A post-Cold War ethnic revival has been spurred by the demise of the USSR and its empire, liberalization and democratization. Despite historical patterns and predictions based on them, ethnic groups are not disappearing. They are also assimilating more slowly than many observers have expected. The variety of diasporas is also increasing as new groups form in Europe, the Western Hemisphere, and even the Middle East. (Chaliand and Rageau, 1995; Sowell, 1995)
Moreover, ethnic minorities have both become more assertive in pursuing their interests and gained greater legitimacy, especially in Western democracies where society and government have greater difficulties in curbing freedom of speech and action. At the same time, though, rightist and nationalist groups oppose this revival as a threat to their countries.
Ethno-national diasporas arise out of voluntary or imposed migration from an ethno-national state or homeland to one or more host countries. Members of such entities and groups permanently reside in host countries, a fact that distinguishes them from transient migrants, refugees and guest workers. (Smith, 1981) Members of such diasporas maintain their ethno-national identities which are closely connected to either myths or facts related to their homelands. (Kelass, 1991; Smith, 1992; Cavalli-Sforza, 1996) Such diasporas seek to create communal solidarity or to maintain it. This solidarity is the main basis for the diasporas’ cultural, social, political and economic activities. One of the main features in the life and activities of these communities is that they preserve regular contacts with their homelands, whether or not these are independent state. They create elaborate networks that permit and encourage exchanges of money, political support and cultural influence with their homelands and other segments of the diaspora whenever these exist. This creates a potential for friction with both homelands and host countries, which are related to highly complex patterns of divided, dual or ambiguous loyalty. (For a comprehensive definition of the term ethno-national diasporas, see Sheffer, 1986.)
I. Middle East Diasporas
Like other modern diasporas, such communities from or within the Middle East have played a important political, economic and cultural roles. These communities include Arabs (especially Palestinians), Armenians, Jews, Kurds, Iranians and Turks living outside their homelands–within and outside the region–while maintaining strong collective consciousness and close contacts to these homelands. There is a substantial body of literature on Middle East ethnic minorities (see for example, Hudson, 1977; Esman, 1988) but Middle Eastern diasporas outside the region and ethno-national diasporas in the region have not been fully studied.
Middle Eastern states host a variety of diasporas both currently stateless (Kurds; Palestinians) and state based (Egyptians and Jordanians), and large numbers of guest workers from other countries in proportion to the host population. Among the latter are many Asians and Arabs in the Persian Gulf states and also in Israel. Their age, organization and connection, or lack thereof, to homelands, influence these diasporas’ stand and strategy toward host countries and homelands. (See for example, Kelass, 1991)
More specifically, major diaspora communities in the regions include: Palestinians, Egyptians, and guest workers from countries out of the region (Chineses, Pakistanis, Koreans, Vietnamese and Filipinos) in the Gulf states; Armenians, Druze and guest workers from Romania, Thailand, the Philippines and Africa in Israel; Palestinians, and Armenians in Lebanon; Kurds, Druze and Armenians in Syria; and Kurds in Iraq.
Among established veteran diasporas, Armenians have a homeland while Kurds, Druze, and Palestinians are stateless. In a number of middle Eastern states here are also incipient diasporas from the region–Egyptians in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Jordanians in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states–and guest workers from Asia in the Gulf states and Israel, or Africa and East Europe in Israel.
Some communities are dwindling. Many Middle Eastern Armenians are migrating to the United States and Canada, and some return to the newly established independent republic of Armenia. These Armenian migrants tend to be younger, more skilled, and affluent, leading to a decline of their communities. Similar processes are at work among Palestinian Christians in Israel, the West Bank and Lebanon. There more signs of a demographic decline also among Israeli Druze, influenced by modernization and their integration into Israel’s political and economic systems, they have fewer children. Such demographic trends do not occur among larger stateless diasporas, the Kurds and Palestinians.
On the other hand, even the stricter Middle East authoritarian regimes cannot altogether stop the entrance of more guest workers. Although during and after the 1991 Gulf War, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, Egyptians and Jordanians fled or were expelled from Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, they have been replaced by others either from the same countries or from other regions. As noted, one can discern such development in Israel also.
II. Do Diasporas Pose Threats to Middle East Host Countries?
Though permanently settled in their host countries (and frequently citizens of these countries), ethno-national diasporas are often regarded as aliens posing potential or actual threats to host societies and governments. Some of these communities are accused of being more loyal to homelands and brethren elsewhere than to host countries and their governments. This suspicion is heightened as events in the 20th century have shown that ethnic minorities, including diasporas, can establish their own states (Israel is one example, Armenia is another one).
