Sunday, August 24, 2008

Review: Casting Out

[Sherene H. Razack. Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law & Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.]

It is a difficult thing to have a useful, grounded discussion about what has really changed since September 11, 2001. Any attempt must happen in the shadow of the media-amplified trumpeting in that day's aftermath that everything had already changed when the planes hit the towers, a claim forcefully advanced by the Bush administration and supported by most of the liberal and right-wing of the political class in North America in ways that served to seize the moment of collective pain and uncertainty and direct it towards support for various reforms strengthening regimes of ruling and further concentrating power. A lot of commentary that has followed from more critical sources has also felt at least a little off to me, too, whether it has reacted by overemphasizing the (admittedly very important) continuity of the workings of power in the world before and after that fateful day or whether it has taken advantage of the commonsense that some sort of discontinuity had occurred to make points for new-seeming, radical-sounding academicking. Though it is not without things that could be enhanced and expanded, I think Casting Out is an important attempt to think through in a grounded way one kind of shift that has been happening in Canada and in the West more generally, and to inform activist practice that favours anti-racist feminist political change in the early 21st century.

Razack takes a case study approach to look at some of the ways in which Muslims have been targeted in the West, usually in ways that continue trends from before 9/11 -- both immediately before and with roots in the entire project of European colonial domination -- but with enhanced intensity since then. The cases she examines are the security certificate law in Canada, which has been used primarily in recent years to subject Muslim men of colour to secret trials under threat of deportation that in many instances is likely to lead to torture; the photographically celebrated sexualized torture of prisoners by U.S. troops in Abu Ghraib prison in recolonized Iraq; the general appropriation of mainstream feminism and feminist language by empire, as exemplified by three recent books; laws in European countries that are ostensibly about preventing 'forced marriages' in Muslim communities; and the so-called "Sharia debate" about proposed Muslim use of regulations in the Canadian province of Ontario allowing faith-based arbitration in some situations, which had been used by some Christians and Jews since 1990.

Each case study had its own particular interest for me. I was particular happy to see the one on security certificates, because I have been involved a little bit in organizing against the certificates and this is the first lengthy treatment I've seen of them as part of a book (though I've seen them mentioned in passing in a number of others). Razack explores several of the cases in greater detail than I've seen done elsewhere, especially that of Hassan Almrei. Her purpose is not to make final determinations of fact, which would in any case be impossible since so much about the proceedings are kept secret by the Canadian state. Rather, she uses the case details to demonstrate how this set of facts -- mostly circumstantial and based on the targeted men fitting a very general profile -- only becomes a plausible basis for indefinite detention and potential deportation to torture if a racist understanding of West Asian/North African/Muslim men is also informing its reading by spies, lawyers, judges, and the general public.

One difficulty that I sometimes have with Razack's work is in following the path she takes from the immediate circumstances she describes to her conclusions. Generally speaking, I get a lot out of her characterization of whatever immediate circumstances are of concern, I find her conclusions useful and challenging, and her writing is certainly not in the tradition of high academic obscuritanism. Still, I just don't always find it easy to follow how she connects the dots. I suspect this mostly has to do with lack of knowledge on my part. I know there are limits to the extent to which academic writing can consider the reading needs of the non-specialist while still obeying the mandates of the discipline, but it can still be a little disappointing. In this book, I found the chapter on Abu Ghraib, with its focus on the political significance of the soldiers documenting their sexualized sadism of racialized men, to be a particular example of this difficulty for me.

Razack's general thesis focuses on the way in which three figures play a central role in Western discourse about Muslims at this point in time: the "civilized European", the "dangerous Muslim man", and the "imperilled Muslim woman." It is through these figures, which permeate the dominant commonsense in North America, that gender gets used as a tool of racist and imperial domination. The later chapters in the book probe the ways in which racist and imperial oppression on the one hand and patriarchal and fundamentalist oppressions on the other -- all real dangers -- get constructed as practical opposites, where only by embracing one can you oppose the other. It is quite powerful to read her write about her own pain and uncertainty in seeking space to contest this destructive dualism.

She also argues that race-thinking remains central to discourse and social organization in the West, and that "exception" is being increasingly used as a tool against Muslims and other oppressed peoples. The idea of the state of exception comes from Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben, who presents it as the creation in law of spaces or situations that are explicitly oustide of the law, that are legally lawless. A prime example for Agamben is the concentration and death camps of the 20th century. Razack points out that exception has always been part of colonialism -- the creation of space in law in which the supposedly universal norms do not apply for one reason or another -- and the recent increase in its use is not something novel but just the current motion in a very old pattern for European legal systems. Specifically, in present-day North America and Europe, basic signs of Muslimness are enough to cast people out of supposed universals, whether that is in law, as in security certificates, or other less formalized but equally damning ways.

A final section that I found particularly interesting, in light of my recently completed chapter on religion, was her discussion of secularism in the final chapter of the book. She used language that is a little different than I probably would, but what she said boiled down to the idea that historically in Europe and currently around the globe "secularism" functions as an ideology that bolsters the power of the state by disguising its functions in various forms of domination under the role of neutral arbiter accepted by all who have loyalties in other spheres that might compete and/or lead to conflict.

There are things that could have been developed more fully in this book. In particular, I deliberately read Casting Out in light of Sunera Thobani's Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada and Nandita Sharma's Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of 'Migrant Workers' in Canada, both of which I have recently reread for a little writing side-project that I will get into in earnest in the coming week. It seems to me that Razack is presenting some compelling evidence for current shifts in relations of white supremacy in Canada and globally, and it would be useful to have those put in the context of the earlier shift towards the multiculturalist variant of white supremacy described by Thobani, to get a more complete picture of continuity and change at this moment in histroy. As well, Thobani's strong, insistent foregrounding of the colonial dispossession of indigenous nations on Turtle Island and its continuing relevance for all anti-racist struggle in this part of the world is also missing from this book. And I think the power of Razack's argument would be enhanced by Sharma's explicit articulation of the complex relations among race, nation, and state practices. This is particularly true as I think there is some potentially interesting stuff that might emerge from juxtaposing the details of their respective discussions of mechanisms for legal exclusion, Sharma for people forced into the category of "migrant worker" since the early '70s and Razack for Muslims particularly since 9/11.

This book is a useful tool for thinking through how social relations in Canada and in the West more generally have shifted in the last seven years, and also how they have been quite consistent over the last five centuries. It also provides important insights for thinking about how empire and oppression (and resistance to them) might shift further in the coming years.

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