Citizenship after orientalism - an introduction

Introducing this week's guest theme.

Engin Isin
5 November 2012

Engin Isin holds a Chair in Citizenship and is Professor of Politics in Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at the Faculty of Social Sciences, The Open University. He has published widely on the politics of citizenship. From Cities Without Citizens (1992) to Being Political (2002) his concern has been to document historically how citizenship has been contested by its 'others' (strangers, outsiders, aliens). His most recent book Citizens Without Frontiers (2012) elaborates on the themes of his Inaugural Lecture.

Here he introduces this week’s theme:

At the Open University, I have brought together several doctoral students, postdoctoral research fellows and visiting research fellows from around the world to establish a research group to investigate political subjectivity across ‘worlds’. The scale and scope of this research is both large and ambitious. In one sense, we will be critically tracing the steps of Max Weber whose monumental studies on Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity were the foundations of a particular conception of political subjectivity throughout the twentieth century. Yet the project promises much more than tracing the steps of a giant. It will separate that identity called ‘citizenship’ from its western and European origins as ‘nationality’ especially in the last two centuries. The idea behind this promise is that we need to rethink, if not redefine, European citizenship in a different relationship to other ‘worlds’ and their histories.

Motivated by and passionate about nothing less than reconsidering how we understand political subjectivity, I am looking for genuinely open minds. There have been many interventions along these lines: critical studies on race, gender, colonialism, nationalism, imperialism, cosmopolitanism, orientalism. Yet, despite the fact that this very point is made and recognised repeatedly, it seems how we re-conceive political subjectivity or identity after such critical interventions remains desperately limited by established modes of thinking in western and European institutions. So the openness that I am looking for begins with the understanding of this assumption that we need to collectively break out of the existing ways of thinking about political subjectivity by thinking across worlds.

Now, you might ask, why citizenship? Why use ‘citizenship’ to explore political subjectivity across worlds? After all, isn’t ‘citizenship’— especially understood as nationality—an institution for governing states as bounded communities?

The trouble with this perspective is that it is a-historical. It overlooks the complicated and tangled history of citizenship as political subjectivity and how that history goes much deeper than other cherished concepts of western political theory such as democracy, nation, sovereignty, republic and even the ‘state’. As such ‘citizenship’ represents, on the one hand, a deep history, on the other hand, it substantiates a broader range of concepts that constitute political subjectivity such as rights, duties, obligations and responsibilities. If we understand citizenship broadly as the right to make claims to rights (or in a better known formulation as ‘the right to have rights’), this highlights how that right has been established, expanded or limited in different worlds.

For these purposes, however, pace Weber’s studies, I don’t think that starting with ‘religions’ is a good idea. Nor do I think that it is a good idea to start with ‘India’, ‘China’, ‘Israel’, and ‘Europe’ as already given categories. Just as I don’t find it useful to divide the world into East and West, I don’t think it helps dividing it into North and South. Nor should we begin with continental divides such as Asia, South Asia, Middle East and Far East. These geographies of ostensibly regional, linguistic and religious groupings of worlds are themselves problematic groupings that ossify and stultify understanding different histories, connections, and disseminations through which forms of political subjectivity have emerged. 

A similar problem also concerns how we conceptualize different histories of citizenship. For Weber, despite his ‘genealogical’ credentials, it was relatively straightforward.  Those geographies that he designated as the ‘Orient’ either lacked or were unable to develop that political subjectivity that came to be called citizenship while it reached its zenith in the ‘occident’.  Whether we designate this narrative as ‘teleological’ or ‘presentist’ the function it serves is to take citizenship as it has been constituted in the ‘occident‘ as the model against which to judge other forms. If such a view is to be rejected, then how do we conceptualize genealogies of citizenship across different worlds?

This is one of the reasons why I found a name in the map conceived by Crates around 150 BCE as a compelling title for the project: oecumene. Crates identifies four symmetric worlds. Perioeci (the other side), Antoeci (opposite to the Perioeci), Antipodes (opposite to Oecumene), Oecumene (the inhabited or known world). From hindsight I should have perhaps named the project Perioeci (the other side) but the point here is to highlight the fact that geographies of the world as an expression of the will to power and knowledge inevitably undergird what we want to describe and if we want to describe things differently we have to question how we divide worlds.

Citizenship after orientalism

In the run-up to our second symposium, Deorientalizing citizenship? - this week’s series on openDemocracy will give you a glimpse of our exploration into citizenship, at a time when it is being redefined around the world, and when momentous world events, from the Arab Spring to Occupy, are calling for a deeper understanding of the purpose and power of citizenship.

Our project starts with a profound tension between two different institutions: citizenship, the process by which political subjectivity is recognised and enacted, and orientalism, the process by which Europe is considered the birthplace of ‘universal ideas’ such as democracy, secularism, rights, and capitalism. There is a strong social sciences and humanities tradition that claims the ‘absence’ of citizenship as membership in the nation-state in eastern and southern societies as an ‘explanation’ not only for the lack of development of secularism, democracy, rights but also of capitalism.

