make you racist or a bigot and it doesn’t justify discrimination against non-natives. If you feel that this is not to be compared to native people in other parts of the world, that you respect as such, because "Europeans are white and hence oppressors and their culture is based upon white supremacy and violence and oppression", you are wrong. Europeans are people like any other people. They have built a great civilisation that was dominant the last few centuries and established colonial and imperial rule with all its implications, including slavery and genocide, just like all civilisations did. They are not better, they are not worse, they are just human, like all the rest. If you still feel the need to contest this, hence differentiating Europeans from the rest of the human species and essentialising them as culturally oppressive, hence evil, you are propagating a-historic ideas that can amount to racism.
Let us now go back to the Belgian system, the non-native ethnic communities are not recognised, so they officially do not exist. And yet they do exist. First of all because people identify with them and because they do socialise individuals into becoming parts of them. Secondly because they do structure themselves and manifest themselves collectively in various manners. Can anyone claim that the Moroccan community does not exist in this country? Or that the Turkish community is an illusion? These two ethnic communities are very solid and very active as such in Belgium. They keep socialising people even after 3 to 4 generations of immigration. This is partly due to the cultural difference with the native community and secondly to the law of big numbers. Big communities tend to preserve themselves better than small communities. They also are more visible and therefore they are more likely to become the object of a heated debate.
What about second, third or fourth generation Morrocans and Turks, are they not native by virtue of their birth right?
For an individual to become a native, that individual needs to stop associating himself with non-native communities and start identifying only with the native ethnic community. This is called assimilation. This can happen. Many French and Belgians and British citizens have non-native ethnic roots, and yet they are perceived as native because they defined themselves as such and acted upon it in a persistent manner. Sure racism can prevent this process and block it. The Dreyfus affaire is the most known case of racism blocking someone who was fully assimilated from being treated as native. But since then, Europe has evolved in the right direction. Assimilation is rarely rejected nowadays, it is mostly saluted and applauded.
As long as an individual keeps identifying with a non-native ethnicity or community, that person is not a native. If he is a citizen, he has full rights, and is equal to all other citizens as an individual, but he is not native. As such there is no problem with not being a native. It is just a reality that you have to embrace if you think it is important to preserve a different ethnicity/identity. You should not be forced to abandon your ethnicity, and you shouldn’t be punished because you keep it. I for instance refuse to assimilate. I am a law abiding citizen but I do not wish to abandon my ethnicity. That is something I keep and cherish. It is my right and this should not necessarily need to be a cause of tension.
Diversity and conflict dynamics
And yet, this ethnic diversity that is so celebrated is often at the heart of tension and conflict dynamics. If we introduce the religious dimension, and the fact that Moroccans and Turks in Belgium are also Muslims and that there is a historical conflict between the west and the Muslim world, and that conflict resurged since 1991 and fully escalated since 2001 culminating into wars and terrorist attacks, then we understand the difference between the Moroccan community in Belgium and say the Romanian community that is less visible, much closer culturally and much less perceived as a threat. This cultural distance and conflictual past and present fuelled tension and contributed to the building of a conflict dynamic. This conflict has been building since the moment it became clear that the immigrant workers who came in the 60’s were not returning home. The question on who started the hostilities is a story of the egg and the chicken. The Second generation perceived the conflict as such and adopted an anti-social attitude. The native majority did the same and adopted an anti-immigrant attitude. Socio economical variables added an explosive dimension to the mix, and we are where we are.
With this background, I do understand that a majority of Belgians worries because of the growing diversity in the big cities and fear the perspective of becoming a minority in all cities and even in the country itself at some point in the future. If I understand a Lebanese worrying about the character of his country based upon the presence of a community from a neighbouring country with almost an identical culture, would I not be hypocrite to act surprised or even scandalised when native communities in the west are worried about the increasing presence of non-western ethnicities?
If I accept that even Lebanese Muslims are worried about Syrians having a stricter and more traditional view of religion and the implication of that upon the public space in Lebanon, how can I act surprised to see that Europeans are having such worries when faced with the large numbers of conservative Muslim communities in European cities?
