A couple of months ago, I attended a symposium in Sweden on Europe and the “refugee problem.” I presented a paper in which I celebrated neither cultural differences nor cultural identity, neither cosmopolitanism nor nationalism. Instead, I underlined the necessary interplay between identity and difference, in the sense that there can be no genuine cosmopolitanism without a form of nationalism, just like there would be no rainbow without the participation of each and every particular color.
There were different people — predominantly European — from different generations among the participants. The younger generation, born in late 1980’s, hailing from big cosmopolitan cities, were quite sensitive about pointing out differences or defining “the other.” This is no surprise, as this generation, perhaps as a legacy of the wars of the 20th century, was constantly told not to dwell on differences, to such an extent that identity seemed irrelevant. The older generation was much more beholden to what remains their own, what defines their community — in other words, to their own identities.
As I perhaps gave the impression of a “decent non-European” (I am Turkish) who, unlike the rest of my generation, was not championing a borderless world, nor the eradication of any sense of rootedness and belonging, the people of the older generation developed a certain affinity towards me.
On the third day of symposium, we were entering a bar to have some drinks after a long day. An older Frenchwoman approached me, pointing at some of the “cosmopolitan youth” who had come to the conference, not surprisingly, from Berlin, and who, in their “eccentric” clothing and tastes, gave the impression of being the most open to otherness, and said, “You don’t look like one of them. What do you think about those girls who were covering their heads?”
She was referring to an event that had taken place earlier that day. Three girls from Syria, who have been living for some time in Sweden, were invited to read their stories (translations were provided from Arabic). Their brothers accompanied them. After several academic conversations about refugees, the presence of the “Middle East” completely changed the atmosphere of the classroom. “The other” in the flesh felt quite different from the other in philosophical discourse.
They read horrible stories of what had happened to them. Yet it was not these which upset the French lady. Rather it was precisely the guilt-ridden atmosphere which had prevailed over the room that she could not tolerate.
Poignantly, with wet eyes, the Frenchwoman confessed: “When I and my family arrived in Europe, in France, we did our very best to become a part of the French culture. We suffered but always tried and tried. We left behind what we were before to become French.” She stopped, took a breath and asked me: “And look at those girls and boys now… What do they do? What do they sacrifice? You open your arms, you take care of them, but they…” She apologized — she was unable to go on. I am not comfortable when the old people cry in front of me. I could not say much in response.
The problem she raised, I believe, feels irrelevant to the new, “cosmopolitan” generation of mine; we even feel a slight contempt towards her complaint. “To become French” — we do not even know what that means. It is almost impossible to explain the pain of breaking with your own self to a people who grew up watching, on TV and the internet, what the rest of the world watches — who belong, in other words, to the homogenous culture of globalization. To become French means that you were something else before choosing to be French, which is not something my generation relates to.
Just as too much light makes one blind, an exaggerated openness to the other undermines its own foundation. What my generation refuses to honor or acknowledge is our own identity or belonging. We seem to be ready to do everything to protect the identity of others (like the Syrian girls) — but only insofar as they help us to prove that we are indifferent to identity, that it is irrelevant. Such is our hubris that it surprises us when identity galvanizes people like the Frenchwoman, or when dictators are able to use it to galvanize people elsewhere in the world.
However, my generation’s hubris or self-contradiction does not vindicate the Frenchwoman. She was also wrong. Fixated on the price that she paid to “become French,” she did not take that into account why the Syrian girls might want to preserve their identity: that their fleeing war and coming to Europe did not mean they wanted to start over as Swedish. She did not question, in other words, why “to become French,” to become European, has come to be the only way to guarantee one’s existence, wealth and dignity.