The Myth of Demographic Purity

A year ago or maybe more, the world’s most pressing problems suddenly took a step backwards leaving two issues to take centre stage: Daesh and the issue of refugees and immigrants in the West. The dangers of dictatorships, social inequalities and climate change all faded into the background and the fascination with the Arab Spring—now turning into Autumn—began to dwindle. Even the issue of terrorism was reduced to that of the Islamic State.

Yet none of this materialised out of thin air; rather, it had to do with age-old problems that the world’s decision-makers have long ignored, coupled with other issues that have forced themselves into our consciousness as a result of overblown claims by Arab revolutions and the terrorism that took root in their shadow. Europe got burned, too, courtesy of refugees and terrorism. This, among other things, led to a change in the continent’s priorities from combating despotism and promoting democracy and human rights, to throwing up walls around the continent to protect against the influx of displaced persons/refugees and terrorism. Within the fortress, meanwhile, old questions were revived concerning immigration, European identity, the state, the right of refuge, human rights, and the twin political poles of Left and Right. All of this was taking place at a moment of instability[1] on a number of fronts, including:

  1. Geopolitical: With the US turning its attention to China in Central Asia and the Pacific at the same time as Iran and Russia moved to fill the void amid troubling European inaction—the Mediterranean being Southern Europe, after all—we watched as Europe turned its back on the issue and passed the buck; much like the EU’s agreement with Turkey regarding refugees or leaving Russia to deal with Syria; an insult to injury.
  2. Ideological: Putinism garners ever more support around the world, even as the extreme right and anti-immigrant groups gain traction in Europe and the Trump phenomenon takes off in the US. Meanwhile in our region a discourse that talks about the War on Terror and the importance of safeguarding the state (utterly divorced from discussion of the ills of despotism which provide a perfect environment for extremism and terrorism) is widely deployed; feeding the flow of refugees and terrorism instead of stemming it. Taken together these ideological discourses work against the discourse of human rights and democracy and, of course, against revolution. More worryingly, they have begun to be echoed by supporters of the latter as interests begin to take precedence over principle.
  1. Globalised identities and national identities in the shadow of globalisation: Even though globalisation is a process of abolishing borders and demarcations in various ways, widening non-normative margins and breaking down state sovereignty in a number of areas, it is nevertheless narrower and more constricting for the world’s poorer citizens. Saskia Sassen professor of sociology at Columbia University states that,

our economic system is no longer capable of assimilation and has switched over to expulsion and exclusion. In the latter half of the twentieth century the economy was able to assimilate the majority of the population and created a secure and prosperous middle class. The logic of privatisation and the free market, as well as the erasure of national borders which was pushed for by major companies, all fed into this dynamic of expulsion and exclusion. Instances of this phenomenon in the West are the poor wages received by workers and the unemployed losing their social security benefits and unemployment pay. The 2008 subprime mortgage crisis in the US saw fourteen million families made homeless and turned bank loans into insecure bonds. Millions of farmers have been thrown off their land since investors and foreign governments started taking possession of 200 million hectares in 2006.[2]

At the same time the very concept of the state is under attack. A state is based on the government’s sovereignty over territory with carefully defined borders and these borders are penetrated on a symbolic level by the logic of globalisation, which rejects boundaries and demarcations of any kind, and by refugees and immigrants who physically cross over; not forgetting terrorism which always finds a window of opportunity. French thinker Olivier Roy addressed this very point when he said,

This is not a struggle for legitimacy between religion and state, but rather evidence of the emergence of new spaces that escape assimilation into a region, a society, a people and a state. Just like the EU itself, the religious contributes to the erasure of those very spaces which created the nation-state.[3]

Elsewhere Roy states: ‘It is globalisation’s role to promote the spread of fundamentalisms even as it weakens the state model which facilitated the rise of secularism.’[4] What does the impotence of the state and its borders mean? What questions does it raise about the function of borders in our world? What does it mean for the state itself? Is the state the same as it always was? Does it need to be re-evaluated?

The State, Borders and the Right to Refuge

The emergence of the concept of the nation-state following the Treaty of Westphalia still has a powerful impact on the world we live in. It did away with the imperial model, based on diversity and changing borders, and replaced it with a state that had borders, a flag, and sovereignty over a territory inhabited by a single people or nation. It was incumbent upon the state to act as guarantor for the demands of this people, and to protect them.

