Why Should We Read Agamben in the Era of Muslim Ban?

In January 2004, Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher, refused to travel to the United States to teach at New York University after biometric security measures such as retina scans and fingerprints were introduced to U.S. visas in the wake of the September 11 attack. Agamben’s account of biometric identification stated that gathering biological data to track citizens all but epitomizes the same sense of identifying Jewish inmates with their tattooed numbers during the Holocaust. In fact, only the form of that loathsome aggression has changed in time, not its repellent character.

In his insightful book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995), Agamben used two Ancient Greek terms—Zoe, or animal life; and Bios, or qualified life—to designate a specific group of citizens who are being deprived of human life (bios), and thus, are confined only to the biological one (zoe). At the heart of these conceptions to which Agamben made lay the concept of Homo Sacer: a banned man, devoid of the least bit of civil rights, who can be tortured, mutated, or even killed with perfect impunity. Historically, Homo Sacer draws its roots from ancient Roman law and denotes a criminal who has been banned from all of his rights as a citizen. For Agamben, the new totalitarianism, of which the post 9/11 America is a good example, tends to convert a citizen from human to Homo Sacer: one that can be easily bracketed off or readily suspended from because his life has been stripped of its political, legal or human significance; thus, he is only and purely (sometimes perilously) bare life.

Now, the crucial question here is how and by whom the process of conversion is to be operated.  This question can be cogently answered if we turn to another one of Agamben’s key ideas, namely, the ‘sovereign’. The sovereign, in principle, is a monarch, an emperor, or a president-elect who is in a position above the law, and is thereby the one who decides the group of people to reserve or remove the law from, and with it, the giving or withholding of their citizenship. What the sovereign decides, in terms of applying or suspending the law, represents an exclusionary mode of judgment. Based on such selective fashion of adjudication, Homo Sacer shall be placed on the same level as animal life, there to suffer the deprivation of law, citizenship, and human dignity, for not having been integrated enough into the sovereign’s definition of normality. Seeing this way, Homo Sacer is the very epitome of an excluded outsider against which the sovereign shares norms, defines standards, and provides guidelines.

Donald Trump as the Sovereign and Muslims as Homo Sacer

Exploring the multiple points of connection between the concept of Homo Sacer and Muslims who have been subjected to Trump’s Travel Ban is neither complicated to understand nor difficult to explain. One only needs to consider how the travel ban is rendering citizens of certain Muslim countries as people with respect to whom the law can be removed, revoked or relinquished. In this respect, Trump functions as a sovereign with his power to decide the citizens of which religion or country shall become Homo Sacer. Faced with the illegality of this assumption that a certain group of citizens can be treated unequally based on their national origin or religion, the sovereign then abuses his power to twist the very idea of legal eligibility: all citizens are equal before the law until proven as a noncitizen.

Travel Ban is not merely a judicial declaration of eligibility, weighted with gobbledygook and legal jargon such as ‘bona fide relationship’. It also belongs to the realm of imagination where Homo Sacer is the psychological manifestation of ‘denial’ culled from textual negating prefixes such as ‘un’ and ‘non’, or deprival suffix such as ‘less’.  Thus, a Muslim man in the imagination of Travel Ban’s staunch supporters is being seen as ‘un-American’, ‘non-white’, and eventually, ‘citizenless alien’. In light of all this, a Muslim man is a negated, denied and abandoned Homo Sacer in the wilderness of no man’s land whose wounded body and cursed mind is only for the realization of what a precious body and blessed mind must be—white, Christian, and liberal. Banned bodies and minds, however, are not limited to President Trump’s term of Office alone, but rather, they bear the history of themselves in the United Sates.

Under Chinese Exclusion Act, signed in 1882, the banned bodies from entering the U.S. were the Chinese; under Executive Order 1221, signed in 1980, the banned bodies were Iranians; under Ban on HIV-positive travelers, signed in 1987, the banned bodies were mostly Africans; under Anarchist Exclusion Act, signed in 1903, the banned minds were anarchists; and finally, under Communist Control Act, signed in 1950, the banned minds were Marxists.  Here, the changing character of Homo Sacer is evident. Homo Sacer was once a Chinese, once a Communist, but now, he is certainly a Muslim.

At this point, we can glance back at the question in the title of this article. Reading Agamben in the era of Muslim Ban teaches us that being ‘human’ is the personification of ‘ability’: the ability to travel, the ability to think, the ability to choose, the ability to protest. Agamben timely reminds us that we were all born in the splendid form as ‘human’. Indeed, we are not Homo Sacer!

Nima Zahedi Nameghi is a PhD candidate student at Laval University where he works on his Ph.D. thesis entitled “Empire and Frontier: the origins of ethno-nationalism in Afghanistan (1807-1896)”. His areas of interest include comparative political thought (Western and Eastern), colonialism and its modes of knowledge, Muslims and politics of identity and difference, history of the Great Khorasan (Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia), and nineteenth-century British boundary making. Read other articles by Nima.