Islam, Multiculturalism and Transnationalism: From the Lebanese Diaspora

Islam, Multiculturalism and Transnationalism: From the Lebanese Diaspora

Karpat, Kemal

Islam, Multiculturalism and Transnational ism: From the Lebanese Diaspora. By Michael Humphrey. London and New York: Centre for Lebanese Studies, Oxford, in association with I. B. Tauris, 1998. Pp.200.

This six chapter book is an important and interesting contribution to the growing volume of studies on migration and its socialization (adaptation of the immigrants to their new cities, or urban space, to use the author’s expression) in the new country. Humphrey has made the Lebanese immigration to Australia and how the social meaning “being Lebanese changed over the duration of Lebanese migration to Australia” (p. 24) the main subject of his study.

The Lebanese began migrating to Australia as early as the 1860s, but their numbers increased fully only in 1947-66, and 1967-75 as the result of the Australian government’s need for laborers. The civil war in Lebanon in 1975-90 turned the new migrants into quasi-refugees and also brought Muslims to Australia and thus ended the Maronite and Orthodox Christians’ near monopoly on representing Lebanon. Thus, the number of Lebanese born in Australia jumped from 1,500 in 1901 to 1,668 in 1966 and to 65,857 in 1989. The immigration of Muslims to Australia was a novel development which produced a variety of rather unforeseen problems of identification, urbanization and community formation. The fact that 80 percent of the Lebanese migrants are concentrated in Sydney and Melbourne facilitated the emergence of communities built not around one common Lebanese identity, but on family and sectarian divisions of the old country which reflected the divisions of the villages at home.

The author’s theoretical framework revolves around some key concepts, such as proletarianization, that is, the wage earners becoming subject to the labor market and its fluctuations; a city identity promoted by the state to achieve social standardization homogenization – in the context of nation state needs; and internationalization caused by the movement of individuals and families across borders because of economic need, fear, etc. to a new area (space) to become part of an international workforce. The migrants formed communities which consisted of aggregates of groups where “social identity became increasingly articulated in terms of sect as the incorporating activity” (p. 47) thanks in part to the Arabic press. However, unity of language or Arabic which the Maronites, Orthodox Christians and Sunni and Shiite Muslims used in common did not create a sense of unity but served merely as a practical means of communication at home, in courts, and in other mundane areas. In chapter 3, Humphrey provides a picture of the “Lebanese Heritage,” that is, the background influence of family, community, and sect which interacted in the context of the Australian locality (city) and nation which became the new sites of social integration and cultural production. The Lebanese in Australia did not adopt secularism, but continued to adhere to the old Ottoman millet system without the latter’s safeguards, including the state’s supervision and various other social controls that had prevented sectarianism from assuming destructive character, at least until the missionaries and politicians made sectarianism a part of their propaganda arsenal. Humphrey studies the functioning of the traditional family and the rise of the new communities (and the symbiosis of the two) in chapters 4 and 5, which are probably the most original parts of the book.

The author provides cases to prove the perseverance of the traditional patriarchal authority, dress codes, arranged marriages, kin relations, and of efforts to save the honor of the native village in Lebanon, along with the examples of the struggle to control the community between secular and religious elites. He also deals with the enforcement of the Australian Law on marriage and divorce which the immigrants and leaders seek to harmonize with their own customs and laws or exploit according to the need.

The book suffers from occasional repetitions and, in places, of a rather dense style and carelessness, scant information about the relations of the Muslims with their Maronite and Orthodox Christian compatriots and the Australian government. Nonetheless, the book is a serious, detailed and multi-sided anthropological-sociological study of the Muslim immigrants in Australia. It could be used as a model to replicate and to supplement the information provided by other studies on the Muslim immigrants in Western Europe and the United States. I recommend the book highly.

Copyright Center for Migration Studies Fall 2000

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