However, changes to the global socio-economic set-up following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the increasing pace of globalisation and its destructive impact on national borders, endless wars, and the globalisation of the discourse of human rights and freedoms together created serious challenges to the state, which seemed incapable of mounting a clear-cut response. Should the state remain loyal to its population without taking the developments outside its borders into account (i.e. avoiding confrontation with the mechanics of globalisation and rights and democratic discourse) or should it become more global (or rather, globalised) and treat the interests of the wider world on an equal footing with those of its people?

This dilemma is evident in the state’s approach to the issues of refugees and immigration, since human rights discourse simply asserts, without argument, that anyone facing any form of threat has the right to take refuge in any state. Many states, however, refuse to take in large numbers of refugees on the pretext that they don’t have the capacity to cope. In other words, they fear that the presence of the refugees/immigrants will have an impact on the state’s ability to serve its people and meet their needs, particularly when it comes to employment and welfare; or, else, that these incomers will affect the ‘identity’ of the ‘nation’ that inhabits this territory. This is because, since its inception, the concept of the state has largely coalesced around that of the nation-state, a fact echoed internally by groups that champion anti-refugee slogans. Sometimes it is on the pretext that the refugees threaten the nation’s identity, at others because these refugees appropriate job opportunities and place the state’s ability to provide social welfare services to its citizens under strain. In other words, there is a kind of mentality that pits the state against the refugees on the grounds a belief that the latter are impeding the smooth functioning of the former, or violating its founding principles.

The fact that the concept of the state revolves around ideas such as ‘the people’, ethnicity and nationalism, makes it restrictive and prone to generating a degree of xenophobia. After all its focus is turned on ‘its people’ and ‘its borders’ with no interest in other world populations. This creates a clear incongruity, one exposed by the state’s arch enemy, globalisation. After all, a significant number of state policies are designed to safeguard the interests of one population regardless of whether this comes at the expense of another; an attitude that can be characterised as realpolitik: interests taking precedence over principle. This is something that can be readily observed in the relationship between the global North and South, where the policies of northern states aim to secure the interests of their populations without considering those of the rest of the world. Worse, there is a clear incongruity between the way the state deals with its population internally and with the wider world beyond its borders. Internally, it respects human rights and democracy, while its conduct abroad involves overtly illegal policies. We see this in the policies of countries such as the US, France and Great Britain. The fact is, that these policies spring from a restrictive conception of the state revolving around serving ‘its people’ to the exclusion of others, something that has a significantly xenophobic dimension as it presupposes that its people must be superior and more important than others.

This enables us to understand certain worldviews opposed to immigration, immigrants and refugees. For those who endorse these views, the immigrant violates the innocence of their state or taints the purity of its national characteristics. This is what pushes the state to apply human rights principles to those within its borders and to use this fact as a political slogan when promoting itself overseas, yet it fails to apply these same principles when another population is exposed to war or is at risk of annihilation by another regime and forced to migrate and seek refuge. When this happens, the borders are closed even though in doing so they know they are violating the very principles they champion so loudly. A piece by Dresden-Balkan Konvoi, a German NGO who organises convoys to help refugees after three weeks spent in Greece at the Idomeni refugee camp on the Macedonian border, illustrates this point:

Strategists in Brussels took the decision to close the route to the Balkans and shuffle the refugees around like pawns in and out of Greece. The redistribution programme by which people are parcelled out among the different European states seems to be impossible to implement on practical grounds. At certain times (three hours a week), the refugees are able to submit their requests for refugee status. Worse yet, the programme completely ignores the reasons for the requests being made and the right to refuge, evaluating applicants on the basis of their ‘usefulness’. We ask ourselves whether we have really understood the meaning of the world ‘human’ in the EU’s treaty.[5]

This is the result of narrow thinking, which assumes that state territory is the sole preserve of the resident ‘nation’ and that any incursion into that territory constitutes a threat; whereas of course the world should be a home for all and we should have the right to move freely and request refuge anywhere. The concept of state here is revealed to be excessively constricting and, even more incongruously, growing narrower as globalisation undermines what sovereignty the state still possesses. What then are the intellectual and cultural roots from which these ideas spring?

