By Adan Makina
Editor’s Note: In an interview with Dr. Marco Zoppi–about his upcoming book that is expected to be released in September by Rowman and Littlefield, WardheerNews, without the least hesitation, wishes to share with you perhaps what would be described as the longest discussion with our own contributor, Mr Zoppi, who selflessly spent considerable time to bring to us a subject that has never been debated before. Up north Europe, in what we know as Scandinavian or Nordic countries that constitute Norway, Denmark and Sweden, there is a paradox in ontological security that constitute food security, political security and personal security. Unbeknown to many, Scandinavia means “dangerous island.” Even though the dangers are natural physical features, Somalis who constitute 165,000 in these countries have experienced enormous inevitable social ramifications that requires to be addressed by the host governments and configurations of spokesmen and spokeswomen that is currently gaining ground among those from the unstable Horn of Africa nation of Somalia that collapsed in 1991. The interview was conducted by our own Adan Makina. We hope you enjoy it.
WardheerNews (WDN): Come Stai Dottore Marco Zoppi. Please welcome to WardheerNews. I believe WDN is not new to you and that you will attest to the fact that it is a scholarly and journalistic magazine that has been gaining popularity since its establishment in November of 2004. Likewise, WDN wishes to salute you for the selfless and courageous past contributions that you rendered it. We at WDN and our readers feel it is a great opportunity to have an interview with you because you have relevant information to share with the Somali who are known for grabbing the good news we know as ‘war’. Please, get on board our digitized ship.
Dr. Zoppi: Thanks for the warm welcome Adan! Sto bene, grazie mille. It’s a pleasure to have this talk with you regarding my upcoming book on WDN, to which I have indeed contributed as author in the past, as you rightly recalled. Thanks to all the readers that will take time to read the interview. I hope it will be of interest for WDN’s readership.
WDN: First, please introduce yourself to our readers beginning with your childhood upbringing, your educational qualifications and experiences.
Dr. Zoppi: I grew up in Monteodorisio, a small village in Central Italy close to the Adriatic coast. I left my hometown after the high school to begin university education. I first earned a BA in International Relations at the University of Bologna, back in 2010. I then spent 7 years in Denmark, to pursue a MA in African Studies at the Centre of African Studies (University of Copenhagen) and a Ph.D. in Histories and Dynamics of Globalization at Roskilde University. Strangely enough, it is in Denmark, rather than in “closer” Italy, that I had my first encounter with Africa and with Italy’s past in Somalia and in the Horn of Africa. My MA thesis was indeed an analysis of the Italian colonialism in Somalia, and my Ph.D. research – on which the book is based on – has focused on the Somali diaspora in the three Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway and Sweden). After the Danish “moment” in my life, which I have indeed cherished a lot, I came back to work as post-doc researcher at the University of Bologna, Department of Political and Social Science, exactly where my educational career had started.
WDN: Since you have an upcoming book, could you tell us what is the book about, its general contents and what inspired you to write it?
Dr. Zoppi: The book is titled “Horizons of Security: the Somali Safety net in Scandinavia” and is published by Rowman and Littlefield. It will be out in September. In brief, the book recounts the integration dynamics of the Somali diaspora from the specific point of view of security and welfare, namely with a focus on the processes of (re-)construction of what I call the “safety net”. I define the safety net as the complex of institutions, norms and instruments that in a society are in charge of providing security against peoples’ need and life uncertainties. I have tried to avoid the most walked research paths on integration, looking for a diverse and hopefully innovative approach. By doing so, I have placed diverse understandings of the safety net–which in my case are the stateless Somali extended family and the Scandinavian state-based model of welfare–on the same level of analysis and dignity. In order to describe the Somali safety net in Scandinavia, I have resorted to academic literature, and to some 30 interviews with Somali women and men of the diaspora, whom I have asked about practices and criteria for care, welfare, security, solidarity, remittances and other matters. What inspired me to write about this topic is the fact that even where the state provision of welfare is highly developed and functional, as in the Scandinavian region, there is still room for lack of integration and social marginalization of certain groups.
