"Thinking Revolution”: Muslim Immigration and Poetic Politics

My parents emigrated from Lahore to Brooklyn, NY in the early 1990s. I’ve often imagined their arrival in the U.S.: they settled in a country far from home, where people who looked nothing like them spoke an unfamiliar language, with little in the way of a support system. When I imagine their difficulties, I’m impressed by their resilience. Today, Muslim immigrants like my parents are faced with unprecedented circumstances of danger, difficulty and hostility. More importantly, migrants are often members of the larger global working class, which involves them in even larger class struggles. Even if — or when — they become citizens of Western states, they are distrusted and deemed hostile or violent enemies of the liberal West. I’m interested in deciphering what Muslims might signify to the American political-legal order if they become totally excluded.

First, it is important to clarify what we mean by the term “Muslim.” We know in one sense that “Muslim” is a category of religious identity: it refers to adherents of a certain school of monotheism who, broadly speaking, share a belief in the teachings of Muhammad and the Qur’an. But in another, more critical sense, “Muslim” is an instrument. It is a way of labeling people as legitimate targets. It is a tool deployed by institutions of power to classify people as banned and unprotected.

To clarify what I mean by this last definition, I’d like to refer to Giorgio Agamben’s concept of homo sacer, which he borrows from the Roman Law tradition. Agamben discusses homo sacer as a figure who is defined by the law as a banned subject. That is, they are included in the law only insofar as they are also excluded from the law by being named as a danger to society and thereby being rendered legitimate targets. Though countless American citizens have been killed by the agents of their own state, the cases of U.S. citizens whose assassinations had prior been expressly authorized by the sovereign are rare. Yet, multiple Muslims are among these cases. Political Philosopher and journalist Rafia Zakaria noted that at checkpoints and airports, the unprotected status of Muslims becomes clear. “Checkpoints expose the crudest truths about humanity, official imprimaturs of who is deserving of deference and who of disdain,” she wrote. “The swarthy and bearded rocket scientist and the fifteen-year-old girl speaking English with an American accent have Muslim names and so are simply Muslim and legitimately suspect.” We can understand Muslims, then, not only as those who self-identify with a faith — we can also understand them as people labeled by the state as banned citizens external to the social contract, like Hobbesian wolves who pose an existential threat to the political order.

The rhetoric surrounding the recent ban on travel to the U.S. by citizens from seven Muslim-majority states, commonly known as the Muslim ban, framed the ban as a temporary response to emergency circumstances. To use another concept of Agamben’s, an American context for something like an extended state of exception is the Muslim ban. The courts might overturn Muslim ban after Muslim ban, but there is no assurance that further sovereign orders will not successfully come down the pipeline.

On the big picture of relations between the Muslim world and the liberal secular west, Sandro Mezzadra has developed a political concept called the “right to escape” while discussing the situation of migrants in Europe and across the rest of the West. Mezzadra maintains that the right to escape is a universal right to be upheld wherever people live in conditions of oppression, especially regarding labor conditions. Noting that members of the global subaltern generally undertake contemporary migrations purposefully, Mezzadra argues that migrants should be understood in terms of the conditions of their home countries. Putting the focus on the ways in which migrants and refugees do or do not succeed to integrate into the receiving countries, Mezzadra argues, already clouds our ability to understand migrants on their own terms. If we do not understand their circumstances and the causes of their circumstances, we cannot hope to understand their subjectivities.