Yet, ‘citizenship’ as membership has become ‘unbound’. People across the world are inventing new ways of defining and claiming democratic rights as citizens – not as members but as political beings. They are not simply doing this by reviving or imitating western let alone ‘universal’ conceptions of citizenship. Rather, we have been witnessing creative and inventive uses of traditions of dissent, rights claims, performance and enactment of politics that, simply put, when understood in terms inherited from orientalism, are impossible to comprehend.

Nor is such witnessing new. There have been non-orientalist or anti-orientalist forms of thought and practice in the ‘west’ and ‘east’ as long as orientalism has existed. Our project aims to recover such forms to develop a theoretically rich conception of political subjectivity - ideas and practises that will inform new modes of citizenship.

The publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978 was undoubtedly a turning point in troubling our understanding of the ways in which worlds relate to each other. Yet, Orientalism and the knowledges it has spawned have primarily focused on cultural representations. Other distinct (though related) forms of orientalism such as scientific, political, and legal have received much less attention. So we begin with four investigations of how very different political subjectivities are brought into being through juridico-political practises.

On Monday, Zaki Nahaboo investigated resonances and affinities between Edmund Burke’s colonial discourse in the eighteenth century and liberal–pluralist multiculturalism in the twentieth century. He shows how both types of ‘difference management’ reproduce, yet at times subvert, political orientalism, and asks to what extent modern multiculturalism still carries traces of the latter. Leticia Sabsay chronicles how the celebrated emergence of the sexual citizen in western democracies since the 1990s has more recently resulted in its rearticulation as a colonizing and orientalizing strategy. She shows us how the norms of the emerging sexual citizen are used to measure who qualify as citizens.   

Lauren Banko follows, looking back to the creation of Palestinian citizenship under the British colonial mandate between 1918 and 1925, to see how it was designed, and how resisted by the Arabs.  An apolitical citizenship, one without civil or political rights, was meant to satisfy the mandate terms and the Jewish national home policy. By the time that citizenship was conferred, the Arabs of Palestine had already articulated alternatives to it. The tension between these two images of citizenship find their resonances in the present conflict that engulfs the project of the Israeli state. In an example of undoing citizenship, Slobodan Karamanić accompanies this with an investigation into how in the post-Yugoslav scene the idea of ‘truth and reconciliation’, inspired by post-apartheid South Africa, paradoxically ended up solidifying national identities that led to the atrocities in the first place.    

The focus shifted on Wednesday, with Aya Ikegame and Alessandro Marino, to uncovering the subjugated knowledges of political subjectivity in two Indian examples. Aya Ikegame explores how various social and public services provided by mathas (religious institutions) headed by gurus in South India question the distinction made between the religious and the political. This is a history of people practicing citizenship through acts of devotion. Alessandra Marino turns to acts of writing that have helped to mobilize a struggle against the construction of a mega dam along the Narmada River. By investigating how writer Arundhati Roy was called upon to intervene, Marino shows the emergence of subjects of resistance acting against the progressive narratives of nationalism and the orientalist logic of development. 

In the work of Iker Barbero, Lisa Pilgram, Federico Oliveri, Helen Arfvidsson, and Duygu Gürsel, yesterday and today, we begin to get a glimpse of what citizenship as political subjectivity may look like after orientalism. They all engage in documenting the practices wherein new forms of citizens are enacted. With a focus on Europe, Iker Barbero demonstrates how citizenship and border regimes are created in order to construct and control certain migrant groups, especially Muslims. This multiple strategy could be analysed as the ‘neo-orientalization of immigration’, that is, the construction of the ‘other’ as the illegal, the anti-social, the criminal, the terrorist immigrant, in the end the ‘anti-citizen’ with the aim of legitimizing the domination and redefinition of European and nation-state identities. Lisa Pilgram demonstrates that while abstract arguments are raging about the compatibility between Sharia law and western state law, practically there is already an emerging hybrid British-Muslim family law. Frederico Oliveri turns our attention to Italy in the last three years, where through their struggles, migrants have helped secure for migrants and nationals alike an alternative social model based on equal entitlements to rights, solidarity and real democracy. 

Helen Arfvidsson challenges us to read the riot act differently – not from authorities to citizens but citizens to authorities. Duygu Gürsel also turns a pejorative term for immigrants in Germany on its head, by illustrating how immigrants use it to describe and claim their political rights.  These irreverent upturnings bring our introductory week in the run-up to our second symposium to an end. Please look out for further developments on the Oecumene page.


This article forms part of the Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism editorial partnership, funded by the Oecumene Project at the Open University, launched in November 2012.

An editorial partnership with Open University

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