Hybrid Lives in Postnormal Times
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

Hybrid Lives in Postnormal Times

Feb. 29, 2016  |     |  0 comments

Hybridization has long been a force of change throughout human history. In this paper, I will consider three key examples of hybrid formations today: the Boko Haram insurgency in northeastern Nigeria, China’s diasporic migrants, and Cambodia’s unwilling Cambodian-American deportees. These three cases will illustrate several different ways hybridization may emerge in the increasingly complex and unstable global connections that are characteristic of our contemporary condition of postnormality (Sardar, 2013, p. 6). Hybridization is conventionally understood as “the process of cultural mixing where the diasporic arrivals adopt aspects of the host culture and rework, reform and reconfigure this in production of a new hybrid culture” (Kalra, Kaur, and Hutnyk, 2005, p. 71). This process of cultural admixture raises problems of identity, as boundaries between different groups are erased in the hybrid culture, thereby transforming “difference into sameness, and sameness into difference, but in a way that makes the same no longer the same, the different no longer simply different” (Young, 1995, pp. 24–25). The impact of hybridization can also be detected at the level of time-space, with the hybrid culture having a different temporality from those of its parents (Lim, 2014a, p. 488). The three cases that I will discuss will complicate this understanding of hybridization by considering the process from other registers, including ideology and political economy.

Hybrid Insurgency

The Nigeria Social Violence Dataset from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies reveals that the Boko Haram insurgency is “the most lethal conflict that Nigeria has confronted in decades,” with over 11,000 casualties since the escalation of the conflict in July 2009. Indeed, the statistics show that Boko Haram has transformed northeastern Nigeria into one of the world’s worst killing zones, with its victims “running more than double those in Afghanistan, and substantially higher than in Iraq just a few years ago” (Allen, Lewis, and Matfess, 2014). By 2015 Boko Haram had become the world’s most dangerous terrorist group, having caused more deaths than even ISIL (Searcey and Santora, 2015). As I will explain in this section, in spite of its quest to create a space of religious purity, Boko Haram can be identified as hybrid on a number of registers.

Boko Haram’s preferred formal Arabic name for itself, jama‘at ahl al-sunna li-l-da‘wa wa-l-jihad ‘ala minhaj al-salaf, which it adopted in 2009 after the assassination of its founder Muhammad Yusuf, shows that the group sees itself as “the supreme authority on the definitions of both ‘Sunna’ and ‘Islam,’” and that it sees its mission as defending Islam through jihad, the “armed struggle against the enemies of Islam” (Loimeier, 2012: pp. 151-152). Its Arabic name also highlights its self-identification as a Salafi group, the intellectual movement dating from the nineteenth century that sought to return Islam to the purity of its early days (Stanley, 2005). However, as Lacroix (2008) points out, Salafism since the 1960s has become hybridized “between the teachings of Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhab and other Islamic schools of thought” (p. 7). Despite its hybrid philosophical roots, it is the Salafi impulse for purity that drives Boko Haram’s violence, not just against Christians, but especially against those Muslims whom they consider to be impure and hence deserving of death. As Zenn (2014) notes, Boko Haram’s cross-border attacks in Cameroon’s Far North Region suggest that it is attempting to recreate the pre-colonial Kanem-Borno Caliphate, but with a population cleansed of unbelievers and those Muslims it deems to be apostate (pp. 9-10). The group’s quest to recreate the caliphate can also be seen in its revival of pre-colonial practices like “kidnapping mostly non-Muslim girls” for the purpose of reproducing the caliphate’s “next generation,” as well as its restoration of Islamic hudud punishments like “beheading, stoning, whipping, and hand-cutting” (p. 7).

