Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Will Jacobsen: Building Communities through Friendship

Building Communities through Friendship

How is friendship beneficial in building a sense of community? What can friendship do to aid in assimilation for immigrants? A seizure of power by nativist, Right-wing politicians has brought immigration back into the forefront of American politics. Similar waves of nationalism and xenophobia have hit across the world as conservatives do all in their power to push the strict the gatekeeping of borders to an extreme while progressives work quell the widespread fear of outsiders and keep borders open. Can friendship help dispel the irrational Us Vs. Them mindset held by large sectors of the world? Friendship can and should be encouraged by international leadership in creating a world in which people feel safe in their own neighborhoods, in their own countries.

Why exactly are bigotry and exclusion entering mainstream politics internationally? In the United Kingdom, Brexit is symptomatic of a frustration with neighbors and globalism. In Germany, neo-fascists have entered the Bundestag, having gained popularity through the denunciation of Germany’s relatively liberal immigration laws. In the United States, President Trump has built a platform and a strong base of supporters around the condemnation of immigrants from the Global South, calling for tighter borders and more robust deportation measures. Are these all linked?

Novelist Rana Dasgupta believes they are. He posits that we are witnessing the demise of the modern nation-state as we know it.1 In an age in which information is consumed and disseminated through electronic devices, in which autonomous technology is rapidly being produced and deployed, and in which mega-corporations enjoy immense amounts of power and capital through deregulated finance which they subsequently use to spend large sums of money to influence politics and world events, people are uneasy and channel that uneasiness into a variety of responses. These responses range from neo-nationalism to religious extremism to unchecked authoritarian rule. The “society of nations” model of world peace, dreamed up by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson in the aftermath of World War I, is effectively cast aside, as United Nations regulations and international pacts, deals and agreements are ignored or rejected by the powers that be.

Floating throughout the world, many unable to find a new home in a new country, are some 65 million refugees. This is the world’s “new normal,” writes Dasgupta, and people of the world do not find it nearly as alarming as the some 40 million refugees produced by World War II.2 There exist very few sites at which these refugees are welcomed with open arms. On top of those displaced in the contemporary refugee crisis are those displaced by the impact of neoliberalism; people from the Global South hurt by 20th century economic policies such as NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Alliance) have been forced to migrate to those nations of the Global North which reap the benefits. In the case of NAFTA, millions of immigrants of Mexican origin, who previously had made modest livings for themselves ranching and farming, have risked their lives crossing the border to the United States since its passing. Hurt by the influx of cheap American industrially-produced meat and genetically-modified crops into the Mexican market, many elect to migrate to the U.S. without paperwork (due to America’s harsh immigration policies) and work for below minimum wage in order to secure a better future for their families that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them at home. On the other side of the Atlantic, immigrants from Africa with a deficit of financial options to provide for themselves and their families risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean. Crippled by the lasting effects of colonialism, people from both Latin America and Africa would rather risk death and endure poverty in the Global North to provide for their families than remain at home.  

The need to relocate from the Global South is one of the many nasty consequences of neoliberal economics. This influx of migrants in turn breeds contempt for foreigners within the Global North, who are often framed as guilty of stealing jobs from the natives. Refugees, too, struggle to find acceptance. In the case of refugees displaced by the ongoing civil war in Syria, millions have fled the violence in their homeland only to face marginalization in the West. In the wake of the War on Terror, Islam is often conflated with terrorism, the results of which lead to discrimination, distrust and violence enacted upon them in the form of profiling by the state and hate crimes by its residents. Given the waves of violence and uneasiness against people of color from the Global South, what can friendship do?

Moving forward, it is important to set definitions for friendship. In antiquity, friendship was considered the dominant moral paradigm in the West. Therefore, we must look at the widely accepted notions adopted during the Hellenic and Hellenistic periods. The ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle wrote extensively on friendship, but what is most relevant is their discussion of philia (the Greek word which most closely resembles the modern English term for friendship, as opposed to agape or eros). In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes:

“Those who love for utility or pleasure, then, are fond of a friend because of what is good or pleasant for themselves, not insofar as the beloved is who he is, but insofar as he is useful or pleasant […] And so these sorts of friendship are easily dissolved, when the friends do not remain similar [to what they were]; for if someone is no longer pleasant or useful, the other stops loving him.”3

Aristotle didn’t believe usefulness alone could constitute friendship. Similarly, Plato noted that utility is rarely equal and does not amount to friendship.4 Aristotle was also under the impression that pleasure alone was not grounds for lasting and deep friendship. To him, friendship is only complete and deep when both parties share the same virtues which make them good as individuals. He writes:

“[C]omplete friendship is the friendship of good people similar in virtue; for they wish goods in the same way to each other insofar as they are good, and they are good in their own right… Now those who wish goods to their friends for the friend’s own sake are friends most of all; for they have this attitude because of the friend himself, not coincidentally. Hence these people’s friendship lasts as long as they are good; and virtue is enduring.”5

These impressions of philia are their impressions. Although we must bare in mind that the hypotheses on friendship they put forth are incredibly influential in the formulation of friendship as we know it, we must also remember that neither Plato nor Aristotle were able to account for the various technological and political developments which would arise in modernity. Therefore we must do some supplementing of their definitions.