WDN: Writing a book is an arduous and time consuming job that requires research and patience, how long have you been engaged writing your book?
Dr. Zoppi: I wrote most of the contents during my Ph.D. years (2014-2017), conducting interviews in all the three countries. It then took me few months to transform it into a research book proper. In the upcoming work, I have used extensive quotes from my Somali interviewees that were either absent or included only in shorter versions in the original Ph.D. manuscript.
WDN: Perusing through your dissertation or thesis, any reader will feel that you have a great respect and admiration for the Somali people. Why is it so?
Dr. Zoppi: That’s true. There are possibly many reasons I could mention. For sure, while exploring topics that are very intimate (such as those related to welfare, care and security), some of my interlocutors shared personal stories and life experiences – positive and negative, rewarding and humiliating. I am extremely grateful for the generosity of Somali women and men sharing such personal things with me, and even for the time itself they devoted to my research. This is certainly one reason. A Somali woman told me “I thought I came to the end of the world” when the Norwegian authorities assigned her to a refugee shelter in the far north of the country. She felt sad and isolated, and would soon move from there, against the decision of the authorities, in the attempt to meet fellow Somalis. A Somali man used a humorous allegory when telling me that in Scandinavia he had moved from being a “camel raiser” to be the “herder of the chicken”, implying that he had then many more things of apparent less importance to take care of, such as the multifarious bureaucratic requirements of the welfare state, what he considered to be the chicken. But there was more about it: he echoed the difficult negotiation of masculinity and the role of men in the diasporic family, themes that I also heard from many other interlocutors. Moreover, interview after interview I realized that my interlocutors and I could intend very well each other when discussing dynamics concerning the “family”. In fact, also the Italian culture is traditionally highly centered on the role of famiglia – although it is not equally extended – and on certain social norms that fall on family members. In general, the focus on welfare and security really reveals that all human beings eventually aspire to the same things, although perhaps through different means and ways: this has created empathy between me and my interlocutors as well as reciprocal respect.
WDN: What made you to concentrate on Somalis in your dissertation and your upcoming book?
Dr. Zoppi: As I mentioned earlier, during my stay in Denmark a “paradox” attracted my attention as researcher: the Somali asylum seekers and refugees arriving in Scandinavia from “the world’s most dangerous place” were facing issues of vulnerability and insecurity also in these countries, which are worldwide renowned for their universalistic, “from-cradle-to-grave” model of public assistance to citizens. How could that be possible? I did not find a valid answer around, and therefore I decided to design a research to deal with that unanswered paradox.
WDN: Your soon to-be-published (September) book “Horizons of security State and extended family: the Somali safety net in Scandinavia” contains harrowing tales of how Somalis are in dire states. Who are these Scandinavian countries and what are the main causes of the friction between them and Somalis who arrived as refugees or political asylees?
Dr. Zoppi: My take is the following: Somalis and Scandinavians have very, very different understandings and expectations connected to the family’s role; to care and to mechanisms of solidarity. In my view, such differences are grounded primarily in historical experiences. The Somali safety net, influenced by the rather mobile, pastoral and semi-pastoral economic structure of Somali-speaking territories, hardly distinguishes the individual from the (extended) family when it comes to social responsibilities: both material and immaterial assistance and solidarity acts are in most cases mandatory (meaning that there are consequences for non-fulfillment) and are regulated by kinship, contract and the xeer. The Scandinavian model empowers instead the individual per se, at times even with a marked anti-family goal of emancipation, and require individuals (the citizens) to put trust primarily in state institutions. These are charged, among other things, with the task of providing assistance to needy citizens. This is a very effective model, which enjoys global praise. The point on trust in state institutions is historically a thorny question for Somalis. I think you and the readers know better than me on this one. The interesting thing is that what I have described is though just the initial “script”: world societies are not static, and in fact diaspora Somalis in Scandinavia are already undergoing some crucial changes in the way they define the family, and in the way they engage with solidarity acts towards fellow clansmen in Scandinavia or in Somali-speaking territories. They are definitely influenced by the works of the welfare state, and thus by the different definitions of family, and by the emancipation goal. I try to portray such changes in the final chapter of the book: it’s a history in the making, so it would be interesting to check again what is going on in a decade or so, and if that creates in turn an impact also in the homeland.