The complex global linkages that can be discerned in Boko Haram’s activities reflect not just the contemporary moment of postnormality, but also an increasing hybridization of the West African group’s operations with those of its allies and sponsors. Observers note that Boko Haram became more deadly after 2011 after it gained sponsorship from the North African Salafi-jihadist militant group Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Not only did AQIM begin supplying weapons to Boko Haram, Boko Haram militants started receiving training from AQIM in militant camps in neighboring Niger. These interventions transformed Boko Haram “from a Taliban-inspired religious movement … into a full-fledged militant movement” (Zenn, 2013, pp. 6-7). AQIM’s sponsorship included a financial component with AQIM providing Boko Haram with at least $250,000 in funding above its support in weapons and training (Zenn, Barkindo and Heras, 2013, p. 51). The Malian civil war offered another zone of hybridization for Boko Haram to increase its operational capabilities. Itself the result of postnormal instability arising from the 2011 collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, Mali became a proving ground for Boko Haram fighters who returned to northeastern Nigeria not just battle-hardened but armed with “sophisticated weapons and tactics.” In another link with North Africa, the heavy weapons Boko Haram gained from its adventures in Mali were smuggled from Gaddafi’s fallen arsenals in Libya (Fessy, 2012; Raghavan, 2013).

Observers note that Boko Haram became more deadly after 2011 after it gained sponsorship from the North African Salafi-jihadist militant group Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Boko Haram has continued to expand its global linkages. This has helped with the recent diminution of its connection with AQIM, whose leaders were reportedly troubled by Boko Haram’s victims mostly consisting of Muslim civilians (Zenn, 2013, p. 7). Its latest linkage is with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), whose caliphate Boko Haram sees itself as being part of. Not only did ISIL offer its support for Boko Haram’s notorious April 2014 kidnapping of the schoolgirls of Chibok, an act which also won support from Somalia’s al-Shabab militants, ISIL subsequently cited the Chibok kidnappings “as precedent for ISIL’s own kidnapping of several hundred non-Muslim Yazidi women in northern Iraq, who ISIL forced to become ‘sex slaves’ of militants” (Zenn, 2014, p. 7). In 2015 Boko Haram formally allied itself with ISIL, and officially became the Islamic State’s West African province (Withnall, 2015).

Boko Haram’s proliferating global linkages have been accompanied with an expansion of its theater of operations beyond Nigeria’s borders, such that watchdog organizations like the International Crisis Group have sounded the alarm about Boko Haram’s “increasing regionalization.” While the militants “long have had camps in Chad, Cameroon and Niger,” their attempts to seize territory in Cameroon is a relatively recent phenomenon (Faul and Umar, 2014). One strategic goal appears to be to transform the Cameroonian border towns into links on a supply route for the trafficking of “weapons from Chad and Libya for use in Nigeria.” Another appears to be to increase their recruitment of Cameroonians, with militants based in Cameroon forming a new front in Boko Haram’s war against the Nigerian state, not to mention a new front for fundraising projects like the kidnapping of foreigners and other high value targets for ransom (Zenn, 2014, pp. 8-9). Northeastern Nigeria and the borderlands of Cameroon, Chad and Niger, which are part of a larger space whose political economy has been ravaged by neoliberal structural adjustment, suffer from high unemployment and desertification, and these economic pressures have created a population of “disgruntled youths” who are easily swayed by Boko Haram recruiters who offer “signing bonuses and monthly pay.” This has created a motley hybrid army of Boko Haram fighters hailing from these four countries (Faul and Umar, 2014; Lim, 2014b, p. 86-90).

What does this portend for Nigeria? Taleb and Treverton (2015) suggest cautious optimism, noting that “countries that have survived past bouts of chaos tend to be vaccinated against future ones.” From this point of view, Nigeria, which has survived not just the Biafra civil war but also smaller uprisings like the Maitatsine riots of the 1980s, may be adaptable enough to survive the Boko Haram insurgency. This, however, would be of scant comfort to the families of Boko Haram’s victims, not to mention the survivors who were forced to flee from their villages in Boko Haram territory, including those who escaped across the border into refugee camps in Cameroon, Niger, and Chad (“Cameroon border towns,” 2014; Human Rights Watch, 2014). Within Nigeria, the International Organization for Migration calculated in September 2015 that the insurgency has created 2.1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) (International Organization for Migration, 2015). Across the border, the welcome extended to the Nigerian refugees has worn out, especially given the security threat of Boko Haram infiltration among those seeking safe haven, and Chad and Cameroon have begun repatriating these refugees back to Nigeria (Ajakaye, 2015; Tetchiada, 2015). These repatriated refugees and the IDPs are seen as soft targets for Boko Haram, and recent attacks by the terrorists, including suicide bombings, have specifically targeted these vulnerable groups (Umar, 2016; “Nigeria bomb blast,” 2015).

