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NATIONS & NATIONALISM
Nations in Cyberspace
Thomas Hylland Eriksen1
The territorial integrity of nations is often taken as a premise for a functioning, unifying national identity. Yet, the economic and technological developments of recent decades have made it necessary to question this assumption. It can no longer be taken for granted that the people who identify with a given nation inhabit the same space, nor can it be assumed that cultural homogenisation takes place at the level of the nation through mass media.
When the Internet appeared, many social scientists and commentators predicted that it would threaten the cultural integrity of nations; that the non-territorial character of the Internet would lead to fragmentation and unprecedented cultural differentiation, making it difficult, eventually impossible to uphold a collective sense of national identity based on shared images, representations, myths and so on.
Although it is too early to make any conclusions regarding the long-term effects of the Internet, experiences so far suggest that such predictions were gravely mistaken. In fact, nations thrive in cyberspace, and the Internet has in the space of only a few years become a key technology for keeping nations (and other abstract communities) together. Nations which have lost their territory (such as Afrikaner-led South Africa), nations which are for political reasons dispersed (such as Tamil Sri Lanka or Kurdistan), nations with large temporary diasporas overseas (such as Scandinavian countries, with their large communities in Spain during winter), or nations where many citizens work temporarily or permanently abroad (such as India or Caribbean island-states), appear in many guises on the Internet - from online newspapers and magazines to semi-official information sites and "virtual community" homepages. In a "global era" of movement and deterritorialisation, the Internet is typically used to strengthen, rather than weaken, national identities.
But how? Using a few examples, I show how national imagery, myths and symbols are used, explicitly and implicitly, to invoke shared experiences, memories and dreams among the dispersed users. A futuristic kind of technology, the Internet can nevertheless be instrumental in creating and re-creating a shared, collective past among its users. Examining the role of the Internet in building and maintaining national identities may thus enhance our understanding of the character and enduring power of national myths and symbols.
Ours is an era characterised by migrations which contribute to transforming the nationalisms of our North Atlantic societies, as well as creating fertile conditions for diasporic and transnational identity politics. Writing about the cosmopolitan middle classes, Ernest Gellner (1983) once commented that they “already ‘speak each other’s language’, even if they do not speak each other’s language”, meaning that they adhere to an internationally shared grammar of interaction and signification. With many ethnic minorities in Europe these days, however, the opposite could be said to be the case: Even if they speak the same language as the majority, they no longer feel that they “speak the same language”. Most of the immigrants are arguably in a better state in their new country than they would have been in their country of origin: They are free from persecution, acute material insecurity and hopelessness, and their children have a wide range of educational and professional opportunities. Yet most non-European immigrants have not been, and may never be, fully assimilated. Many develop precarious and complicated hyphenated identities. Some see their situation as one of temporary exile, hoping to return when political conditions in their country of origin change.
Others develop transnational networks with people from their own country, as an alternative or a supplement to full membership in one nation or the other. Moreover, this unstable situation, where a certain proportion of the population are neither full members of the nation nor foreigners, is unlikely to end soon. Notwithstanding ongoing cultural homogenisation, identity politics runs its own course, using some aspects of homogenisation (education, technological skills etc.) to prevent others (religion, beliefs, emotional attachments).
It is an irony of the present era that the more similar we become, the more we try to remain different. In a certain sense, we are witness to a twenty-first century version of what has been described as the problem of the third generation in the United States. The grandparents lived in a culture without being aware of it; the parents, moving into a modern society, did their best to remove every trace of that pre-modern and shameful past; while the children try to revive just that culture in which the grandparents lived without being aware of doing so, and which the parents did their best to forget. Or one could say that they are like fish who have just been fished out of the water: while they were still swimming happily around, they were not even aware of the existence of water; gasping on land, they become acutely aware of it through its absence.
Centripetal and centrifugal forces
The total number of Internet users in the world is currently (2006) a little over a billion, that is one in six, and the growth rate is spectacular, estimated to be on an average 35 per cent annually in the last five years. The use of mobile telephones worldwide also continues to grow exponentially, not least with respect to text messages, a cheap and fast implementation of mobile technology which, to everybody’s surprise, conquered the world in the space of a few years. A decade ago, text messages were unknown in China. In January 2006, the Chinese sent about 15.6 billion such messages.
