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NMIT Working Papers present preliminary formulations of new data and thinking from ongoing social science research on the economic, cultural, policy and social implications of new media, communication and information technologies in the contemporary Middle East.

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Relocating Dutch-Iranian Exile: On- And Off-line Dutch-Iranian Transnational Networks (And Their Comparison with Turkish-Kurdish Networks)

Matthijs Van Den Bos, University of Amsterdam
Paper delivered at Annual Meeting of the Middle East Studies Association. Washington DC, 19-22 November 2005.

 

ABSTRACT:  This paper explores contrasts between Iranian migrancy and its representation. Narrations of migrancy as exilic void and theorization of transnational migration and new media as deterritorialized minimize exile’s spatial dimension. But landmarks are central in on- and offline Dutch-Iranian transnational networks, which indicate the extent to which territorially circumscribed space moulds online practice. Hyperlink patterns originating from Dutch-Iranian websites reflect Dutch-Iranians’ offline networks. Transnational hyperlinking predominates on these sites, but the scope of national linking remains disproportionate. National patterns, moreover, are reproduced on the transnational level. The unabated relevance of nation-state bounds, more than any other territorial principle, also emerges from linguistic features of Dutch-Iranian portals. It appears from comparisons of Iranian and Turkish-Kurdish online networks in the Netherlands, lastly, that their relations to offline networks vary with respect to generation and network medium. But territorial bounds define both cases, which suggests their hold well beyond the world of Dutch-Iranian exile.

 

Contemporary immigrants can not be characterized as the “uprooted” (Glick Schiller et al. 1995: 48)

Such is the symptomatic contradictoriness of exile and its narratives! (Naficy 1998: 157)

 

 

INTRODUCTION

Contrasts between Iranian migrancy and its portrayal underlie this paper. To start with, “exile” looms large in Iranians’ accounts of their contemporary diasporas, whereas actual diasporic contexts include other significant forms of migrancy as well. These views of exile often imply “absence” and contain remarkably few references to spatial dimensions of migrancy, despite indications that spatial dimensions shape Iranian exilic experience. Iranian representations of exile along these lines run analogous to arguments in social science regarding “deterritorialization,” which feature increasingly in discussions on the nature of new media and transnational migration. Just as exile, transnational migration and new media are positioned by many of its theorists beyond the grasp of the landmarks that contain offline phenomena. This paper takes the opposite stance, scratching the surface of migrancy narratives in order to “relocate Dutch-Iranian exile,” in particular with respect to patterns of online connectivity.

 

The overall argument on online connectivity in Dutch-Iranian networks proceeds from an introduction of Iranians in the Netherlands and research methods. The remainder of the essay addresses (online) Dutch-Iranian transnational networks in relation to territoriality. In the first instance, it is argued that online interaction represents offline contexts instead of disembodied “network society” dynamics. That is, Dutch-Iranian sites and the hyperlinks which connect them reflect offline community networks which are correspondingly sparse and decentralized. What is more, hyperlink numbers between Netherlands-based websites of Iranians are disproportionately high in comparison with transnational ones. Additionally, the distribution of these transnational hyperlinks follows a national pattern. Along these lines, which indicate territorially anchored online interaction, one may “relocate” Dutch-Iranian exile.

 

Secondly, the essay looks into “modes of territoriality.” That is, Dutch-Iranian Internet practice is closely bound up with Dutch national space, but other factors ¾ network medium and generation in particular ¾ may alter the particulars of this relation. I argue that portals’ online fora are more likely to attract individual users than organizations, whereas organizations are more likely to represent themselves through websites than are individuals. Does generation correlate with differential Internet practice on sites and portals? One may conjecture on the basis of immigration process literature that whereas first generation migrants’ life online is often an extension of offline ethnic networks, second generation migrants are more likely to reflect these networks in subtler ways. They may host partially sovereign portals pivoting on hyphenated identities. These explorations provide new instances of “exilic syncretism” (Naficy 1993: 192) that challenge narrations of exile as deterritorialized absence.

 

Lastly, I compare these findings with forthcoming work by Liza Nell on territorially bound Turkish-Kurdish web surfing (in an essay co-written with the present author, on which the present paper relies heavily). The comparison establishes that whereas network medium, generation and territoriality are differently related in each case, the Turkish-Kurdish one is defined by territorial bounds as much as the Iranian. Specifically, Turkish-Kurdish sites and surfing reflect national (Netherlands-based), diasporic (Europe-based), and transnational (Turkey-based) activities of offline Turkish-Kurdish communities, rather than unbounded virtual communication. Exile articulates locally among Turkish Kurds as it does among Iranians in the Netherlands.

 

FIGURES OF DIASPORIC SPEECH

 

Exile figures prominently in Iranians’ rendering of their present-day diasporic conditions, despite the fact that contemporary emigration from Iran is far from exhausted by that category. In her study of Iranians in France, Nassehi-Behnam distinguishes political and religious exiles and socio-cultural and economic emigrants (2005: 252). Graham and Khosravi differentiate between political exiles and a majority of emigrants among Iranian refugees in Sweden (1997: 118). Iranian traders first came to Hamburg in the late eighteenth century and they were followed, preceding the Islamic revolution, by other non-exilic Iranian migrations into Germany (cf. Hesse-Lehmann & Spellman 2004: 141). Even when conceiving of exile as a category of “experience” rather than as a political fact, it may be contrasted to the condition of the much less tragic Iranian “(e)migrant” (mohâjer) (cf. Fischer & Abedi 1990: 255).

