By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Dr. Yasemin Sari, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Northern Iowa will deliver a free public lecture on “Equality at the Borders: Refugees and a Right to Place,” at 7 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 25, on the Third Floor of the IU Southeast Library.
Dr. Sari is a political philosopher whose work focuses on democratic political theory, especially as it relates to human rights, extra-institutional recognition and the borders between citizen and non-citizen. Her current research deals with today’s unprecedented global refugee crisis. Dr. Sari spoke with Academic Information Officer Steven Krolak.
How did you become interested in the thought and analysis of Hannah Arendt?
I first became interested in Hannah Arendt’s work as an undergraduate at Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey. We studied her accounts of political action and revolution—especially the “lost treasure” of the revolutionary tradition. Arendt’s idea of human freedom as manifested in the concerted action of a plurality of individuals was extremely intriguing for someone like me who was trying to think through the concept of political freedom. My philosophical interest in a political conception of freedom grew stronger, and led me to continue my studies, and to write an master’s thesis on the creative element of politics. The idea that politics can create new possibilities, and new spaces, where human beings can only become who they are in the presence of others, helped me see political events in a new light.
How has Arendtian thinking propelled your analysis of equality at the borders? How could rethinking the principle of equality in human rights discourse transform the current situation?
The principle of universal equality is one of the most important ideals in our social and political existence: the idea that all human beings have equal inalienable rights, and that these rights ought to be recognized, is a key element in much of Western politico-philosophical thought. Yet in practice, we inevitably fall short of achieving such equality. The logic of the nation-state rests on national sovereignty, and a state’s right to self-determination basically allows for the divide between who counts as part of this sovereign framework, and who doesn’t—who enjoys equality and who doesn’t. Simply put, the nation-state is the locus of authority to grant any such equality—and in most instances, this is granted only to its citizens. In this way one’s citizenship status determines one’s right to expect equality before the law. Hannah Arendt, on the other hand, offers an account of equality that rests on a performative recognition of each individual’s capacity to become equal in both an embodied and linguistic sense. In her view, the human being’s capacity to participate in political space—the ability to have an equal say, to be heard—provides the basis for equality. Inspired by this interpretation of equality, I call for an understanding of equality at the borders, where equality has traditionally been erased.
What is unique or new about today’s refugee crisis, compared with similar phenomena in the past?
According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a refugee is “a person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable […] or owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” But today’s refugee crises have a variety of causes that do not fit within that framework. For example, a person impoverished as result of a natural disaster does not fall under the category of refugee. Similarly, an ongoing civil war in one’s country does not become grounds enough to justify refugee status. Climate refugees, as they are referred to in the literature, do not fit into this category either. This is why the notion of having a “right to place” is important. If people do not have a place in the world where they can form meaningful social and political relationships without being under constant threat of the violation of their human rights, we cannot meaningfully ensure equality among individuals separated by state borders. One of the things that I wish to promote is an expansion of the refugee definition.
What is the role of the nation-state in today’s refugee crisis?
Nation-states have wide-ranging discretionary power over whom they admit to their territories. The contingency at stake in the decision to grant refuge, exemplified by the current refugee crisis, illuminates the contradictions between basic human rights and the sovereignty of the nation-state recognized by international law. The logic of the nation-state entails equality of insiders at the expense of excluding outsiders. A state’s integrity—its right to self-determination—implies that it may choose to close its borders, and thereby outsource its obligations onto other states in response to the refugees’ plight. In my work, I call into question the coherence of our normative frameworks in dealing with these human rights shortfalls, especially when fundamental rights to life and security are taken into account.
What does the term “right to place” mean in your work?
In today’s world, there is an inevitable spatial (or territorial) logic to which human rights adhere: One’s human rights are recognized if one belongs to a certain space, namely, if one is a citizen of a nation-state. While these human rights are considered universal and inalienable, when one is displaced or becomes stateless, these rights seem to no longer hold. As a result, individuals find themselves in limbo in terms of their equality. Through the articulation of a “right to place” I wish to emphasize, first, what cannot be a proper place, for instance, a refugee camp. For our sense of humanity is intimately linked with a sense of oneself, which has an embodied material existence, accompanied by an ability to project oneself in the future. The refugee camp, where the average wait time is 17 years, is not a place that affords meaningful future possibilities, nor the social and political relationships where one can exercise one’s basic rights and freedoms. Our capacity to recognize one another as equals, where such equality is not immediately guaranteed by any convention, can allow for the recognition of the refugees’ right to place, whereby refugees can become equal decision-makers in a community that they help to create, beyond the traditional state structure that usually defines who may and may not participate.
This event is hosted by the IU Southeast Department of Philosophy with the support of the Office of Academic Affairs and the IU Southeast Library.
Homepage photo: Dr. Yasemin Sari