Seen together, the increased mobility of people and the rapid spread of new communication and information technologies contribute to creating new conditions for collective identity management. In the early years of the Internet, many commentators believed that the deterritorialised, supra-national character of the Internet would contribute to the fragmentation of populations and the breakdown of stable national identities; some even foresaw the coming of an all-encompassing global identity. Similar prophesies have been made, and to some extent still are, regarding the impact of non-European migration into the European heartlands. Both tendencies have the potential of liberating individuals from place-bound identities embedded in myth and kinship and, at a macro level, of breaking up the nationalist alloy of place, language, ethnic identity, state, culture and nationality into its constituent components, leaving many options open and few identities unquestioned.
In a friendly aside to Ernest Gellner’s description of nationalism as the replacement of Kokoschka’s paintings, made up of thousands of tiny coloured dots, with Modigliani’s calm, monochrome surfaces, the anthropologist Ulf Hannerz (1996) suggests the return of Kokoschka in the teeming, multicultural cities of the present time. If nationalism engendered the replacement of a world of many small differences by one of a few, major differences, then it can credibly be argued that at least substantial parts of the world are quickly moving back to a culturally complex situation where hetereogeneity is the norm and monoculturalism the exception.
At the same time, forces militating against disorder and the dissolution of boundaries remain strong. One of the most interesting findings in recent research on Internet use is that this technology is often used to strengthen rather than weaken national identities, and that it can be exceptionally efficient in reproducing such identities across vast distances, uniting dispersed populations in virtual communities because it can fully exploit the time–space compression characterising our era (see e.g. Miller and Slater 2000). Similarly, in spite of the broad selection of satellite TV channels which is now offered to many Europeans, the vast majority prefer to watch domestic channels. The main exceptions are certain immigrant groups, who can postpone cultural integration into the new country by following television from the old country. Far from being a “disembedding” technology, the Internet has in fact proven to be a “reembedding” technology, or at least one which can easily be used to strengthen identities which might, in an earlier era of slower and more cumbersome communication across oceans and mountains, have been forgotten or changed beyond recognition by the time of the third or fourth generation.
As noted by Steven Vertovec: “Whereas in previous eras migrants had to make do ith exorbitantly expensive calls or slow-paced post, they are now able to communicate with their families abroad on a regular, if not day-to-day basis.” (2004: 220) Ayse Çaglar adds that Turks in Germany spend twice as much on telephone calls as the average German (Caglar 2002). Now, Vertovec limits his discussion to the telephone, which is an interpersonal communication medium. If we look at the other new media, that family of technologies which make up the Internet – chatrooms, mailing lists, blogs, websites, discussion forums – the emphasis moves from the micro via the intermediate to the macro. The content may be rich and multifaceted, ranging from cool, factual news to personal confessions and engaged political statements.
An Iranian in California, who feels that “The Internet seems able to rescue Iranians from ... the ‘vacuum’ and ‘intellectual desert’ of the host society” (Graham and Khosravi 2002, quoted after van den Bos 2005), probably voices a widespread sentiment, at least judging from the extent of diasporic activity on the Internet.
In fact, the Internet is fast becoming a major medium for the consolidation, strengthening and definition of collective identities, especially in the absence of a firm territorial and institutional base. Some of the nationalist groups that appear to be most active on the Internet are Sri Lankan Tamils, Kurds, Palestinians, Sikhs and diasporic Iranians, as well as others with a precarious relationship to territory, such as diasporic Chileans and Afrikaners in South Africa. We now move to a few examples which indicate a variety of ways in which the Internet can be used in nation-building.
Independence struggles in absentia
The Kurds are one of the largest ethnic groups with a distinctive cultural heritage, language and collective self-identity, which has never controlled a state. The persecution of Kurds in countries where they are numerous – Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran – has, in the twentieth century, oscillated between assimilationism and brutality. As a result, the Kurdish diaspora is large and sprawling, with substantial numbers in Germany, the USA, the UK, Sweden and Australia. Lacking a Kurdish-language communications infrastructure in their areas of origin, Kurds in exile have developed a variety of media – magazines, satellite TV channels and Internet resources – to build a shared identity and make themselves known as a nation without a country to the outside world. Some of the Kurdish websites are made by professional journalists, such as KurdishMedia (www.kurdmedia.com), which is edited in, and hosted by a server located to, the UK. The editorial statement says that the website aims to
Although the issue of statehood is skirted, the aims of the website are clearly of a classic nation-building kind. Due to the transnational nature of both the Web and the Kurdish diaspora, “the international arena” is given much greater attention than in earlier forms of nation-building, however. Lacking a state which is committed to the maintenance and strengthening of Kurdish identity, the task of creating a Kurdish civil society and collective identity is largely left to private enterprise. Since much of the Kurdish elite is in exile, the Internet has turned out to be a perfect medium for the consolidation of identity and dissemination of news for the Kurds. The main Kurdish websites, including KurdishMedia and KurdistanWeb.org, have few if any feedback opportunities for the users, functioning as de-localised newsmedia. However, such websites, important as they are for the formation of a nationalist elite discourse, are supplemented by personal websites, blogs, newsgroups and chatrooms, where participation appears to be broad, even if it may be dominated by students (cf. Bakker 2001).