WDN: You mentioned scholarly phrases or terminologies like “food security, political security and personal security” that fall under “ontological security.” How do they affect Somalis living in Scandinavian countries and what agitates these countries to perceive Somalis as a threat to their national sovereignty?
Dr. Zoppi: “Ontological security” refers to the sense of knowing our role in the world and in the society, we live in. It is what makes of us stable and balanced individuals, because feeling accepted by others is beneficial in terms of psychological wealth. The expression perfectly describes the situation of Somali newcomers in Scandinavia: on the one hand, they lack the sense of security provided by the traditional social setting they come from. On the other hand, they are not yet experienced in the mechanisms governing welfare states and welfare societies. Institutions appear to be intrusive and a threat to Somalis’ private lives. This issue came out frequently when discussing children upbringing and the relation with social assistants, for example. By the same token, one should consider that the welfare state aims at standardizing notions of risks and needs of their citizens as part of its survival strategy. It’s the mission of “universalism”, that is social assistance for all. Therefore, deviance from the established conformity is quickly stigmatized and criminalized. And the practices and meanings of welfare are so part of the nation, part of the national way of life and routines (they have built the sense of nation, one could say), that any perceived threat to the welfare model is also a perceived threat to the nation itself. This is what I call “everyday welfare nationalism”, expanding the argument made earlier by Prof. Michael Billig.
WDN: Why are these Scandinavian countries violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948?
Dr. Zoppi: I think that we do not earn much if we single out the conduct of specific countries and try to condemn or praise their conduct without considering the global picture. We have seen, and keep seeing around the globe way too many cases of gross violations of human rights, starting in a country and then continuing along migration routes, such as those connecting Africa to Europe via Libya and the Mediterranean, or those connecting the flows originating in the Middle East and beyond with Europe via the Balkan Route (think about the recent case of Afghanistan). And violations take place also in the destination countries of course. Therefore, I think that a general debate and action is urgently needed to address the widespread violation of human rights, primarily in the countries of origin of refugees and along the migration routes, and also to address the poor global management of migration flows, whether of humanitarian or economic nature. The real question to me is why human rights currently appear to be retreat and what we can do about it to preserve human lives.
WDN: The Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951 exempt refugees from reciprocity (Article 7), because those seeking refuge in peaceful countries cannot get assured or similar security from their countries of origin. So, why should advanced and developed countries in Scandinavia specifically harangue Somalis from war-ravaged, beleaguered and impoverished Somalia?
Dr. Zoppi: Let’s say that pointing fingers is something that we observe in most European countries, especially against newly arrived groups of asylum seekers and refugees. This is clearly not up to the democratic values the EU is supposed to safeguard and spread. Understandably, some Somalis do face difficulties in settling in Scandinavian societies and for this reason the entire community has ended up being defined in the past as the “least” integrated group. Many would mention here issues of cultural compatibility or other things that have to do with the construction of Muslim, African, “Black” individuals in Europe. I offer a different kind of explanation, as I believe that what we see is not an ethnic/cultural issue. In fact, within my specific approach I describe integration and its challenges as the encounter, often clash, between two ways of conceptualizing the safety net. That’s it. On the one hand, Somalis are learning to trust institutions and consider themselves as individuals and not only members of a clan.
