The Reach of Transnationalism

September 11 shook the imagination with an intensity like the attack itself. The first question people asked was Who would commit such a crime? Tied to this was another question: who was capable of carrying it out? Obviously, such an “action” was the work (indeed the “Å“uvre”) of a well organized group with a great coordination among its members. Its behavior and rhetoric exemplify the very definition of transnationalism.

Transnationalism is a “global phenomenon”. It takes into account the context of globalization and economic uncertainty that facilitates the construction of world wide networks. Its institutionalization requires a coordination of activities based most of the time on common references – objective or subjective – and common interest among members; a coordination of resources, information, technology and sites of social power across national borders for political, cultural, economic purposes. Increasing mobility and the development of communication have intensified such transborder relations, leading to social and political mobilizations beyond boundaries.

The mode of action of transnationalism is de-territorialized. The rhetoric of mobilization recentralizes, in a non-territorial way, identities that have become fragmented within the nation-state context. In this perspective, the national reference provides an ethnic background that brings out “cultural heterogeneity”; such is the case of minority nationalism and diaspora mobilization. For Islam, the rhetoric of “Umma”, that is, worldwide unified Muslim community, reinterpreted in such a way that reframes all national diversity as one imagined “political” community, getting away from its religious definition.

Therefore transnationalism appears as a new type of nationalism. It differs however, from diaspora nationalism. Contemporary diaspora nationalism may transform into movements for “re-territorialization” and statehood. Transnational nationalism takes form after nationalism and nation-states have become realities; it may extend state nationalism in new ways, producing exclusionist discourses based on national membership that is “de-territorialized”, such as what is required by the interpretation of the “Umma”. Transnational nationalism arises therefore as a species of globalizing communitarianism that reinvents crucial features of nationalism beyond boundaries. It does not make claims on behalf of territorial self-determination. It fashions new power relationships with states which are concurrently engaging the process of globalization through economy and culture. Thus a paradox: transnational nationalism challenges older historical notions of territory and national boundaries – indeed, the nation-state per se, but at the same time it situates itself towards and over states.

The events of September 11th illustrate such a transnational nationalism: The terrorist attack targeted symbols of power (of global economy) on American territory. They elucidate the role of transnational actors in the realization of such a transnationalism. These actors are highly educated and “integrated” into a society of residence. They often are “socially and institutionally assimilated”, sometimes juridically invisible through naturalization – all while they keep strong ties to their home country and to a network with which they identify themselves and on whose behalf they act. Their action is inevitably bound up with their ability to participate in at least two social, cultural and political arenas, challenging the balance between culture politics and territory of nation-states. Transnational actors interact therefore in a new global space where cultural and political specificities of multiple national societies are combined with emerging multilevel and multinational activities.

Thus, transnational nationalism creates new expressions of belonging and political engagement as well as a “de-territorialized” understanding “nation”. One can see this phenomenon among immigrant communities that are now settled in Western Europe, especially among the Muslim. Muslim immigrants participate in the elaboration of transborder professional or other networks covering the European space like a spider’s web. Their practices have exemplified transnationalism for the last several decades. In fact, within Europe defined as a space without internal frontiers in which – according to the Single European Act of 1986 – “the space of the free movement of goods, of property and capital is safeguarded”, important numbers of transnational networks, some formal, some informal, some based on identity, some on interest, some often on both, act beyond the borders of the member states. Some networks arise from local initiatives in countries of immigration, others from the country of origin, or through formal or informal international organizations (such as religious ones). Others are in fact encouraged by European supranational institutions (the European Parliament or the European Commission) which, guided by the logic of regulation and political and juridical harmonization which they impose on nation-states, have encouraged a global structure and moved forward to define a common platform to the immigrants’ network. They have also intervened in the definition of criteria on which such a community should rely, and helped the actors to find a common denominator to deal with claims at a level beyond relations with the nation states.

