It’s Not the Best of the Time for Immigrants, says Karim H. Karim

It’s Not the Best of the Time for Immigrants, says Karim H. Karim

Versatility is an attribute, which gives an academician a 360-degree view of the things and phenomenon shaping the cultural milieu around. And Karim H. Karim is one such scholar whose versatility has propelled him into diverse academic disciplines. One of the senior patriarchs of Diaspora and media studies, he has authored and edited several books and his evangelical zeal has found expression in numerous international studies and organization of which he has become a natural extension. His books The Media of Diaspora (2003) and Re-Imagining the Other: Culture, Media, and Western-Muslim Intersections (2014) have received critical acclaim and are quite relevant in today's time of new media proliferation.

A Professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University, Canada and Director of the Carleton Centre for the Study of Islam, Dr Karim has served at various positions including as Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London and has won the inaugural Robinson Book Prize of the Canadian Communication Association in 2001 for his book, Islamic Peril: Media and Global Violence. His latest book Diaspora and Media in Europe, which he has co-edited with Ahmed Al-Rawi, is on the anvil and to be released soon. Professor Karim spoke to Vijay K Soni on various issues related to the changing world of media and its impact on diasporic population and the emerging nationalism debate in the global order. An Excerpt from the interview:

You are one of the pioneers in the field of media and diaspora studies. How has New Media played a transforming role in the lives of diasporic population?

Communication is the terra firma of a diasporic life and New Media has enabled the kind of communication not seen before in the history of mankind. It has been instrumental in initiating a point-to-point communication between individuals, groups and societies, which hitherto were separated by geographical distances. The Internet-based communication has empowered diasporic population politically, socially and economically and is reflected in their world-views. The earlier communication tools like postal letters deprived them of instant access to news and information, which could have a far-reaching impact on their lives. The lives of a transnational migrants are full of uncertainty and unpredictability and new Media is a tool, which helps them in managing their lives more efficiently. By providing a point-to-point access, New Media has become a game-changer in the lives of Diaspora. It provides instant communication between their home and the the receiving countries.

It has to be remembered that mankind has been mobile since time immemorial and the transnational movements of diaspora is an extension of the same. While the earlier migration was in groups, the modern movements are more often than not individual quest. In the past, the mobile groups always maintained a line of communication with the group left behind by various means. During the medieval time it were the runners who were the channels of communication. In today's time, New Media has provided the platform of communication between the mobile individuals and the kith and kin that are based back in homeland. It is a platform of sharing experiences and initiating cultural discussion with the home country. New Media is a new space where news and cultural events are disseminated.

For the diaspora, the Internet-based media plays a positive role in the social and cultural milieu of the receiving country where they are settled. It provides them easy access to local infrastructural facilities like education, healthcare and in the process helps them in integrating with the local populace. Accessing transnational television content through Internet is an easy and cost-effective means of entertainment for diaspora, which helps them, remain connected with their home country. A large number of TV channels are now providing two-way communication and are quite popular among the diaspora. The same could be seen in the film industry where diasporic narration has found expression in some of the popular movie culture.    

Do you think that New Media has helped in strengthening the feeling of nationalism amongst the Diaspora?

Nationalistic feeling is a complex emotion. For the diaspora, there are two sides of the coin – one, their attachment with the country of their origin and second, their existential reality in the receiving country. New Media has helped them in retaining their contact with the old country. There are also runaway diaspora, which emigrate because of repression or other political reasons and are often antagonistic to the incumbent home government. For them, nationalistic feelings have different tinge because they have left their home country not in best of the terms.

There are dual nationalistic feelings among diaspora who have retained fond memories of their home country and are also treated with dignity in the receiving country. A large number of migrations happen for economic reasons and if a diasporic group does well economically and are well off, they develop nationalistic feeling for the country they are resident.  


There is yet another side of the diaspora's existential reality. If they happen to be in a western country they are exposed to liberal ideologies and often come to appreciate values such as human rights, dignity of labour, gender equality and gay marriages, which are not there in their home country. The fact that these values are not appreciated in their home country sometimes affects their nationalistic disposition.    

Ethnic identity is an important aspect of diaspora's life. How has it been impacted by the digital media?

The notion of ethnic identity is a layered one and could be seen from various perspectives. In the home country, an individual has a different ethnic standing as compared to in the receiving country where they are in minority and may not enjoy certain privileges of the home country. The ethnic identity is often transforming and keeps on shifting from place to place depending on the socio-political ideologies.

A racial minority in the receiving country, the diaspora often negotiate their identity at the cultural and linguistic levels. Sometimes, their identity is clubbed with other nationals as they belong to contingent geographical location. This could be seen in the case of South Asians in the US and Canada.  The recognition of ethnic identity of a diaspora also has a correlation with how their home country, language and cultures are seen and valued in the receiving country. Racism is a visible expression of interaction between various ethnic groups as economic forces have a direct bearing on the natives and the diaspora's livelihood.  

