Muftah spoke with author Jowan Mahmod about her first book, published by Palgrave and entitled Kurdish Diaspora Online: From Imagined Community to Managing Communities.
Born in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, but raised and educated in Sweden and the United Kingdom, in her book, Mahmod discusses how digital technology and transnational activities have strong implications for different articulations of identity and belonging, with the Kurdish diaspora as a case-study.
Muftah: Let’s start with the title of your book. What do you mean by imagined community and managing communities, and what in your view signaled a shift from the former to the latter?
Jowan Mahmod (JM): The concept of ‘imagined community’ was coined by Benedict Anderson, one of the most influential scholars who studied how nationalism and national identities are constructed. For Anderson, all modern communities are imagined as their members don’t know much about each other and, in the course of their lifetime, will probably meet only a handful of their peers, but still they have full confidence in a shared commonality. For instance, a German will never meet all the 82 million members of the German nation, and a Muslim will never meet the believers of the 1.7 billion Muslim Ummah, yet they live by the notion that they belong to the German and Muslim communities, respectively. These imaginings are by no means banal; in our modern times people have even sacrificed themselves in the name of their nation or religion.
The creation of these imagined communities has required clear boundaries between peoples and countries, and, according to Anderson, this was possible through the emergence of mass production, starting with Gutenberg’s printing press in the fifteenth century. Through traditional media such as newspapers, and later on radio and television, the nation-state has been able to create the illusion of cultural homogeneity within its borders by pitting symbols, speeches, and images that have strengthened the consciousness of ‘us’ vis-à-vis ‘them.’
Within academic writing, Anderson’s concept has become popular when describing migrants and diasporas. An ‘imagined diaspora’ describes the way in which migrants imagine their belongingness to their country of origin, to which they hope one day to return. Furthermore, an overwhelming part of academic research suggests that new technologies, such as social media, have strengthened this sense of belonging to one’s homeland.
What I found in my ethnographic research, however, is that young diaspora Kurds weren’t part of an ‘imagined diaspora’ in two significant respects. The first relates to the online discussions young Kurds had about Kurdistan and Kurdish identity, as they often confronted the narratives of their parents or those spread via Kurdish satellite channels. Differences about what it means to adhere to an identity – ‘to be a Kurd’ – abounded, not only between homeland Kurds and diaspora Kurds, but also between diaspora Kurds in the different countries in which they have settled. Also, more taboo topics were discussed in online transnational platforms; questions of gender roles, sexuality, and spousal obligations were contested and redefined in ways that were not possible before the Internet.
The second emerged during interviews with Kurds who returned, from abroad, to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in 2013-2015. These Kurds, like many others, went back to the country of their roots for various reasons, such as personal commitments, job, and career opportunities. Guilt was also an important factor for returnees. This is not exclusive to Kurds: studies show that children of migrant parents often inherit their guilt for leaving, and a certain melancholia drives them to seek out and return to their roots. However, going to live in their homeland is often a much more complicated affair than repatriates expect, as the place called home has inevitably transformed beyond recognition.
Many of the returnees I spoke with openly expressed a sense of alienation from their homeland. For many, coming back to the homeland was so challenging it precipitated yet another identity crisis. As a result, some of them went back to their diasporic homelands; others found ways to manage and remain, but this meant dividing their lives between their original home and their diaspora home, by travelling regularly between the two to cope with the new situation.
This kind of ‘trans-national life’ has provided them with a new consciousness that goes beyond the imagined community: these individuals are not imagining their communities any longer – they are well aware of the diversity within them and dare to confront the various traditional scripts about how a Kurd should live in order to be a Kurd. By living transnationally, they are being active and engaged politically, socially, culturally, and sometimes even professionally in two or more communities.
In the book, you shift focus from Kurds as the oppressed Other in authoritarian states in the Middle East to ‘internal othering.’ Can you elaborate on this point?
JM: My ethnographic study confirmed that young Kurds in the diaspora are greatly engaged in political, cultural, and social events. The Kurdish diaspora is among the most active diasporas in the world and has played an important role in placing the Kurdish cause on the global map.
Kurds have been and continue to be discriminated against in the Middle East. The material I collected and analyzed, however, consisted of many messy and contradictory discussions about Kurdish identity and what being a Kurd actually implies. What becomes apparent in these discussions is the phenomenon I define as ‘internal othering’: members of the minority actively make differentiations between themselves – for example, by using derogatory names.
