Spring 1999. With all the precocious privilege of a gap-year student, I walked into the police headquarters in Allahabad, India and strode up to the information desk. Looking every inch the backpacker in my creased linen trousers and retro shirt, I explained in carefully practised Urdu: ‘I’m the grand-daughter of Dr Sabir Hussain. I wonder if I could speak to anyone who knew him?’ It was my first time in Allahabad, the birthplace of my father and both sets of grandparents, and my first trip to India. I had visited Karachi on many occasions as it was where my mother was born and where most of my relations had moved after Partition, but now I was travelling around South and Southeast Asia with friends. An entirely different experience. They had stayed behind in nearby Varanasi while I took an early morning bus and set off on the two-and-a-half-hour ride to seek out relatives. My grandfather, the former Police Commissioner of Allahabad, had died a few years earlier and my parents had since lost touch with the few, rather more distant, relatives still residing in India. I had met him only once as a child when he briefly visited us in London. He would love watching Sesame Street on television and my mum had to make extra-soft chapattis for him because he wore dentures. He seemed so gentle and a million miles away from the austere and stern man I had grown up hearing about. His wife had died in 1943 when my dad was just three years old and by the late 1950s he had sent his sons to England, via Pakistan. My uncle, Dad’s older brother, excelled in his studies to become a professor of entomology and a writer of Islamic books, while Dad dropped out of his maths degree to work as a DJ at BBC Radio Nottingham, grew a long (non-Taliban) beard and soon resembled a latter-day hipster. He was eventually persuaded to finish his university studies on the promise that if he got a proper job he would finally be allowed to marry my mum, which he did on a trip back to Karachi in 1972.
There was a flurry of activity at the police station and before long I was introduced to some of my grandfather’s former colleagues who regaled me with tales of his much-feared discipline, authoritarian manner and great religious piety. The respect they obviously afforded him was extended to me and I felt a little embarrassed by their deference. I also felt keenly that I was absolutely not how they imagined the grand-daughter of Dr Sabir Hussain to be. Every time someone would enter the room I was certain I could detect a look of incredulity before murmurings of ‘she is from England’ would be offered as way of explanation, as if that made perfect sense. I began to hope I hadn’t done my grandfather’s reputation a disservice. Phone calls were made, relatives were tracked down and I was whisked away to stay with them. Their first gift to me as I entered their home: a freshly washed and ironed shalwar kameez and a copy of the Qur’an.
In that moment, as my new-found relatives pampered me with their hospitality, all the while seeking to re-mould me in the imagined expectation of my grandfather’s gaze, I understood the complex interplay of power that determines our relations with others. With a well-thumbed copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism and William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns among my meagre possessions, I had not travelled to India to ‘find myself’ but had been ready to expand the boundaries of my own understanding of identity, through the human interaction that finding ‘others’ would invite. India was to be experienced on my own terms, without the social conformity that my perfectly enjoyable visits to my mother’s family home in Karachi inevitably entailed. Yet, in the vein of social exchange theory, the argument that the equity of any relationship is measured not by an individual’s possession of power but instead by society’s constructed assessment of the benefits of each interaction rang true. It occurred to me that I had trampled all over the carefully assembled relationship parameters my grandfather had constructed over a lifetime.
It wasn’t, and still isn’t, clear how that should make me feel. What was apparent, though, was that however far apart the spaces we occupy, whether in time or distance, in life and even in death, relations cannot exist in a vacuum; they are entrenched in a complex matrix, have a context. It was the French philosopher Michel Foucault who asserted that, once born into a society we are introduced to the concept of power through our formative relationships. Our parents and guardians resolve how they will bring us up and our families particularise the manners and social etiquette that become our norms. Upon entering education it is ultimately the teacher who filters our knowledge streams and decides what we should learn and how. Our relationships deny the possibility that we can live as oases of autonomy minding our own business. The part reflects the whole and at the very minimum we must abide by the law of the land because the manner in which we relate to society will determine whether or not we will be allowed to exercise that same society’s version of free will.
