Homo Sacer Australis

Australia’s recent changes to legislation, allowing the government to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals fighting with terrorist organisations abroad, is misguided and could further imperil the lives of Australians.

The changes are meant to serve as a deterrent to those considering joining IS and other such groups, but there is little evidence to suggest they will work. The United Kingdom has had similar laws in place for more than a decade and still has one of the highest numbers of citizens fighting overseas.

Painting on a wall of IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi

Painting on a wall of IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Copyright Thierry Ehrmann  2014.

The Australian government’s new approach fails to address the underlying factors that lead to radicalization. In my view, one of the major factors is that young Muslims feel a lack of meaningful agency due to social marginalisation.

Many Australian Muslims struggle to find quality employment despite the fact that they are generally well educated and have high tertiary education participation rates. In fact, they are more likely to have a tertiary degree than non-Muslims (21% of Muslims vs. 15% for non-Muslims).

However, this is not translating into employment opportunities, especially quality employment. For example, in March 2007, a government paper found that the unemployment rate for Muslims aged between 19 and 24 was 18% – twice the rate for young Australians more generally. The paper found that when Muslims did find employment, 43% earned less than $200 a week, compared to 27% of the general population. Only 5% earned more than a $1000 a week, compared to 11% of the general population.

Another government paper, written for the Department of Social Services argues that there is a feeling amoung some Muslims that getting a good education is not necessarily going to lead to better job:

“This is the result not so much of institutional discrimination, but the less tangible perception of generalised discrimination and prejudice against Muslims as a collective in Australian society. This is perceived to be fostered by the media and pejorative government attitudes towards Muslims locally and overseas. These are areas that need to be addressed in order to promote and strengthen Australia’s societal harmony.”

If radicalisation is a result of marginalisation, the solution is relatively clear: we must attempt to create a more inclusive society, one in which young Muslims feel as though they have a meaningful sense of agency. This is not an easy solution, but it is the right one.

The solution that Australia has in mind will not only fail to combat radicalisation, it will place people that have not been convicted of an offence under Australian law in an appalling limbo that I don’t think should be forced upon anyone. For example, if one holds an Australian passport and a Syrian passport, and one chooses to live in Australia because of circumstances in Syria, having one’s Australian citizenship revoked means being forced to live in Syria, a place that one chose to leave.

It is a punishment potentially worse than serving a prison sentence, where at least the environment is being monitored and there is duty of care. It makes no sense to place people that have not even been convicted of a crime in worse conditions than convicted rapists and murderers. Is fighting for ISIS worse than raping and murdering people? The government might claim that those in question will remain free to live their lives in another country, but what kind of lives will they be? What about their chances of future rehabilitation?

We must clarify something here. Not all acts carried out by foreign fighters classify as terrorism. Even in terms of the most conservative definitions of terrorism, those fighters who are identifiable and display their weapons openly, who fight in conventional terms (broadly speaking), and who target only enemy combatants, cannot be considered as conducting acts of terrorism.

An Daesh poster adorns a shipping container in Syria. Copyright Thierry Ehrmann 2015.

An Daesh poster adorns a shipping container in Syria. Copyright Thierry Ehrmann 2015.

During my research for this article, I found myself thinking quite a lot about the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s concept of the ‘homo sacer’ or ‘sacred man’. The title, which comes from an ancient Roman law, describes a person who, by committing certain crimes, is exiled and has their rights as a citizen revoked, meaning that s/he can be killed by anyone but not (ritually) sacrificed. The homo sacer is the human being devoid of its political dimension, in other words, the human being stripped of its political agency. Agamben defines this state of being as ‘bare life’.

Australia currently risks producing its own homo sacer. We should not be fooled by the assurances that people will not be left in limbo. The countries with which Australia will have to broker these deals may prove reluctant to take them, and even if they do, it may drastically diminish their quality of life.

The Danish city of Aarhus has taken a very different approach. It has begun a program that sees the police, social services and schools working closely together to help reintegrate returning fighters and educate young people so that radicalisation does not occur in the first place. While the program is still in its infancy, it has already had a certain amount of success:

“from late 2012 until the end of last year, 31 men aged between 18 and 25 left Aarhus, a city of 325,000 people, bound for Syria. This year, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, there has been just one.”

The program does not, however, extend to those that they believe may have committed crimes under Danish law. This seems entirely reasonable as it focuses on what the individual has actually done rather than his or her affiliation to a particular group.

There is no reason why the Australian government could not take a similar approach: those suspected of crimes under Australian law should be investigated and, if the evidence warrants it, charged and tried. For those cleared of suspicion there should be the option of rehabilitation. There seems to me to be no better weapon against radicalisation than those that have previously been radicalized themselves and who now wish to help others in their community.