On the other hand, the pervasive welfare state projects specific expectations from the citizens, for example in relation to education and employment, that all are supposed to meet. As mentioned, since welfare states grant generous social benefits, they need both employment (i.e., tax payers) and high level of trust in the system among citizens. A group that is perceived outside such safety net may represent a problem for the survival of the welfare system itself. I would say that Somalis’ suspicion of state institutions and the high reliance on familial ties is exactly what have played an important role in shaping political debates in Northern Europe. After all, we should not forget that the welfare state is a great accomplishment: quite a few of my Somali interviewees themselves appreciated the Scandinavian welfare system, and hoped that present Somali-speaking territories could have something similar to that. A way to improve the tone of the debates could be noting the instrumental role that the Somali-defined safety net can have for integration: the provision of information to newly arrived Somalis on procedures and requirements; the support to unemployed clan members and so on. This is rarely discussed at the public level.
WDN: In the “Rights and Responsibilities of Parties”, hosting nations are not allowed to discriminate against refugees (Article 3). What differentiates Somalis from other communities who sought or continue to seek protection from ontological security?
Dr. Zoppi: Somalis appear more socially vulnerable, but that depends for most part on the simple fact that at the time of doing my research they represented the latest group to arrive in the area. Their stateless implementation of the safety net and the unfortunate representations of the Somalis as pirates have made the rest. As latest established community, there is still scarce societal knowledge about Somali culture and history, and therefore stereotypes and mistrust seem to be prevailing at times. But I think that their situation is rapidly improving. Scandinavian societies are very dynamic and offer many opportunities: I was glad to see that many more Somalis are now making high-level careers into the Scandinavian societies. They will be certainly in the position to help changing stereotyped views, and building bridges between cultures.
WDN: Though “legally binding” and a prerogative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), no nation has ever filed complaint in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague, The Netherlands, against those nations violating the rights of refugees. If that is the case, what is the point of having this plethora of conventions and human rights organizations?
Dr. Zoppi: This is a wide issue that should be the topic for another interview! I think that we should see humanitarian migration management as an ongoing process, in which we have not yet reached the end of the journey, that is a thorough implementation at the global level. For as much as the implementation of such conventions is far from perfection, we should be glad that past political leaders have committed to sign these documents. Usually, they did so after very tragic events that have marked the history of mankind. But as many asylum seekers and refugees are still suffering, we all should be also more demanding of our governments. We live in a multipolar world where traditional powers have lost some of their geopolitical grounds to new emerging states: it’s a great moment to amend or improve existing laws, conventions, agreements and the like. But is there enough humanitarianism thrust to do that, or are we living in a rather utilitarian phase in (humanitarian) migration management? I am not sure, but I have recently seen alarming examples of reduced cooperation among states on this and other matters. In whatever we will be doing, we should keep in mind that constructing anew is always harder and slower than dismantling.
WDN: Could you please explain the engrossed fears each Scandinavian country harbors for Somalis seeking protection?
Dr. Zoppi: I would say that the preoccupations are similar across the region, despite the fact that each of the three Scandinavian countries has its own political landscape and tradition. There is a constant fear for the welfare state: after all, the latter is the famous “bumblebee that keeps flying despite physics laws” and therefore is an object of continuous concern–against economic crises, the global pandemic, migration flows. Such fears thus do not target Somalis per se, yet the Somalis provide a particularly interesting case to study how integration works in relation to security and welfare.
WDN: The nations of Denmark, Norway and Sweden that are either called Scandinavian or Nordic countries, have had diplomatic ties with Somalia in the past and to this day, have heavy presence in Somalia’s political, social and economic dynamism. Norway is one country that has been in the headlines mainly in the maritime dispute between Kenya and Somalia. Likewise, these countries have heavy Somali presence with some enjoying exceptional higher education assistance up to PhD levels. In general, what are the main burning issues that make Somalis a distinct community that is worth criminalizing, degrading and disregarding?
Dr. Zoppi: I have mentioned some of the responsible factors already above. Here, I’d add that the lack of Somali “spokespersons” (if you pass me the word) in the Scandinavian societies in the early 1990s has contributed to the open circulation of various accusations. Many benefit from attacking the most vulnerable individuals within a society: it happens everywhere and all the time across the world. In principle, there should not be a need for spokespersons, but it’s not a bad thing either if that helps the cause. And in my research, I was glad to notice that Somalis are now achieving a fair control on what is being said about them in public discourses and media in the Scandinavian societies. I mention few examples of that in the book. That’s an important achievement, which is also the merit of the space given by these societies. Not many countries are as open as the Scandinavian trio.