Free will in a free society is a contested concept. Not least because the notion of society and nations and states making decisions autonomously, without consideration for the nexus of global power within which they compete for a place, is impossible. So how do we reconcile that in Islamic texts free will is seemingly enshrined? There is no compulsion in Islam states the Qur’an (2:256). Our actions are our personal responsibility and we alone must account for them. How does this compute with entrenched societal roles and international geopolitics that determine the path an individual or community or nation takes in its journey of existence? Relationships can be manipulated to curb individualism and free will as Syed Nomanul Haq’s fascinating discussion of patronage practices in Islamic history reveals. These acts of supposed benevolence that cultivated the wealth of scholarship and intellectual growth, so characteristic of the history of Muslim societies, are perhaps not quite what they seem. He writes in reference to the Ghaznavid Sultans, opulent Turkic rulers who reigned across central Asia, Iran and the Indian sub-continent from 977 to 1186: ‘patronage was not simply a symbolic expression or a mere metaphor of glory and dominion; rather, it was irreversibly integrated into the actual running machinery of the empire… courts and rulers and individual patrons often treated scholars literally as commodity, something that came as part of the booty or loot of conquests, or acquired as gifts from friendly neighbouring dynasties, or as material tokens of surrender from weak ones.’ Could it really be that the wealth of intellectual riches that provided the hallmark of Islam’s golden era, were in fact the result of symbiotic relationships and the commodification of talent? Were the Muslim world’s great advances in the arts, science, music and scholarship the upshot of kidnap and exploitation by a power-hungry and wealthy elite? The romantic notion of the benevolent patron who takes under his wing those among his people who are gifted and skilled, out of a quiet passion to foster the growth of thought and knowledge, is laid bare. Patronage was rather more likely a trophy in the power play of competing civilisations, a display of superiority and dominance in accordance with the value signifiers of the day. Yet, Noman reminds us, the balance of power remains complex and non-binary. He relates that ibn Sina, the Persian polymath born in the tenth century and regarded as one of the most significant thinkers and writers of the period in the history of Islam regarded as the Golden Age, was involved in his own machinations to secure patronage when and where it was available. He would adjust his loyalties as befitted his ambition, abandoning posts with the shrewdness of a political player and aligning himself with those in the ascendant. To assume that relationships between benefactors and their charges entailed a one-way conveyor belt of leverage, would be simplistic. Nomanul Haq explains: ‘scholars here were not only passively subjects to or acted upon by these elements, they were themselves actors.’
Nomanul Haq’s exposition illustrates that to varying degrees we are all actors in the story of our lives, yet our personal relations equally have the potential to define the fate that stretches before us, sometimes even proving instrumental in our deaths. Families are notorious bubbles of dysfunctional harmony that nurture, frustrate, gladden and also break our hearts. Warring couples, sibling rivalry, in-law disputes, overbearing mothers, authoritarian fathers, inheritance tussles, infidelity, delinquent or neglectful children: the capacity for inflicting pain and suffering on our nearest and dearest is immeasurable. History is built on the trajectories of imploding relations, with wars of succession shaping the fate of communities since time immemorial. The Mughals had no structure in place that automatically qualified an eldest son to assume his father’s empire upon his demise. Instead, vying heirs were expected to use political and military intrigue and even assassination to seize power. The Mughal Emperor Aurungzeb, whose father Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in memory of his beloved deceased wife Mumtaz, famously had his brothers killed and his father deposed in his seventeenth century campaign to become the sixth Mughal Emperor. His father had favoured his eldest child Dara Shikoh, a sophisticated intellectual who championed plurality of thought, the arts and cultural syncreticity. Aurungzeb, on the other hand, was deeply conservative and found this religious liberalism distasteful. He railed against what he considered Dara’s deplorable and lascivious lifestyle, illustrating the fissures in the brothers’ relationship to be more than a power struggle or a Lacanian desire for Daddy’s approval. Their feud was ideological. Ultimately it was Aurungzeb’s qualities as a military leader that guaranteed his success, with any threat to his position irrevocably quashed when he ordered Dara’s execution on grounds of apostasy. Similar stories can be found about the Ummayads and the Abbasids.