The Chinese Diaspora

Due to a variety of political and economic pressures, there has been a long history of Chinese migrations out of China into Southeast Asia and the rest of the world. This has been followed by more recent waves of Chinese migration out of Greater China and Southeast Asia (Wang, 2001). Indeed, I counted myself as a member of the overseas Chinese diaspora during my years as an academic migrant (Lim, 2013c). In the countries where these successive waves of Chinese migrants settled in, hybrid communities were formed. In the sultanates of the Malay Peninsula, for example, Chinese settlers intermarried with the local Malays and created the hybrid Peranakan community (Baker, 2008, p. 44; Lim, 2014a, p. 488).

The saga of Celaleddin Wang is an exemplary case of a Chinese migrant who helped create a hybrid community. Wang is interesting as he is an example of fractal hybridity, for not only was he an agent of hybridization, he himself, being a Chinese Muslim, came from a hybrid background. Born at the turn of the twentieth century, Wang was educated in Beijing University and Istanbul Darülfünun, the forerunner of today’s Istanbul University. Having settled in Turkey, Wang taught the Chinese language and opened Istanbul’s first Chinese restaurant. Apart from his research and writing, including a Chinese translation of the Quran, Wang’s legacy can also be found in his teaching practice, with his Chinese-language students eventually serving as “Turkey’s first lecturers in this language.” Wang’s offspring have themselves become migrants, with his daughter Rosey Wang Ma having become a Malaysia-based expert on the Chinese diaspora and the Chinese Muslim world (İzgi, 2014).

In the global circuits of capital flows of today’s neoliberalizing world, flows of migrant labor are differentiated according to the value they offer to the economies willing to accept them. Ong (2006b) notes that expatriates with highly valued skill sets are able to “claim citizenship-like entitlements and benefits, even at the expense of territorialized citizens,” while “citizens who are deemed too complacent or lacking in neoliberal potential may be treated as less-worthy subjects” (p. 16). In such a world, the case of Mei Aicai stands out as an exemplary outlier. Mei is a Chinese migrant who settled and found success in Ukraine. What makes his case stand out is his status as a diaosi: one of the “losers” of China’s neoliberalizing economy. Having scored only 320 out of 750 points in China’s competitive national college entrance examinations, Mei ended up enrolling in a college in Ukraine, which he chose because “the cost of a university education was similar to China, and moreover visas were also relatively easy to obtain” (“Chinese Man’s Life,” 2014). Having settled there, Mei’s frequent blog posts about his life in Ukraine have captured the attention of a large audience back home in China, who are generally impressed with his material and relationship successes:

Mei now owns his own business, claims title to three-quarters of an acre of land, lives in a split-level house, and is married to an eighteen-year-old who — the Chinese internet universally agrees — looks like a model. (Minter, 2014)

Mei’s successes as an economic migrant are especially inspirational to the millions of diaosi who “feel stuck on the lower-middle rungs of their country’s ladder of success” (Minter, 2014). These self-described “losers” survive on below-average wages of 2,918 yuan a month, compared to 5,793 yuan, “the official monthly average income in Beijing” (“Focus on tough lives,” 2014). The diaosi exist in a new economy of increasingly elaborate global connections centered on China’s network of Special Economic Zones (SEZ). China’s SEZs are the neoliberal descendants of the free ports of the ancient world, and in the present day are the cousins to the Free Trade Zones, Foreign Trade Zones, Export Processing Zones, and similar free zones for global manufacturing and trade that can be found around the world (Easterling, 2014). The SEZs and other free zones are valued by global corporations for their freedom from government regulation. As Easterling (2014) explains:

As a legal instrument, the free trade zone presides over a laundry list of exemptions which are sometimes mixed with domestic civil laws, sometimes manipulated by business to create opportunistic mixtures of international law, and sometimes adopted fully by the host nation. Zone law varies, but in the most extreme cases, the zone is exempt from civil law and government control; it is not considered part of the territory of the home state and therefore cannot collect tariffs or duties on imported goods. In such instances, the host state usually creates a legal entity that is the zone authority, a parastate proxy with the power to negotiate with businesses and foreign governments.

