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Cyber Diasporas and New Radical Citizenries

Philippe-Joseph Salazar—

Globalism was premised on the idea that borders ought to be fluid to allow for free movements of ideas, goods, and individuals. However in the wake of sudden and massive migrations of dispersed populations into Europe, the time-honored relationship between space and people–autochthony—is regaining currency. To frame it, it is worth recalling that “realm” (sovereign space) refers to the political meaning of  “rule:” A “ruler” traces the perimeter within which the “realm” coheres and thus provides “direction” to its citizens so that they interact “rightfully” under the “rule of law.” This tight semantic compact points to a deep anthropology of space and citizenry, and political action. 

However the recent advent of what can be called cyber diasporas, populations displaced territorially who recreate, or wish to create a  “realm” has introduced a radically new, third element in the to and fro between globalism and autochthony. Who are these cyber diasporas?

It began with ISIS’s Caliphate. As a territorially-based state it had a controversial status. It behaved like a state as in many respects it adhered to the criteria of the Montevideo Convention that has defined statehood for the past eighty years —it had a government with departments; it had a capital city and borders; it levied taxes on its population and foreign businesses as well; it provided social services and education; it minted money. Of course, its “realm” was never recognized as such by other, rightful states and did not join the ilk of Transnistria or Abkhazia, Kosovo, or even Israel. State recognition has its shades of grey. Now that the Caliphate has lost a stable territorial base that allowed it to behave like a state a fundamental question arises: Where are its citizens? Have they passed into a twilight zone? Tens of thousands are dispersed across Europe, the Middle East, the Far East, and elsewhere. That strange state has bred a diaspora which has retained a sense of belonging and behaves like a people in exile and in waiting of a restoration–by way of cyberspace. The legal focus on the status of returnee combatants is obscuring a larger, newer anthropological event. It has become a cyber diaspora and a novel form of citizenry. Its symbol has been the issuing of “passports to paradise by the Caliphate“.

Instead of shrugging off this Parthian arrow thrown by the propagandists of the Caliphate, let us take this passport seriously. It is a pass to another land. Which land and how does this propaganda stunt relate to the argument regarding borders and cyberspace, and belonging?

This is where some theology comes in handy. First, the devotees of the Caliphate speak eloquently of their disdain for earthly matters and of their longing for the “good life”–to be found in Heaven. Earthly territory is transient, valueless in regard of Heaven. Second, how to get to Heaven is a devotional commonplace, harking back to Muhammad’s mystical voyage to Jerusalem and escalade through the skies (mi’raj).  Mysticism and cyber reality have one thing in common: They deal with the immaterial, and present virtual realities as of a higher grade than tangible ones. Third, maintaining jihad once the mundane territory is lost is the means by which devotion meets action, and how action leads to immaterial rewards–or Paradise, the place where the fortunate may see God’s face (Surah LXXV, 22-23). In sum this odd “passport to Paradise” is a moral allegory about reconstituting the Caliphate’s citizenry by other means. Namely: how to use cyberspace to connect its diaspora, and keep the Caliphate alive.

Western governments are therefore faced with a diaspora of a new kind. Traditionally diasporic populations are driven by a desire for a return to their place of origin, or by a will to reconstitute themselves as communities away from the lost paradise. They indulge in quotidian artifacts (cuisine, often, a powerful recall of spiritual nutrition) and heart-warming simulacra, films, songs, and novels. The Caliphate’s diaspora is radically different. Dispersed across the globe, from China to Brazil, from Norway to India, its dispersed citizens do not seek a return to the lost territory; it does not wish to establish communities; it does not, or not yet filter its nostalgia through the arts (it may come, and this will pose a challenge to censorship and freedom of expression). A novel kind of citizenry is taking shape, made up of citizens who belong to a state no other state has recognized, and has now disappeared materially, but still exists thanks to its diaspora and its passing into cyber activism.

The other case is that of white supremacists. The Alt-Right’s agility in cyber proselytism is not merely a matter of generational culture, of Generation Z.  It goes further. Some among white radicals see themselves as a new citizenry detached from state-defined citizenship. They have understood the Caliphate’s innovation. They attack established states in Europe and America for reneging on their right to live in a space they deem naturally theirs, autochthonous white “realms.”  They become therefore transnational via electronic communication, superimposing on the map of the world a virtual white or Europeanist space. Borders dissolve. A white, diasporic citizenry emerges. Some are calling now for an “electronic ethnostate,” which would grow into a parallel entity, transcending borders and become the cyber incarnation of a global white diaspora re-united in a virtual citizenry. This phenomenon goes far beyond domestic terrorism and “hate.” It is a new configuration of politics. Digital radicalization is thus not merely a series of technologies. It points to the emergence of new and radical forms of citizenry, delinked from traditional states–the beta version being the Caliphate’s passing into cyberspace; and the alpha version being possibly white ethno-activism. These radical citizenries, born out of a new type of diasporic sense, are a form of radical globalism that could not be anticipated, and must now be taken into account.

Philippe-Joseph Salazar is Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric in the Faculty of Law at the University of Cape Town and past Director in Rhetoric andDemocracy at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris. He is also a member of the National Press Club of Washington. In 2008 he received the Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award, the top prize for research on the African continent. In 2015 he received the Prix Bristol des Lumières for the French edition of this book. Dorna Khazeni was a finalist for the PEN USA Translation Award. She has published her translations from French in Vanity Fair, Harper’s, Zoetrope AllStory, The Believer, and elsewhere.

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Featured Photo by Eugene Triguba on Unsplash


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