Such audacious dynastic familicide is thankfully rare these days. Yet, navigating the tightrope of relations is a precarious fate for no other reason than that relationships themselves, the exchanges, interactions and memories that form our identities are complex, fractured and fraught. What is it about our role in a family that anchors us and sets us adrift at the same time? I had never understood why my father, upon leaving India at the age of sixteen, never once returned. But, fleetingly, in the excitement of meeting long lost relatives in the midst of surroundings that my grandfather would have found so familiar, I felt the ache of a past that was long gone, unimagined in the condition of exile and un-belonging. As Aamer Hussein movingly writes in his journey of diaspora, ‘Annie’, the dislocation so intrinsic to the individualistic migrant experience is ongoing, existential and uniquely dispossessing: ‘I was drawn to displaced people. Miruhi’s family had left Ethiopia via Sudan and Egypt during a time of tumult; she’d married an Englishman, but was always nostalgic for the Nile. Fari was from Tehran; halfway through his PhD in Chemical Engineering, from Imperial College, Khomeini took over Iran and Fari didn’t want to return there. Roman had defected on a holiday from Poland, and was also at Imperial. He was stateless and didn’t know where he would go when he graduated.’ For a generation that had no recourse to the luxury of global technological communication to keep relationships with ‘back home’ alive and dynamic, to be dispersed into the Western imagination was perhaps preferable to a return to an unrecognisable homeland.
Yet we continue on with our lives in the knowledge that there is no consistency or equity in relationships, imagined or otherwise. My grandfather and I never had the opportunity to cultivate a relationship in the way that he did with the police officers he commanded or those who knew him well. Yet, I entered his world of accepted behaviours and usurped his control. Authority in relationships can be subverted but we can never assume its limits are ours to define. An African-American male must now fear for his life if pulled over by the US police for a trivial traffic violation, unlike his white counterpart. As the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement illustrates, there is no righteousness in the power relations we navigate. But neither can these regimes of truth, as Foucault describes them, be reduced to hierarchical structures. To view relations in terms of one entity interacting with just one other equally separate entity, blinds us to the unwieldiness of interaction.
Instead, what we experience is an interconnected relationship web across which power is disseminated at a dizzying spectrum of levels and intensities. In the course of their heartfelt and tender interfaith conversation, Fatimah Ashrif and Julian Bond exemplify such amplified reciprocity. Their exchange is premised on the notion that they represent two disparate theological positions. However, as they come together to read religious scripture drawn from the Islamic and Christian traditions, their shared experience transcends any dichotomy of faith. In spaces that are neither mosque nor church, or are sometimes mosque or sometimes church, their compassionate study and contemplation of the same sacred texts that divide them, draw them together and into a relationship of collective worship and intimacy with God and each other. By exploring their own interpretation of religion and taking responsibility for their relationship with the divine, the permeation of each other’s belief shines a light on all that they already share. As Ashrif explains, ‘Julian and I are not interested in dissolving Christian-Muslim difference. There is a clear spiritual creativity, which is inspired by doctrinal difference. What we are interested in is dissolving with kindness and compassion where possible, the dogmatic attitudes, and the fear which prevents us having open-hearted communication about each other’s journeys.’ Their relationship is not contained within two vessels but is all-encompassing, informing future conversations and interactions they may have with countless others who exist across their networks and with whom they may have even the most fleeting passing personal exchange.