China’s experiment with SEZs began tentatively in 1979 as part of Deng Xiaoping’s turn to the free market after the disastrous years of the Cultural Revolution (Brautigam, 2009, pp. 97-98). After the successes of the first SEZs — Hainan, Shantou, Shenzhen, Xiamen, and Zhuhai — China established 16 more by the mid-1980s, and today there are “literally thousands of SEZs,” with the International Labor Organization estimating in 2006 that China had 40 million workers employed in these neoliberal free zones. With Chinese factories moving up the technology ladder, the SEZs upgraded to higher technology industries in the 1990s, in particular “IT, electronics and pharmaceuticals.” Today, Shenzhen, one of the original SEZs, has “ballooned into a mega-city,” with “a resident population of over 8 million and a transient population of around 14 million” (Easterling, 2014). The professional class which has achieved success in China’s global cities includes “foreign management trainers, midrange Chinese employees in global firms, and returnee Chinese professionals who are cultural entrepreneurs” (Ong, 2006a, p. 165). Such high value professionals enjoy a lifestyle that the diaosi can only imagine. As Ong (2006a) describes of Shanghai’s business enclaves:

It is home to an international business class, drawn from Western countries, Japan, and other Asian countries, that lives in brand-new gated communities. Many residential compounds are near the airport, each equipped with its own hotels, shops, swimming pools, tennis courts, and golf courses. Japanese, American, and European managers and their families live in the villas and pursue a luxurious lifestyle apart from local Shanghainese, very few of whom can afford living on such a scale. (p. 167)

For the diaosi, China’s “fast-speed urbanization and industrialization” has created a social hierarchy in which “family connections, elite academic credentials, and a big bank account” have become prerequisites for success. As Mei Aicai’s expatriate success illustrates, “it’s now easier to achieve upward mobility in Kiev than Shanghai” (Minter, 2014; “Focus on tough lives,” 2014). This message, communicated through the faux-intimacy of social media, could inspire China’s diaosi to leave China in a fresh wave of migration for better opportunities abroad, and to follow in the footsteps of Celaleddin Wang and Mei Aicai to become new agents of hybridization.

Hybridization in Cambodia

Hybridization in Cambodia has had a long history, and I will conclude this paper with a look at how deportees from the Cambodian diaspora in the United States are functioning as contemporary agents of hybridization. However, before I turn to them, I will first sketch the historical background of previous modes of hybridization in the country. Early hybridization can be identified in the ancient Cambodian empire of Angkor, whose culture archaeologists and historians have discovered to be hybrid and cosmopolitan, with Indian and Chinese influences competing with indigenous traditions. Religion in Angkor was not monolithic, and the Angkorean people variously practiced Brahmanism, Mahayana Buddhism, and the worship of local ancestral spirits. This hybrid assemblage changed over the decades, and the influence of Mahayana Buddhism was eventually replaced by Theravada Buddhism which has since become one of the distinguishing marks of Khmer culture today (Harris, 1999, p. 54; Harris, 2005, pp. 22-24; Heder, 2007, p. 290; Mabbett and Chandler, 1995, pp. 114-116; Lim, 2015, p. 13). The cosmopolitan and hybrid Angkorean culture itself was eventually supplanted by the development of a different regional hybrid culture that the ethnic Thai and Khmer both participated in:

The mixture contained elements of Hinduized kingship, traceable to Angkor, and Theravada monarchic accessibility, traceable to the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati perhaps, which had practiced Theravada Buddhism for almost a thousand years, as well as remnants of paternalistic, village-oriented leadership traceable to the ethnic forerunners of the Thai, the tribal peoples hailing originally from the mountains of southern China. (Chandler, 2008, p. 95)