In the UK and Sweden, Kurds refer to their newly arrived community members as “freshies,” a derogatory social marker that distinguishes new arrivals from the more integrated (old) diaspora Kurds. This type of othering is also used to express disapproval of behaviors considered ‘too European.’ Such lines of separation have been drawn between Kurds in the homeland and diaspora Kurds, but also within diaspora Kurdish communities. For instance, Kurds in other countries, such as the UK or Norway, have questioned the identity of Swedish Kurds, because they were considered to be ‘too liberal and promiscuous.’
With internal othering, we see a new kind of consciousness emerging, which disturbs overarching binaries between the West and the Rest that overlook the diversity within ethnic groups. What you have now is a transnational platform – the Internet – that not only works to connect and link diasporas back to the homeland, but also acts as a site of disruption. This disruption is increasingly aggravating majority-minority fictions that serve to separate dominant national or religious majorities from ‘their’ minority communities in society.
I believe it is important to dissolve these rigid categories and instead highlight other important socio-economic factors that cross boundaries and create commonality between different ethnic and religious groups. We live by overarching notions that underscore differences along ethnic, religious, gender, and national lines, but our everyday lives tell us different stories involving a more diverse outlook on comradeship. Internal othering shows how migrants indeed adopt a new set of norms and values while redefining their cultural identities influenced by the physical places they live in, rather than the myths and memories on which the imagined community has been built. I consider this an affirmative idea, as it is more likely to emerge when people adopt a non-essentialist (non-absolute) approach to identity, and dismiss the socially-produced narratives about how one ought to act in order to be German, American, Muslim, Kurdish or a woman.
The book reflects on the subject of identity and belonging in an age of digital technology. Can you tell us more about this phenomenon, based on your research about the Kurdish diaspora?
JM: Identity and belonging are extremely fluid terms, as you can list almost everything under this label – language, social relations, education, class, gender, nationality – but at the same time they are difficult to define. In general, national geography has been the only framework on which identity has been constructed. At least that was the case until now. The mother-country identity is now giving way to new ways of expressing identity, for instance through migration, new technology, and transnational activities. More and more people live within multiple cultures, speak multiple languages, and are engaged in two or more communities. The nation functions as a less satisfactory source of cultural resonance, and, at the same time, inequality and exploitation raise questions as to what the nation is doing, exactly, to protect its members.
I argue that while nationalism remains a powerful myth, it is being challenged by global forces, and a new consciousness. If aggressive attempts to reinforce nationalism in Europe and North America are emerging, for instance, it is because people start to worry about identity when they begin to lose it. This fear comes with the breaking down of old boundaries and barriers by which nations and people have defined themselves and which are increasingly challenged by the power to move across them, whether physically or virtually. As national and cultural identities weaken, the danger of nations going into a deeper defensive exclusivism becomes real.
New digital technologies have sped up these changes. They have, in this sense, been generally misunderstood. Generally, it has been assumed that they will connect people and strengthen their identities. What we see instead is that digital technologies have brought together a greater number of people, far more than the handful described in Anderson’s imagined community, and disclosed their diversity. The information flowing into the online sphere, where sender and receiver are constantly flipping, is not merely changing social relations but also exposing existing ones that until now have been concealed by the nation-state and traditional media.
My conclusions are drawn from the contradictions expressed online by Kurds in the diaspora, which have taught them that difference and change is part of their identities. Given their dynamism, new communication forms and new information environments are transforming the rationale behind the concept of identity.
What can your research tell us about the current migration and refugee situation in Europe?
JM: Migration is a difficult process. It was brutal for most Kurds; in the same way it is brutal for the refugees we see today fleeing war zones. This kind of migration is exclusively associated with negative connotations, for both sending and receiving countries.
But migration is not going away anytime soon, and we need to start understanding migrants and diasporas as a resource, rather than as a collection of painful histories or a source of remittances and financial aid for their home countries. They can also act as influential bridges between societies and contribute to the building of democracy in their homelands. As far as I know, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq is not making a particular effort to reach out to the Kurdish diaspora community. There are, however, a number of countries that have successfully engaged their diasporas, including China, Israel, India, and Ireland, where diaspora communities have contributed to large-scale projects, ranging from resolving conflicts and participating in peacebuilding processes to constructing global technology centers.
When diasporic Kurds return to the homeland, they carry with them an assortment of beliefs, values, and habits acquired in Europe and elsewhere. It is a challenging process of adjustment and adaption. In order for these returning diaspora members to be a potential source of conflict transformation, peacebuilding process, and economic prosperity, which they are well-positioned to be, we need strategies and policies that increase engagement with them, both abroad and in the homeland.
Jowan Mahmod’s Kurdish Diaspora Online: From Imagined Community to Managing Communities is available here.