Yet, even liberal political philosophers and analysts worry that further disintegration of states and creation of new smaller ethnic states must be checked to avoid new conflicts. Sopme of them argue that the right of self-determination must be denied to certain ethnic groups if they pose a real threat to established states. (see for example, Nye, 1993).
The establishment of independent states in the former Yugoslavia and USSR has reduced the number of stateless diasporas. Yet some remaining ones undeniably pose threats to their hosts. Influenced by ethno-nationalist ethos and aware that some once stateless diasporas–such as the Jews and Armenians–have established their own independent states, Palestinians and some Kurds have a similar goal, though Kurds are still split among secessionists, irredentist, assimilationists, and those seeking cultural autonomy. In these two cases it seems that the diasporas are more militant than those residing in the region.
Members of other communities permanently residing in host countries outside the region, however, behave like other diasporas in trying to maintain their ethnic identity, pursue moderate policies, attempt to integrate into their host economic and political systems, and create and keep elaborate networks of voluntary organizations and associations, complementing host state institutions in catering for diaspora members.
From a security point of view, some in the Palestinian and Kurdish diasporas outside the region engage or help in planning and organizing violent, subversive and terrorist activities, thus posing threats to host societies and governments. This involvement create greater threats in areas within or bordering the claimed homeland.
Guerrilla and terrorist activities are only the tip of much larger icebergs of activities by diasporas. For example, these diasporas (as well as the Irish in the United States) collect and transfer resources needed for the operation of their liberation armies in the homelands and their international terrorism. They recruit and train cadre, lobby for political and diplomatic support, and gather intelligence. Beneficiaries of such efforts include Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and the PKK in Turkey.
Attempts by various governments to cut such links and curb such transfers have failed. For now it is virtually impossible to stop the flow of ideas, information, arms and money, especially as international borders have become more permeable and the diasporas? transstate organizations have become become better organized, using more sophisticated thechnologies.
Other established and incipient diasporas in the Middle East pose no such serious security threats to their hosts. This is partly due to their structure and goals, and partly to the authoriterian nature of most of the regimes in Arab countries. The least dangerous diasporas in the Middle East are the Druze, who have adopted an accomodationist philosophy. (Ben Dor, 1979: Hitti, 1982) Basically, members of such diasporas are interested in physical and cultural survival, enjoying similar rights to the rest of the population, and gaining some cultural autonomy.
The ultimate interests of guest workers who form incipient diasporas are to preserve contacts with the homeland, remit money to families there, be fairly treated, sometimes bring over relatives, and to be able to practice their religion and maintain their culture. Under the existing circumstances in the Middle East, these goals can be best attained if these diasporas keep low profile and avoid clashes with host society and government.
Not surprising at all, although on the whole in most Middle Eastern countries, including Israel, guest workers are not treated very well, they continue to arrive and usually behave in an unobtrusive way. This can be explained by the fact that most come from countries which are non-democratic and poor, and from cultures stressing obedience.
III. Middle Eastern Diasporas Outside the Region
The Jewish Diaspora is, of course, the largest, oldest and best organized diaspora that is connected to a Middle Eastern country and, since 1948, to an independent state. Yet unlike the accepted view, by no means is it a unique phenomenon. When viewed from this perspective, before Israel’s establishment it had similar characteristics to other stateless diasporas. After the establishment of Israel, the Jewish diaspora largely accepted Israel’s predominance in the entire nation, and supported it, providing considerable manpower, financial, political and diplomatic resources. Since the mid-1970s, however, a gradual change has occurred for a variety of reasons related both to Israel itself, and to the challenge of escalating assimilation, intermarriage and aging in various countries. These processes have been enhanced by the diaspora’?s image that Israel is undergoing rapid processes of “normalization.” While the Jewish Diaspora still serves as a significant partner to Israel, it seeks greater autonomy, recognition as an equall partner and, to an extent, disengagement. (for a more elaborate analysis see, Sheffer, 1996)
The main destinations of other ethnic migrants from Middle East states have been European and Western Hemisphere host countries, where one finds Palestinian, Israeli, Syrian, Lebanese, Armenian, and Iranian communities. Lebanese and Iranian diasporas have also formed in France; Kurds and Turks in Germany. These communities extend financial and other support to thier brethren back in the Middle East. Most of these communities have been established in their host countries either on the basis of family connections or as landsmanshaften (mutual help associations for those originating from the same places in the old homeland), with Armenian, Christian Lebanese, Syrian and Christian Palestinian as the richer diasporas.