How has media helped the Diaspora in establishing new identity in their host countries?

In most of my writing and discourses, I avoid using the term 'host country' as it implies immigration as a short-term and temporary residency phenomenon. Instead, I prefer to use the term 'receiving country’, which doesn't look at immigrants with a tainted glass and does not discriminate them on the basis of their residency. Again, the concept of identity entails dual feelings depending on their relationship with the home country and their integration within the receiving country. The longer a group stays in a country, there are higher changes of them being absorbed and integrated within the local culture. Sometimes, they are more committed to the receiving country as it could be seen in the case of Indian diaspora in Canada who are not only committed Canadian citizens but have become ministers in the Canadian cabinet and represent the interest of Canada at various levels. But they, at the same time, do not cut ties with their home country. It's not a zero-sum game.

The media has helped the diaspora in retaining ties with their home country. It provides constant cultural engagement. This is also evident in second and third generation of immigrants as their parents make them watch Indian movies and listen to home country music. There is a category of films, which are produced for overseas audiences, especially Indians living overseas. These films are expression of their emotional anchoring to home country and often depict the changing attitude of the receiving country. There are also countries, which discourage diaspora’s tendency of maintaining relationship with their home country as it interferes in their acculturation process. So, one can say that there are multiple influences, feelings which govern immigrants' identity and their relationship with the home as well receiving country.

Do think that religious identities and ethnic disparity of diaspora brings them in indirect conflict with the natives of the receiving country?

In today's time, religious identities are thwarted and people feel threatened by the visible religious symbols, as has been seen globally. It largely depends on the understanding and tolerance of the receiving country and their impressions about the people of various nationalities. People wearing turban and hijab are looked with suspicion. At one point of time, when there was less awareness about their identity, they were considered terrorists. Political and ideological leaders shape this kind of stereotyping.  Media also has a role to play in reconfirming these stereotypes, the way they run and narrate such events and ethnic people.

At times, political leaders shape the understanding of media institutions in such stereotyping. It creates a negative attitude towards a particular group of immigrants. US President Donald Trump has already set the tone and flavor of such misunderstanding. Sometimes, films also help in propagating stereotyping as is evident in the Indiana Jones films. It portrays people of various nationalities in their prejudiced perspective. To thwart such stereotyping, immigrants groups are now interacting more and more with anti-racism organizations, media, academia, human rights groups and local bodies for cordial inter-faith understanding.

In recent years, there has been anti-immigrant feeling in some of the countries. Online social media fuels much of these conflicts. Do you agree?

Social media is only one part of media communication, which impacts diaspora's lives. It has a positive role for circulating ideas and retaining cultural context of communication. Consequently, the role of social media has magnified in recent times. But it has certain limitations, which at times are detrimental to the very idea of communication. Take for example Twitter that has limited number of characters through which one has to communicate. If a message is not put up meticulously, it may at times be misleading or may be interpreted wrongly as it doesn't allow much of the explanation. It creates a major limitation especially during terror attacks when facts need to be communicated precisely and accurately. Even newspapers gloss this fact and often come out with misleading headlines. These are the factors responsible for creating negative feelings and impressions about a group of people, which could also happen to be an ethnic or diasporic group.

Do you think the social media has become dysfunctional in maintaining social order?

The main motive of any media, be it social media, electronic or print media is to make profit. They are business enterprises first. The responsibility of maintaining social order does not lie with them but with the government. It is the role of the government to be vigilant to oversee that media is performing its role appropriately. If it does not, then the government intervenes to ensure that social order within the society is maintained.

Sensationalism is a major evil that most media houses indulge into to increase its readership without thinking about the consequences. Likewise, there are hate groups in social media that target and malign a particular group of people based on ethnicity, race and religion. It disturbs the social harmony of the nation.  

Has there been a change, the way immigrants are being treated in various countries in today's time?

It's not the best of the time for immigrants in most countries. The US, which has been a major immigrant recipient country, is undergoing an anti-immigrant phase under the leadership of Donald Trump. One should remember that history goes in different cycles - an idea which finds an appeal in one age may not find favor in another times, under a different political dispensation. The US is undergoing the same phase under which H1B1-visa has become a political issue. The same is true in some of the European countries.

Immigration as a consequence of globalization has become more a political rather than economic issue now. Contrary to what is happening globally, Canada offers a bright prospect for immigrants during these dismal times. It has raised the immigration limits to 340,000. The country is friendly to immigrants and has nurtured its diversity. It's no surprise that diaspora has played a vital role in its growth and development. 


For any further communication, pl. contact Mr. Vijay Soni: [email protected]

Interview Date:   Sunday, Nov 26, 2017
Person Name:   Prof. Karim H. Karim

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