In their lived experience of the democratisation of power through relations, Ashrif and Bond illustrate the mastery of the concept. Their impact upon each other is not total but is beyond the spheres of influence that unite and divide them, perpetually creating knowledge and deepening bonds of understanding. The process of self-disclosure that drives relationships is, in their case, organic, unhurried and substantive. In an increasingly individualistic world, transformative relations celebrate collective experience to strengthen the web of connectivity that is our reality. Society benefits and we are all empowered.
Collective experience is regarded as the converse of individualism, which is the inescapably prevailing condition of contemporary first world society and shapes our view of governance and our ability to cope with globalisation. So-called spoiled, self-absorbed millennials who can’t see past the smartphone screens glued permanently to their faces plunge into precarious social relationships that are as superficial and transient as Julian and Fatimah’s relationship is rich in depth. According to sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, this generation, coming of age in the 2000s, is slave to ‘liquid modernity’. He describes their relations as a continuum of weak and ephemeral liaisons that require minimal commitment. Social attachments remain brief and are characterised by self-interest and narcissism. The consequential heightened emotional anxiety and insecurity felt by your average millennial leads to a cycle of fragile entanglements that lack stability and trigger chronic retreat into isolation. Such detachment from society stifles the development of personal responsibility or collective interest, undermining social cohesion and any sense of community. The microcosm is instructive of the macrocosm, providing fuel to the catastrophic fire of hyper-reality and post-truth politics that renders facts obsolete when they dare to not reflect the designated acceptable reality. His outlook is bleak but perhaps rather more pessimistic than it needs to be, especially when we think back to the opaque power dynamic Noman outlined in his analysis of patronage practices. Bauman laments the resultant decline in the importance of duty and obligation in family relations but does not acknowledge that such ties can sometimes restrict and impede. As Mohammed Moussa’s essay on ‘Kith and Kin in Japanese Politics’ shows, there are societies still in a default of rigid pathways linked to lineage: ‘Party politics in Japan is an elite endeavour that has in some instances become the preserve of established families.’ Just as the Mughal dynasty dominated Indian governance from the early sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries, Japanese politics is mired in genealogical accumulation of power. Something Bauman would surely find problematic.
Reframing family relations can liberate many from restrictive concepts of honour and shame and challenge structures that oppress and stifle or monopolise access to power. Innovative solutions for the care of the elderly, for example, are very gradually being embraced by Muslim communities who had once viewed with horror and disdain the idea of residential care homes. Traditional communities are balancing the benefits of such options against the sometimes inadequate provision that loving or even resentful and duty-bound children are providing for their elders, which simply do not meet their needs. A stroke nurse working in London’s Tower Hamlets once remarked to me that close-knit and devoted extended families with roots in the Indian subcontinent were killing stroke survivors with kindness by wrapping them in cotton wool and waiting on them hand and foot. Such over-protective and indulgent attention was motivated by duty as well as love, but impaired the recovery of patients and any prospect that they may regain their strength and confidence to once more lead an independent life. Expectation coupled with desire to take care of our relations may not always be in the best interests of those we hold dear. Frequently we are told that Islam commands us to be kind to our parents and that paradise lies under the feet of our mother, a thoroughly noble concept. Yet to be so beholden to relatives is to misunderstand the vibrant and versatile concept of relations in Islamic thought, putting those who are vulnerable to the abuse of power at risk. The classic drama of a mother feigning illness and taking to her sick bed in an effort to emotionally blackmail her son into marrying the girl of her choosing is a devastating manifestation of archaic and disempowering family obligations. Honour crimes reveal the most extreme pathology of a minority and are by no means exclusive to Muslim communities, but let us be clear: a mindset that thinks it is shameful for one to fall in love because you are betraying the expectations of your family or community and not shameful to murder an innocent person out of a perverse sense of ‘honour’ has lost all its ethical bearings and must be disassembled.
