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Review. “The Syrian Exile,” edited by Marina Calculli and Shadi Amadi, examines the political and semantic foundations of current migration.

Vulnerable identities

Who are Syrians today? Who are those men and women who remained in Syria, were exiled around Europe, or are waiting to leave their country? The fact is that you probably don’t even know them.

L’esilio siriano (“The Syrian Exile,” published by Guerini and Associates, 190 pages, €18.50), the new book edited by Marina Calculli and Shadi Amadi, begins with an analysis of the condition of “exile” and traces the Syrian affair in light of the cultural and political transformations not only of Syria after the war, but also of Europe, where so many Syrians ended up.

Among the pages of the book you soon arrive at the heart of the matter: Beyond what you might think about the Syrian Civil War, the U.S. invasion of Iraq is the point from which to understand the influence of the Baathists on Syria — as well as Assad’s policies, the jihadist evolution and finally the rise of populism and neo-extremist nationalism in Europe. The events and circumstances created over the last six years in the Middle East and Europe have a common point of origin.

In the first chapter of the book, “Semantics of exile: Introductory notes,” Marina Calculli traces these contours, starting from the semantic confusion used with great astuteness by so-called “neo-sovereignists.” Summarizing, the term “migrant” denotes “an individual who voluntarily moves permanently or for a sufficiently long time from place to place,” while the word “refugee” denotes “those who run away from a situation of conflict, persecution or, potentially, a natural disaster.”

The term refugee, therefore, has a political connotation. Refugees are recognized in international law by the Geneva Convention of 1951, as though migrants don’t leave their places of origin because political and economic policies have caused them to move.

Essentially, therefore, globalization and neoliberalism, rather than leading to a “relaxation of barriers imposed on the movement of people (as well as of goods and capital),” has created “a questioning of the legal constraints that oblige states to protect the most precarious human vulnerabilities.”

This confusion has several origins: the neo-sovereignist movements, the new European nationalism, and even the pietistic solidarity promoted by Pope Francis, which delegates to the individual will that which should be recognised in a political context, such as the actions of the European Union.

All this leads to a further step. In addition to the demonization of the migrant, we can see how attention shifted from matters of legality toward an alleged cultural and religious identity.

“There is an inescapable and objective fact that permeates neo-sovereignty and the new conservative rhetoric generally: The liberal foundation of Western democracies and international law are placed deeply into question.” That is, the tendency “to ignore the more urgent vulnerability — the one that concerns the survival of the individual — in favor of a useful generic is an inevitable reef against which the liberal character of the 21st century West (at least its most ostentatious kind) is most likely to run aground dramatically.”

The book lands on the Syrian question from this premise, intimately connected with the issue of Iraq, allowing the volume to read also as a historical digression on the destinies of the populations of those geographic areas. It deals with the pre-war situation in Syria, the Syrian political evolution, the Assad’s power, the Palmyra prison, and a comparison of the winners and losers of globalization, a theme addressed in the fourth chapter of the volume, by Eugenio da Crema.

In this section, the volume casts a look at the decisive issue in our part of the world, Europe, especially in an election year in France, Germany and perhaps Italy, with neo-sovereignists and populists emerging as favorites.

From the semantic confusion to Syria, they arrive at the crux of the problem. Another one of the effects of transitioning from traditional social divisions (caused by financial liberalization, automation and floating capital, which puts workforces from distant lands in competition) to the modern division between globalization’s winners and losers is really the steady loss of the “representative capacity” of the traditional political parties.

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