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On un-belonging and identity

Author Yassmin Abdel-Magied ruminates on the pull of un-belonging as a part of cultural identity formation.

Australia Passport
Nico Smit/Unsplash

The following excerpt comes from the essay ‘Whose Borders Are They Anyway’, originally published in Talking About a Revolution by Yassmin Abdel-Magied which is available now. In this chapter Yassmin discusses the implications of giving up her Australian passport, and the distinct lack of currency in her Sudanese passport.

In 2015, a young British teenager was groomed to leave England and travel to Syria to join Daesh (also known as ISIS, or the Islamic State). Shamima Begum lived under Daesh’s rule for three years, marrying a Dutch man fighting with the group, and giving birth to and losing three children. In February 2019, Begum was found at the al-Hawl refugee camp in Northern Syria, wanting return to the United Kingdom, as was her right as a citizen.

It almost immediately became clear her rights were far from assured. Then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid quickly signed an order revoking Begum’s citizenship; she was the first ever British-born woman to undergo this exclusion. Although legally, the United Kingdom could not render their own citizen ‘stateless’, the government argued that Begum’s heritage made her eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship. Bangladesh, unwilling to play on the United Kingdom’s terms, rejected this contention completely. Shamima Begum had never visited Bangladesh, nor applied for citizenship, the ministry of foreign affairs stated. There was ‘no question’ of her being allowed into the country. As of writing, Begum’s appeal against losing her citizenship is still in court.

Between 1973 and February 2002, not a single individual was stripped of their British citizenship. Yet in 2017 alone, such deprivation was meted out to 104 Brits. Deprivation of citizenship, the punishment of exile without trial, is in back in vogue, á cause de securitised environment post 9/11, and conditions are only becoming more hostile. In 2021, the UK House of Commons passed the ‘Nationality and Borders’ bill, awarding themselves, among other concerning powers, the ability to strip a person of their citizenship without notifying them, ‘in the interests of national security, diplomatic relations or otherwise in the public interest’.

A vulnerable class of citizenship has been thoroughly established. For British dual nationals, or those with potential eligibility for ‘nationality’ elsewhere, citizenship has been confirmed as forever precarious, contingent on ‘good behaviour’. This vulnerable class is comprised largely of British citizens from former colonies, Black and brown folk who are historically and presently marginalised, often Muslims. Begum’s case laid bare the false promise of citizenship, especially for those of us deemed as ‘other’. For all the so-called guarantees of citizenship, the ‘right to have rights’, the state still retains the power to create and enforce a hierarchy of humanity, where for some, your rights are far from assured.

Everyone eventually comes back, my mother reminds me on the phone. The rich and famous, the ones who ‘make it’ overseas, the young that go on working holidays, everyone eventually returns. It’s The Lucky Country, after all. Who wouldn’t go back to ‘The Lucky Country’? (‘The Lucky Country’ is the title of the 1964 book, by Donald Horne. Although today the phrase is used positively, in Horne’s eyes it was a pejorative, reflecting his belief that all of the country’s success was due to luck rather than the strength of its political or economic systems. One could argue this continues today: Australia ‘succeeds’ in spite of itself).

But who is Australia lucky for? Certainly not for the First Nations people, custodians and sovereign for millennia. Not for those who are othered on its soil, whether due to their ancestry, gender, class; nor for the ones who sought refuge in a way the state deemed ‘wrongful’, now left languishing in prisons, in almost indefinite detention, a catastrophe of bipartisan making. Unlucky for some, ‘lucky’ depends on who you are in the world.

For many, citizenship remains a cudgel of the state, a tool to justify the deprivation of those who sit outside the bounds of a particular (and often powerful) political community. But we do not exist in a world that allows us much other choice. As Etienne Balibar writes, “contemporary citizens will not abandon a status, however insufficient and damaged, which encapsulates certain rights and powers, in favour of another.” Or, as Gayatri Spivak puts it, we would “rather have a relationship with a rogue state than no relationship at all.” You’re either in, or you’re out. And it is this binary choice – or lack thereof – that gets my goat.

