Call him Farid. Farid (not his real name, of course) is one of the numberless displaced persons from the Middle East pouring into Central Europe and whom any inquisitive traveler to the region might encounter in the train station, at a facility for the homeless, or in a conversation at the home of many generous locals, who have offered them sustenance and shelter because the refugee camps themselves, once meticulously and rigorously designed to keep Flüchtlinge as they are known in German off the streets, are filled to capacity.
Farid, a Shi’a Muslim who was targeted for death by the Sunni Taliban, fled Afghanistan two years earlier and languished in Iran, which accepted his religion but mistreated him because of his ethnicity and social status. Farid is also illiterate and knows barely a word of any European languages, including English. He communicates through an interpreter.
Last summer Farid, evading for a moment the ever-present gaze of the Iranian state security apparatus, escaped Iran and made his way to Turkey, where he joined the streams of Syrian refugees and threaded his way to Vienna, where I was able to speak with him briefly. Like most of his counterparts in the present migration wave, Farid is grateful to people in the West for “welcoming” him into their world of democratic freedoms and material comforts.
In fact, Farid even wants to become a Christian now, although he has no idea about how to initiate the process. “In my country Muslims do not care about people like me”, he says. “In Europe people have open arms. They give me food, a place to live, and money too. I want to be part of people who care for other people like they care for me.”
Given Farid’s desperate situation and his precarious legal standing in the European Union, one should take his words perhaps with a grain of salt. And if he were actually to convert to Christianity in any form, he would be a marked man. In most Islamist cultures anyone born or professing Islam who then changes their religion is considered murdad, or an “apostate”. Apostasy, furthermore, in these societies is often considered a criminal act punishable by death.
But his comments, even if way too ingratiating to be assessed properly, point to something profound about the refugee crisis we tend to overlook – namely, that the highly contentious notion of a “clash of civilizations” ultimately comes down to a matter of how we deal with people, and whether we treat them with dignity and respect, two pillars of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that goes back now two-thirds of a century.
In many ways the anti-immigrant backlash that is now gaining a significant head of steam in the United States and Europe – and even Ausländerfreundlich (“foreigner friendly”) Germany where Chancellor Angela Merkel in recent weeks has had to walk back many of her “welcoming” remarks to refugees earlier in the fall – can be viewed as the distorted fun-house mirror image of conventional liberal, or neo-liberal, state policies toward migration from the developing world.
The politics of both tolerance and intolerance look upon the migrant as what Thomas Nail in his highly perceptive book (The Figure of the Migrant, Stanford University Press, 2015) calls a “failed citizen.” The right wants to expel every such citoyen manqué because they “don’t belong” on account of birth, language, or ethnic legacy.
The liberal wants to mobilize them as a kind of “bare life” (in Agamben’s terms) that can be turned into political, or even military, fodder for the latest, greatest, bloodless metropolitan cause, or at minimum to enlarge the voting rolls within their district. The neoliberal naturally wants them purely for their abstract and malleable “labor power” in the expansion of its empire of deployable capital. The liberal as well as the neoliberal, therefore, trafficks in the promotion of a pseudo-citizenship which constitutes not only alienated labor, but forged identity.
In fact, the liberal actually fears the “citizenship” of the migrant, especially his or her assimilation, because the transformation of bare life into responsible and ethical engagement with others as the mainstay of the polis, which becoming citoyen entails, runs the risk of fostering a true political self-awareness and communitarian integrity for the latter that might undermine mystified power structure and authority of the latter.
The relative popularity of a figure like Donald Trump in America, or Marine Le Pen in France, is much more nuanced than the reflexive cries of “neo-fascism” imply. As Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor during the Clinton administration, has just written presciently, the middle classes have finally seen through the fatuous ideological posturing of the Western elites, even the so-called “progressive” ones who dream of a grand global biopolitics (in Foucault’s terms) that renders righteous enforcement of abstract conceits of collective justice at the expense of the modest hopes and dreams of real human beings.
According to Reich, we are witnessing – not unlike the Arab Spring – “the revolt of the anxious classes.” He notes:
It was only a matter of time before the anxious class would revolt. They’d support a strongman who’d promise to protect them from all the chaos. Who’d save jobs from being shipped abroad, slam Wall Street, stick it to China, get rid of people here illegally, and block terrorists from getting into America. A strongman who’d make America great again – which really means make average working people safe again.
What does Reich’s anonymous, average, everyday icon of the “anxious class” have in common with the plight of Farid? Quite a lot. In fact, far more than ideology itself will allow us to recognize.
The global economic elites, including their countless academic apologists, envision a seductive, relativistic, postmodern cosmopolis in which twentieth-century aristocrats of the new global, virtualized economy will joyously cast down their crowns before the fantasy of a new multi-culturally attuned syndicate, or “plunderbund”, of faceless functionaries who through their various propogandistic and shaming techniques convince us to sacrifice our democratic sovereignty on the altar of “the good of mankind.”
But Farid makes it clear that he is not interested in serving as a simple statistical operator in the entrenchment of the transnational biopower of neoliberal corporatism, which seeks relentlessly to grind down the defenses of the “anxious classes” in the pursuit of a presumed, yet elusive, planetary well-being.
Farid is not interested in becoming a mere identitarian signifer in the abstractionist cloudcuckooland of “multicultural excellence.” He wants to risk his life to become both European and Christian. He understands it is all about how we treat each other, and how we forge a true “universal” identity from how we relate to each other as human beings in a one-on-one setting.
Merkel, a Lutheran pastor’s daughter who after the fall of the Berlin wall and the somewhat messy reunification of Germany became her own kind of domestic Flüchtling, understands the complicated politics of migration which both threatens and strengthens in the long run political community, so long as the insidious biopolitics of both nativism and transnationalism is not allowed to have the final say.
In walking back her “welcome”, Merkel made it clear that while she welcomes refugees, the central message must be that they must be encouraged to be transformed into citoyens. As the ancient Greeks would say, they must no longer be hoi polloi (the figure of “bare life”), but hoi polites. \
“Multiculturalism” is a “sham”, according to Merkel, because it “leads to parallel societies and therefore remains a ‘life lie’”.
Like all immigrants historically, Farid does not want to be part of a “parallel society.” He will only be forced into that eternal banileu of “failed citizenship” or institutionalized displacement if we begin to see him through different eyes, and we learn to exorcise the twin fetishes of nativistic exclusivism and abstract identitarianism in which nobody really believes, or considers a viable option in laying the groundwork for the true twenty-first century cosmopolis that is being forged daily in the shadows, whether we like it or not.