In many parts of the world, the phone has become an extension of the self during the 21st century. If one owns a smartphone, it is highly likely that it never leaves their side. Although the phone serves as a link to the part of the world outside of one’s immediate reach, an easy method of connecting to those outside of one’s immediate surroundings, it is a double-edged sword which can sever us from those who are closest. For this reason, people feel a heightened sense of loneliness. Through social media apps, people are able to peek into the lives of acquaintances, which can either serve to make them closer to the beholder or to isolate them completely. The colloquial term FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out, is an entirely new phenomenon which sprang from the widespread use of social media. One fears that they are missing out on life as it passes them by and as they are forced to live vicariously and voyeuristically through the curated social media presentations of peers.

But the phone, however it may isolate people as a side effect of connection one to the world, is a utility with a great use-value. In an age in which a profound sense of loneliness is spreading throughout the world, especially in countries with more access to technology such as Britain, there are record numbers of people suffering from mental health related issues such as depression and anxiety.6 Cell phones, I believe, are responsible for the spike in health issues, but they may also be the cure.

In the 21st century, a friendship based on utility could be the answer to loneliness. Aristotle and Plato could never have predicted the heightened sense of isolation which comes from cell phone usage. However, as the phone is a utility, so too are friends for combating loneliness. A friendship based on utility today means the chance to connect to those whom one knows to be lonely as well. The importance of avoiding loneliness cannot be understated; loneliness has been found to lead to many physical health consequences, and may induce the risk of an early death by up to 26%.7 This is why friendship is so crucial, today more than at any point in the past.

True, the deepest sort of philia may in fact be a friendship based on virtue. Friends should be the people who lead us to become good, to become our best possible selves. But, I believe that a friendship based in mutual utility can lead to a friendship built on virtue. If the basis of a friendship of utility is to root out loneliness from one’s life, then naturally once it is gone, the bond which the two friends have built in overcoming the obstacle of loneliness will persist, and the friendship will bud and take new directions.

Further, modern technology in cell phones can also lead to utility-based friendship. Apps such as “Be My Eyes” were created to assist those without someone to support them; “Be My Eyes” is an app invented for blind and low-sight individuals which works using smartphone video calling technology which allows them to connect to someone who will answer questions for them, such as whether or not an item with an expiration date they are unable to see has expired. This is most certainly a relationship of utility, and one in which the utility is one sided. However, to argue against Plato’s point that utility tends to be one sided and doesn’t amount to friendship, the app does facilitate a relationship in which one person is being helped and the other, although there may not be much gain for them on the surface, is doing a virtuous deed for a stranger in need. For a moment, or however long the call lasts, the two strangers are not alone and one is tied to the other through their willingness to give, and the other is linked through their need for a helping hand. So although technology has the capacity to isolate us, it apps such as “Be My Eyes” show us that technology can also be utilized to serve a higher purpose. Apps such as these help strengthen community bonds internally.

With regards to the resurgence of nationalism and xenophobia, what can societies do to utilize friendship in combating harmful myths and helping migrants settle and assimilate? One think tank, Policy Exchange, believes friendship is the key to assimilation. Working in England and studying the influx of and reactions to Muslim immigrants into the U.K., Policy Exchange works to set out objective definitions and goals for assimilation, as well as creating steps towards achieving those goals.8 David Goodhart of Policy Exchange posits that most people believe two things about assimilation: 1) that it is a two-way street in which an incomer must be willing to assimilate, but that the receiving society must also be willing to adapt a little in order to best accommodate and integrate them; and 2) that a balance must be struck between having a mixed and diverse society and people’s natural tendency to stick together and form bonds with those with whom they share a similar cultural background.9 What are devices a nation can employ to encourage both acceptance by natives and assimilation by newcomers? What works?

