Challenging Europeanity: Syrian Refugees, Musical Acts of Citizenship and Cosmopolitanism from Below
The ideological framework of Europeanity, under the official slogan "United in Diversity", consists of both a top-down cosmopolitanism and a "refreshed" Orientalism. Its ideal is to promote a common European identity among citizens of different European states. To do so, however, it draws on narratives of difference between specific European cultural and political values – represented as universal – and those of "culturally different" non-European Others, fundamentally perceived as a threat. This new Orientalism, by correlating the increasing migration from Muslim-majority countries to Europe with potent socio-political unrest, has not only led to stricter migration and border policies, but also reinforced the racist rhetoric of right-wing political groups all across Europe. In 2015, however, under the pressure of a mass refugee movement consisting mainly of Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi forced migrants, this whole European ideological, political and border construction collapsed. Many European countries were forced to adopt welcoming policies and re-evaluate previous asylum restrictions. Sadly, this only lasted for a short period of time. As of March 2016, European countries re-established their border regimes with even stricter measures. Europe once again officially renounced its putative universal humanitarian values and cosmopolitanism when it came to non-Europeans.
I will present two case studies based on ethnomusicological field research in Greece and Austria in 2016 and 2019 respectively. I want to show how music became a means for Syrian refugees and exiles to confront the EU border regime and the ideological construction of Europeanity. Through participatory musical protests and dance performances, Syrian asylum seekers in Greece in 2016 claimed their right to be recognized as refugees and to be accepted in Europe. These musical performances were not intended to reinforce a Syrian identity as a prerequisite for international recognition and acceptance. Rather, they expressed values of freedom and dignity informed by wider political conceptualizations of civil and political rights.
The second case study draws on the musical expressions of Syrian refugees who have been granted asylum and are rebuilding their lives in Vienna. Although a migrant city with many anti-racist initiatives, refugees from Syria living in Vienna still have to confront Islamophobic and xenophobic discourses surrounding their cultural, religious, political and gender experiences. The NAI Oriental Orchestra is a culturally inclusive peace-building project that expresses representations of Syrianness. By performing "civilization" it aims to counter the discourses of threat surrounding the Syrian diaspora. Independent professional musicians from Syria, however, do not see themselves as only being involved with such Syrian-related projects. The transculturality and cosmopolitanism found among many of Vienna's citizens meet their own past experiences of cosmopolitanism and transculturality back in Syria. Still, expectations and cliches around their refugeeness and Syrianness have a significant impact on their individual artistic choices.
Ioannis Christidis is a research fellow at the MMRC. He studied the traditional music of different regions of Greece during his course at the Music University of Thessaloníki. After completing a degree in Architecture (MA), he followed a second course in Music Sciences and Art (BA) and learned to play the oud. In 2019, he enrolled on a doctoral course in ethnomusicology at mdw – University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna. Throughout his training, Christidis' main concern has been the cross-fertilization of academic knowledge with various community-building and social-solidarity projects. Engaged ethnomusicology and a wider research perspective that seeks to contribute to the overcoming of structural injustices related to the refugee experience constitute central principles in his current Ph.D. project.