While addressing a variation of this mindset, Edinburgh-based Safeena Razzaq’s wry series of illustrations ‘Brown Girl Problems’ provide light relief to such poignant issues and have a universal resonance with which many will identify. She sketches awkward, uncomfortable scenarios with wit and sensitivity, drawing on her own experience of cultural confusion, and attempts to locate her identity in the vortex of patriarchal and hyper-real ‘liquidity’ that is our global construct. Her illustrations may be specific to her personal history as a second-generation Muslim girl from the Indian sub-continent growing up in the UK, but her crises are universal, resonating with all those who seek to subvert the generational norms in which they feel constrained. Nadiah Ghani similarly writes about her struggle to maintain her identity as a ‘freehair’, or unveiled, girl in Malaysia. Family and societal pressure to conform to the increasingly narrow definition of religiosity in the country, is projected onto the female form. Control of women becomes the contested battle ground for the formation of Muslim identity in the experience of both Ghani and Razzaq. Each chooses to walk away from the definition that has been chosen for them as Muslim women and in Ghani’s words: ‘women like me will simply carry on leading our dual existences because it is our right to uphold the identity we choose for ourselves’.
Does the vision of the self to which we aspire lead to a cohering of what we term identity? If identity is fixed and complete then where do we weave in Aamer Hussein’s journey of diaspora or Ghani’s, Razzaq’s, and my own experience of cultural shift? What are the implications for an individual whose identity sits at a crossroads of multiple pressure points? Once again, relationships refuse to be quantified as hermetically sealed entities colliding and parting in repetitive isolation. We can begin to consider the way in which identity is not inscribed on the self but is part of a matrix of relationships that mesh together from all angles to constitute our being. If identity is considered less in terms of being about singular perception or exclusive experience, we are able to appreciate the impact of the structural apparatus that regulates society and administers free will only as they deem fit. Expanding on Foucault’s position, bell hooks argues that it is here that we must carve out the space in which multiple relationships are configured but not cohered. It is by embracing intersectionality that we may tackle the exclusivity of social justice movements and categories of differentiation such as feminism. As far as she can see, we can only do this by identifying the overlapping and multitudinous traits that interact to make up what we refer to as our social identities. It is when we direct our chimera of ourselves through this prism of intersectionality that we will realise that Feminism is for Everybody, including Muslims, insists Michael Perez. He cites hooks’ work to problematise the essentialism of feminism, wherein patriarchy and injustice are charted according to the lived reality of the white, middle-class, educated female, as informing his thesis. The relationship between structures of power and a white, university-educated professional will not be the same as that between a woman of colour who is of a different class or a Muslim woman or a woman with disabilities. Once we tear down universalist and simplistic versions of truth, we can speak to the struggles of the marginalised, the voiceless, the individual.
The attempt to re-define feminism and acknowledge the heterogeneity of female experience is to once again comprehend the non-linearity of relationships in our culturally diverse societies. How we administer and translate relationships is unequivocally defined according to hetero-normative, patriarchal structures, which Piro Rexhepi recognises and deciphers in his essay ‘Borders’. Just as Michael Perez subverts the assumed relationship between Islam and misogyny by asserting a space for feminist Muslims, Rexhepi turns his attention to the interplay between Islamophobia and homophobia. Employing a mesmerising mix of reportage and lived experience, he documents the exploitation of queer politics in Muslim-majority Balkan countries as European Union expansion becomes premised on the LGBT-friendly credentials of the applying nation. There is much to be said about the current state of the European Union, to which we will come shortly. Suffice to say the aim to choreograph acceptable queer subjects along Western normative lines to serve as tools to identify ‘good’ secular, traditional Muslims as opposed to those Muslims who adhere to foreign and un-European interpretive practices is a consummate example of the hegemonic power relationships of globalisation and its destructive effluence, that has compounded the insecurity and uncertainty we face today.