 

Notwithstanding considerable variety in the make-up of late twentieth century Iranian diasporas, the theme of exile not only dominated “most fiction and poetry written in the early years of the [post-revolution] Iranian emigration [but continued] to dominate the literary scene” in the 1990s (Davaran 1996: 5). An authoritative study on Iranians and Iranian television in Los Angeles frames its object as “exile cultures” (Naficy 1993). “Exiled Memories”, tellingly, adorns the cover of a collection of “stories of Iranian diaspora” in the United States (Sullivan 2001). But the author expresses awareness of the fact that exile, in her case studies, is not only just a political feature of the post-migration situation but also a concept that involves cultural mediation: “The Iranians to whom I spoke were only the most recent among those who share exilic sensibility. Iranian literature, religion, and identity have incorporated prolonged lamentations for that from which the subject has been separated” (2001: 263-64).

 

It has been observed that “[w]ithin Iranian culture […] the medieval mystic’s sense of severance from the original wholeness of creation has provided the impulse for a great amount of creative imagining” (Karimi-Hakkak 1991: 258) — Rumi’s “Song of the Reed” stands out as exemplary (cf. Farrokh & Ghanoonparvar 1991: 282). If only for these references, Nafici is on solid ground when emphasizing that Iranian Sufism contains a repertoire of notions related to exile. In addition, he claims that Sufism provides a mould through which Iranians often experience “actual” exile. Sufi poetry, he feels, provides “the paradigmatic worldview and language of exile, embodying a variety of journeys, returns and unifications” (1991: 286; cf. Sullivan 2001: 264). While Sufism may often inspire vocabulary in Iranians’ representations of actual exile, however, such imagery does not by far exhaust them. A Sufi mould applies less to the level of thematic structure, furthermore, than vocabulary. In fact, Iranian discourses on actual migrancy often contradict the structure of the mystical path.

 

Renderings of the mystical path often build on notions of original alienation that accompany Islam from its beginnings, as in the Prophetic saying (Meier 1992: 105) that “Islam began as a stranger and will return a stranger. Long live the strangers!” A similar motif figures in the sixth Imam’s (d.765) concept of Shiism as the religion of “strangers/expatriates” (ghorabâ’) among Mohammad’s community (Corbin 1971: 90, cf. 33). Corbin’s esoteric exegesis of the phrase in question pivots on the lowly, illusory nature of “the world” (donyâ) (1971: 93), a theme which pervades Sufism generally. Many Sufis invoke the prophetic hadith that “one has to die before one dies” in accounts of mystical self-realization and Yahya Sohravardi (d.1191) resorts to symbolic geography in order to convey worldly alienation in his Tale of the Occidental Exile (qissat al-ghurba al-gharbiyya). Sohravardi’s Tale depicts “Occident” as an underworld of physis and decline in which the main protagonist has been lost and from which he escapes, gloriously returning to a spiritual land of origin (Orient).

 

These imageries conjure up an image of man thrown into this world disoriented, an exile, and of life as a perilous journey. Salvation subsequently depends upon his following a spiritual master through whom he will overcome alienation: shed his worldly soul and reunite with his essential self. Hence, the notion of “Sufis’ detachment of worldly attachments” (Naficy 1998: 10). Sufi mystics’ “exile,” then, often connotes primal “alienation” and its remedy, reunification through “detachment.”

 

Iranian accounts of actual exile feature many expressions of alienation and detachment, and these are often couched in a vocabulary of “journeys [and longed for] returns and unifications.” But there is another type of diasporic discourse also that is not dominated by “alienation.” One finds an exemplary tale of “euphoric” migrancy in Ali Zarrin’s poem Made You Mine, America. Migrancy experience here does not involve self realization through detachment, as in the Sufi paradigm, but self fashioning through the active appropriation of the new (worldly) context of migration.

 

Secondly, it has been rightly noted that notions of nostalgia, paralysis and loss are central to Iranian narrations of exile. Here however, alienation and detachment do not fit the larger structure of the mystical path of self-realization, but, inversely, indicate disintegration. The developmental perspective of the Path gives way to notions of stasis and void, which are widespread: “Most Iranian writers, regardless of the language in which they write, agree that exile leads to cultural and linguistic deracination” (Rahmieh 1992). The paradoxical euphoria of detachment in such hierarchically interrelated Sufi terms as “seclusion” (khalvat), “union” (ettehâd), and “annihilation of the self” (fanâ’), finds it opposite in “dysphoric” migrant experiences (cf. Karimi-Hakkak 1991; Farrokh & Ghanoonparvar 1991: 282). While the attribution of such disintegrative sentiments to Sufism is problematic, the ethnographic record shows that they are not self-explanatory, universal renderings of exilic migrancy either. Bowman, for example, explains of a legendary dislocation how “the moment of Judaism’s formation was deeply implicated in [Babylonian] exile” [my insertion] (2002: 451).