The State, Nationalism and Globalisation: Dividing Walls

In late 2015, I attended a workshop run by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Leymah Gbowee where a film about the Liberian civil war was screened. As I watched I remembered that ten years before I had been sitting at home in my village on the coast listening to reports about Liberia. I hadn’t been that interested or shocked by what I heard and the thought led me to a frightening conclusion; many people around the world today respond to reports about Syria in an identical manner.

After the shame and distress, I started asking questions: Why is it we humans fail to show solidarity with people who are being murdered on the other side of the world? Why do we find ourselves automatically standing up for people who share our nationality and religion, or who come from the same neighbourhood, or country, and yet show less support for any ‘others’ who might be suffering similarly? Aren’t we all human? Shouldn’t our fellow feeling mean that we not only extend our sympathies to those being killed but that we also do our utmost to help them? So, why the indifference? Why is it our humanity is untouched? How is it that we manage to avoid the pricking of our conscience, or that our conscience evades us?

After considerable thought I reached some initial conclusions (i.e. ones that I am still examining). In the world today there are a great number of ideologies, systems of thought and cultures, all of which form invisible walls which block people off from one another, increase their isolation and reduce the sympathy they might otherwise feel for one another. Sometimes, in fact, they actively generate prejudices that are used to justify inhuman behaviour towards other people. More worrying still, we regard many of these ideas in a positive light, indeed some are sacred: after all, who dares speak ill of things like nationalism or patriotism or globalisation or the state? And can these concepts, just as they take shape in our minds, come to form barriers against, and generate prejudice towards, others?

There are two basic models in the relationship between nation and state. The first, is a nation that predates the state, with the state then granting this nation a political carapace known as the nation-state. Then second, there are states that have been formed in the absence of a nation. In these instances the state works hard to form its own nation or specific kind of identity and its people come to possess the inclusive national identity that the state creates. In both instances this new identity is transformed through education, upbringing, culture, media, etc, into a kind of prison in which the citizen learns to hold the nation sacred, to care for it and to yearn to belong to it. Though this has a positive impact, in the sense of nurturing patriotism and nationalism, it is in most instances a contorted consciousness confined by the limits of a restrictive identity that functions as a barrier to block others out and any attempt to sympathise with their tragedy. The citizen becomes indoctrinated and is only concerned with what takes place within the ambit of his national or patriotic affiliation becoming indifferent to whatever else is happening. This explains the ease and speed with which we sympathise and engage with those who share our national or religious identities when they come under attack, yet choose to ignore events in distant countries. This is because we have acquired our epistemological and value-based systems in the wrong way: we have learned not to care, that it is not our duty to care about what happens elsewhere, and so we feel little guilt and our conscience is clear.

Of course things are not this simple: after all, many factors contribute to the formation of our awareness, such as political and global forces that work to delay the process of understanding since it constitutes a threat to their interests. These forces (i.e. the authorities, companies, forces of globalisation, governments etc.) manipulate the media to conceal what is really going on or to present it in such a way that it does not arouse sympathy. The non-state media today (usually owned by those who deploy it exclusively in the service of their own interests) has become one of the most important tools used by forces opposed to change in the world to conceal facts and prevent us from discovering the truth. In this way we are prevented from sympathising with the persecuted and oppressed wherever they might be. The media tends to present things back-to-front, in a way that obstructs understanding and cooperation between different nations, and against immigrants and refugees who are depicted as threatening; although of course, not all media outlets are the same.

Yet before governments, regimes and the media get involved, the nationalist and patriotic ideas we are raised on and which constitute a part of our value systems and way of thinking, contain a flaw in their roots that makes them grow crooked and curl in on themselves. This is why nationalists and bigots and the overtly religious always feel that the ‘other’ forms a threat to their nationalism or religion and they instinctively move to confront anything that poses this threat and is regarded as an enemy. After all, nationalism, patriotism and the state are structurally opposed to human fellow feeling, being focussed on realising the interests of its people to the exclusion of others.

For instance, anyone raised from childhood with a conservative worldview will find when he grows older that any other national or religious identity poses a threat to him. We see this in the current wave of Islamophobia in France. Even though everyone who is raised as French is not necessarily Catholic or secular: French identity is in fact an open-ended proposition and should be more accepting of refugees and immigrants, leading us from nationalist, religious or ideological thought based on ethnicity or religion to an inclusive humanist vision. In other words, critiquing current nationalisms and patriotisms to bolster national, patriotic and cultural identities that are open to the ‘other’: treating planet earth as the home of all mankind, with all who live here having the right to shelter, water and food. Naturally, this necessitates an alternative understanding of nationalism, patriotism and the state, not in either the global North or South but in both concurrently. Refugees and immigrants also encounter problems linked to their inability to assimilate and this stems from the powerful grip of religious and/or national customs and traditions. Not only does this hinder assimilation, it is met on the other side by thinking which views the culture of these incomers as a threat to a national identity that is held to be fixed and immutable.