Using the new sophisticated electronic media and modern means of communication, all these diasporas have built elaborate transstate networks that connect them with their homelands. Such networks add to suspicions toward all migrants, especially those from Moslem countries, as having dual or divided loyalties, triggering friction and conflict. Middle Eastern communities abroad are caught between homelands trying to cash on their deep ethnic and religious sentiments, and host countries, which emphasize obedience to the laws of the land. Such conflicts present diasporas with grave dilemmas. See, for example, the attempts of the Egyptian diaspora in the United States to dissociate itself from the bombing of the World Trade Center).
Yet, clashes stemming from divided or dual loyalties cannot always be avoided, especially during periods of tense relations between homelands and host countries. Since the Khumaini revolution in Iran and the Gulf War, this has the case for both Iraqi and Iranian communities in the United States and in Europe. Consequently, an increasing number of host societies and their governments oppose the inflow of poor migrants. Thus, more Western countries try to prevent the entrance of Middle Eastern refugees and guest workers, as seen in Germany, France and the United States.
Alongside tensions and conflicts, however, there has been an important trend in host countries toward great respect for ethnic pluralism and realization on the part of both host governments and diasporas that a symbiosis, or at least interdependence, ultimately compels the two sides to limit their conflicts and moderate their subversive actions. Accordingly, a growing number of host governments allow diasporas not only to sustain ethno-cultural identities but also to organize and maintain contacts with their homelands. (Sheffer, 1994)
IV. Diasporas-Homelands Relations
In homeland-diaspora relations, tensions and conflicts are often caused by the perceptions of the homelands? leaders that the raison d?etre of “their” diaspora is to express unswerving loyalty to the homeland and render services to it in the diasporas’ host countries. Thus, for example, despite the precarious political situation of the Palestinian diaspora in the United States, the Palestinian Authority expects substantial political and financial support from it. The Lebanese government has counted upon its diaspora to supply financial resources needed for the reconstruction of its destroyed economy. In this, the Palestinians and Lebanese resemble Israel. (for a wider analysis of these issues see Sheffer, 1993).
Most homeland governments develop a cynical attitude toward “their” diasporas. Although no homeland would intentionally “sacrifice” its diaspora in order to promote its own interests, when the needs of homeland and the diaspora clash, the homeland’?s interests will come first. Only thereafter will it intervene on behalf of its diaspora. Diasporas are, nevertheless, becoming more confident and assertive and may cause security problems for homelands as well as host countries. In terms of political and economic matters, ethnic diasporas’ ability to impaire –or at least not help–their homeland are even more substantial. For example, important groups among the Iranian and Iraqi diasporas in the United States and Europe seek to overthrow the present governments in those countries.
Because of the authoriterian nature of their regimes, now it is hard to envisage ethno-national diasporas dwelling in Egypt, Syria, or Saudi Arabia causing major problems. These states can use coercive mechanisms to block major conflicts initiated by diasporas, and even block their organizing at all. Yet, even some of the region’s larger, stronger governments can face problems caused by such communities. This has been the case in Iraq and Turkey.
In smaller, more democratic or liberal Middle Eastern state, such as Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and Kuwait, diasporas have and will pose potential dangers. In this context can be mentioned severe disruptions that Palestinians have caused in Lebanon and Jordan (not to mention in Israel), or the Druze have caused in Lebanon.
Both weaker and stronger host states encounter difficulties in attempts to stop the migration of additional guest workers, who will wind up as diasporas in these countries. Because of need and changed international environment, such host countries find it also more difficult to expel guest workers.
On the other hand, the ability of these states to manipulate their own diasporas who have settled in the democratic Western countries is limited but not impossible. It is true that most diasporas supply support and services to their homelands, but at the same time they are becoming more assertive and absorbed in fortifying their own communities in host countries to ensure continuity. on the whole, like other diasporas, among Middle Eastern diasporas abroad and in the region, there is a general trend to persist and pursue their own interests in an increasingly pluralist and multicultural global environment. It means that these communities will continue to play a role in political, economic and cultural developments. Therefore they deserve further study and examination. Research for this article was supported by the Shaine Center for Research in Social Sciences at the Hebrew University.
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