Kurdish national identity may be said to be in a formative stage. There is considerable factionalism, a complicated language issue involving differences in both dialect and script, and the political elites remaining in Kurdish areas engage in minimal cooperation across state borders. It may actually be said that the Kurdish nation reaches its fullest, most consolidated form on transnational websites in the metropolitan languages English, German and French.
With Sri Lankan Tamils, the situation is different. The territory for which they claim nationhood is relatively clearly defined, it does not cut across existing state borders, and it is populated by a culturally homogeneous majority population. The most important transnational voice for Tamil independence may be the websites TamilNet ( www.tamilnet.com ) and Tamilnation ( www.tamilnation.org ), which are updated frequently. While Tamilnation is edited in a personal and idiosyncratic style by Nadesan Satyendra, an attorney, TamilNet has many of the functions of the newspaper and the TV channel. Largely edited in Sri Lanka itself (unlike the Kurdish websites), TamilNet is considered sufficiently dangerous by opponents of the Tamil independence struggle for its editor, Dharmeratnam Sivaram, to have been murdered in 2005.
TamilNet and other websites dedicated to politics in Sri Lanka, many of them in the Tamil language, play a role both in identity formation among Tamils overseas and in shaping international opinion. However, it must be kept in mind that such websites represent only a small part of the traffic on the Internet. There exists a plethora of personal blogs made by and for Sri Lankan Tamils, overseas or not, ranging from the aesthetic to the militant. Some have language courses in Tamil, chiefly intended for the children of migrants, and some give links to sites where Tamil computer fonts can be downloaded.
As a result of the widespread activity on the net among scattered diasporas like Kurdish and Tamil refugees, many have developed a sense of belonging to a community which would otherwise have been difficult to achieve. Chatrooms, newsgroups and blogs mime direct interaction and can, given some time, create a sense of familiarity and intimacy among the regular users which bears some resemblance to real-life interaction. Before considering some further implications of Internet nationalism, we shall consider a few more examples indicating other varieties of Internet nationalism.
As Fuglerud (1999) has shown, many Tamil refugees are engaged in long-distance nationalism (Anderson 1992), actively supporting political causes in Sri Lanka, and were, at least in the early years of their exile, relatively uninterested in the country where they lived. This makes their situation different from that of many other diasporic groups, whose members may interact more intensively with, and who may in some ways be more integrated into, the host societies. Moroccans in the Netherlands may be a typical example of the latter kind of diaspora.
Although some have arrived as refugees from the war in Western Sahara, the majority of Dutch Moroccans are free to return to Morocco, but stay in the Netherlands for economic and other reasons. Their most important website is, tellingly, neither in Arabic or French, but in Dutch. Varied and comprehensive, the website includes subsections on Islam, a wide variety of discussion forums, a newspage, games and even a dating subsite. The journalistic perspective is emphatically Dutch and European, and addresses its readers as a permanent minority in a European country, offering job advice, links to Dutch language courses and so on.
Maroc.nl aims at the creation of a stable, diasporic, hyphenated Dutch identity (d’Haenens and van Summeren 2005). There is no yearning for a return, or for social reform in Morocco, but for recognition and respect as a new kind of Dutchmen. In fact, this kind of website is arguably not nationalist at all, but represents a cultural minority, hoping to function as an interest group, in a consolidated nation-state. If anything, Maroc.nl represents a reformed, expanded Dutch nationalism.
This is even clearer in the case of the largest Norwegian website representing Muslim immigrants, Islam.no. It aims to represent all the nationalities, ethnic and cultural groups who are Muslim and live in Norway. The two websites have a double aim in common: to strengthen a shared collective identity in a diasporic group or category, and to rectify the negative image of Muslims conventionally projected through the mainstream media. Exclusively using the national languages (no English, French or Arabic), they see both the diasporas and the majorities as their audience, but they do not communicate to a transnational diasporic group.
With the Iranian diaspora in the Netherlands, the situation is slightly different. Many Iranian refugees are engaged in oppositional politics involving countrymen dispersed across the North Atlantic area, and therefore need to create and maintain transnational links. Transnational websites uniting exiled Iranians exist, but van den Bos has shown (2005), there is a large number of Dutch-Iranian websites (he has found 72) as well. In addition, Iranians in the diaspora maintain connections, increasingly of an electronic nature, with relatives and others in Iran.