In reality there are identities that constitute the chain link of a transnational network. The main criterion appears to be an emergent ethnicity in Europe which finds a common ground in Islam as a core identity, providing a basis for a trans-state and transnational organization with common identification and experience of being Muslim in Europe.

The massive Muslim presence in Europe goes back to the migrations of the 1960s when, with the end of colonization, France, Great-Britain, but also Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium were competing for cheap labor in order to accelerate their economic growth. Muslims in Europe are as diverse as Christians in nationality, language, ethnicity and even in denomination (Sunnites, Shiites, or Alawites). There are approximately 13 million. They are settled in almost all European countries (members of the Union and beyond, such as in Switzerland for example). Loyalties to their home state, therefore to national identities, characterize social and ethnic relations among Muslim populations in Europe and limit their identity boundaries. Within the national groups, sects, brotherhood and regional allegiances and political ideologies provide identity repertoires for community organizations specialized in language teaching, folklore, or religion. Such organizations, subject to immigration policies and to legislation concerning social activities of migrants in host countries, have proliferated since the 1980s in all European countries.

Since then, Islam has become an important political force in Western Europe. Even if fragmented, it represents a unifying impulse among Muslim immigrants to define a collective identity and common interests. Public opinion projects the difficult process of assimilation into a religion, Islam, by questioning its compatibility with the West and its ability to adopt Western “universal” values – although most of the immigrants from a Muslim background define themselves as secular. But the absence of religion from the political projects of the European Union, on the one hand, and the abundance of resources that European institutions allocate to social activities (non-religious) on the other, have led religious organizations, concurrently wherever Muslims are concentrated, to extend their networks from the local to the national and transnational levels, similar to secular associations. This situation brings the countries of origin and, in some cases, international Muslim organizations, into the system. While cultural (secular) organizations’ networks are supported by European institutions for democratic purposes, Muslim organizations have recourse to the countries of origin (official or unofficial institutions), or to international Islamic organizations or both for identity purposes. As for the strategies behind these supports, they are to defend the interest of the migrants and to promote Islam, and to ensure its extra-territorial expansion, more specifically in the Western World. They finance activities that transcend national, ethnic, linguistic cleavages, and religious divergences. Their objective is to promote a common identification: to be Muslim in Europe.

But the coordination of these various organizations to promote a transnational Islam is not an easy task. The process has to take into consideration practical as well as theological issues. The matter for some is the religious truth and the members (believers) of a Muslim community. Organizations which present themselves as multi-national because they represent different nationalities, and transnational because they are established in almost every European country, take over the organization of such a diversity. The best example is the Jammaat-Tabligh (Faith and Practice), an Indian organization first established in Great-Britain, which has expanded since 1960 to different European cities by sending missionaries to ensure the loyalty of the believers. Their leaders proclaim a peaceful Islam. They push their members to be “good citizens”, and eschew political discussion, “because” says its French representative, “politics split (divide) Islam”. Such discourses contradict those of mainly Islamist organizations which give expression to the political force of Islam in the world system. Their influence is nevertheless limited to the party they represent, which is itself usually limited to members of the same nationality. The examples of the SIF and GIA (Algeria), and the Party of Prosperity or Virtue (Turkey) illustrate this pattern but they constitute a marginal phenomenon, even though their organizations becomes a “sanctuary” for Islamist activists fleeing the regime of their country against which they are fighting.

Thus Islam in Europe is seeking unity in its diversity and dispersion. The lack of any representative structure in the West reinforces the search for solidarity on a religious basis. The legitimacy of a transnational Muslim community for its leader and members lies in the recognition of Islam in Europe. The elaboration of transnational structures thus reveals multiple references, and multiple allegiance: to the host country, to the home country and to Europe through a constructed transnational community. Whether immigrants are citizens or not, their loyalty to the host country comes from sharing the social and political institutions. The home country, despite its cultural and ethnic heterogeneity, provides emotional support and identity resources. A transnational community combining the two represents a new reference of involvement giving rise to the formation of a transnational identity as inspiration for political action and as an instrument for cultural and religious purposes beyond boundaries.