Do we hold Europe to higher standards? Yes of course we do. We do hold Europe to its own standards and values. Lebanon, Morocco or China are not mature liberal democracies. They are not open modern societies. Or at least they are not at the same stage where Europe finds itself. So yes we expect Europe to be more tolerant and more indulgent when dealing with immigration. And Europe is that, by far. Not only the state is liberal and upholding human rights, also the native community, at least in northern Europe, is very reserved about asserting its own native claim on its ancestral land and careful not to come over as unwelcoming. Except for the far right political parties. And yet, the discussion is alive and real in almost every house hold, in every café, and recently became visible on social media. The European native is saying, “I am tolerant and I respect diversity but do not exaggerate and please do respect my way of life and my culture”. And an increasingly growing part of the native community is radicalising and saying, “it is too late, they have to assimilate or leave”. The far-right taps into this sentiment and feeds it. It is not just canalising it into political representation, which would be a good thing, it is deforming it into a conspiracy theory, resurrecting old Nazi narratives about a great replacement and Umvolkung. As if the demographic evolutions are a planned plot to colonise the west and bring down its civilisation.
Being worried about the loss of a cultural authenticity, is a valid sentiment. Trying to weaponize this legitimate sentiment into a conflict narrative is dangerous. The far-right is aided by a left-wing that is determined to sing the mantra of “enriching” diversity over and over again. Yes diversity can be enriching, but it also can induce poverty. It can lead to expansion of possibilities but it can also mean decay and chaos. Diversity is just diversity, it is not good or bad, it is always a challenge and all depends on how it is managed and in how it unfolds. Expressing anxiety about a negative outcome of diversity is not racism. Expressing more doubts, in western Europe about non-native ethnic communities with religious cultures that do not usually endorse human rights, equality, and tolerance is not Islamophobia. And if it is, it is that in the etymological sense of the word, and not in its intellectual interpretation as synonymous to racism. Fear of political and militant Islam is not racism, it is not Islamophobic, it is just common sense that is even shared by most Muslims. So why do we have to act scandalised when non-Muslim westerners fear militant Islam?
Towards a new deal
In a liberal democracy we are all equal as citizens, and we should not compromise on this. This is the essence of European civilisation since the second half of the 20st century. This is also the reason why people were risking being shot while climbing the Berlin wall towards the west and not in the other direction. This is the reason why we immigrate to Europe. Equality in eyes of the law, liberal democracy, human rights, and the right to pursue happiness. We have to go above historical grudges and acknowledge that no where on earth is an individual more free than here and that this is related to the identity of this continent and to how it evolved. I did not come to Europe in order to turn it into another Middle East. At the contrary, my hope is that one day the Middle East will become another Europe ( with nicer food and warmer weather of course). Any Arab who tells you otherwise is lying to you or is a fundamentalist of some religion or some fanatic ideology. The whole Arab spring was motivated by the dream to establish liberal democracy, social justice, and the rule of law. People gave their lives for this dream. The conflict dynamics and the grudges made us talk differently in the past. I always perceived the native claim in Europe as an arrogant racist attitude and an attack on my equal rights. Therefore I reacted heavily to it and many people still react heavily to it today. Understandable but wrong. We need to accept that claim and to respect the native as a community and a culture. While refusing to be second class citizens as individuals. It should be possible to accept that not all communities are equal on any given land. That the native ethnic communities and their cultures are to be respected and preserved, while we do not compromise on full equality between all citizens as individuals.
We should express to the native Europeans that what we often tell each other secretly. And no, it is not that we are conspiring to take over as a community, or that we want to replace the native Europeans. It is the opposite. We tell each other that we hope that Europe will remain Europe. That it will not decay due to bad management of its politicians. That it will not lose its character. That it will not compromise on its values.
Our fellow citizens who belong to the native community must know, that even though we will never accept discrimination or racism, and that we will always stand up for our rights as equal citizens and as human beings, whenever it comes to defending their identity, culture and heritage, they will always find us on their side. Whenever extremists from our midst, because of a religious ideology, or another ideology, shall turn against Europe and its natives, we will stand in their way, and we will defend Europe and its culture and identity.
This is the time for a new historical deal, that will allow us to create a more solid community of citizens. Within that deal, we will hear the native claim, and we will acknowledge it as justified and legitimate. And even though I do not believe that ethnic Europeans will ever be a minority in Europe, our pledge should be to preserve European heritage and identity and languages under any circumstances. But also, and together with the native Europeans, we must defend the rule of law, democracy and human rights. There is no contradiction between these two platforms, they are complementary. Turning them against each other like the extremists on both sides do nowadays is destructive for everything that Europe represents. European identity and culture and its democracy, open society and human rights are so connected that they will fall together or triumph together. Let us make sure that they triumph together for the sake of all of us.