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Living and Dying with the State

The state, and specifically the idea of nationality, is almost all-determining in social life in the Netherlands. It determines how people identify, how we interact with each other, and what (in)equality in society looks like. However, ultimately, the idea that we can divide people into different nationalities is a myth. This is one of the conclusions of Wiebe Ruijtenberg's doctoral research 'Living and dying with the nation-state' among Egyptians in the Netherlands. 'The state as we imagine it, does not exist in the everyday reality of individuals.'

Wiebe studied Egyptians in Amsterdam from different backgrounds, ages, faiths, genders, work histories and family structures. His aim was to gain an insight into the Netherlands from their different experiences and perspectives.

"During my fieldwork in Amsterdam, I worked intensively with Egyptians, including sitting in on their meetings at agencies such as the IND, as well as in schools and health services. I saw that the idea and practical reality of the Netherlands played a huge role in their lives, but it was sometimes quite a challenge to connect the everyday to broader, systemic issues. I eventually found that connection in the idea and socio-legal construction of nationality, which seeps into the most mundane situations, such as interactions with teachers at school or filling out some forms. With the title of my dissertation, 'Living and dying with the nation-state', I try to reflect this duality: the larger history of the state and its impact on individual lives in all their complexity."

Women in a community centre in Amsterdam Noord.

The Netherlands is not a fixed concept

Wiebe argues that the Netherlands cannot be seen as a fixed concept, but appears in different guises. Through his interactions with the Egyptian community in the Netherlands, he was confronted with the different interpretations of the Netherlands and the complex relationships between them. Says Wiebe: 'The Netherlands represents both hope for a better future and fear of exclusion or moral condemnation. These views shifted as people came together in the Netherlands and faced questions of legalisation or citizenship. The idea of equality and prosperity promised by the Netherlands often turned out to be disappointing'. One example is the AOW gap. People who came to the Netherlands later in life and were first legalised here receive only part of their AOW pension when they reach retirement age.  This creates a lot of anxiety and uncertainty, especially for those who are already struggling financially. These experiences illustrate the complexity of the Dutch system. It shows how people often get stuck in bureaucratic structures and fall between the cracks. My research focuses on understanding these dynamics.

'The domestic bliss game', this picture is taken in a community centre in Amsterdam Oost during a workshop on 'involved fatherhood for Arab fathers'.

Critically examine the role of the state and the concept of nationalism.

One of the findings of Wiebe's research is that we need to look more critically at the idea of 'the nation'. We take for granted the idea of different nations 'at home' on a piece of land, but this is a modern idea, and one that has similar exclusionary effects to other ideologies, such as the ideology of race. It creates an implicit hierarchy. People who have been Dutch for generations have a greater claim to the country's dominant norms and values. This raises questions about inclusiveness and justice in our society.

Wiebe argues that we cannot think of the state as a simple, monolithic concept, but rather as a complex set of different interests and ideas. Says Wiebe: 'The state as we imagine it does not exist in the everyday reality of individuals. Yet the idea of nation plays a crucial role in how people experience the Netherlands and the social structures that surround them. If we understand how nationalism works, we can better see how our society is organised and how we can change it and make it fairer.

Borders kill

To create a fair society, it is important that everyone has the same opportunities to travel and settle somewhere, regardless of where they come from. One of Wiebe's propositions is that borders kill and there is no way to justify them. The idea that your country of birth determines where you can travel and live goes against our basic principles of equal opportunities and non-discrimination,' he said. It is unfair that some people have more freedom because of their passport. It creates inequality and goes against the idea of equal opportunities. When we propose a world without borders, it is not just a matter of removing physical borders, but a radical change in the way the world works. It would mean allowing people to move freely to the places where wealth is concentrated, which would also allow for a fairer distribution of wealth.

Wiebe is currently a post-doctoral researcher on the Crafting Resilience project, where he is investigating how state-citizen relations are shaped in the context of tackling disruptive behaviour.

Text: Iris Klapwijk
Pictures: Bart Boeijen
Banner artwork: 
Rosa Snijders

The defence of 'Living and dying with the nation-state' will take place on Tuesday 28 May at 11.15 am in the Academy Building. This research is part of the larger study Reproducing Europe.

Podcast De Verbranders

De Verbranders is a podcast about Europe's borders and resistance to them. PhD students Neske Baerwaldt and Wiebe Ruijtenberg talk to migrants, activists and academics about the colonial origins of borders and the inequalities they produce today.

Listen to The Burners on Spotify.

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