 

The salience of disintegrative sentiments emerges clearly from Iranian diaspora literature. The name of Gholam-Hoseyn Sa‘di [Saedi] (d.1985) looms large when it comes to the literary representation of post-revolution migrancy as exile. His Metamorphosis and Redemption of the Âvâres (Degardisi va Rahâ’i-ye Âvârehâ) (1982, in Shahidian 1996) treats the plight of what perhaps best translates as the “destitute exile” (Âvâre), who contrasts the émigré (mohâjer). Sa‘di’s exile conveys the sense of a lost homeland being “replaced by a place so indescribably different that only by magical powers of a free-wheeling fancy can its image be contemplated” (Karimi-Hakkak 1991: 276). Exile, for him, meant “gradual death” (Naficy 1993: 229; Shahidian 1994: 417) and he is judged to have “died of exile” himself (Hillmann 1985: 136).

 

Similar imagery of loss, paralysis and limbo feature in Esma‘il Fasih’s famous novel of exiled Iranians in Paris, Sorayya in a coma (Sorayyâ dar Eghmâ’) (1985-1986), where “coma” is made to stand for “exile” (Naficy 1993: 228), and the theme of exile appears through the mystic Rumi (cf. Farrokh & Ghanoonparvar 1991: 282). Exile poet Esma‘il Kho‘i refers to refugees as People in between (1987) (cf. Naficy 1998: 11) and Goli Taraghi’s The Bizarre Comportment of Mr. Alpha in Exile (Adat-e Gharib-e Âqâ-ye Alef dar Ghorbat) (1991) depicts “the image of the intellectual’s life in exile as being in a cocoon” (Karimi-Hakkak 1991: 292). Nasim Khaksar’s Last Letter (Âkherin Nâme) (1988) renders exilic life as “limbo between living and dying” (Papan-Matin 2004) and imagery of void is central once more in his Between Two Doors (Tussen Twee Deuren) (2000) — a portrayal of exile in the Netherlands. Here as elsewhere, “Khaksar writes precisely on the vanishing point between two languages, countries, histories, and political systems” (Keulemans 2000: 163).

 

Countering these literary images of exilic stasis, Nafici stresses that exile “is a process of becoming, involving separation from home, a period of liminality and in-betweenness that can be temporary or permanent, and finally incorporation into the dominant host country” (1993: xvi). But another absence, that of place, marks both his and the literary conceptions of exile. His definition suggests that exile — at least in the middle phase — hovers over, is territorially unbound vis-à-vis locations of exile. Thus, according to Nafici, exile is a “dislocatory presence” and “liminars live in a continual state of otherness and exile from former and new attachments. Freed from both, they are “deterritorialized”” (1998: 9).

 

These and other exilic figures of diasporic speech derive from Iranian cultural repertoires as much as signify post-revolution Iranian migrancy, which helps explain their marginalization of other significant categories of migrancy. Already in 1991, Sreberny-Mohammadi & Mohammadi reflected that within “expatriate Iranian communities concerns about “exile” are giving way to concerns about “acculturation”” (223). Davaran mentions new diaspora literature emanating from “a new consciousness [that] has found its conclusive grounds in different societies” (1996: 5). Nafici’s own accounts of exilic syncretism, that he opposes to the imagery of exile as stasis, point out how Iranian exiles adopt American cultural forms to account for their “dislocation” (Naficy 1993: 108). Territorial aspects of locality, in other words, often underlie even figures of diasporic speech. An important strand of contemporary social science theorizing, however, argues in the opposite direction.

 

 

CONTESTED TERRITORY

Gupta and Ferguson claim that “today, the rapidly expanding and quickening mobility of people combines with the refusal of cultural products to “stay put” to give a profound sense of a loss of territorial roots, of an erosion of the cultural distinctiveness of places, and of ferment in anthropological theory” (1992: 9). Appadurai’s often cited statement holds that “ethnicity, once a genie contained in the bottle of some sort of locality (however large) has now become a global force, forever slipping in and through the cracks between states and borders” (1996: 306). These and other formulations of “deterritorialization” have become increasingly central to discussions of transnationalism, transmigration and new media and indicate a larger trend in anthropological theorization. Contemporary anthropological conceptualization of “place” often stresses fluidity and ongoing construction, in contrast to older conceptualizations of place as fixed and given (cf. Ward 2003: 81-3). In many of these analyses, the new focus on flux and constant creation diminishes the analytical weight of place and its making, as when we are told of the alleged “global social fact that […] people are chronically mobile and routinely displaced” (Malkki 1992: 24).

            However, alternative accounts and counterarguments increasingly come to the fore that cast doubt on deterritorialization as an ultimate symbol of current globalization. They call into question the case of academic proponents of deterritorialization who argue “that geographical space has, in analytical terms, ceased to be the master index for social and cultural processes” (Wardle 2002: 494). Cases abound of deterritorialized nation-states stretching beyond their geographic boundaries, with leaderships claiming their dispersed populations as citizens (Basch et al. 1994: 269-70). But Parham’s study of Internet use in transnational Haiti, among many others, reminds of the unabated importance of place-based social ties for sustained, as opposed to merely ephemeral, online interaction (2004). In a similar vein, this essay inquires whether “deterritorialized” actually captures migrants’ Internet networking.

For many analysts of the contemporary, transmigrants and the Internet symbolize the latest stages of globalization. The older modernity connoted massive, unidirectional migratory streams and communications revolutions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the newest phase, transmigration and online interaction also imply deterritorialization. Temporal and spatial bounds are felt to have dominated previously globalized social settings, while a different logic is stated to underlie current globalization. In the post-industrial “network society,” “timeless time” and a “space of flows” are thought to transcend prior, industrial time and place regimes (cf. Uimonen 2003: 277). The nation-state, more than any other territorial principle, suffers from dilution in it: “[O]verall the new state is not any longer a nation-state [but] a network state” [my insertion] (Castells 2000: 14).