The concern here is that, even as globalisation is seen as a positive factor forcing national identities and states to be more open and accepting of the ‘other’ by breaking through many of the borders that confine us, increasing our capacity to generate revenue and facilitating easy access to labour markets, it has also become in some senses a barrier. It is one of the factors behind the rising numbers of displaced, marginalised and excluded people. The result is a group made up of those who have been marginalised and excluded by the mechanisms of globalisation, added to those displaced by wars and dictatorships and terrorism. Both groups suffer the consequences of a misunderstanding which is itself the consequence of narrow systems of thought that violate human rights and basic humanity, even as they claim the opposite.

When Nations, Nationalities and Identities Shrink

One of the arguments advanced by those opposed to refugees, migrants and assimilation concerns their fears that the identity of the host country, or the demographics of its population, will be changed. This argument is common with those who view Europe as intrinsically Christian, say, or France as secular, or the Arab world as Islamic, or Africa as a continent of black people. The danger of such ideas do not stem from their ignorance alone, but also from their failure to take on board that they are swimming against the tide of an ever-changing history. No identity, no state, is fixed and immutable. We need only examine a map of the world as it was a hundred years ago (hardly the distant past) to see the scale of the change that, say, French identity has undergone—the very identity that the far right throws in the face of immigrants, fearful of the Islamization of Europe.

One hundred years ago or so, Syria—which today pumps out refugees and immigrants to every corner of the world—did not exist as the geographical entity with fixed borders that we know today; an entity which came into being in 1920. Nevertheless, this parcel of land has welcomed Armenians, Kurds and Assyrians fleeing Ottoman slaughters, Lebanese citizens escaping the civil wars of 1948, 1960 and 1975, Palestinians running from Israeli massacres (1948-1967), the Iraqis in 2003, followed by yet more Lebanese in the wake of the Israeli assault on Southern Lebanon in 2006. Going further back into history we find that Alawites, Druze and Muslims themselves have all come from outside Syria, as well as individuals with Chechen, Balkan and even Italian roots. Indeed, there is a neighbourhood in Damascus know as the Italian quarter after its former inhabitants; so like every other country Syria’s population is also descended from immigrants.

What makes Syria interesting is that up until 2011 the identity of Kurds, Armenians, Arabs, Assyrians, Circassians and Turkmen was not disputed: they, to different degrees, became part of Syrian identity, which was itself enriched by their presence and evolved accordingly. This shows that in real terms, identity is in perpetual flux: identity remains as it is and there is no demographic purity for us to safeguard in the first place. Terms like demographic purity or fixed identity, are the product of racist, backward thinking that stands powerless before the onward march of history. Once more we return to the idea that when nationalisms and patriotisms narrow they turn into sectarian ghettos which produce further misunderstanding and, occasionally, conflict. Whenever the social actors in any given country (i.e. unions, civil society, political parties, environmental organisations, the political system) have an understanding that transcends these narrow identities, it makes absorbing sudden change, such as an influx of refugees or immigrants, possible and socially acceptable.

Sadiq Khan’s recent victory in London’s mayoral race gives great hope for humanity’s ability to assimilate and engage, free of restrictive identities and in the interest of a single, open and mutable global identity. Nor can Khan’s victory be discussed in isolation from the nature of Britain’s political system and its social actors. At Heathrow airport, for instance we encounter a young employee wearing the hijab and we realise what it means to be in London, ‘the world’s most ethnically and religiously diverse city.’[6] Meanwhile in France, Prime Minister Manuel Valls is considering banning women in hijabs from university campuses, while Germany’s Chancellor Merkel welcomes the presence of immigrants and refugees and is trying to ensure that they are assimilated.