Understanding migrant subjectivities, Mezzadra continues, is inextricable from issues of labor and class. More specifically, he argues that migration as an escape from exploitative working conditions is a universal right. “The mobility of migrant women and men is an expression of a series of subjective movements of escape from the rigidities of the international division of labor,” Mezzandra writes. “These movements of escape constitute one of the eradicated and denied motors of the radical transformations which have influenced capitalist modes of production during the last two decades.” From this vantage point, Mezzadra sees political persecution and labor exploitation as two sides of the same coin. In migration, he also sees the activation of a universal latent right, the right to escape oppressive circumstances. Migrants, he notes, “have often played an essential role in offering points of reference within a social texture deserted by the crisis of other agencies of socialization — above all the Welfare State and the traditional organizations of the labor movement. In more general terms, however, it is necessary to note that this image lends itself easily to the reproduction of paternalistic logics which renew an order of discourse and a complex of practices that demote migrants to an inferior position, denying them all chance of becoming subjects.” From this perspective, the contemporary juncture of the Muslim subject with the migrant subject points to an important tension in contemporary politics: the opposition of love to hate, dovetailing with the belief that all that is needed to overcome Islamophobic hatred is indiscriminate love for all strangers. The “Love Trumps Hate” refrain, in this sense, neglects to note that structural forces — chief among them, class antagonism — obstructs the power of love to turn migrants into subjects.

Becoming subjects is a paradigmatic form of becoming — it is the particular form of becoming that determines the bounds of the human community. In order for one to have a chance of becoming a subject — or, in less phenomenological and more political terms, to be recognized as a member of the human demos, as a being with subjective interiority — one must be publicly recognized as such. It is increasingly the case that recognition in this sense is denied not only to those who are branded, for reasons of religious and racial identity, as homo sacer. Recognition is also denied to the global working class, whose lives are, as Alain Badiou has noted, characterized by a suffering that is, importantly, “difficult to behold.”

I mention this turn of phrase because it brings to our attention the aspect of ethics — the study of proper behavior with regard to the “Other” — that is particularly in play here. It is the exceptional difficulty of beholding the suffering of dehumanized Others, of witnessing suffering and holding one’s gaze. For Mezzadra, as for Badiou, this is a crucial ethical act that also has political resonance. For as Badiou points out, the ability to meet the gaze of the suffering Other is precisely what is needed to reverse the sentiment expressed by any particular European minister who says that his nation cannot accept within its borders the misery of the world.

To bring this discussion back closer to home, I’d like to mention that President Biddy Martin recently wrote that, especially in our age of accelerated lifestyles, social isolation, political division and the substitution of electronic platforms of communication for the erstwhile rational-discursive public sphere, “Politics without a poetic approach to language, to people, and to things can kill.” President Martin meant that it is possible to learn the lesson of slowness, to listen and contemplate, to connect and to be mutually vulnerable with those from whom we differ. The opposite of what President Martin wrote is that politics can, potentially, give us peace and harmony, but only if we act slowly and carefully in the political realm, with a poetic attunement to our relations with each other.

Taking the politics of Muslim immigration poetically means seeing the purposes and fears that drive the mass movement of people across continents and oceans. It means recognizing that each Muslim is a human being and that each person deserves a life free of domination and oppression, regardless of race, religion or nationality. But a poetic view of migration means also a prolonged and patient view of migration, one that necessarily inquires into the causes of migration. This perspective places the focus not on what migrants do once they arrive in Western nations, but instead on what has occurred in Muslim-majority nations to cause the mass exodus of people: namely, the toppling of democratic governments in favor of installing authoritarians, settler-colonization, and imperialist war in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Now, in closing, I’d like to turn to recent writings by Asad Haider, who writes that “our responsibility” is to “think the revolution” and especially to confront the whole of the global capitalist social structure. If the goal of the liberal multiculturalist is to make it possible to love the stranger and even to welcome that stranger into one’s own home — in short, to make possible poetic intersubjectivity vis-à-vis a Levinasian or Derridean ethic of urgent respect for the life and subjectivity of the Other — then, Haider insists, a particular kind of antagonism, or even hatred, might be politically necessary. This is a hatred of the system that turns strangers into something less than human, a hatred of the system that turns the working class, and especially the refugees and migrants among them, into unwelcome non-subjects. It is this class antagonism, in our present moment of exceptional Islamophobia, that might make defending Muslims a revolutionary act.