Racialisation of Rescuehood: Contextualising British Muslims stuck abroad during COVID-19 pandemic.
By Dr Suriyah Bi
In the past week, we have learnt of the stories of hundreds of British citizens stuck abroad. From Peru, to Italy, to Spain, New Zealand and Australia, and even India and Pakistan. There has however been some response from the Foreign and Common Wealth Office (FCO) in the form of specially chartered Government rescue flights, but for only those British citizens stranded in China and Peru. Despite there being over twelve hundred (1200) Britons stuck in Pakistan, of which six hundred and eighty six (686) have complex health conditions that make them vulnerable persons that ought to isolate, there has been little recognition of their plight on the government’s part. In other words, we have thus far only seen rescue efforts for largely 'white' and non-Muslim British citizens stuck abroad during the pandemic, thereby racialising rescue operations in order of class, colour, and creed.
While Shadow Foreign Minister Afzal Khan MP has led cross-party efforts to lobby support for those stuck in Pakistan and Kashmir, the response from the FCO has been non-existent. The stark difference in response for certain Britons and not for other Britons compels the question as to whether political efforts can indeed circumvent the politicisation of certain bodies - of brown bodies – in such times of crises? In order to unpack this further, it is important to deconstruct the underpinning counterparts of what it means to be ‘brown’ and ‘stuck’.
For many brown and/or Muslim bodies, being stuck (Hage: 2009) during the Coronavirus Pandemic is an extension of ongoing stuckness on a number of multiple and intersecting factors such as poverty, islamophobia, poor housing, lack of opportunity and investment, and precarious employment, to name a few. The pandemic therefore has catalysed and optimised the conditions for stuckness for British Muslims, across time and space, rendering any power and agency to absolute minimal levels. This is particularly demonstrated by the lack of communication from the FCO to Britons stuck in Pakistan at the moment, save for a generic message via twitter, calling for all those abroad to return immediately despite the closure of Pakistani airspace and airports, and flights being cancelled. This has also left British Muslims abroad to self-organise and record the number of persons stranded, efforts which have been led by Leeds based poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan via social media. In a time when social distancing and isolation has caused many to seek comfort in the advancements of technology and social media, the lack of communication from the government for British Muslims stuck abroad in Pakistan, further underscores the racialisation of rescuehood, as they are cut-off from the very tool (communication) that has served to be an essential survival mechanism for all during this time. Stuckness therefore is not only symptomatic of space and place for these Britons, but also symptomatic of communication, which transcends physical space and place, as it exists in the virtual space.
Such deprivation of communication plunges British Muslims further into darkness, establishing the direction of power between those who are stuck as inferior to not only the superior state, but also in relation to the largely ‘white’ Britons stuck abroad who have received communication. The direction of power being exercised in this circumstance, is also symbolic of something much deeper, that of state protection as being deserved/undeserved, which is often narrowly defined in and through the concept of citizenship. Thereby, the stuckness of British Muslims abroad with little support from the government speaks volumes about how citizenship is in fact, a racialised construct and that British Muslims, embody a lesser form of citizenship, which in the fine print, is enlisted as least deserving and/or undeserving of state sanctioned support during crisis. It is through such unpacking of what it means to be stuck for British Muslims that provide a nuanced insight into the way British Muslims occupy citizenship and how their occupation of citizenship is scored by the state.
Deconstructing stuckness further, we can identify the practice of waiting or waithood (Singerman: 2007, Honwana: 2012) as essential to stuckness. Without any recourse to government support, those stuck have no other option but to ‘wait’. It is this process of waiting that further highlights and speaks to the power dynamics between the state and the stuck, the concept of citizenship as deserved/underserved and thereby its racialisaton, and the racialisation of rescuehood. As Pierre Bourdeiu stated, waiting is a way of experiencing the effects of power (Bourdieu: 2000, 228), generating a feeling of powerlessness and vulnerability amongst the less powerful groups in society. To be kept waiting is to be the subject of an assertion that one’s own time and therefore one’s own social worth is less valuable than the time and the worth of the one who imposes the wait (Schwartz: 1974: 856). The citizenship of those British Muslims stuck and waiting to be rescued then, is further highlighted as being low in social worth, and thus these bodies are hierarchised as being worth less than those who have already been rescued.
Being subjected to waiting also resonates with Foucault’s concept of discipline and punishment, as such regimes often comprise of control of one’s time, as is evident with prison sentencing. For British Muslims currently stuck abroad, this is being experienced through medicine shortages that exacerbate health issues, which further impose a risk on the time that is one’s life span. This also heirarchises and racialises British Muslim bodies and their health that makes them inferior to the largely white bodies that have already been rescued. Once more, the citizenship of British Muslims is proven to be worth very little to the state and thus, undeserving of being rescued during the pandemic. Furthermore, and as is often with discipline and punishment regimes, the forced waithood of British Muslims stuck abroad sends a strong and clear message to those British Muslim citizens currently in Britain, triggering ‘self-policing’ mechanisms of travel, mobility, and social behaviours, out of fear for the lack of state protection that may transpire as a result. Pre-COVID-19, such withdrawal of state protection and rights was seen in the case of Shamima Begum due to her leaving the UK to join ISIS, which sent a powerful message as to the parameters of ‘good citizenship’ deserving of state protection. In light of COVID-19 however, the standard to deserving state protection has been reduced even further and laid bare to the level of the social skin. Coronavirus has therefore provided the state with the opportunity to redefine state power beyond the conventional narratives of extremism and terrorism.