Arendt’s words are still largely true. Being a citizen of (most) nation-states is the one of the only ways to even access most rights. Our supra-national institutions rely on an infrastructure made up of nation-states, and therefore citizenship, with all the related geo-political power dynamics (you have more power in the United Nations if you are from the United States, say, than if you are from Togo). The European Union is also dependent on the idea of citizenship, though given its primary interest in collective economic security and its fatal weaponising of migration, the Union is more interested in collectively sharing benefits than dealing with burdens.

Writer James Baldwin once said of his relationship to his homeland: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticise her perpetually.” It’s a quote often repeated by those who critique the nations of their birth, residency, citizenship. I wonder about the implication. Does one need to ‘love’ a nation in order to critique it? If so, this seems to me another mythologised example of the fealty nation-states compel. But if Baldwin is suggesting instead critique is part of loving a nation, one wonders what he would make of the current resurgence of big-N ideological nationalism that brought us Trump, Brexit and almost elected hard-right French nationalist Marine Le Pen. There seems little appetite for critique of the nation-state today.

Hannah Arendt herself famously said she did not understand the notion of loving a people. She loved her friends, she said; when it came to Jewish people, she “merely belong[ed] to them.” I feel compelled to shy away from both ideas. A nation-state is an institution that exists to maintain itself and its own power. That is neither inherently good nor bad, but for all the talk about globalisation ‘ending’ the nation, it is clear that the power of citizenship still prevails.

The political community you are lucky enough to be born or naturalised into still defines so much of an individual’s outcomes and chances in life. I can say with almost complete certainty that I wouldn’t live the life I do, if it weren’t for my parents’ decision to pick up and start all over again on the other side of the world in Australia. I am grateful, sure. But to my parents, not to the system. And that gratitude exists alongside an understanding that my privilege sprouts from blood-drenched soil in so-called Australia.

For me, wanting to un-belong to Australia is about wanting to divest from a system of borders and frontiers that give my Aussie crested little blue document the power it has, power my green Sudanese passport has never been accorded. It is about wanting to divest from the dispossession of Indigenous people that my citizenship is predicated on. It is about wanting an alternative political community to the nation-state whose modern manifestation, with its immigration controls and obsession with boundaries, reflects more the end of the era of empires in the mid-twentieth century. It is about committing to the search for the “abstract structure of redress” as described by Spivak, which allows for accountability, but avoids the inherent dangers of ideological nationalism.

Rather than, ‘Why do you want to give up such a powerful passport?’, it should be, ‘Why do we live in a world where some passports are so much more powerful than others?’

Rather than asking, ‘Why don’t you want to be part of the lucky country?’, we should be asking, ‘Why is it that so many other countries are ‘unlucky’?

“You want to push the thing you love out of you, as if you can reject Australia like it feels it rejected you,” Australian academic Eleanor Ivory Weber writes from Brussels, on the COVID-19 restrictions blocking overseas Australians from returning home, or flying out again if they make it in. “But it doesn’t work like that, rejection always carries resentment, a plague on any psyche and any state.”

Is un-belonging a rejection? I can understand how it feels that way, I see it in the flickers of betrayal behind the eyes of fellow Australians who ask when I am coming back, hear it in the pitch of their voices, the sudden slips of their smiles. In these moments, I feel compelled to apologise, equivocate, or silently turn away from the naked display of vulnerability.

But un-belonging is perhaps more common than we think: people are constantly and consistently choosing to un-belong all the time; from their religious group, their political party, their profession. Whether it is because their values have shifted, they have become disillusioned or because they simply don’t feel the need to anymore, there are innumerable valid and perfectly reasonable reasons to choose to un-belong to a community. Sure, there might be some costs, but most of the time, you are free to go.

If cultural identity is, as British cultural theorist Stuart Hall writes, “a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being’,” un-belonging is part of that constant transformation.

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