This latter use of the Internet is possibly its most important function as a vehicle for nationalism. In a study of the Internet in Trinidad, Miller and Slater (2000) accordingly show that transnational Trinidadian families had become more tightly integrated after getting online. Contact with relatives overseas had now become cheaper, faster and easier than it was in the time of the aerogramme and the expensive long-distance call.
The examples we have considered so far indicates that diasporic use of the Internet varies in its relationship to nationalism. Some are content to strengthen and confirm a particular cultural or religious identity in the context of their country of residence, some prioritise interpersonal links with their country of origin, while yet others – presumably a minority – use the Web actively to promote a political cause in a territorial nation, real or prospective, in a dispersed diaspora, which is brought together as an abstract community only because of the Internet.
My last two examples add even more variety.
When South Africa saw the end of white political hegemony in the early 1990s, some Afrikaners, that is white Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, found it difficult to reconcile themselves with the new political realities. Some Afrikaners have championed the building of a “white homeland”, a Volkstaat, others have engaged in terrorist attacks aiming to destabilise the State, and yet others have created a virtual nation, or perhaps a nation-inwaiting, on the World Wide Web. Ranging from the virulent to the moderate in their rhetorical style, these websites have a few important elements in common with Kurdish and Sri Lankan Tamil sites. They always contain a potted history of the people constituting the nation, arguing why a just world would allow them the privilege of their own nation-state; they praise the beauty of the land and the glory of past achievements, and make passionate appeals to the international community.
In spite of the fact that some of these websites, such as the official site of AWB (the militant Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, the Afrikaner Resistance movement), even contain sections with poetry, most of them are singlemindedly political, criticising perceived injustices and portraying the Afrikaners as a tormented people of martyrs and victims. There is a concern with nationhood, for example in this editorial statement on boer.ca.za:
Many of the Afrikaner sites are bilingual in Afrikaans and English, as are the discussion forums associated with them. Like most of the websites I have spoken about, they aim both to consolidate and strengthen the internal group cohesion and to canvas for support from outsiders. Unlike the other groups considered, however, Afrikaners still largely live in South Africa, but many feel that they have been deprived of their civil rights. Their virtual nations on the Internet may both function as a compensation for the nation they have lost (twice, in fact; first to the British after the Boer Wars, and then to the ANC) and as rallying-points for future and imminent political action.
The virtual province
An underlying issue in all the examples discussed so far, perhaps except the last, concerns the problem of divided loyalties. Apart from clear-cut immigrant websites like Maroc.nl and Islam.no, where a main topic consists in finding the balance between integration and preservation, the issue is not tackled explicitly, yet it is a main reason why the websites were set up in the first place. To varying degrees, diasporic populations develop networks and loyalties in their countries of residence, sometimes at the cost of gradually losing their commitment and loyalties towards the home country.
My examples so far have suggested that the Internet has considerable potential in strengthening transnational loyalties not only across ethnic and national identities, but also – and perhaps predominantly – along them, bridging territorial abysses separating people “of the same kind” from their metaphorical brothers and sisters, and counteracting cultural assimilation into the host country.
The final example I am going to introduce this afternoon shows that virtual nations need neither be oppositional nor secessionist; that the struggle engaged in by diasporic populations need neither be secessionist nor oppositional, and that the collective identity work may simply amount to an enlarging, or a deterritorialisation, of the existing nation. This, incidentally, may be the most common, if not most spectacular, form of virtual nationalism.
Some Norwegian friends of mine lived in Guatemala as foreign aid workers in two periods. During the first period, in the early 1990s, they felt isolated from events at home, received little news and felt out of touch with their friends in Norway. Returning to Guatemala after a few years in Oslo, they now had a broadband Internet connection installed in their house. They were suddenly able to follow Norwegian news, gossip, weather forecasts and public debates just as well as any other Norwegian, regardless of location, and their eldest daughter could stay in touch with her friends continuously through email and IRC chat. This change, brought about in the space of a few years, is not trivial in matters pertaining to national identity.
In countries with large diaspora populations,
one might even imagine the development of state-sponsored virtual
nations on the Internet, ensuring the continued loyalty and
identification of citizens or ex-citizens living abroad. In terms of
economics and strategic interests, such an enlarging of the national
interest makes perfect sense. However, the only example of this kind
that I have come across so far, is from Chile. During the military
dictatorship (1973–1990), roughly a million Chileans left the
country, and the majority did not return after the reintroduction of
democracy. There are people registered as Chileans in 110 countries
around the world, even if many lost their citizenship after fleeing
from the Pinochet regime.
