July 8, 2013

Belonging & Identity: Immigration & Terrorism in the 21st Century. ~ Mirela Gegprifti

In a culture that is obsessed with immediacy, the idea of writing about the Tsarnaev brothers may seem too passè. And perhaps it is passé for those who have never been touched by the immigration process.

But for the rest of us, we know that stories such as these will only add more insult to injury. Something has stayed with me from the Tsarnaev story, and a (late) meditative essay on the subject seems the way to go.

As soon as we start thinking that anything related to terrorists and terrorism could become a not-so-distant memory, some sad episode occurs and the media graciously reminds us of a not-so-secure future. As more information begins to emerge in the media about the Tsarnaev brothers, we learn little by little who they were.

They were “losers” to their uncle, “heroes” to their mother, and at the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list. It did not stop there. As the public kept hearing that the brothers hailed from Chechnya, misinterpretations about their origins also followed. They were not Czech (citizens of the Czech Republic hurried to clarify) and neither were they Russians. No terrorist groups claimed their bombings.

All of these details made us even more curious: What group and country did they belong to then?

Some portrayed them as terrorists in the making and some as normal and compassionate people. Others gave a moving account of the circumstances in their lives—migration, displacement, living away from their parents, etc. The more we heard about them, the more the common thread among these accounts became clear: the Tsarnaev brothers felt they did not belong in the country they were living in. Their social, religious or cultural values were not on par with their environs.

Belonging and Identity. These were the words that started pulsing in my head after hearing some of the emerging stories.

Life is full of synchronicity. While I kept thinking about the concept of ‘belonging,’ an acquaintance mentioned the name of a book I should read: In the Name of Identity, Violence and the Need to Belong, by Amin Maalouf.

It is no surprise that I was drawn to this particular book. During my graduate studies I was always interested in subjects pertaining to migration, identity and globalization—the very same topics that Maalouf tackles. Initially published in 1996, the book continues to remain valid in today’s world as well.

The most interesting part of it is not the juxtaposition of universalism vs. particularism which, indeed, is one of the platforms on which migration has been put under the microscope. Rather it is Maalouf’s outlook and writing which, while remaining intellectually probing, bring a newer, more humane layer to the difficult topics of terrorists-in-the-making and the local and global factors that contribute to the process—an outlook I think is often omitted in similar writings.

Each time an act of terrorism occurs, we naturally find ourselves examining our relationship with others—that is, immigrants. What we often fail to do is to establish a rapport with the process of migration and those who, for one reason or another, subject themselves to it. Instead, we often find ourselves laughing at countries and cultures that are different than ours.

Let me draw a comparison that brings this closer to home. When we look down on a nation and its people it is not any different, for instance, than lacking sympathy or some sort of understanding for high school kids who go to inner city schools, and who are most likely being driven into criminal life because that is the world they are living in.

If we agree to recognize, even informally, that the latter problem is not limited to their family situation but rather springs from a plethora of larger social issues, such as race, gender, governmental infrastructure, educational system, etc., then why do we fail to recognize that similar larger global forces come into play and create “Tsarnaevs”?

In other words, instead of being surprised each time someone we regard as “normal” decides to blow up other people, let’s make an effort to understand what migration and immigration do to people.

This is but one layer of the complexity of how bombers are made. But that is not the scope of this essay. Immigration is.

(Just to be clear, this is not to say we should sympathize with people who kill other people. Maalouf is not suggesting that, and it goes without saying that neither am I.)

A lack of self-identity, which is a by-product of immigration, is one of the reasons for giving way to the killer inside. If you don’t know who you are (let alone who you were), if your country is deprived of respect in the global arena—then who exactly are you supposed to be?

Those who study yoga know that its main purpose is union. The concept of an individual being in alignment with the Self is yoga’s foundation. Today, we encounter the opposing reality of this concept in one of the biggest fears that humanity faces: the separation of self from others and the world. The inability to connect with other people at a deep human, spiritual and sexual level—that is our deepest fear.

The fear of disconnect from self and others is our paradise lost.

In fact, I think we suffer more from the fear of separateness and solitude than death itself.

Migration is a form of death. Because life as you know it changes so radically—if not completely—once you migrate, you suffer a type of death; the identity that one had built dies.

Anyone who asks themselves the question “Who am I?” knows that the journey of self-discovery is a bumpy one. Finding the meaning of who you are is no easier than discovering how the universe was created, or how the sun and moon came to be as we see them, day after day, night after night.

If answering this daunting question in one’s primary place of residence proves to be so hard, what implications would there be if it were to be asked each time one migrates to a new place? Each time one had to be eradicated from their own country and start anew again and again? How does one end up perceiving the self and their own “I am-ness” after a migration process?

“Don’t migrate,” you may say. “Stay where you are and call it a day, a life.” But globalization has proven this outlook naive.

Immigration has never been a sexy topic, and I suspect that it won’t be for a long time to come. Women’s rights, civil rights and children’s rights gained clout because one way or another they were initially placed in a national context—hence, they were first and foremost a national concern, whereas immigration is always about “other” people who are not your co-nationals. Therefore, immigration assumes the “Switzerland effect”, and, more often than not, we give it an impersonal global face.

But let me stop here for a moment. I will give immigration a face: Me.

I can attest to the capricious, insatiable god that we call immigration. One never ceases to make “offerings” to it but, as it turns out, that’s never enough. It is the kind of god that will tire you down with its promises of future gifts. It is in the name of all the good that is to come that you will lose your present. And the precious past.

Who will you be without your past and deprived of your present? An immigrant.

Yet you will tirelessly believe in a better future—until you can’t anymore! One day, you find yourself almost wondering aloud: How much will I lose if I give up now? The aftermath would be disastrous.

There is no turning back in immigration processes. Otherwise, you will lose everything you have gained in addition to everything you had already lost. Studies have shown that even in the direst of circumstances immigrants rarely consider going back to their country of origin.

While we track down the bad guys (as we certainly should) and spy ourselves to death (as we certainly shouldn’t), let’s stop for a second and re-examine our relationship to immigration and immigrants. Let’s remember that terrorists are made from the same circumstances as noble citizens.

In an era of globalization, we have to come to terms with the times and not delude ourselves that we belong just anywhere in the world. We do not, at least not that easily. And I say this from both perspectives: that of the migrant and that of the national. More often than not, living somewhere else rather than in one’s country of origin comes with a price.

Ask anyone who has migrated and they will tell you how large that toll has been.

In the end, our accents will always give away “the other” in us. Our complicated, unpronounceable names will be subject to geography quizzes. Our national customs may be loved or laughed at, while our national dishes may be revered or reviled worldwide.

Where we think we belong becomes a personal story with its own unavoidable global and individual crescendos and innuendos. How we collectively come to define these experiences, both at an individual and global level, may contribute to creating the terrorists we fear or the noble citizens we very much admire.

In the final analysis, as Maalouf puts it, identity formation remains a very tricky business, one that “needs to be observed, studied calmly, understood […] if we don’t want the world to become a jungle, or the future to resemble the worst images of the past.”

The choice is ours. It always is.

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Ed: Dejah Beauchamp & Brianna Bemel

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Mirela Gegprifti