What lies beyond these perspectives is a situated view of place construction (cf. Ward 2003). Against deterritorialization as symbol of the contemporary, it is useful to be reminded of an enduring, spatially defined identity nexus uncovered by geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza and his team of researchers. They “examined the surnames of over 10.4 million entries in the telephone directories of 91 Italian provinces” and showed that “contemporary locations of surnames in Southern Italian provinces reflected the original distribution of communities formed by migrations of Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Albanians going back as far as the eighth century B.C” (Weiner 2002: 25). This is not to dispute the significance of recent transnational flows and their accompaniment by reinforced identity politics (cf. Glick Schiller et al. 1995: 52).[1] But the contrast between Cavalli-Sforza’s case and current notions of global flows does highlight a failure in much theorizing of place, transnationalism, and new media, to recognize enduring spatial structures, such as nation-state boundaries, that may underlie and distribute these flows. “Being-in-a-local-setting” casts any migration process and often implies a nation-state context as well. In the following, I seek to establish similar ground for online Dutch-Iranian diasporic transnational networks.

 

1. RESEARCHING IRANIANS IN THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch-Iranian community comprises 28,522 persons (CBS StatLine 2005, statline.cbs.nl). They are a small and young community when compared with Turks (357,911), Surinamese (328,312), Moroccans (314,699), or Antilleans (129,721) (CBS StatLine 2005). Migration from Iran to the Netherlands has mostly been related to the 1978/9 Islamic Revolution, but economic migrants also arrived in large numbers since the 1990s. The (free) country of settlement context has provided transnational Iranian groups such as the Fedayin (cf. Sreberny-Mohammadi & Mohammadi 1987: 117) and the Mojaheddin with ample opportunities for political activism.

Core data on the community’s life online consisted of seventy-two Dutch-Iranian websites that were accessed in 2003 and 2004 and assembled through manually snowballing the web on keyword combinations such as “Iran” and “Nederland”. Leafing through the Google results, besides randomly discovered online locations, provided “Startpages” that contained useful links to additional Dutch-Iranian sites. Each hyperlink was then checked from these starting points, to the point where no new links could be found. I finally obtained a fairly comprehensive sample by presenting my list of sites to Dutch-Iranians from different walks of life and asking them to add to it and repeating the saturation procedure. Hyperlink structures, in addition to websites proper, may be conceived to indicate chosen identities (cf. Adamic & Adar 2001). The Dutch-Iranian site and link structure as a whole thus depicts self-expressions as well as connectivity patterns of the Dutch-Iranian diaspora online.

 

2. RELOCATING DUTCH-IRANIAN EXILE

            Graham and Khosravi, the two major names in studies of Iranian online diaspora, hold that “[f]or a displaced people in the diaspora, cyberspace can be an alternative “territory,” where a transnational community or a virtual neighborhood can be constructed” (2002: 228). They cite an Iranian from California who feels that “the Internet seems able to rescue Iranians from […] the “vacuum” and “intellectual desert” […] of the host society” (230). The vacuum metaphor certainly fits Iranian figures of diasporic speech, but it will be equally interesting to examine the other notion, “alternative territory,” in the light of actual online interaction. And in that light, little remains of such tropes. Connectivity patterns actually indicate another instance of what Nafici called “the symptomatic contradictoriness of exile and its narratives” (1998: 157) ¾ online interaction set by offline territorial bounds versus exile as void. 

Exploring interaction patterns of the 72 websites that constituted the approximate domain of Dutch-Iranian cyberspace, revealed that they clearly favored offline physical proximity, as opposed to the random node and tie distributions that “decentred” new media and “unbounded” transnationalism would lead one to anticipate.

First, Dutch-Iranian cyberspace mirrors offline communal patterns of Iranians in the Netherlands, which feature sparsely knit networks and remarkably little collective organization. Ghorashi notes that contrary to the United States, which has concentrated settlements of Iranian migrants, “the Netherlands has a rather […] scattered Iranian population,” while unlike Los Angeles, there are “few Iranian group or community activities” [in the Netherlands] (2003: 10). These offline communal features of Dutch Iranians were reflected online in a low level of “cyberorganization density,” which refers to website numbers in relation to (ethnic) population size. In the absence of similar figures for other ethnic groups in the Netherlands, Iranian cyberorganization density may be provisionally compared with density figures for non-Iranians’ offline organization numbers in relation to their population size.

Comparing cyber and offline principles of organization yields a theoretical hierarchy. It is comparatively easier, cheaper and often more effective to manage an online presence than set up and administer an offline organization. Thus, hypothetical ethnic and cyberorganization order would have density figures for the latter to be far higher than for the former. However, Dutch-Iranian cyberorganization density for 2003 renders 2.57 ((72/28,043)*1000), in contrast to higher densities for offline ethnic organizations of Surinamese (3), Moroccans (3.10), Turks (5.60), Antilleans (3.70) and Ghanaians (7.10) in Amsterdam (van Heelsum 2002: 5). The lower rate still holds when taking into consideration national organization figures for Turks. Turkish organizations in the Netherlands amounted to 1125 in 1999 (van Heelsum et al. 1999), which yielded a 3.75 density rate on a population of 299,662 persons of Turkish descent in the Netherlands in 1999 (CBS StatLine 2005). Thus, Dutch-Iranian cyberorganization appears weak given the hypothetical order of ethnic and cyberorganization.