The use of the Internet by states in order to stimulate and kindle national loyalty among nationals living in diasporas is likely to become both widespread and controversial in the near future. Granted that most debates about immigration in the receiving countries deal with integration, this kind of measure is bound to be perceived as a negentropic force, to use Gellner’s term, in the host countries. Be this as it may, I have tried to show, through the cursory presentation of a handful of deliberately very different examples, that the Internet is a communication technology which has the potential of making political boundaries congruent with cultural ones, as Gellner puts it in Nations and Nationalism – even when both kinds of boundaries are thoroughly deterritorialised.
I have described four varieties of Internet nationalism: state-supported (Chile), surrogate (Afrikaner), pre-independence (Kurdish) and multiculturalist (Moroccan-Dutch). A fifth, which I cannot discuss for lack of time, is the oppositional, exemplified in Uimonen’s (2001) work on anti-government websites made by expatriate Laotians in the Laotian language, partly directed at the minuscule minority in Laos who have access to the Internet. A sixth variety might be the diasporic Chinese identity, which is increasingly actualised on the Internet, but which has fairly weak links with China as such. The question that remains to be addressed, which we are now prepared to make some qualified, even if provisional, statements about, concerns the similarities and differences between Internet nationalisms and territorial nationalism.
Virtual nations and
the theory of nationalism
In my examples of transnational nationalism, some but not all these elements are in place. Diasporic groups rarely have their own, exclusive educational system, but it should be noted that segregated, private schools have been on the political agenda of several minorities in Western Europe for some time. They obviously do not have their own state either, at least not in the country where they live, and in some cases – Kurds, Tamils – not anywhere else either.
virtual nationalism on the Internet also distinguishes itself
from territorial nationalisms through its keen interest in the
outside world’s gaze on itself.
A main objective
for most of the nationalist websites I have visited is to make the
plight, the virtues or the beauties of this or that nation known to
members of the “global village”. The widespread use of English
indicates a wish to communicate outside the virtual nation itself.
This is unsurprising, granted the setting of these virtual nations
in an overcrowded world where others’ attention and recognition have
become truly scarce resources.
Attempts to develop territorial nationalisms encompassing several ethnic groups and subjecting them to the same processes of cultural homogenisation, are counteracted by identity politics whose spokesmen insist on their difference, by ethnic discrimination in the labour market and other, related processes. Although members of ethnic minorities in urban societies interact extensively with members of the majority as well as of other minorities than their own, various kinds of resources follow informal, ethnic lines – jobs, spouses, gossip, housing. At the same time, migrant diasporas rely on the state in which they live for a number of resources that cannot be obtained through their virtual nations. What the Internet nation has to offer is chiefly a sense of identity which can be exploited socially, politically and economically, but only at the cost of entering into a tense, sometimes conflictual relationship with the territorial state.
At the same time, we must conclude that with the Internet creating an invisible, but perceptible umbrella covering scattered diasporas in numerous countries, one’s German Kurdishness, or Moroccan Dutchness, is more likely to persist than it would have in an earlier era, where encapsulation or assimilation would have been the most likely long-term outcomes. The political and cultural effects of diasporic Internet nationalism in the “homeland” are also frequently perceptible: Sometimes, the elites-in-waiting use the Net to coordinate their takeover plans; sometimes, diasporas actively support militant and sometimes violent groups “at home”, knowing that they themselves do not need to pay the price for an increase in violence (Anderson 1992), remaining as they do comfortably in the peaceful diaspora.
It is in this diasporic world of imperfect
integration in a territorial polity and similarly imperfect
membership in a dispersed nation that Internet resources help
creating a sense of social cohesion and cultural integration where
both would have been difficult to achieve under a different
technological regime. However, unlike the model nation-state, which
was territorial and bounded, this kind of situation is inherently
unstable. Both the territorialising forces of the nation-state and
the deterritorialising forces connecting people to a nation which is
elsewhere or perhaps only in cyberspace persist, and are at odds
with each other. The territorial nation-state can be compared to a
patrilineal kinship system, where all rights and duties are tied to
a single principle. The diasporic, plural, changing, complex
contemporary nation-states, and certainly their minorities,
similarly resemble matrilineal systems, where it becomes a task of
paramount importance to balance opposing principles. Time and space
have forever been separated, and as Ernest Gellner knew, there is no
easy way out, but pluralism must be a part of the equation.
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