Denationalisation: A punishment reserved for Muslims

Recent examples of expatriation practices in the UK and Australia demonstrate a glaring anti-Muslim bias.

Sajid Javid Reuters
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 [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.

In its increasingly routine exercises of expatriation, the British government has shown itself to be a habitual violator of the same “British values” it purports to be protecting from the threat of Muslim “extremism” – namely, “the rule of law, democracy, individual liberty and the mutual respect, tolerance and understanding of different faiths and beliefs”.

The UK’s home secretary has almost unfettered discretion to relieve individuals of their British citizenship – no legal trial or conviction necessary – if he or she decides it is “conducive to the public good”.

Although this provision is only supposed to be used against dual nationals, British courts have upheld denationalisation decisions even in situations where the second citizenship is little more than a legal fiction, leaving the ex-citizen effectively stateless. The Immigration Act passed in 2014 further expanded the already-expansive powers of the home secretary to render individuals officially stateless, stripped not only of one’s national identity but of the “right to have rights”.

Appeals in cases of citizenship-stripping involving national security are heard before the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), the special features of which include the use of secret evidence that the accused is not allowed to see: an arrangement denounced by the UK Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights as “offensive to the basic principles of adversarial justice” and “fair play”.

The possibility of meaningful appeal is rendered even more illusory by the government’s pattern of performing expatriations when the subject is out of the country and barred from returning to challenge it.   Two men are known to have been hunted down and killed by US drones in Somalia after being dispossessed of their British citizenships – demonstrating the fatal power of denationalisation.

Muslims appear to be the most likely victims of citizenship-stripping in Australia as well. Its denationalisation law was applied most recently against accused Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) recruiter Neil Prakash.

On December 29, Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton announced that the citizenship of Prakash, who is from Melbourne, had been revoked – a decision he has refused to reconsider despite the revelation that it would almost certainly leave him stateless, in violation of both Australian and international laws.

The targeting of Australian Muslim with expatriation measures reflects the prevailing preoccupation with Muslim sources of “ideological extremism” in Australian society. Yet “the attention given to what is represented as Islamic extremism is far out of proportion to its impact in Australian society, which is close to zero,” note Australian academics Scott Poynting and Linda Briskman.

The dangers of “right-wing extremism”, in contrast, are generally “minimised in public and political arenas”, Poynting and Briskman remark – one salient danger being the permeation of extreme-right propaganda into those very arenas. One politician with a proven track record of susceptibility to such propaganda is Home Affairs Minister Dutton himself, who proposed fast-tracking visas for white South African farmers – supposed victims of the “white genocide” invented by the far right – even while confining Rohingya and other refugees fleeing actual genocide in rights-abusive offshore detention camps.   

Of the 45 “terrorist” incidents listed in the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database for Australia since 2001, nine were by Muslims while 10 were against Muslims. But while Muslims have been convicted of “terrorism” and sentenced to multi-year prison terms for embryonic plots – lacking such essential components as weapons, feasible plans and concrete targets – perpetrators of executed violence against Muslims have received comparably minimal punishment.

A neo-Nazi who fired shots at the Suleymaniye Mosque in Perth, for example, was given a fine but no jail time. Another man who firebombed a mosque in Brisbane was spared criminal conviction, out of the judge’s concern for his employment prospects, and ordered to do community service instead.  

The disparity in consequences will likely be exacerbated by recently-proposed amendments to Australia’s citizenship-stripping law, which seeks to lower the threshold for “terrorism”-based denationalisation. The amendments would also make it easier to leave targets stateless, following the lead of the UK.

The campaign to strip citizenship from so-called “extremists” exposes the “extremism” of the “war on terror” itself – which has progressively normalised the idea that Muslims accused of being dangerous should be “cast out” not only from Western law and politics, but from the ambit of human rights altogether.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.