Whatever one’s view on the rise of individualism and its impact on relations, it is apparent that in our increasingly interconnected, interdependent and globalised world, relationships are splintering and no longer conforming to type. Bauman looks to social media in particular as wreaking havoc on human interaction by encouraging anti-social and solitary behaviour. With so many mediums enabling us to connect, there are an equal number of ways to feel ignored and disconnected. Social networks encourage us to disclose more and more of ourselves both emotionally and visually to a ravenously consuming public with a short yet unforgiving attention span, in a dynamic of questionable trust. The potential for emotional and sexual abuse in these domains is exponential and devoid of sanctuary because, digitally, we are permanently plugged in. In an age of hyper-real expressions of intimacy and the constant desire for validation, romance and desire become a minefield of arbitrary relations. Ayisha Malik, author of the feisty and highly relatable romantic comedy Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, introduces us to the trials and tribulations of a Single Muslim Female looking for love. Her essay is a foreword that ties together the episodic strands that led to the novel. She adores Bridget Jones’ Diary, she tells us, but found she could not entirely identify with her icon’s escapades: ‘here’s the thing: she drank alcohol. A lot of it. And she had sex. She complained that she never had enough because she was always single, but Bridge, trust me, you were way ahead of the Muslim game… no sex before marriage. Not even a little sex. Like, phone sex… I’ve never had an occasion for genuinely tiny knickers. Because as a practising Muslim the only person seeing my genuinely tiny knickers would be me, and perhaps my mum when she accidentally walks into my room.’ If Bauman worries that millennials are on the precipice of perpetual anxiety in an age of unpredictable social mores, perhaps he should spare a thought for young Muslims. Caught in the glaring headlights of relentless and meticulous scrutiny, they have had the misfortune of waking up to an age in which all the assumed conventions they were led to believe should form a yardstick for that random chore, otherwise known as getting through life, are hideously outdated. Malik sums it up perfectly when asked for the umpteenth time why she is not married: ‘Well, Auntie number three-hundred-and-twenty-six, I’m trying, but it’s not like it was in your day.’
Therein is the crux of the matter: it’s just not like it was in our parents’ day, or our grandparents’ day or anyone’s day for that matter. Contemporary postnormal times appear to have flung us into an entirely unknowable set of circumstances and there is no guide-book in sight. Long-gone are the extended family networks that would intrigue and conspire to marry this person with that person and neatly package everyone up, complete with a tight ribbon guaranteed to bind them together. While growing up, it seemed to me that it was the entire raison d’être of my mother’s generation to live their lives through their children and to successfully and auspiciously marry them off. What we see now is a disintegration of the world wide web of extended relations meddling in your love life, along with which, the surety of acquiring a half-decent spouse becomes a little more illusory. This is not to say that a half-decent spouse is better than no spouse at all, after all who actually wants to end up with ‘mister or miss let’s-make-do’? The breakdown of kinship bonds has doubtless created more opportunities for individuals to follow their own path in their expression of desire. It is also worth mentioning that internet dating and matrimonial events are potentially democratising ways to secure everlasting love. But, there’s no getting away from the fact that these days it all seems a bit harder.