The implications of stuckness and waithood are, as we have seen thus far, deeply interlinked with the concepts of citizenship, power, and state sovereignty, all of which demonstrate the racialisaton of rescuehood. However, it is not possible to separate the racialisaton of rescuehood from the racialisaton of bodies as we have seen. In the case of British Muslims stuck abroad during the Coronavirus pandemic, this includes the racialisation of their religion; Islam. The racialisation of Islam is an argument I have made elsewhere (Bi: 2020) and deconstructed it to its counterparts including the politicisation of cities and schools, leading to the effect on subconsciouses at both the national, and international level. Take for example the impact of the negative media coverage on British Muslim community in Birmingham amidst the Trojan Horse Affair scandal, which led to Fox News erroneously reporting that Birmingham did not allow non-Muslims entry, and as a result, prejudiced perceptions of British Muslims were inscribed in the minds of millions of Americans, which in turn perpetuate a vicious and unbreakable cycle of negative stereotypes that translate into Islamophobia against Muslims. In a less covert but nonetheless powerful way, the lack of support available to British Muslims stuck abroad during this time, perpetuates the already existing stereotypes surrounding their racialised bodies to the wider public, and reaffirming these in line with deserving/undeserving paradigms. In other words, the public show of this lack of support significantly contributes to justifying anti-Muslim sentiments, at the very least in the psyche of much of the nation.
However, it is not only the anti-Muslim sentiment, which we locate in the body of the ‘other’ that is only of concern here but rather, we must also grapple with the implications of the production of such sentiment at this time. I argue, that such regimes of power construct the dehumanisation of Muslims. For those stranded abroad, the fact that the FCO has made no efforts to keep a record of all those stranded and the medications they require is evidence of dehumanisation. No record, no body; erasure of the human at its finest. This is further unsettling as it was Britain through its colonial conquest in India, that began recording the population, which some such as Dumont (1980) have argued led to the pitting of ethno-religious groups against one another, which eventually led to the civil war and partition of the subcontinent. Population records and statistics are thus not a new phenomena in this part of the world for Britain, which would make the task today a smooth and swift one given how far we have come in the print, publishing, and technological realms since the colonial era. Such a reversal of behaviour more than a hundred years later, is indicative of a concerted effort to the re-placing and spacing of brown/Muslim bodies to their ‘proper’/'original' geographical locations, suggesting that their identity and belonging were never British to begin with. This is akin to the stripping of citizenship as in Shamima Begum’s case, holding Bangladesh responsible for her, as in this case, British Muslims in Pakistan are in essence, being left to the Pakistani authorities without any recourse from Britain.
It is also such dehumanisation that accurately captures the process, the action, and the impact of racialisation of Islam/anti-Muslim sentiment, as it is so deeply entwined with the bodies of these individuals. Put differently, the process of waithood imposed on British Muslim during the coronavirus pandemic results in their dehumanisation, the action or lack thereof in failing to rescue British Muslims stuck abroad results in their dehumanisation, and the impact of the waithood, stuckness, and lack of government support results in their dehumanisation. This triangular formula of (process-action-impact) leading to dehumanisation is also true of anti-Muslim/Islamophobic crimes. For a long time public discourse on this issue has stalled at the foothills of these terms, but we must do more to conceptualise the implications of such acts for the Muslim human body in all its facets (social, physical, psychological), which as I see it, is constantly producing and reproducing dehumanisation of British Muslims.
To cite this article please use the following format: Bi, S. 2020. Racialisation of Rescuehood: Contextualising British Muslims stuck abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of British Muslim Studies, Blog (2).
Bi, S. 2020. Racialisation of Islam Public Lecture Series. SOAS, University of London. https://www.academia.edu/41764610/RACIALISATION_OF_ISLAM
Bourdieu, P. (2000) Pascalian Meditations, Stanford: Stanford University Press
Dumont, L. 1980. Home Heirarchicus. University of Chicago Press.
Foucault, M. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York: Vintage Books.
Hage, G. 2009. Waiting. Carlton South, Vic. : Melbourne University Press.
Honwana, A. 2012. The Time of Youth. Work, Social Change and Politics in Africa. Sterling, Virginia: Kumarian.
Schwartz, B. (1975) Queuing and Waiting: Studies in the Social Organization of Access and Delay, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Singerman, D. 2007. The Economic Imperatives of Marriage: Emerging Practices and Identities among Youth in the Middle East. Wolfensohn Center of Development, Working Paper 6, September.