‘Diasporic Identities’ – what are they, actually?

by Selin Aydin (Germany)

This, or something close to it, is the way people who live in a different country to the country of origin of their parents or grandparents process dramatic events. They are permanently confronted with inhabiting different worlds and lived realities in parallel, forced to balance the two – a task that becomes more difficult depending on how dramatically the two diverge at any given point in time.

A question arising in this context is what dimensions the concept of ‘diasporic identities’ carries. The word ‘diaspora’ was originally used in connection with the history of expulsion of Jewish people. It is a fundamental aspect of identity building for some Jewish groups. The term received a new semantic opening in the context of modern diaspora studies in which elements of the Jewish understanding of diaspora were adopted and related to situational or historical events. Diasporic communities in this extended sense include ethnic and/or religious minorities who maintain connections with their place of origin over generations which shape their self-understanding.[1] Their loyalties and ties across borders distinguish them from other types of religious minorities.

The term diaspora can be very general and all-embracing. This is both its strength and its weakness. Its purchase as a theoretical construct rests largely on its analytical reach; its explanatory power in dealing with the specific problematics associated with transnational movements of people, capital, commodities and cultural iconographies.’

According to Stuart Hall, cultural and diasporic identities emerge within the tension between an orientation towards the place of origin, a specific history of migration, the internal solidarity among members of the diaspora group, and the lived realities in the countries of residence.[2] People who consider themselves part of a diaspora often feel connected with each other via ancestry, history, religion and/or culture. This belonging is usually understood as familial and intergenerational. The substance, relevance, and extent of this feeling of belonging – as well as the characteristics to which it refers – are all subject to constant societal change.

The conceptualization of a group with a specific diasporic identity does not mean that all members of the diaspora group share the same views about the diasporic identity. It is more accurate to say that the diasporic identity is always being renegotiated and is in a state of constant change.

In recent years, the academic discussion of ‘diasporic identities’ in Germany has taken place mainly in relation to the contextualization of multi-leveled identities, their development, and the challenges associated with them. Since the end of the 1990s, dominated as they were by violent political tensions and distortions, attention has turned to the narrative of the children of the former ‘guest workers’, often referred to in this context as a ‘lost generation’.[3]

A striking feature of that discussion was the ‘Mehmet problem’[4] – people, sometimes minors, deported to their parents’ country of origin although they had grown up in Germany. A Deutsche Welle article from 1997 describes the lacking willingness to integrate on the part of people of Turkish origin as attributable to ‘their cultural connection to their homeland preventing or even choking off their integration into German society’.[5] In 2009-2010, the discourse on integration and migration received a new framing in a time-honoured style. Initiated by Thilo Sarrazin, the apparently ‘failed’ integration of migrants became the focus of media attention. In an interview, Sarrazin raised the proposition that some migrants, especially those of Turkish or Arabic heritage, were neither willing nor able to integrate. The neologisms Integrationsverweigerer (integration resisters) and Kopftuchmädchen (headscarf girl) were repeatedly cited in the media and have remained a feature of political argumentation, especially on the conservative-bourgeois and right-wing spectrum. Furthermore, the statement regarding migrants of Turkish or Arab origin was directed at people from predominantly Muslim countries.

At this point, there are questions upon questions. How did people with diasporic identities experience this exploitation of politically instrumentalized topics carried out at their expense? Does having an emotional connection to the country of origin of your parents represent an obstacle to developing a feeling of belonging to German society? What makes diasporic identities so particular, and what value do they add to the majority society?

Essentially any diasporic community can be taken as an example of how a diasporic identity even with a relatively loose connection to a nation-state can emerge and persist over many years.