It is impossible to separate the electorate’s ideas from the thinking of the political elite. The elite’s approach is, one way or another, the product of the base, whose zeitgeist sends out indicators of the relative strength of racist, anti-immigration ideas versus that of open-minded, liberal thinking. Valls’ statement is a sign that there is an entrenched anti-change mind-set at work that still requires work for it to be broken down: an attitude evident in the fear of Islam that troubles the very heart of French society. There are French elites that believe Islam threatens France’s venerable secularist tradition. As Roy states: “French secularism feels a distinctive kind of fear towards Islam, attempting to reject immigration and generations of French citizens with Muslim roots, on the grounds of a purported contradiction between Islam and Western values.”[7] The reaction, therefore, is of a mind-set that assumes French identity is something fixed and must remain so. But this is a myth: identity is mutable and the French of yesterday are not the French of today, nor are the first generation of immigrants the same as the second or third. There is transformation at work, changing identity with every day that passes and this terrifies those who are unable to understand these transformations, Roy again:

Does it go back to the nature of Muslim theology or is it something more prosaic, the fact that Islam is the religion of the immigrants, thus casting the shadow of Middle East conflicts over our country? Needless to say, all these things are muddled together, and inescapably so, since Islam in the West is, from one perspective, a demographic phenomenon, the product of a recent, intensive and solicited wave of immigration from Muslim countries.[8]

What the recently elected mayor of London Sadiq Khan said after his victory is very telling in this context: ‘I am proud that today London chose hope over fear… the politics of fear is simply not welcome in our city.’[9] Fear is one of the prime generators of racist and extremist thought, since it begins with fear for one’s identity, or country, or secularism, or nationalism at the hands of the foreigner/other. And this problem stems from the nature of the consciousness that leads one to fear an ‘other’, a fear that is promoted by many authorities and agencies of power because change poses a threat to their interests. Social actors all over the world must therefore work to unify global forces against these powers and to focus on the wider good of the world as a whole and the need for all humanity to enjoy their most basic rights, starting with food, education and security and encompassing freedom and human rights. This is not imposed just by issues of immigration and refugees but by other global issues that threaten the entire planet, such as climate change, ecological imbalance, the depletion of natural resources and water loss. All these things demand an examination of global issues and problems from a global perspective which takes the local into account.


The argument here demonstrates that political action alone is insufficient to create a solution for immigration and refugees. Those who want to protect the welfare state from immigration and want to keep refugees out in order not to share their wealth, also want to be among the winners of globalization; taking all the economic advantage but not addressing the consequences and without recognising that it is all interrelated. Work must take place on a cultural and epistemological level to deconstruct the many systems of thought we regard as positive, but which possess a racist and reactionary core. We have to reject the narrow concept of homelands that conceals from us the fact that standing alongside our fellow citizens is inhuman when it in any way harms the right of other populations to a life of dignity. We must escape narrow national and patriotic identities and embrace an open-ended, global identity: moving from a narrow national citizenship to a global citizenship which takes all the earth’s citizens into account, from the furthest south to the furthest north. If we do not embrace this step, mankind will never quit its brutal, shadowed nature: it does not matter that we are in the twenty-first century. The fact that the world stands by, powerless to intervene in endlessly shifting conflicts and dictatorships that expel their populations, and terrorism that violates all human feeling, is ample evidence of this.

[1] Amin Maalouf discusses these ideas at length in Disordered World.

[2] Sassen, S. (2016) ‘The Political, Economic and Social Order Replaces Assimilation with Expulsion and Exclusion’, Al-Hayat, 17 February 2016, translated from an article in French newspaper Liberation, on 5 February 2016. Available at: Last accessed 14 September 2016.

[3] Roy, O. (2016) Islam and Secularism, Dar Saqi, (translation by Saleh Al Ashmar of Islam Confronts Secularism), p.26.

[4] Ibid: 107-108. On page 115, Roy writes: ‘The West today wavers between the demands of a nanny state which protects a given national community and the slowly developing concept of civil society, in which the state plays the role of a slightly wary referee.’

[5] See: Mud, Tea, Europe: Three Weeks in Idomeni (translated by Ahmed Hamam), 10 May 2016. Available at: Last accessed 14 September 2016.

[6] Muslim Labour candidate Sadiq Khan elected Mayor of London, 7 May 2016: available at: Last accessed 14 September 2016.

[7] Roy 2016: 63.

[8] Ibid. pp. 9-10.

[9] Muslim Labour candidate Sadiq Khan elected Mayor of London, Ibid.