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Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return
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Diasporas in Modem Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return William Safran University of Colorado, Boulder 1. Minorities, Aliens, and Diasporas: The Conceptual Problem In most scholarly discussions of ethnic communities, immigrants, and aliens, and in most treatments of relationships between minorities and majorities, little if any attention has been devoted to diasporas. In the most widely read books on nationalism and ethnonationalism,1 the phenomenon is not considered worthy ofdiscussion, let alone index entries. This omission is not surprising, for through the ages, the Diaspora had a very specific meaning: the exile of the Jews from their historic homeland and their dispersion throughout many lands, signifying as well the oppression and moral degradation implied by that dispersion. But a unique phenomenon is not very useful for social scientists attempting to make generalizations. Today, "diaspora" and, more specifically, "diaspora community" seem increasingly to be used as metaphoric designations for several categories of people— expatriates, expellees, political refugees, alien residents, immigrants, and ethnic and racial minorities tout court—in much the same way that "ghetto " has come to designate all kinds of crowded, constricted, and disprivileged urban environments, and "holocaust" has come to be applied to all kinds of mass murder. Basing their studies on a fairly broad working definition of diaspora such as that of Walker Connor, "that segment of a people living outside the homeland" (16), scholars have applied the term to Cubans and Mexicans in the United States, Pakistanis in Britain, Maghrebis in France, Turks in Germany, Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, Greek and Polish minorities , Palestinian Arabs, blacks in North America and the Caribbean, Indians and Armenians in various countries, Corsicans in Marseilles, and even Flemish-speaking Belgians living in communal enclaves in Wallonia. Lest the term lose all meaning, I suggest that Connor's definition be extended and that the concept of diaspora be applied to expatriate minority communities whose members share several ofthe following characteristics: 1) they, or their ancestors, have been dispersed from a specific original "center" to two or more "peripheral," or foreign, regions; 2) they retain a collective memory, vision, or myth about their original homeland—its physical location , history, and achievements; 3) they believe that they are not—and perhaps cannot be—fully accepted by their host society and therefore feel partly alienated and insulated from it; 4) they regard their ancestral homeland as their true, ideal home and as the place to which they or their descendants would (or should) eventually return—when conditions are ap- Diaspora Spring 1991 propriate; 5) they believe that they should, collectively, be committed to the maintenance or restoration of their original homeland and to its safety and prosperity; and 6) they continue to relate, personally or vicariously, to that homeland in one way or another, and their ethnocommunal consciousness and solidarity are importantly defined by the existence of such a relationship . In terms ofthat definition, we may legitimately speak ofthe Armenian , Maghrebi, Turkish, Palestinian, Cuban, Greek, and perhaps Chinese diasporas at present and ofthe Polish diaspora ofthe past, although none of them fully conforms to the "ideal type" of the Jewish Diaspora. 2. Diasporas in Comparison The Armenian diaspora condition resembles that of the Jews most closely . Armenian ethnicity and the solidarity of the Armenian community are based on a common religion and language, a collective memory of national independence in a circumscribed territory, and a remembrance of betrayal, persecution, and genocide. Like the majority ofJews, most Armenians live outside the ancestral homeland and have developed several external centers of religion and culture. Like Jews, Armenians have performed a middleman function in the host societies among which they lived; they have been high achievers, have been prominent in trade and commerce, and have made contributions to the science, culture, and modernization of the host society. They have had a clear orientation toward their community but have not chosen to live in ghettos. The fostering of the Armenian language has been important, but this has not prevented Armenians from being fully immersed in the language and culture of the host society. The church has played an important role in maintaining Armenian ethnicity, although there are two competing administrative centers of the Armenian church (with different degrees...