Anxiety-ridden love, sex and emotional intimacy are the emblem of postnormal times. The insecurity we play out in our intimate relationships reflects the tumult that is projected in the arena of global relations. Faltering personal and social relationships are a small-scale snapshot of a wider phenomenon. In today’s post-truth society, fallacy has brought about its unravelling and the repercussions are infiltrating every aspect of our reality as we know it. The most troubling manifestation has been the rise in extreme and populist far right narratives in the media and in the political domain. The stuff of nightmares, the worst-case scenarios, our deep-seated fears that we dismissed as just too far-fetched to possibly be taken seriously are morphing into reality. Writers of satirical political programmes such as The Thick of It and Black Mirror are seeing their wildly imaginative tales of allegory metamorphose into true life. After the savage austerity of the UK coalition government led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, it did not for one second enter my realms of possibility that sit comfortably in my London-based liberal bubble, that the General Election of May 2015 would sweep in a Conservative government. All the polls were wrong. Every single person I know in real life and across social media was distraught. Who were these shy Tory voters and why would they confound my logic so resolutely? Confirmation bias is tangible in its power to redraw reality to reflect the narratives that social media reflects and reaffirms. Did I even realise how definitively social networks clump together to ping right back our values and friendship preferences? Who knew that there were so many people in the UK with such radically diverging values to my own? Worse was to come. On 23 June 2016, the day of the EU referendum, I sat in my favourite cafe with friends and reassured them that there was simply no way the British people would vote to leave the EU. At the very worst, I meandered, the result may be closer than we would like, which would indicate a worrying ugliness within British society, but they would still be overwhelmingly in the minority. I had planned to go to bed by midnight but as the first votes came in, revealing the Leave campaign to have garnered a far greater number than the polls had predicted, I had that same sinking feeling I had when the exit polls were announced for the General Election. I stayed up all night watching the unwelcome drama unfold in disbelief, just as I had done then. I was blindsided. So was everyone I knew. Everyone. A handful of friends had voted to leave due to perfectly reasonable left-wing concerns surrounding free trade legislation and the shoring up of fortress Europe, but certainly not to protest at immigration. I was shaken. The sheer fact that everything I feared most was coming true was horrifying and there was worse to come. You would have thought I would have learned my lesson and not dared to entertain complacency but on 8 November 2016 I was admittedly nervous, yet could not in any realms of fantasy comprehend the possibility that the next US President would be a misogynistic, xenophobic, reality TV celebrity and tax-avoiding billionaire who utters untruths with absolute abandon. It confirmed that nothing was knowable. The surreal was becoming the actual.
I wasn’t the only one. In her excellent analysis of disunity in the EU family, Annalisa Mormile echoes the sentiments of Bauman: that the valuing of difference in this great human adventure called the European Union has not benefitted everyone. Those who feel their invitation to the EU party was lost in the post have lashed out in the most visceral way possible. The vote to leave, for many, was a rare opportunity to voice their desire for sovereignty, ‘to get our country back’ and to varying degrees an objection to migrants. In Mormile’s words, immigration ‘provoked among the majority the most common of human fears: the fear of losing one’s job and personal security.’ She goes on to examine the EU project in relation to the crisis of asylum seekers and refugees, highlighting the 1990 Dublin Convention, which was designed to establish the common framework for deciding where an asylum application should be processed and to ensure it remains that country’s responsibility. The appalling handling of the refugee crisis has unfolded with all its stark human misery over the past couple of years, emphasising that the convention is ‘built on an illusion of EU common standards, whereas both reception conditions and recognition rates vary considerably.’ For Mormile, the tragic debacle demands a reassessment of the core notion of responsibility upon which the EU design, and the Dublin Treaty in particular, is based: ‘the English word responsible stems from the Latin spondeo, which means “offer, promise”. If we consider the term spondeo together with re-spondeo, we must assume that re points out that a counter-offer has been made in response to an initial one. So, in the very act of responsibility, two aspects are fundamental: a feeling of reciprocity and the response to the other. Whereas with the first offer the “other” demands of us responsibility, exchanging his or her offer with another one means we become responsible not only for ourselves, but also for the other.’ It is this ‘other’ – the refugee who flees wars in which Europe is implicated and abandons a homeland that Europe once colonised – who represents our worst fears and insecurities in this liquid age of anxiety. Mormile’s rallying cry that ‘a Europe worth its name, will always respond to the call of the “other”’ is sadly falling on deaf ears. The thousands of heart-wrenching deaths have no doubt elicited public sympathy. Yet the fact remains that those hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking nothing more than safety and a better life will step into a Europe that is barely papering over its cracks while public opinion continues to lurch to the right.
