DISPATCHES FROM THE GLOBAL CRISIS IN REFUGEE PROTECTION

Nationalism in an Era of Record Migration

Omar al-Muqdad

Credit: BABAROGA / Shutterstock

Nationalism in an Era of Record Migration

Omar al-Muqdad – a prominent journalist, documentary filmmaker, and former Syrian refugee – writes a bi-monthly blog for CMS titled, “Dispatches from the Global Crisis in Refugee Protection.” This series covers the Syrian Civil War, the experiences of Syria’s immense and far-flung refugee population, the global crisis in refugee protection, religious persecution, and US refugee and immigration policies. Mr. al-Muqdad’s work has been featured by the BBC, CNN, and in many other media outlets. Resettled in the United States in 2012, Mr. al-Muqdad became a US citizen in Spring 2018. CMS will be featuring this work in its weekly Migration Update and on its website.


“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul,” wrote Simone Weil in wartime England in 1942. In the twenty-first century at a time of rising nationalism and record levels of international migration, it is time to re-examine the idea of rootedness and linkages between people and place.

Nationalism is the concept of belonging to a place and a people. It affirms the home created by a community of language, culture and customs, and sometimes religion. By doing so, it fends off the ravages of exile.

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that “[e]veryone has the right to a nationality” and “[n]o one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.” However, this article is silent on citizenship, which speaks to a specific legal relationship between a state and a person. Citizenship gives persons certain rights and responsibilities. The relationship between nationality and citizenship can be in alignment or at variance. Nationality is, in essence, a cultural concept which binds people on the basis of shared identity, while citizenship is a political concept deriving from people’s relationship to the state.

Although nationalism has been associated with liberation, unification, and independence movements, it can also be exclusive and insular. Many theorists suggest that the notion of nationalism is becoming more complicated, given historically unprecedented levels of human mobility and displacement, whether driven by ambition, desire, violence, disaster, or poverty. Many migrants end up reinventing homes and homelands in the absence of territorial and national bases. As a result, the idea of a homeland becomes more of an internal feeling and set of memories of a place where the displaced can no longer live.

Although many assume that migration and globalization are creating more hybrid and in-between identities, nationalism continues to be an important aspect of the lives of people and states. It can be very difficult to reconcile national, collective identities with more diverse, fluid cultural identities. Within host societies, perceptions of threatening “others” can create inward-looking tendencies and attempts to regain or hold onto cultural, national, regional, and other forms of place-based purity and attachment. Needless to say, exclusionary forms of nationalism can create major impediments to the protection and integration of migrants.

On the other hand, migrants may seek to deal with xenophobia, dislocation, and vulnerability by relying on more homogenous and purist notions of ethnic, religious, cultural, or national identity that are often linked to the homeland. However, violence and oppression associated with more extreme forms of nationalism cannot simply be relegated to non-Western “others.”

Theorists also claim that singular and uniform constructions of identity within the territorial boundaries of a state seem untenable in our diverse and interdependent world. They argue that all cultures are plural, and identity is never fixed. The history of nation-states can be seen as a constant struggle to attain a sense of unity and coherence. Yet the nineteenth century dream that nation-states should be defined by a single culture and that all their cohabitants should share a common identity has too often proven to be a bloody nightmare.

In the United States and Europe, a prevailing account of contemporary politics tries to explain nationalism and populism as rising in lockstep with growing inequality and social exclusion. The fact that ethnic nationalist leaders have become stronger in well-off societies with educated populations and generous welfare policies provides evidence of a stronger driver: cultural backlash against perceived changes in social values and norms concerning religion, race, education, security, and other matters. These perceptions and tensions — stoked by amoral politicians — can have a powerful impact.

Immigrants and diasporas — with their abundant cross-border connections — have unsettled the perceived homogeneity of nations for many native-born residents. They have created identities and cultures that are “in-between” and complex and that some see as alien to or beyond the nation.

Many Western states have accommodated diversity and extended rights and benefits to noncitizens. At the same time, these states have set increasingly restrictive immigration and border policies, and have retreated from multiculturalism.

Although immigration is often viewed as serving a state’s economic interests, xenophobia by the public and a perceived need to control migration flows also exert a strong influence on immigration policies. There are numerous examples of immigration policies created in order to promote purity and exclude those deemed to be too “different,” like the “White Australia” policy which was terminated only in 1973.

Moreover, native populations often expect migrants to make a strong and brisk effort to adapt to their host society. Yet migrants may still be treated as outsiders or not fully accepted as equals, even after prolonged periods of residence and great efforts to integrate, respect, and embrace the values of the host country.

Even when formal requirements such as permanent residence, language acquisition, observance of civic customs, and the attainment of citizenship have been achieved, migrants frequently continue to experience social, political, and economic exclusion.

Liberal democracies need to figure out how to harness the diversity they need for economic and social growth, while reaching out to citizens who feel left behind. A good place to start would be to stop claiming that immigrants and refugees represent an economic burden. Instead, political leaders and the press should address the underlying cultural fears of natives, examine the ways in which nationalism — with its preoccupation with state boundaries and us-versus-them distinctions — can be rescued, and seek to make their societies more inclusive.

Author Names

Omar al-Muqdad

Date of Publication October 16, 2018

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