WDN: Are Somalis contravening the communitarian and societal levels of ontological ideology or are Somalis opposed to the ideas of assimilation and integration?
Dr. Zoppi: In a simpler and more intuitive way, I would say that the Somalis are engaged in a process of learning (and in some cases, moving towards) the safety net as it is practiced in Scandinavia. Upon arrival, many Somalis suffer from a lack of ontological security, due to the different messages they are given about the family, the need to attend introduction courses in a given place (sometimes in the middle of nowhere or anyway far from other Somalis), the upbringing of children and so on. Out of these challenges, integration is for me the ability to learn, adapt, and merge practices and understandings of the two-safety net. Somalis are currently engaged in this learning process, and indeed some of the stories I have included in the last chapter are extremely interesting to see exactly what the negotiation between the two safety nets is about. It’s simply amazing to see how the welfare state is perceived through the lens of experiences of clan welfare. There is for example this very exemplificative quote: “The Danes have managed to make this very communal way of thinking that we have, i.e., that you have to take care of each other, they just managed to do it on a really large scale, like this is the whole state. (…). They have taken everybody into account”.
WDN: Ten years ago in Norway, a young man by the name Anders Breivik who is serving only 21-years in prison, killed 9 people in Oslo and then traveled to Utoya at a youth camp where he killed 69 innocent revelers. Do you know of any Somali extremist who killed such number of people in any Scandinavian country?
Dr. Zoppi: No, but we can’t take this as a measure or indicator for anything. It does not make any of us more secure. Societies and governments need to constantly work together internally and externally to curb the spread of violent ideologies. All extremist acts should be considered of the same seriousness, whoever is the perpetrator and whatever the ideology.
WDN: Somalis are the majority beneficiaries of financial assistance in Scandinavian countries, and have lower employment and educational rates compared to other communities. Likewise, Somalis, in terms of population, have the highest foreign refugee figures in each Nordic country. Why is it so?
Dr. Zoppi: Because they represent a young diaspora in Scandinavia. Perhaps in the future they will become a fluid component of these societies, like the Turks in Germany or the Albanians in Italy. As for their presence in comparative large numbers (in Scandinavia there are today some 165,000 Somalis including descendants), it mostly depends on the Scandinavian governments’ willingness to welcome asylum seekers and their families, especially during the troubled days of the civil war back in the early 1990s.
WDN: Do these countries abhor the presence of Muslim refugees in their midst or are there wild exaggerated concerns related to their future population growth that could blossom the rise of Islam, unanticipated religious fundamentalism and objection to religious proselytization (Christianity).
Dr. Zoppi: Neither of the above applies to Scandinavian societies, to tell the truth. But there are certain constructions of Islam, supported by extremist groups that are more hostile towards foreigners and Muslims, which contribute to spread significant concern, if not fear. Although it is the view of a minority, we should not overlook it. In my opinion, as Islam contemplates welfare redistribution, solidarity and humanity values, it can further the goals of the welfare state.
WDN: To conclude our interview, what advices would you give the Scandinavian countries and the Somali communities they host as a means of getting out of the current social stalemate?
Dr. Zoppi: My main goal was to recount stories and portray change over time in the integration process as I have defined it earlier. I would then only humbly advise the following: while there is an advanced public debate on the economic costs of integration, we are less keen on discussing the failing provision of welfare as well as its social costs. Against this backdrop, maximizing the cultural potential of the different definitions of the safety net at the policy level could lead to enact cost-effective integration measures, thus reducing the overall social expenditures and risks. This should be the way. And the Scandinavian societies are perhaps the best-equipped in the world to achieve such a complex task.
WDN: Thanks Dr. Zoppi for your attention to detail and for being part of WDN.
Dr. Zoppi: Thank you and WardheerNews team for the opportunity given to discuss the topics of my book.
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