Public discussions relating to the so-called ‘Integration Theatre’[6] undoubtedly have a multitude of different impacts. Against the background of the function of political debates for societal processes, it seems reasonable to assume that these debates significantly affect people characterized as migrants, as well as their social stances and positioning. A Zentrum für Türkeistudien survey of immigrants with Turkish backgrounds carried out in 2021 showed that the willingness to participate in German society recorded in past years had significantly decreased. Respondents told of experiences of discrimination and a growing feeling of being unwanted. Klaus Bade goes so far as to describe a mental injury resulting from public debates on migration, as these include content and demands that dehumanize migrants and frame them as owing something. Thus, people’s coping mechanisms for dealing with personal experiences (of discrimination) can be classified into types, two of which dominate: those who isolate themselves as a result of the public discourse, leading in part to a re-ethnicization, and those who adopt the discourse as evidence of a stronger relationship to Germany. This isolation or differentiation from the overall society as a result of the discourse manifests in two ways. Some view the discourse either as (now) irrelevant to them, as a result of their negative experiences, or they project the shortcomings of the dynamic onto other migrant groups, usually those with Turkish or Arabic backgrounds.

The latter can be observed especially among the well-educated from Turkey, who remove themselves from the dominating integration discourse while simultaneously distancing themselves from the former ‘guest workers’ by asserting that they are responsible for the, in their opinion, insufficiently positive reputation of Turkey and Turkish people in Germany. The migration studies literature refers to this as a distinction strategy with the goal of elevating one’s own image by denigrating others. This also makes clear the relevance of the interrelation of social origin and education, as perceptions of the migration discourse tied to (political) socialisation are central to the way in which people interpret and accept the topic, or deal with it more generally.

Thus, migration creates a new kind of diasporic identity at this juncture via a process of external attribution. In this way, for example, the identity of Turkish people in Turkey is already prefabricated and known to all. An interesting aspect of this example is that migration leaders to external attributions not only in the destination society, but also in the society of origin as a result of frequent stays there in the sense of a transnational practice, which then flow back into the construction of the diasporic identity.  Thus, in Turkey there exists an entire genre of memes and categories of ridicule directed at people of Turkish heritage in Germany that make fun of their language, appearance, and traditional lifeways. Summarising the emergence of identity in a constant exchange between external and self-attributions, Anderson says, ‘Identity-building in the diaspora is thus also determined by what others call you. The designation of your own identity depends on the distance from home. This then becomes a collective identity.’[7]  This means that the ‘collective identity’ is not primarily to be sought in language, for example, but in the composition of individual attributions of the different members, and in the way these shape and consolidate the community. Such a conceptualisation of diaspora lays bare the processes of negotiation surrounding diasporic identity. This contrasts with other conceptualisations of diaspora in which such processes of negotiation are equated with an existential questioning of the diaspora in the sense of ‘no collective identity, no diaspora’.

The examples of minorities whose citizenship only partially reflects their cultural or ethnic identity can thus be seen as an opportunity and utilised as examples for plural and hybrid identity constructions that can spur the ‘majority society’ to once again rethink its rigid identity politics and practices.

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[1] See Dr. Nieswand: https://www.bpb.de/themen/migration-integration/kurzdossiers/264009/was-ist-einediaspora/#:~:text=Diasporische%20Identit%C3%A4ten%20bilden%20sich%20im,den%20Lebensrealit%C3%A4ten%20in%20den%20Zuwanderungsregionen(accessed 07.02.2023).

[2] See Hall, Stuart: https://phdessay.com/stuart-halls-cultural-identity-and-diaspora/ (accessed 05.02.2023).

[3] See Dr. Yıldız, Yalçın: https://www.migazin.de/2010/03/23/man-kann-bei-den-alteren-migranten-von-einer-verlorenen-generation-sprechen/2/ (accessed 06.02.2023)

[4] See Marx, Bettina: https://www.dw.com/de/mehmet-kehrt-zur%C3%BCck/a-593182 (accessed 07.02.2023)

[5] Ibid.

[6] See Max Czollek, “Desintegriert euch!”, 2019.

[7] XCalhoun, Craig. “The importance of imagined communities–and Benedict Anderson.” Debats: Revista de cultura, poder i societat1 (2016): 11-16.

 

Selin Aydin studied politics and law at the FAU Erlangen. She is currently a research assistant at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main. Her research focuses on the following areas: Anti-Muslim Racism, Resilience and Empowerment Strategies and Diasporic Identities. After completing her Master’s degree, she worked in various companies, including in advocacy and strategy development related to diversity. She is currently working on a project for the Federal Ministry of the Interior and Community (BMI) on “Muslim perspectives on Muslim and Islamophobia” and loves nothing more than a good cup of coffee with a shot of oat milk!

 

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