Furthermore, the mentioned offline features of Dutch-Iranian organization also re-emerged online in a low level of network “compactness”. That is, both density — the actual number of relations (i.e. hyperlinks) out of the possible number of relations — as well as centralization — the extent to which the actual relations are organized around focal points — rendered figures which are low in absolute terms. Density measures 0.03 (150/(72*71)) — that is, low overall graph cohesion. A social network analysis software program’s (i.e. PAJEK’s (Batagelj and Mrvar 2004)) “degree” routine rendered 0.16 for indegree centralization (referring to incoming hyperlinks) and for 0.26 for outdegree centralization (vis-à-vis outgoing links). That is, few or no sites in the network were found which overshadowed the others as regards link numbers.

Secondly, I explored these on- and offline structures within a transnational perspective. Two sets of conclusions emerge regarding transnational networks, which is to say: hyperlinks originating from Dutch-Iranian websites and connecting to Iranian websites in non-Dutch settings. The first of these sets is about outgoing hyperlink (outlink) numbers; the second concerns outlink patterns for specific network sectors.

When excluding 83 dead links, the 72 sites render 962 hyperlinks that divide into 20 country domains (including the Netherlands). Transnational ties predominate in Dutch-Iranian outlink numbers, but national ties are disproportionately strong. The United States and Iran comprise primary outlink targets, with 304 and 243 links respectively, while the Netherlands ranks third among many other European destinations — that is, disproportionately so. An average distribution of sites per country yields about 50 hyperlinks (962/20). References to Dutch-Iranian websites include 161 hyperlinks,[2] over three times the average. The point may also be argued comparatively with reference to Iranian communities in Germany, France and Britain, all of which are significantly larger than the Dutch one. Despite these communities’ larger sizes, Dutch outlink numbers by far exceed those for any other European destination.

            Regarding outlink patterns, the numerical order for cultural, economic, politi­cal and religious elements is broadly equivalent for national, Dutch websites and (trans)national hyperlinks, with the exception of political and economic data. That is, economic sites are more important nationally (among Dutch-Iranian sites), whereas political links are slightly more significant (trans)nationally (among all hyperlinks). Web content, moreover, which indicates identical ideological orien­tations for national and transnational political sites and links, balances the difference: Many national sites being explicitly left-wing, corresponds to a majority (67%) of (trans)national hyperlinks which are explicitly left-wing also. This stands in contrast to minorities of (trans)national hyperlinks which are nationalist and/or monarchist (12.5%), interest group or democratization oriented (8.6%), conservative Islamist (3.8%), feminist (1.9%), liberal-progressive (0.9%), or representative of other identi­ties (4.8%).

            Another such correspondence between the national and the transnational comes to the fore in the noticeable scarcity of religious sites and hyperlinks on either level. In addition, scarce religious links indicate that the similarity of national and transnational networks results from a projection of the national Dutch-Iranian pattern upon the transnational diasporic stage, not the other way around. Religious scarcity, online as well as offline, may be interpreted in the light of testimony as to the experience of suffocating, overbearing Islam in Iran as a primary cause for Iranian migrants to seek refuge in the Netherlands (e.g. Hessels 2002: 17). Contrasting the Dutch-Iranian case, French-Iranian (cf. Nassehi-Behnam 2005: 261-62) and British-Iranian (Spellman 2004) networks have been reported to include many religious associations.

            The origins of a religious merchant colony in Germany’s Iranian capital of Hamburg data back to the late eighteenth century (Hesse-Lehmann 2002), and the city became the national centre of gravity for Shiism (Lemmen 2000: 64). After the Islamic revolution, the “Islamisches Zentrum Hamburg […] played an exceptional role as Iran’s ideological centre for the dissemination of Iranian-type Islamism among Muslims living in Western Europe” (Grünewald 1995). One suspects that it is in consequence of these varied and longstanding settlements that religious sites feature prominently in accounts of Iranians’ German webspace (cf. Azimi & Brückner).

            Had transnational realities of the Iranian diaspora or the Internet’s alleged unboundedness applied here, one might have expected not only significantly fewer Dutch-Iranian hyperlinks, but also a radically higher number of religious links. But the hyperlink pattern indicates national-to-transnational directionality instead.

            These counterintuitive facts as to the unabated import of national hyperlink numbers and patterns bear immediate relevance to debates on transnationalism and globalized new media. Digitally mediated globalization is often held to be to the detriment of particularistic identities such as nations (Negroponte 1995), but case studies often suggest otherwise. A global hyperlink sample establishes that “the organization of the world wide web conforms to some degree to traditional national borders” (Halavais 2000: 7). Virtual transnationalism, as it emerges from the above cases, demonstrates a similar paradox of spatiality: the rupturing of borders in online Dutch-Iranian transnational networks is itself patterned on a particular (i.e. Dutch), territorial nation-state structure. Even though Iranians in diaspora often represent migrancy as exile and exile typically expresses a “limbo”, it is “situatedness” that moulds Dutch-Iranian migrants’ online interaction.

