Denationalisation: A punishment reserved for Muslims


British Home Secretary Sajid Javid recently defended the decision to denationalise and deport four Pakistani-British men convicted of sexually abusing vulnerable young women in Rochdale PHOTO/Reuters

In the name of “safeguarding” civilisation, the forces waging the “war on terror” have revived a form of punishment once described by the United States Supreme Court as “more primitive than torture”: the stripping of citizenship. Forced denationalisation entails “the total destruction of the individual’s status in organised society […and] subjects the individual to a fate of ever-increasing fear and distress […] In short, the expatriate has lost the right to have rights,” the court stated in its 1958 decision in the landmark case of Trop vs Dulles.

But despite these extreme effects of expatriation, a number of countries claiming to be the foremost defenders of human rights have enacted laws enabling them to strip citizenship from those they deem “terrorists” or otherwise undesirable, including the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada (subsequently revoked) and Australia.

(The US, for its part, has preferred in its counterterrorism strategy to stick with the supposedly less primitive tactic of torture, as well as extrajudicial killing by drone; since citizenship-stripping was declared largely unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1967, “it is easier [for the American government] to kill [its citizens] than expatriate” them, according to Temple Law School professor Peter Spiro.)

Two recent stories concerning citizenship-stripping – one in the UK and one in Australia– illuminate several of the troubling aspects of the practice: the dangerously-high levels of discretion accorded to government officials, the disproportionate targeting of Muslims, and the destruction of the most basic rights of the expatriated.

In a BBC interview on December 26, British Home Secretary Sajid Javid defended the decision to denationalise and eventually deport four Pakistani-British men convicted of sexually abusing and trafficking vulnerable young women in Rochdale – part of the “grooming gangs” scandal popularly represented as emblematising uniquely Muslim pathologies, even though it implicated less than 0.005 percent of the British Muslim population and nearly 90 percent of convictions for child abuse in the UK inculpate white men.

Indeed, the uncovering of a similar operation preying on teenaged girls in Derby in 2012 – but involving predominantly white abusers – failed to elicit any of the hysteria generated by the Rochdale case, and received virtually no media coverage.

Such realities, however, did not deter Javid from insisting on the significance of the Pakistani background of the Rochdale perpetrators, hypothesising the existence of “cultural reasons … that could lead to this type of behaviour.”    

Instead of looking afar to Pakistani “culture”, the home secretary could have found the “reasons” he was searching for much closer to home – recent inquiries having revealed the pervasiveness of similarly predatory and sexually exploitative “types of behaviour” in British churchespolitics, policingschoolschild welfare and the media and entertainment industries. The former long-term member of parliament for Rochdale itself, (non-Pakistani) Cyril Smith, had allegedly sexually assaulted at least eight boys in government care, as documented in a 2018 report from the official Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse – but was knighted instead of prosecuted.  

Javid’s assertions, then, shed less light on the cultural peculiarities attributed to Muslims than on the problems with what Berkeley University law professor Leti Volpp describes as “blaming culture for bad behaviour“: “When the actors involved are immigrants of colour, we label behaviour that we consider problematic as ‘cultural’ and understand this term to mark racial or ethnic identity … In contrast, when a white person commits a similar act, we view it as an isolated instance of aberrant behaviour.”

The “extra-territorialising of problematic behaviour by projecting it beyond the borders of ‘American values'”, as Volpp observes with reference to the American context, “has the effect both of equating racialised immigrant culture with sex-subordination, and denying the reality of gendered subordination prevalent in mainstream white America” – a critique that applies equally to the UK.

The banishment of Muslim sex offenders from British citizenship reifies this extra-territorialisation in law, adding an extra punishment for Muslims that is not imposed on white non-Muslim criminals. Children’s entertainer Rolf Harris, for instance, has not been threatened with expulsion to his country of birth, Australia, despite being found guilty in 2014 of 12 charges of indecent assault against young girls.

The Rochdale citizenship-stripping case represents a significant expansion of the state’s targeting of Muslims, “exemplifying how [citizenship] deprivation measures could be imposed beyond national security and terrorism concerns and imposed more routinely,” University of York sociologist Nisha Kapoor points out in her book Deport, Deprive, Extradite: 21st Century State Extremism.

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