Traces of the old Angkorean culture can be identified in the culture of the Khmer Krom today. The Khmer Krom are the Khmer minority who live in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, and while they are valorized in Cambodia for their “stalwart resistance” against the Vietnamese and for their “dedication to their temples and monks,” they are also viewed with suspicion by many Cambodians, who are especially unsettled by “the fact that they speak Vietnamese but often cannot write Khmer” (Taylor, 2014, pp. 2-3). However, the Khmer Krom see their fluency in Vietnamese not as a loss of their cultural identity, but as part of their “more civilised and enlightened form of sovereignty” that has emerged from their practices of “literacy, books and education” (pp. 262-263). This sophisticated understanding of identity is a clear reflection today of Angkor’s cosmopolitan and hybrid culture.

Hybridization continued to evolve in the post-Angkorean Cambodian kingdom. One source of external influence came from the Chinese (Edwards, 2009, p. 175). Chinese migrants who settled in the kingdom and adopted the customs of the local Khmer were allowed to join Cambodian society, and in some cases, even the ranks of the elite. These Chinese settlers were also allowed to maintain their “cultural distinctiveness,” as the Cambodian kings saw the multiculturalism of their realm “as indicative of royal greatness.” Another source of external influence came from the Thai, who were developing their own distinctive culture in their kingdom west of Cambodia. Not only was the Khmer language transformed by the absorption of Thai vocabulary and syntax, Khmer Buddhism also came under Thai influence, with its Theravada monasteries reshaped by the modernist reforms of the Thai King Mongkut. The Cambodian court itself became a vehicle for the propagation of Thai culture, with its kings sponsoring Thai religious and artistic traditions after serving as royal hostages in Bangkok (Harris, 1999, p. 55; Heder, 2007, p. 292).

Hybridization in Cambodia today takes place in the context of its neoliberalizing political economy. The country officially transitioned from the socialist planned economy to the neoliberal free market with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords of 1991, and this was followed by the arrival of Western aid packages which came with conditionalities imposed by Western donor agencies such as USAID, the IMF and the World Bank. The “Washington Consensus” policies imposed by these conditionalities set Cambodia on a development path of over a decade of rapid growth (Lim, 2013b, pp. 61-63). It is in this environment of neoliberal economic growth that Cambodia’s current wave of hybridization is unfolding and evolving.

This can be seen in the contemporary phase of Khmer-Thai hybridization. In the 1990s, Thai economic investment in Cambodia surged when the Thai government of Chatichai Choonhawan implemented a neoliberal strategy of transforming the post-socialist Indochinese states into marketplaces for Thai business interests, leading to the proliferation in Cambodia of “Thai-owned or Thai-backed hotels, restaurants, factories, telecommunications firms, airlines, casinos and other businesses,” as well as the colonization by Thai pop culture of the Cambodian media market (Hinton, 2006, pp. 462-463). Ngoun (2006) highlights the surge in Thai pop culture in the 1990s and 2000s, when Thai “films, music and songs … were shown and played on Cambodia’s local televisions and radios,” leading Cambodian youth “to adopt Thai culture and ways of behavior” (p. 119). The impact of Khmer-Thai hybridization can be seen in the linguistic register, where contemporary speakers of Khmer increasingly use the copula roboh (“belonging to”) to denote direct possession. This is a non-standard use of roboh, for in standard Khmer roboh only denotes indirect possession. This increasingly popular nonstandard use of roboh reflects the linguistic influence of Thai pop culture, for in the Thai language, the copula kong (“belonging to”) denotes direct possession (Lim, 2013a, p. 71).