 

3. MODES OF TERRITORIALITY

Dutch-Iranians interact online in a variety of ways but the examined communication patterns all reflect territorial landmarks, which is to say: their spatial context of production shines through. This section examines website category and generation in Dutch-Iranian cyberspace and their bearings on the particulars of territoriality.

Web portal fora allow different users’ instant interaction: all that is usually required is registration. Conventional sites often are graver regarding identity, with declarations of intent and about pages, and more singular as to content. Given that instant interaction defines individuals’ motives for online presence more than those of organizations, and that the establishment of stable identities is more crucial to organizations’ online presence than that of individuals, one is more likely to find fora as individuals’ spaces and conventional sites as virtual extensions of offline organizations.

            Generation is one probable factor as to social correlates of the difference for personal and organizational links between sites and portals. Immigration process literature generally holds that first generation migrants are more likely to organize in ethnic organizations, whereas second generation migrants are more prone to develop cross-ethnic ties. Thus, whereas first generation migrants’ life online may reveal rather clear-cut extensions of offline networks, second generations are likely to reflect these networks in more subtle ways.

I examined two main Dutch-Iranian portals, ISAN.NL (hosted by the Iranian Scientific Association in the Netherlands) and IRANL.COM (“IRaNL.communicate,” hosted by a Dutch-Iranian student group). Their board members play central roles in Dutch-Iranian communal life. There are many ways to probe the portals but the most obvious manner was to chart discussion fora. It was examined which percentage of messages represented an organizational link to offline settings. 

It was found on ISAN on 8 March 2005 that only 2 out of 451 messages, or 0.4%, represented an organization (Club Perzie [Perzië] and Vereniging van Iraanse Vrouwen). This compared to 191 out of 3,675 messages, or 5.2%, on IRANL (8-18 March). Only one organization (Studentfile) accounted for most (179) of these messages. When correcting for this feature and taking into account numbers of organizations instead of message numbers with organizational links, a lower figure results: 10 out of 3,675, or 0.3%.[3] These findings for organizational links on ISAN and IRANL compare to at least 25 out of 72 sites, or 34.7%, for conventional sites. When checking for organizational links, that is, striking differences appear between portals on the one hand and average sites on the other, regarding ways of relating to offline settings.

Dutch-Iranian fora could be construed as a natural habitat for second generation Iranians who moved beyond the realm of traditional migrant organizations. However, this assumption does not stand up to scrutiny. Although age data are unavailable for message posters, circumstantial data shed light on the age factor. Eighty-four percent of the ISAN organization belong to the first generation; this applies to 75 percent of ISAN members; and to 50 to 40 per cent that visit ISAN social events.[4]

Summarizing, generation does not correlate with differences in the way that sites and portals link up with offline contexts, conventional sites more often extending offline organizations, and portals endowing virtual space to individuals in particular. Despite the fact that portals such as ISAN and IRANL do not simply extend offline Dutch-Iranian organization, they do reflect territoriality in other ways, which primarily come to the fore in linguistic features of online interaction. First, the balance of Dutch and Persian messages was considered on these portals, secondly, the balance within Persian language messages between postings composed in Persian and postings composed in Roman script, and thirdly, bilingualism. Bilingualism occurs both within messages and within posting plus reply chains that alternate for language choice.

To start with, the number of Dutch and Persian messages is roughly in balance on ISAN: One message (0.2%) is in French; 66 (14.6%) are in English; 177 (39.2%) are in Dutch; and 189 (41.9%) are in Persian. A similar pattern occurs on IRANL, where one message (0.02%) is in Arabic; 364 (9.9%) are in English; 1,534 (41.7%) are in Persian, and 1,573 (42.8%) are in Dutch. Residual messages on each portal, 18 and 204 respectively, are mostly extralinguistic. The primacy and similarity of Dutch and Persian are perhaps obvious, given references to things Dutch in the names of “IRANL” and “ISAN”, but easily underestimated as well. The bias towards a “minor” language such as Dutch is curious given the absence of geographical restrictions as to participation in these portals. Yet, the linguistic pattern of their postings corresponds precisely to the geographical reality of first and second generation “Dutch Iranians”.

Regarding Persian messages, posters are left with the option to write in the Persian or the Roman alphabets. Remarkably, only 66 of ISAN’s messages (14.6%) are composed in Persian, as opposed to 123 (27.2%) in Roman script. On IRANL, 845 messages (22.9%) are composed in Persian, as opposed to 689 (18.7%) in Roman. These findings contrast a global pattern for Iranian blogs, the vast majority of which are linguistically as well as scripturally Persian.[5] In other words, there is a Roman script bias, in spite of the global blog pattern and the fact that script traditionally defines Persian as much as grammar. Script choice on ISAN and IRANL does converge, however, with posters’ larger Roman script environment, and the fact that many second generation Dutch Iranians are said to command Persian speech but not script.

More vital as an indicator of territoriality, several messages on each forum are bilingual. Persian-Dutch bilingualism applies to 17 messages, or 6.7%, on IRANL’s “students and minorities” forum, for example (21 March 2005). But besides messages, many more of the “posting plus reply” chains feature Dutch and Persian language switching. That is, replies will in many cases not adopt posters’ language choice but change linguistic code — this applies to 27 chains, or 45%, on ISAN (21 March 2005). Linguistic marks of online interaction, in other words, portray these portals as hosts for a hyphenated identity. Contradicting narrations of exile as absence and loss, they are instances of what Nafici calls “exilic syncretism” (1993: 17). It is nation-state bounds only, which render intelligible these virtual expressions of Dutch-Iranianness.

