Nationalism is rearing its ugly head everywhere these days, from the United States and England all the way to Thailand and China.

So here’s a question for you: How do you imagine your countrymen? Are they the people who look like you? Think like you? Or simply live around you?

We always have a choice.

In this episode of The Line, the tai tais Wallace and Durand interview political scientists Dr. Rima Berns-McGown and Dr. Rollie Lal. Toronto-based Dr. Berns has done comparative studies of Somali Muslim immigrants in London and Toronto, and Washington D.C.-based Dr. Lal has studied Muslim communities in Belgium. We put our heads together to figure out why some places have a much harder time integrating immigrants than others.

Get your subaltern take on the issues of the day, while you do your ironing or whatever.

Here’s an excerpt:

Durand: So, we’re living in exciting times, to put it mildly. Everything is in flux. And countries that once seemed permanent–like Spain or the UK– appear to be coming apart. Even the United States looks increasingly rocky from the outside. With so much population mobility, so many migrants and refugees, more and more people are questioning the notion of citizenship. What does it really mean to be a citizen of a state? What does it mean when you can lay claim to citizenship of a country with a small down payment, yet never live there? What does it mean when you are a citizen of one nation, yet your political allegiance is with a transnational group? Can we save the nation state or is it too late?


Dr. Rima Berns:  I think I want to just bring in Benedict Anderson and his idea of a nation as an imagined community because I think it describes exactly what you’re talking about. If you imagined your community as very traditionally there forever, or very ethnically or linguistically based, then there is no room for newcomers. The conversation we are having in Canada is so different from the stuff that seems to be happening in Europe. In Canada, we have moved past this idea that we need to make people swallow the culture of the adopted home and that will make you one of us. Yes, there are still people who talk about this is our country and you have to be like us. But it’s not even the mainstream part of the conversation. At this point the mainstream understands that when you are really talking about successful integration–there is an understanding that people don’t stay with the framework for seeing the world that they brought with them. Even that first generation changes their perspective. But even that first generation, and their children and grandchildren, will be Canadian. But, they will be Canadian by strongly combined identities. In the course of this understanding, there is a sense that institutions in this country need to understand diversity through an anti-racist, anti-oppressive framework.  They need to understand that there is no contradiction between being anybody from anywhere else and Canadian. The whole idea of what it means to be Canadian and who speaks for Canada is up in the air not just because of immigration, but also, reconciliation with indigenous people…has really come to the fore. And where we used to have the conversation about immigration, now the question of Canada-indigenous relations is in the centre. So there is an incredible sense of this conversation between black, indigenous and colored people, and what is their place in this country and what that means for white settlerism. The question of what Canada is is up in the air in a way that it’s never been.

Dr. Rollie Lal: Canada and the United States lucked out, by forming an idea of the nation that is political at its base. When you say that we are an immigrant nation, that we believe in freedom, democracy, that is a political decision. Belgium was created as an ethnic nation. It is Flemish and Walloon, and that’s linguistic. Other than that, it was built on religious grounds, because it was part of the Netherlands. You put the Protestants in the Netherlands and the Catholics in Belgium. National identity in that country was created on cultural grounds, not political grounds. It has caused them no end of tension even within the native community…Walloons and Flemish constantly argue and bicker about economics, everything. Also, the history of immigrants in Belgium is fundamentally different from Canada and the US. We are a nation of immigrants, but the Moroccans who came to Belgium were the result of an indentured labor program. Their position is closer to African-Americans. Socially they have held a very fundamentally different position in society. And they really, on both sides, the Belgian “natives” and the Moroccans, they each went into their own communities. So you have a very strong ghettoization. So you don’t have a situation that you have in the US, where immigrants naturally integrate into society. There is very little geographic mobility like in the US. In Belgium, people don’t move…and so, what they found, is that after multiple generations, you had individuals that did not speak a Belgian language or have friends outside of the Muslim community. That caused tension on both sides. Native Belgians felt very resentful, and Muslims were wondering why these people hate us. You have a very strong bifurcation of the communities in Belgium, which is very different from the situation in the US and Canada.

RB: It’s really interesting the way you talk about them as “native Belgians” as opposed to immigrants who have been there for three generations. How are they immigrants? It’s not a host country and they are not immigrants. But that is how that nation imagines itself. And yes, you’re right, it’s easier to reimagine a nation that was imagined politically in the first place. It’s harder to reimagine an ethnic nation. But it’s vital, and that’s the core of the conversation.

Durand: Dr. Berns, you mentioned in your research that political culture has a lot to do with how we imagine a nation. When I hear Dr. Lal talk about Belgium, I see some parallels with Canada. The idea of multiculturalism in Canada first arose in the context of Quebec and the Catholics. Belgium is similarly multicultural. So, is it a failure of imagination in Belgium?

RL:Yeah, I would say in Belgium it’s a failure of imagination, and I’m hoping in recent years, with the crisis of the terrorist attacks that they are starting to reimagine national identity, and how to reconceptualize it so that here is space in the political spectrum for Muslims to say we are part of this country. At the same time, I get the impression that Muslims don’t feel Belgian. It’s not only that they feel rejected. They literally feel like being Muslim and Belgian, these are mutually exclusive events. Both sides need to understand that you can be both.

RB: When I was speaking about political cultures, these interviews that I did in 1995 with Somali newcomers in London and Toronto, this was exactly the difference. They were encountering Islamophobia and racism in both cities, and the big difference was they were never told you were not Canadian. When a woman put on a jilbab in Toronto, she said this is my way of expressing myself. In the UK, when a woman put on a jilbab, it was more a show of defiance, how dare you tell me what to be. In Canada, it’s of course you’re Canadian even if you experience racism everyday of your life. That’s a fundamental difference. It set the two communities on very different paths. In Canada, at least you have a sense that you have something to work with.