Stathis Gourgouris interviews Aamir Mufti

Greek Left Review

Stathis Gourgouris interviews Aamir Mufti on his research on Pakistani immigration in Greece and on the occasion of his appearance at the 18th Anti-Racism Festival in Athens as a guest of the Institute Nikos Poulantzas. Excerpts from the interview were published in Efimerida ton Syntakton (July 5, 2014)

  1. What led you to turn your attention on the problem of Pakistani immigration to Greece?

I have been working for some years now on a research project concerning the question of migration in the EU that is comparative but focuses mostly on France and Britain. I have PhD students working on those countries as well, so those contexts have been at the core of how I think about this issue. At some point, I started looking at other countries as well, especially Germany, Spain, and Italy, in order to get a broader comparative sense of the EU-wide issues.

I became aware of the Pakistani immigrant situation in Greece some time before my visit to Athens in summer of 2010, when the mosque issue came to the fore. It struck me that the public discourse at that point—this is not the case anymore—was focused on whether or not there should be a functioning mosque in Athens once again, largely oblivious to the existence of literally dozens of them in the city. I had three pointed out to me one night in the streets off Monastiraki Square by a couple of kids from Bangladesh selling cheap toys. Incidentally, they were utterly drunk or stoned but pointed out to me the mosques in the area they had been to—but that’s another story.

It quickly became clear to me that the very recentness, relatively speaking, of African and Asian immigration into Greece, and the fact that it did not strictly follow the pattern of the former imperial countries of western Europe, made it an interesting case study that could provide some new insights into the EU as a whole.

  1. Did the discoveries of your research surprise you and in what sense?

The biggest (and most pleasant) surprise was to discover the level of political organization of the immigrant workers. The organization of which Javed Aslam was for many years president and now chairman has given a visibility to the plight of all non-European immigrant workers in Greece, not just Pakistanis, and especially the organized violence against them in a way that is unheard of in the larger European countries. It is really quite an accomplishment. And I think the Greek Left has to also be congratulated for working with them on immigrants’ issues. I sometimes get the impression that this struggle in this little country could be at the vanguard of the Europe-wide immigrants’ struggle. And it needs to be made more visible in the other European countries, through all available platforms. At the moment, the organization itself has a very minimal presence on Facebook or YouTube, for instance, and mostly in Urdu or Greek, not English.

The other “discovery” for me personally, though obviously not for anyone in Greece, was the ways in which the North-South disparities of the EU work on the ground with respect to the immigrant question. In a sane world, the politicians of the southern countries who signed the two Dublin protocols would be tried for treason. Since the overwhelming majority of undocumented workers, refugees, and asylum seekers entering the EU do so typically from the south and southeast, across the Thrace corridor or across the Mediterranean system of seas, and not from the direction of the North Pole or of Greenland, Dublin II in particular makes stunningly clear the inequality inherent to the EU as a geopolitical structure.

It seems to me that a Left politics of immigration in Europe, in addition to fighting for the rights and protection of these most vulnerable of all populations in the European countries, should also fight for a more equitable sharing of the population within Europe as a whole. This is not a nationalist argument. All indications are that the displaced themselves want it, rather than sleeping in the little squares and parks of downtown Athens or its peripheries.

Populations are moving from the world’s “peripheries” to its “centers,” but in the case of Europe, they are being largely confined to the continent’s internal “peripheries.” It is an utterly irrational solution to a very real worldwide problem. So far as I know, in all the demands made upon the Greek state as part of the “Memorandum” regime, a serious demand for the humane treatment of the undocumented has been conspicuously absent. When detained migrants start sewing their lips up with needle and thread to highlight their plight, without massive outrage in Europe, you get the impression that there is very little desire to raise an issue that might bring the injustice of Dublin into view.

And, incidentally, there is a broader inequality to consider as well. By one measure, in 2011, the 27 countries of the EU housed some 1.3 million refugees. The one country of Pakistan had more than 1.7 million, most from two imperial wars in Afghanistan in which European countries have played a role. One single refugee camp in Kenya, Dadaab, reportedly had 500,000, mostly from Somalia. The UK had a refugee population of 25,000, equivalent to about 5 percent of the Dadaab population. Precisely the countries least equipped to deal with the problem have to deal with it disproportionately. (The figures are from the European Council on Refugees and Exiles.)

  1. What can we learn from the “Greek immigration problem” specifically in relation to the EU experiment as a whole?

This is a very good but also very difficult question. In fact, there are a number of distinct but inter-related problems indicated here. In France and Britain, the immigration pattern was set in the 1950s and 1960s, before the EU, properly speaking. This reestablished the imperial metropole/colonial periphery relationship in postcolonial times. In other words, it is not an accident that these immigrant populations were from the former colonies—North and West Africa in France, South Asians and West Indians in the UK. The so-called “problem” in these countries relates to second and third generation descendants of these early immigrants—think of Alain Finkielkraut, a son of Jewish émigrés, saying that these African descent French cannot really be French. It’s about France’s historical relationship to peoples it once ruled over overseas: how can former subject peoples now be fellow nationals and citizens in a full sense?