Goodhart highlights three strategies for integration which tend to be more effective than legislation alone. These are the nudge, the power of good examples, and public approval or disapproval.10 A nudge can be something subtle such as inserting hidden messages places which influence behaviors without the participants knowledge. It can be used to make outsiders conform or natives adapt. Goodhart gives an instance of what he deems to be a good example:

“[A] primary school […] experienced a sudden influx of Somali children, causing white parents to flee the school. The school called a parents’ meeting and explained how the new pupils would not hold back their children’s progress as they would be taught separately until their English was adequate. This stopped the exodus and the school is now one of the best in its area.”11

The last strategy, public approval or disapproval, tries to encourage or discourage behavior without passing laws but simply by bringing something to the public’s attention. Goodhart gives an example of one such public messaging campaign in which then-Prime Minister David Cameron encouraged Muslim women to learn English in an effort to help them integrate themselves and their families, without enacting any sort of law which would require them to do so.12 Although Goodhart is writing from an English perspective, his lessons still hold internationally and should be adopted by various peoples and governments. If enough do so, integration will come much easier within a community, and those at risk of violence by the far Right, nativist, nationalist sectors of a community will be insulated by their allies.

Research has indeed provided important evidence in making a case for the importance of friendship in assimilation. A German study published in 2014 found that friendship was key to integration; it was found that first generation migrants with German friends tended to be “more similar” to the Germans than those without German friends:

“Summing up, our analysis so far suggests that the acquisition of a German friend is influenced by the number of years the migrant has spent in Germany, the acquisition of a job, the birth of a new child, relocation decisions, and importantly, whether he/she has acquired an additional degree in Germany.13

So, many factors will influence the likelihood that one has a German friend, but that friend makes a world of difference. Using data collected from 1996 to 2011, this was a long-term study instigated by the rising number of migrants to western Europe. There are not currently many studies such as this, making their findings especially important.

Acquisition of a job, relocation decisions and obtaining (additional) degrees may increase the likelihood that a migrant makes a friend in their new country, but these are not necessarily accessible for everyone or in every situation. Surely there must be some manner in which longtime residents can be encouraged to make friends with newcomers.

I propose some form of forum hosted by municipal governments, extending open invitations to all migrants and citizens to allow migrants to interact with locals familiar with the area to answer any questions of theirs and to quell any fears they may have, given the international climate in which xenophobia prevails. Additionally, the integration of technology may be of great use, too. There is so much potential in turning the aforementioned devices, which can create loneliness, into devices which fight against loneliness and strengthen community bonds. Perhaps an app could be created such as “Be My Eyes” which could connect immigrants to natives when navigating public spaces and bureaucratic offices, thus taking advantage of the one-sided utility and one-sided virtue type of friendship unique to modernity. There is so much room for possibility with technology. It should not be rejected as simply a facilitator of mental health.

The need to create friends has never been more important. The world has turned its back on friendship for centuries, opting to believe the greatest good comes from within. However, it is this mentality which isolates people from their neighbors and creates profound loneliness. We must use all the tools at our disposal, be it smartphones, the government, public opinion etc. and turn them into tools to underscore the need of friendship and tools which in themselves create friendship. In the climate of the modern Right-wing resurgence, the need to strengthen community bonds internally and create spaces within our communities for newcomers, fleeing poverty, violence and situations unimaginable to many living comfortably in the Global North, has never been more important in history. Our privilege must be harnessed in taking leadership roles to build friendship, and this must have its start in domestic politics before it takes hold and we consider models which encourage international friendship as we work to dismantle the neoliberal capitalist systems and authoritarian regimes displacing people in the first place.




  1. Rana Dasgupta, “The Demise of the Nation Sate” from The Guardian.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 121.
  4. Brian Carr, “Friendship in Plato’s Lysis” in Friendship East and West, 16.
  5. Nichomachean Ethics, 122
  6. George Monbiot, “Neoliberalism is creating loneliness. That’s what’s wrenching society apart” from The Guardian.
  7. Ibid.
  8. David Goodhart, “When It Comes to Integrating Immigrants, Friendship is the Key” from The Telegraph.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Giovanni Facchini et al., “Migration, Friendship Ties and Cultural Assimilation,” 14.



Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Terrene Irwin, 2nd ed.,
Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Carr, Brian. “Friendship in Plato’s Lysis.” Friendship East and West, edited by
Oliver Leamon, Surrey, Curzon Press, pp. 13-31.

Dasgupta, Rana. “The Demise of the Nation State.” The Guardian, edited by The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited, 5 Apr. 2018. Accessed 19 May. 2018.

Facchini, Giovanni, Eleonora Patacchini, and Max F. Steinhardt. “Migration, Friendship Ties and Cultural Assimilation.” IZA DP no. 7881 (January 2014): 1-17.

Goodhart, David. “When It Comes to Integrating Immigrants, Friendship is the Key.” The Telegraph, edited by The Telegraph, 24 Jan. 2016, Accessed 19 May. 2018.

Monbiot, George. “Neoliberalism is Creating Loneliness. That’s What’s Wrenching
Society Apart.” The Guardian, edited by The Guardian, Guardian News and
Media Limited, 12 Oct. 2016,
Accessed 19 May. 2018.

Leave a Reply