 

4. COMPARING DUTCH-IRANIAN AND TURKISH-KURDISH WEB SURFING

Twenty-one interviews with Turkish immigrants in the Netherlands identifying themselves as Kurdish, conducted in the spring of 2004, provided Nell’s core data on territorial bounds to Kurdish-Turkish web surfing.[6] The sample includes twelve first, six “in between”, and three second generation Kurds.[7] Seventeen out of these 21 respondents claimed to use the Internet frequently. Only 14 professed to visit websites relating to the (ancestral) country of origin. These 14 respondents, and the 25 websites they mentioned, are covered here.[8] Although the sample is too small to be representative, the interviews do bring out clear patterns of territorially anchored web usage.

In both the Iranian and the Turkish-Kurdish cases, conventional sites often extend offline organizations online, whereas portals are much more individualized. For instance, only 7 out of 93 Turkish-Kurdish portal members who posted hyperlinks on their profiles included references to offline organizations, whereas 10 out of 25 conventional sites constitute offline organizations’ official online representations.

However, network medium relates differently to generation and modes of territoriality in each case. Network medium and generation do not correlate in Dutch-Iranian cyberspace but they clearly do among Turkish Kurds. The Turkish-Kurdish second and “in between” generation visit web portals that do not count as extensions of offline organizations (such as KOERDISTAN.NL), whereas the first generation merely participates in discussion portals that are part of offline organizations’ official websites (such as TKP.ORG.TR). Network medium relates differently to modes of territoriality in the sense that in Dutch-Iranian cyberspace, linguistic features of portals’ discussion fora express hyphenated identities — as opposed to straightforward extensions of offline organizations — and broadened Dutch-Kurdish (i.e. non-Turkish-Kurdish) identity that centers on the Netherlands in the case of Turkish Kurds.

In order to specify broadened Turkish-Kurdish identity, it first needs to be established that irrespective of network medium, Internet usage shows Turkish Kurds’ multi-layered identities in the Netherlands. They surf sites hosted from the country of settlement (the Netherlands), the diaspora, or transnationally (in Turkey), and often simultaneously. Each type of surfing reflects distinct, territorially marked identities.

Surfing on immigrant websites, that target a broadened Kurdish ethnicity or common (former) nationality, reflects Turkish Kurds’ settlement in the Netherlands. For example, KOERDISTAN.NL — the most popular website (mentioned five times) —is a forum for Kurds (as opposed to Turkish-Kurds) in the Netherlands: its “netiquette” explains that the site is Dutch-Kurdish and members’ input should be either Dutch or Kurdish. The portal’s “events” section announces Kurdish social, political, and cultural activities, such as Newroz (new year) celebrations, in the Netherlands.

Another category, surfing on diaspora sites, highlights ethnic or intra-ethnic Kurdish identities that are linked with regional or national spaces of origin. Being an immigrant or refugee in Europe defines common ground in diaspora surfing. For example, Kerkuk-kurdistan.com mostly treats news from Iraq. At the same time, the site pays abundant attention to news about Swedish politics; about Kurds in Sweden; and to announcements of Kurdish events in Sweden, whence the site is hosted.

In transnational surfing, lastly, the common (former) nationality provides the basis of identification and sometimes enables Kurdish (intra) ethnic identification (this applies to sites such as BIRNEBUN.COM, that target Kurds from Anatolia).

The first of these layers, immigrant sites, also indicated broadened Kurdish identity in the Netherlands in relation to generation and network medium. Three out of seven immigrant sites are portals, visited by second and “in between” generation Turkish Kurds in the Netherlands. The portals address settlement in Dutch society while emphasizing a Kurdish rather than Turkish-Kurdish identity. In sum, the broadened immigrant portal identity in addition to variation in the (hosting of and) surfing on Kurdish sites by Turkish Kurds in the Netherlands indicates how national boundaries, or territorially fixed authority, canalize and mould their Internet practices.

These variant modes of territoriality blend together in a larger picture of Iranian hyperlink structures and Turkish-Kurdish Internet usage reflecting territorial referents of locality, region, and nationality. Explorations of online Dutch-Iranian networks in the Netherlands indicated that Dutch-Iranian cyberspace mirrors offline communal patterns. Turkish-Kurdish web surfing shows geographical, cultural, and political diversity mirroring their offline world. Territoriality in Iranian and Turkish-Kurdish online interaction in the Netherlands, as it appears from these cases, underscores the view of virtual space as anchored in offline contexts rather than as a self-contained, disembodied universe that could be justifiably labeled “deterritorialized.”

 

5. CONCLUSION

Their minimization of geographical space defines common ground between theories of new media and transnationalism and an Iranian genre of migrancy representations. In that respect, the views of exile as void and of diasporic Internet usage as deterritorialized contrast online interaction patterns in Dutch-Iranian networks.