The Cambodian Diaspora

I will now turn to the Cambodian diaspora, which is one of the key hybridizing forces in Cambodia today. The diaspora has reshaped local Cambodian culture through the influence of overseas Cambodians like the Cambodian-American rapper praCh Ly, as well as returnees from the diaspora like Tuy Sobil. Sobil is interesting because he is a case of a hybrid — an Americanized ethnic Cambodian cum former Crips member and breakdancer — who has, since his deportation from the United States, become an agent of hybridization in Phnom Penh, with his school Tiny Toones teaching hundreds of young underprivileged Cambodians hybrid musical and dance forms like Khmer hip-hop and Khmer breakdancing (Lim, 2013a, p. 70; Lim, 2014a, p. 492; Lim, 2015, p. 13; Mellen, 2010; Roy and Mom, 2009).

The strong influence of African-American hip-hop in this contemporary moment of hybridization reflects the urban lives of diasporic Cambodian-Americans like the rappers Tee Cambo and CS, whose music “reflects the gang culture and hard-knocks life that have characterized their experience” (Bennett 2014; Lee 2014). Some returnees from the diaspora do indeed have personal histories involving American gang culture, for example the aforementioned Tuy Sobil, and the hip-hop poet Kosal Khiev, both of whom returned to Cambodia after being arrested and deported from the United States (Cheung 2014). The number and possible cultural impact of such deportees is not insignificant, with over 600 Cambodian-Americans having been deported since 2002, and with another 2,000 waiting “for a deportation that could happen at any moment.” The rate of deportation has also increased in recent years, with an average of “41 per year from 2001 through 2010,” followed by a jump to 97 and 93 in 2011 and 2012 respectively (Plokhii and Mashberg, 2013; Shay, 2014).

Sobil is a case of a hybrid — an Americanized ethnic Cambodian cum former Crips member and breakdancer — who has, since his deportation from the United States, become an agent of hybridization in Phnom Penh.

The United States turned to deportations as an instrument to control its non-citizen residents in 1996, when the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) was passed by Congress. The IIRIRA allows for any non-citizen to be deported if he or she is convicted of an aggravated felony. Cambodian-Americans started to be deported in 2002, following the homeland security paranoia that emerged in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the United States successfully pressured the Cambodian government to accept its Cambodian-American deportees. The United States government has loosely interpreted what counts as an “aggravated felony” under the IIRIRA, with Cambodian-Americans being deported for minor crimes like public urination, shoplifting, or check fraud (Plokhii and Mashberg, 2013; Shay, 2014).

For many Cambodian-Americans, hybridization began in the 1970s when the United States accepted thousands of Cambodian refugees fleeing the Vietnam War and later the Khmer Rouge genocide. These refugees settled in enclaves like Lowell and Lynn in Massachusetts, and Long Beach in California, and began raising their families as Americans. Unfortunately, many of these resettled refugees never considered upgrading from their legal status as permanent residents to full citizens, leaving them and their offspring open to the risk of deportation (Shapira, 2012). The Cambodian-American predicament finds its roots in the United States’ government’s failure to provide support for the first generation of refugees who had difficulty adjusting to a culturally alien land that operated on a language that many did not speak. Many of these first generation refugees ended up with low-income jobs, and their disaffected offspring embarked on a dangerous line of hybridization, becoming easy recruits for American street gangs (Plokhii and Mashberg, 2013).

While some deportees like Tuy Sobil and Kosal Khiev have found constructive lines of hybridization, others have descended into a downward spiral of drug addiction, mental illness, and crime, ending up “trapped in Cambodia’s bewildering and brutal penal system” (Shapira, 2012). Some deportees who have not been able to cope with the mental pressure have ended up taking their own lives (Gillet, 2013). The predicament of the Cambodian-American deportees illustrates the cruelties of the United States’ government’s turn to deportation as an instrument of homeland security. From a broader point of view, this paranoid quest to defend the American homeland against dangerous immigrants is a symptom of the contemporary condition of postnormality, with the United States reacting to the world’s proliferating networks of terrorism and criminality by creating its own global connections of deportations. In 2012 the United States deported almost half a million non-citizen residents, including Cambodian-Americans; the number has fallen by 42% since the peak of 2012 to 231,000 deportations in 2015. Overall, the Obama administration has overseen over 2.4 million deportations (Caldwell, 2015; James, 2013).


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