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IA Forum Interview: Dr. Victoria Redclift
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International Affairs Forum: You were awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2014 for your research and, with that support, are starting a project on ‘transnational political space.’  What do you plan to examine in this project? 

Dr. Victoria Redclift: With support from the Phillip Leverhulme Prize my new project develops the concept of ‘transnational political space’ through analysis of the relationship between local and transnational citizenship experiences among Bangladesh-origin Muslims in London and Los Angeles. In social science debate ‘transnational citizenship’ (Baubock, 1994; Fox, 2005) has been conceptualized to reflect the processes through which political identity transcends the nation-state (Basch et al, 1994). However, the ways in which a political identity which transcends borders informs a political identity within borders has received little attention. How are processes of transnational political engagement mediated by the national context of settlement? How do they inform political engagement in that national context? Does transnational political subjectivity mitigate/aggravate political exclusion at the national level? Does it inhibit/enhance the creation of local ‘political space’? Popular discourse frequently suggests that transnational ties represent an impediment to the formation of local identifications; a danger to citizenship and integration in countries of settlement. But there is little research to support this claim. Similarly, interest in Muslim transnational relations in particular too often focuses on the characteristics of the population, or the characteristics of Islamic culture, in a way that overlooks “the role of social and political circumstances in shaping how people make sense of the world and then act upon it” (Kundnani, 2014, p.10).

This project recognises that transnational practices take place in local settings; shaped by the particular opportunities and constraints present in different localities (Guarnizo and Smith, 1998; Mahler, 1998). It investigates these issues through in-depth empirical research which considers how different histories of settlement, different population profiles, and different local conditions/constraints, affect the political identities possible in London and Los Angeles. In the context of the on-going 'War on Terror', and an increasing political and media focus on a security threat that is ‘home grown’, the transnational practices of British and American Muslims have gained attention. This has fed into a range of recent policy proposals which bring the constitutionally protected activities of a large number of people under increasing surveillance (Kundnani, 2014). In popular debate and the practice of public policy, then, transnational ties may affect local experiences of citizenship but more research is needed to understand how transnational activity is situated in local social, cultural and political milieu.

IA Forum: From your previous research on the stateless Urdu-speaking population in Bangladesh, what did you discover in your analysis about political space among the stateless?

Dr. Victoria Redclift: What I found was that statelessness is not the stable identity so often depicted, and it does not tell the story solely of exclusion. The identity that has been conferred on ‘stateless’ populations has traditionally been one that has been excluded from the political domain. But my work with the Urdu-speaking population of Bangladesh reveals a ‘stateless’ population permeating the political domain, in a way that challenges our understandings of political community.

The concept of ‘political space’ draws on Partha Chatterjee’s notion of ‘political society’ which is about the way civil society marginalizes the politics of poor people and the distinctions between ‘citizens’ and ‘populations’  that it creates. However, my approach departs from the Foucauldian tradition of governmentality and concentrates on delineations of, and movements within, space because these were consistent themes in the narratives of my informants. ‘Political society’ is the society of subjects who wish to have the same rights as citizens but, excluded from civil society, they are instead managed by technologies of state. ‘Political space’ is the space of subjects who, excluded by history and power, negotiate relationships with the state.

In the case of the ‘Urdu-speaking’ camps of Bangladesh we see how historical processes and political discourses shape the social and spatial arrangement of society, informing the identities and political subjectivities available to people. We also see that the limits of political community are porous and shifting. Georgio Agamben’s (1998, p.123) “pure, absolute and impassable biopolitical space” is, therefore, overly deterministic. The camps of Bangladesh do not function as bounded physical or conceptual territories in which denationalized groups are altogether divorced from the polity. Instead, ‘acts of citizenship’ (Isin and Nielsen, 2008) occur at the level of everyday life, as the moments in which formal status is transgressed. Some camp residents used the addresses of relatives outside camps to acquire national ID cards with which they could get jobs, others bribed officials to get hold of passports, and others simply moved outside the camps and ‘passed’ as Bengali in order to get children into school. These ‘acts of citizenship’ were, to my informants, the most banal and obvious everyday strategies of survival. Like discourses of ‘irregularity’ in the West (Squire, 2011), ‘statelessness’ is constructed as a social or legal status that an individual holds, when it is in fact a varied and unstable condition that can be moved in and out of. It is not coherent, pre-given or contained, and it cannot be fixed as a condition of marginality. It is a social and political space which has at its core not only subordination and control, but also ambivalence, contestation and resistance.

IA Forum: An ongoing and evolving question is: what are the definitions of a citizen and a stateless person?  Your thoughts?

Dr. Victoria Redclift: Citizenship is not well defined in international law. Whether it refers to the right to political participation, or the right to a formal and legally recognized status, or the right to hold markers of that status in the form of passports and ID cards largely depends on country and context. All of which makes it more difficult to protect. International law does define a stateless person as someone “who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law” (Article One of The Convention relating to the Status of ‘stateless’ Persons 1954). However, if we are not entirely clear on what a ‘national’ is then this is not as straightforward as it sounds.

Whatever the limitations of international law, the simple and common-sense binary between a ‘legally recognized subject’ and a person ‘not recognized as a citizen of any country’ (OED, 2015) does little to account for the creativity employed by stateless groups in 

Read this rest of the interview and more in the latest issue of  International Affairs Forum, focusing on migration and statelessness, by clicking HERE.

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