The diasporic internet

10 Jul 2007

An examination of mainstream Australian media over the last five years has shown that much of Australia’s rich heritage of ethnic diversity is being stifled under the weight of a simplifying practice which has resulted in the creation of the idea of a singular group, now known as Muslim-Australians.

But what does this mean for those citizens and residents who are being ascribed this identity label whether they choose it or not? This is particularly critical for young people who are in the process of finding and establishing their own identities and social roles.

It has been argued that one of the longest-standing Muslim self-definitions is through belonging to a global community of believers. But for members of Australia’s Turkish community - and perhaps for members of other ethnicities whose Muslim identity is subordinate to national, cultural and ethnic affiliations - networks of family and friends based around shared language, history, culture and descent override the importance of religion that is attributed to them by outsiders, in their view of their own place in the world.

This ongoing role of the media in contributing to the construction of identity-based groups is both overt and subtle. Hybrid, or hyphenated identity terms are increasingly being used, yet the messy reality of most people’s cultural, ethnic, national, religious and linguistic background makes even a hyphenated identity tag problematic. Moreover, an umbrella term which lumps all Australian followers of Islam into a single subset of all Australians ignores the complex diversity of Muslims in Australia.

Recent local and global events have cast the spotlight on the followers of Islam in a sudden, sharp and mostly unlooked for way. But mainstream public media discourse in the west, including Australia, has tended to use the terms Islam and Muslim as if they were unproblematic and described in some sense “real” or bounded social or ethnic groups.

The Turkish migrants who had begun arriving in Australia in the late 1960s, were the first major wave of Muslim immigrants into this country. The next major Islamic group to arrive were the Lebanese in the later part of the 1970’s fleeing the civil war in their homeland. Lebanese migrants and their descendants now make up the biggest Muslim ethnic group in Australia.

In contrast to the Turks, the Lebanese were more likely to settle in Sydney than in Melbourne and much of what passes for discussion of Islam in Australia really only refers to the experiences of the Muslim Lebanese. Other Muslim immigrants who have arrived more recently come from Bosnia, Somalia, Indonesia and Malaysia. Like the Turks, these groups are frequently conflated with the Arabic Lebanese in an undifferentiated mass known as Muslim-Australians.

The increase in global population movements through international migration has broken down some of the old imagined congruence of national and cultural identities.

Although our national identity has traditionally been shaped by certain geographical spaces, international air travel and the development of new media like the Internet and satellite broadcasting are changing the role that these spaces and places play.

It is within both real and virtual landscapes that individuals from migrant communities negotiate their own identities and individuals from the mainstream of society are also forced to re-examine what it truly means to belong to this or that country.

It seems more useful to view the kinds of interpersonal relationships and affiliations which are emerging in these new transnational spaces as networks rather than communities. They are not dense, interconnected, strong ties between bounded groups of individuals. Rather, they consist of looser, personal and individual networks.

Such are the hallmarks of modern relationships and also of modern networked technologies, which allow for the production, transmission and consumption of information in peer based networks that subvert the dominance of larger, more traditional organisations. A network of overlapping ties now fulfils some of the same functions that have traditionally been associated with communities in the real world.

Such networks seem peculiarly suited to flourish in the global expansion of diasporic communities, where individuals are tied by kinship, language, religion and interest to widely separated geographical communities and nations.

The social ties which exist when relationships are maintained among a dispersed group of friends, acquaintances and strangers are supported by the rise of electronic means of communication. Cheap options such as email, online chat and plummeting international telephone call costs increase the frequency of keeping in touch with distant kin and friends.

Media use and appropriation of technologies may then be seen as part of the practice of both individuals and groups in negotiating roles, memberships and affiliations within and between complex multicultural societies.

The developing strands of transnational media create globally linked networks united by access to shared language and content across a variety of media sources. This is not a new phenomenon, but it is enormously enlarged and expanded since the advent of satellite television and radio and the ubiquity of the Internet and World Wide Web, which have rendered international communications cheap, convenient and virtually instantaneous.

A striking example of this is in the connectedness of Turkish youth living in Australia, but connected with peers in Australia, Turkey and Germany, through SMS, email, online chat and webcams. Young Australians of Turkish background have reported that the Internet is their first resource both for gathering news and current affairs information and for communicating with friends and family.

Online chatting through sites such as MSN and text messaging are their preferred means of keeping in touch with peers both locally and internationally. In many cases the communication is with cousins, through online chatting, mobile phones and texting, illustrating that generational change in media use is a global phenomenon. Young people also function as intermediaries for their parents, showing them how to chat online, checking the email for their parents and setting up webcams and the like.

Using the Internet as a global source of news and current affairs information also circumvents some of the bias apparent in western mainstream media against Islam and Muslims. There is increasingly the sense that Muslims are somehow un-Australian and that Islam itself is seen as a threat to the Australian way of life. This is reflected in the choice of language used to represent Islam, as well as the preponderance of stories relating to negative portrayals of Muslims.

These portrayals conflate “Muslim” identity with terrorism, violence, extremism, political instability, denigration of women and general backwardness. It is also clear that media representations have contributed to the construction of a spurious link between a homogenised Islamic community and a cultural tendency to violence and crime.

Using Islam as a category to describe a singular social group within multicultural society is therefore problematic. Much of the recent public commentary on the nature of Muslims in Australia is debunked by comments made by young Turkish-Australians. They actively resist being categorised as Muslim-Australians, even while acknowledging their own Muslim beliefs.

For young people of the first and second generation, their sense of belonging and identity is formed through a complex mix of widely dispersed family and friends, locally based dense social groups of ethnically diverse peers, and an Australian community of Turkish migrants who keep in close touch with the older generation and who stand in for the extended family left behind in Turkey.

It is clear that for these young people, cultural or ethnic identity is much stronger than religious identity. Although they are articulate about preserving their heritage and language, these traditions are seen to be firmly Turkish, with cultural rather than religious significance.

Perhaps because of Turkey’s fierce historic commitment to national secularism young Turks have no difficulty in separating their religious beliefs or non-beliefs from their Turkish cultural traditions and in seeing the traditions that they value as being Turkish rather than Islamic. It is quite clear that these young people, while acknowledging their Muslim heritage, have no interest in, or commitment to, a larger national, supranational or global community of Muslims.

Research with Turkish Australians has shown that the discourse around Muslim-Australians which constructs a singular, hybrid category on the basis of residence and religion is actively resisted by at least some of those very people to which it has been ascribed.

A complex mixture of affiliations, networks and personal relationships exists alongside a critical analysis of mainstream media and a selective consumption of both national and overseas media sources. This reflects a sophisticated understanding of any attempt to assign a singular identity to a complex and diverse group.

Despite being surrounded by media production practices which continuously simplify complexity, individual reading and viewing practices negotiate and deconstruct such simplicity to produce more subtle, nuanced and meaningful social identities among those whose lived experience continues to fail to be reflected in the mainstream media.

Liza Hopkins is an ARC funded post-doctoral research fellow currently working on a project investing media use, community formation and identity amongst Australians of Turkish descent. She completed a PhD at the University of Melbourne in 2000 with an ethnoarchaeological study of a settlement site in north-eastern Turkey. Since then she has been working at the Institute for Social Research on a variety of projects investigating the intersections between new media, social inclusion and ethnic diversity.

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