Mormile recalls waking up to the news of the Brexit result, shocked and disappointed. An Italian national living in the UK, her fears were heightened, but are soon offered some repose in the form of her students, who are as dismayed as she is. Will the next generation prove more outward looking and strident? All we can be sure of is that we are all exposed to the impossible irony of our perception of self, communities and nation-states, in the contemporary context of precarity. Power relationships are by nature unequal and indeterminate. The idea that being a member of the EU bloc means that a nation, and by sequence, an individual is therefore afforded incremental power is pure fantasy. Correspondingly, to regard exiting Europe as having taken power back is equally ludicrous. No government is able to make autonomous decisions and act only unto itself. We must reconcile to our status in the globalised world; we are but mere supplicants in a complex and haphazard web of interconnectivity, that we can try but will fail to press into service. If a rogue algorithm, triggered by a remark by French President François Hollande about the need for tougher Brexit negotiations, can cause a flash crash of the value of the British pound to historic lows in October 2016, the ‘let’s take our country back’ game surely has to be up.
But the game is not up. Populations are rebelling against globalisation in their droves as the Leave vote, the rise of UKIP and the march of the far right across Europe, as well as the obsession with immigration shows. Governments are resorting to jingoistic rhetoric in an attempt to acquiesce the populist appetite. Prime Minister Theresa May defied all rationale in her statement ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’ but her naked pandering to nationalism was carefully crafted to reach out to a disaffected and seemingly impenetrable chunk of the electorate. Similarly, Trump’s odious promise to build a wall to keep out Mexican ‘rapists’ and to ban Muslims from entering the country resonated with more than just someone out there. We live in an age of insecurity, and the foregrounding for this existential state of being is the unequal distribution of the benefits of interconnectivity. While the elites have become enriched, there are many, including those to whom the British PM and Trump were directing their sophistry, who, whether perceived or real, simply see no benefit in the current status quo.
The ties of family relationships, origin, culture and heritage bind us into power vortexes that equally dispossess in our age of anxiety. Everything that we took for granted has been turned on its head. But how did we get to this point? Cancun in Mexico was the location in 1981 for a summit called the International Meeting on Co-operation and Development, informally known as the North-South Conference. World leaders gathered to discuss how northern countries could aid southern countries in their efforts to develop and prosper. US President Ronald Reagan challenged the desirability of such co-operation. Self-reliance was far more worthy an aim, he argued, calling on poorer countries to show more initiative in the free market system in order to attain growth. Growth was all he was interested in, his own country’s growth. This attitude of self-interest has, above all else, shaped the evolution of globalisation in our lives. Western hegemony has supplanted international relations by tipping the balance in favour of Western corporations in our nations, which go on to mutate into multinational corporations dominating global trade and disseminating their own form of cultural imperialism. President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were the architects of the ‘me’ generation that has stamped its mark on our reality of today belching out the likes of Trump and his ilk. Of course there were winners, of which he, a billionaire who, born into extreme wealth is a poster boy of the power of multinational corporations and global elites. But there were so many more losers. The disparity in wealth distribution was not just between nations but also within nations. More than three decades of parochial government policy and under-investment in communities existing on the fringes has precipitated a rage that seeks easy scapegoats. The likes of UKIP and Donald Trump capture the imagination of those who feel that the political establishment does not speak for them or to them. The vote to leave the EU and Trump’s win was a resounding message to say that the interconnectivity of global relations is not working for everyone. Relationships do not need to be consistent to be authentic. As the web of relations become ever more complex and interconnected, attempting to circumscribe every connection to its boundaries is both impossible and unwelcome. Much like an ecosystem, relations are a vibrant and pulsating maelstrom of entities that would not exist if placed in isolation. I think back to my disordered relationship with the memory of my grandfather and I realise we sometimes fall into the grooves a needle runs through on a record. Every now and then a jolt can bring us out of complacency and help us to discover that a singular path is not the only way to bring creativity to the world and our lives.