The case of Greece reflects a truly EU phenomenon: these immigrants are trying to enter Europe as such, not necessarily Greece, which does not have any significant historical relations with their countries of origin—if we forget for the moment both “Black Athena” and Alexander, whose Indian territories lay precisely in the parts of northern Punjab that at least a plurality of Pakistani migrants in Greece come from! But the more serious point here is what exactly it means for a society to be proclaimed a European one by entry into the continental structure of the Union. I have argued that entering into the European system, a society like Greece in effect becomes a former imperial metropole, itself a kind of injustice to Greece, given its own history of foreign rule.

So I think the immigration question throws a certain light on the Europeanization of Greece, which was obviously in many ways a society of “the East” for centuries, as part of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Like nationalism in an earlier era, Europeanism (to coin a phrase) too has the remarkable ability to erase the past once it has become established in society. To me, one of the most stunning features of the Greek economic crisis was the recurring threat of withdrawal of Europeanness. Expulsion from the Eurozone would be one marker of that, but there were other kinds of indicators as well. When Christine Lagarde compared Greece unfavorably with Niger, or when Giscard D’Estaing offered pompous regrets for having brought Greece into the community,or when George Papandreou made the rather shameful and plaintive remark in October 2011 that “we are not, nor do we have any intention of becoming, India or Bangladesh”—in each of these instances, I think, something like the threat of the withdrawal of Europeanness was at stake.

In other words, in the midst of the crisis it became clear that the Europeanness of Greece is not determined in Greece and could be withdrawn. So it seems to me that in their systematic attention to the beating and breaking of “black” and “brown” bodies, the gangs of Golden Dawn are making a strenuous case for the Greek people not being reduced themselves to a “black” or “brown” population. There is only a difference of degree between their many statements about immigrants and the one Papandreou made three years ago.

  1. Can you say in what sense your own view of what has been called ‘post-colonial thinking’ is useful/applicable to this specific case?

Actually, usefulness might work in the opposite direction. Questions such as these, if they are engaged with in a serious manner, might renew and revive the postcolonial tradition of critical thinking, which has been in decline in the North Atlantic countries, having become just an academic specialization, especially in literature departments. The work of the pioneer thinkers like Edward Said sought to bring into the mainstream Western humanities and humanistic social sciences, the concerns and perspectives of an older intellectual formation—the Third Word internationalism and anti-imperialism of the 1950s-1970s, which we generally refer to by the shorthand of “Bandung,” so named for the Indonesian city that hosted the historic summit meeting of Afro-Asian countries in 1955.

In other words, it was a way of thinking or mode of intervention that was fully engaged in the question of the fate of the world. And serious intellectual engagement with the plight of the undocumented around the world—immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, the stateless—as a truly worldwide phenomenon might help to restore some of the dignity (and relevance) of this way of thinking, what Said called the “worldliness” of critical thinking. India-linked postcolonial criticism, which made a powerful contribution by bringing focus to the “national question,” has now become mired in it and seems to me to be at an impasse. There, the preoccupation seems to be too much nation, too much antiquity, too much textuality—in short, too much homeland—rather than an engagement with what, in reference to Said, I have called the missing homeland.

On the other hand, the “postcolonial” account of the history of center-periphery relations between the European imperial powers—which include not only France, Britain, Holland, Spain, Portugal and Belgium, but also Italy, Germany, and even Denmark to a certain extent—and their variously dominated or ruled territories is the natural frame of thinking to bring to the postcolonial immigrant question in the EU. Of course, a range of European thinkers of the Left, From Etienne Balibar to Sandro Mezzadra, have been doing precisely that, although much more needs to be done in this direction. What is not very useful in this regard is the sort of “postsecular” gesture Habermas and others have made as a sort of act of philanthropy toward immigrant populations who may have a variety of orientations toward a variety of religious tendencies even within, let us say, one or the other of the world religions. This philanthropy must not be confused with solidarity—it merely fixes the identity of the immigrant as, above all, a religious person.

  1. Perhaps in this sense you can reflect on how what you learned from this specific issue has elucidated your own work in its more recent phase.

This issue has helped me think in a new way about mobility itself, in a broad sense, in our late capitalist world. The more capital enhances its ability to behave as if it inhabits a borderless world, the more difficult it becomes for masses of people to cross actual borders. It is the imbalances of contemporary capitalism, both economic and political, that make mass migrations necessary. But the structures of the neoliberal order make that very movement perilous for the most vulnerable people.

Every time I hear talk of a “flat” or “borderless” world, I think of this other scenario—the drowned bodies in Evros, or off the Aegean islands and Lampedusa, that are made invisible by this “one-world talk,” as I call it. My work on world literature, for instance—I have just finished a book on the subject—is a critique of this happy talk of literary relations on a worldwide scale. In my account, world literature has always been a border regime, rather than a borderless world. My next book is a study of Said’s concept of exile, the idea that for it to be truly critical in a real sense, criticism has to make itself homeless and renounce, as he once put it, “the quasi-religious authority of being comfortably at home among one’s people.”