In this perspective, Islam in Europe looks for a legal basis to reinforce and legitimate its specificity and gain power for its representatives. Despite the influence of host and home countries and the grasp of the international Islamic organizations, Muslims in Europe are orienting themselves – their political action towards Europe, more specifically towards the European Union. The declared aim is to obtain representation within the institutions of the European Community, like any other pressure group or lobby developed in interaction with European supranational institutions. The practical goal however is to gain recognition at the national level, that is, by the state of immigration which defines the limit of their legitimacy.

Hence once again one can see the paradox of transnationality. Transnational solidarity generally aims to influence states from outside. The strategy reminds one of minority formation; a religious minority that looks for a recognition at the European level by the European Convention of Human Rights and for the formulation of a law on this basis in the same way that regional identities now get identity privileges in the view of the states. Like on a national level, the “minority” expresses and shows a multiplicity of belonging and loyalty. Transnational nationalism leads, in any case, to an institutional expression of such a multiplicity and to multidimensional linkages which include the state of residence, the nation of origin, the Muslims as a cross-European minority and as members of a “global Umma”. It is important to note however, that identification with the Muslim world in general does not mean necessary identification with the Arab world. Attitudes towards international conflicts are often points of demarcation. For instance, one can observe in Britain tensions between specifically Arab and more general Muslim identities. Most British Muslims are not Arabic speaking and are not likely to identify politically with religious or secular versions of Arab nationalism; at the same time Islam-focused political actions tend to be led by Muslim intellectuals from the Middle East (Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia). France, however, provides a somewhat different case. The Intifada and the Gulf war aroused among Muslims there strong feelings of sympathy for the Arab world. The Serbo-Bosnian war created a greater identification of Turks with Bosnians because of geographical proximity and reinterpreted historical links. But they all perceive themselves as victimized by the West. A new type of geographical area is now being drawn for Muslims in Europe which not only defines a Muslim identity but creates solidarities and these in turn are seen as justified by Western policies and interventions.

The events of September 11, can be seen as a continuation and elaboration of transnational nationalism. Terrorism is, of course, not intrinsic to transnational nationalism. But terrorists are in fact organized transnationally. September 11 was not the first instance of transnational terror, even though the rhetorical use of culture and identity make it look new. The various interpretations of September 11 reveal all the paradoxes of transnationalism itself:

a) its combination of levels (local, national, regional, and global);

b) its ambiguous aims, which include re-territorialization of power (in the Middle-East or Saudi Arabia) with de-derritorialized action;

c) its rhetorical reimagination of “Umma” (or a version of Umma) in opposition to the West – even though many of the transnational Umma leaders studied in the West, and there acquired both the know-how and political tools in order to interact with states and through which the have been politically “acculturated”.

Will the attacks of September 11 induce states to fashion new, transnational modes of action?  There is no simple answer to this question since it implies that states might, at least partly, imagine themselves as non-state transnational actors, coordinating their own interests and strategies beyond simple, old-styles alliances in a “globalizing” age. If they do not do so, then we must ask if old styles of warfare respond to the new (terrorist) use of transnational tools. Again, we find ourselves with paradoxes. States remain the “driving force” of globalization. They concurrently accede to supranational norms while maintaining their autonomy. They continue to be the dominant actors of negotiation, asserting and defining their own interests in international relations and domestically. But the “nation” here retains its relevance as the prevailing emotional unit of identification, and for mobilization and resistance, just like the nation is at the basis of any transnational enterprise. So states will remain the model unit in the process of globalization, which takes state capacity “to negotiate” within and without as essential. But at the same time, states will have to imagine new ways of acting, and adapt, both structurally and institutionally, to the new realties. In short, the reach of transnationalism accentuates the contradictory challenges faced by states in the age of globalization.