I have analyzed “figures of diasporic speech” to argue that prevalent Iranian representations of migrancy as exile beg cultural interpretation. First, exile is one mode of modern Iranian migrancy only; secondly, exile builds on long established Iranian cultural paradigms; and thirdly, the rendering of exile as void characterises Iranian exilic representations but not the ethnographic record at large. In the margins of these arguments, I have sought to amend the familiar view that Sufism provides a mould through which Iranians experience exile. Sufi paths often depict primal alienation, detachment from worldliness, and self realization through reunification with the divine, which contrasts the view of exile as self fashioning through the active appropriation of worldly contexts of migration. More importantly, dominant Iranian representations of exile emphasize alienation as in the Sufi theme but unlike the Sufi path that develops toward self realization, center on permanent void, absence, and loss.

Whereas “void, absence, and loss” do not usually make up the vocabulary in which theoreticians of deterritorialization couch their points, it shares with dominant Iranian representations of exile the minimization of geographical space. Theories of transnationalism and new media carry the lead and produce key terms such as “displacement,” “fluidity” and “flow.” My argument has not been with these notions, but with the implication, or explication in many of the studies in which they feature, that a new global condition transgresses “situatedness,” nation-state bounds in particular. 

In that perspective, Nassehi-Behnam is to be saluted for her studies that move beyond many of the clichés surrounding Iranian exile, and her statement that the Iranian diaspora “comprend une population qui, au moins dans sa grande majorité, n’est pas totalement déracinée. La communication n’a presque jamais [cessé] d’exister entre la communauté d’exil et le pays natal” (1988: 217). But even the latter remark stands out as a euphemism in the light of Dutch-Iranian online interaction. My findings show hundreds of hyperlinks that connect Iranians in the Netherlands to Iran. More important, the statement overlooks the new local attachments that shape exile.

Notwithstanding exilic discourse of deracination or that of deterritorialization theorists on displacement, online networks of Iranians in the Netherlands, far from transcending time and space constraints, reflect their offline networks. This comes across, for instance, in the paucity of their religious sites. Furthermore, national patterns of interaction retain disproportionate weight when considering these in the perspective of transnational linking. Nation-state bounds also shine through linguistic features of Dutch-Iranian portals the balance between Dutch and Persian messages, the balance between Roman and Persian script usage, and bilingualism that serve as hosts for a hyphenated identity. Exile, that is, is structured by local relations. While there are variations between Iranians and Turkish Kurds in the Netherlands as to the ways in which factors such as generation and network medium affect modes of territoriality, the overall importance of territorial space in both cases suggests that territorial bounds retain their grip well beyond the particularities of Dutch-Iranian exile.  

 

 



Notes

[1] “Although they seemingly rupture boundaries and borders,” write these principal theorists of transnationalism, “contemporary transnational cultural processes and movements of people, ideas and capital have been accompanied by an increase in an identity politics that is a celebration of a nation”.

[2] Despite the fact that they supposedly refer to the same phenomenon, there is a gap here of 11 hyperlinks between the mentioned 161 Dutch-Iranian links and the 150 figure given earlier to account for overall network density. The odd inaccuracy is very unlikely to account for more than a small portion of these links—I checked and double-checked my data. This leaves only the passage of time between data collection in July (when I finished my national data collection) and November 2004 (when I finished my transnational data collection, which included a recount of national links), during which Dutch-Iranian–Dutch-Iranian site links apparently increased, to account for the gap.

[3] There were 191 mentions of organizations on IRANL fora, which included: Studentfile (Association of Iranian Students in the Netherlands) (179); 18 Tir Movement (2); Iraanse Studentenvereniging Groningen (2); Iraanse Vrouwen Zelforganisatie-Nederland (2); Comite18 Tir (1); Iraanse Stichting voor Cultuur en Kennis (1); Iran Future (1); Iranian on the Move (1); PersiaOnline (1); and Tawoes (1).

[4] Correspondence ISAN, 8 March 2005. Data for IRANL, unfortunately, remain unavailable. At least half of ordinary websites’ owners or authors count as first generation Dutch-Iranian migrants.

[5] Reliable data to this effect are lacking, but two specialists on Iranian blogs have confirmed to me in writing their firm impression that the vast majority of Iranian blogs uses Persian script (Correspondence Masserat Amir-Ebrahimi, 23 March 2005; correspondence Alireza Doostdar, 23 March 2005).

[6] Initially all interviewees were to be selected from a database of a SPVA survey Social Position and Use of Facilities. The list contained an a-select sample of 35 heads of households from municipality registers in Amsterdam, Utrecht and the Hague. Finally, three of the 35 cooperated: in one further case the son of one of the 35 cooperated. The other 17 respondents have been approached via networks of Liza Nell, students, Turkish and Kurdish organizations and Kurdish websites. The fact that the majority of the respondents are chosen on the base of self-identification and through a snowball method means the sample has a bias of relatively highly educated politically engaged respondents. Other researchers in the Netherlands encountered similar problems because Turkish Kurds are not registered (see Latuheru et al. 1994).

[7] The second generation is defined as having been born in the Netherlands and having at least one parent born in Turkey. The in between generation is defined as immigrants that arrived in the Netherlands before the age of twelve.

[8] Seven of these 14 belong to the first generation; on average, these seven have been in the Netherlands for 18,5 years. Five of the 14 respondents are women. The youngest respondent was 18 years old; the oldest was 54. The average age of the 14 was around 33 years. Seven respondents (or their parents) had migrated to the Netherlands for political reasons; two came as labor migrants, four as a consequence of family reunification, and one for family formation.


 

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Contact the author via email: <M.E.W.vandenBos@uva.nl>

 

 


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