Academic journal article Refuge

Reimagining Asylum: Religious Narratives and the Moral Obligation to the Asylum Seeker

Academic journal article Refuge

Reimagining Asylum: Religious Narratives and the Moral Obligation to the Asylum Seeker

Article excerpt


The narrative that grounds the asylum policy of the United States portrays asylum seekers as passive objects of external forces. This narrative emerges from the complex interplay of exceptionality and victimization that characterizes the legal status and popular perception of the refugee. It is then read back onto the asylum seeker through a supererogatory asylum policy that is unable to recognize the moral demand made by the asylum seeker. The project this essay is drawn from seeks to challenge the policy of asylum as charity by interrogating alternative narratives grounded in the Hebrew Bible story of the Exodus and the Qu'ranic story of the Hijra. In these narratives, flight from oppression is portrayed as an act of moral agency, and the asylum seeker's capacity as Other to make a moral demand on the Self emerges. Thus, I argue that an asylum policy informed by these alternative narratives needs must question its supererogatory assumptions.


Le discours a la base de la politique d'asile des Etats-Unis represente les demandeurs d'asile comme des objets passifs subissant des forces exterieures. Cette representation emerge de l'interaction complexe entre l'exception et la victimisation qui caracterise le statut legal et la perception populaire du refugie. Ce discours est renvoye au demandeur d'asile a travers une politique d'asile surerogatoire qui ne reconnait pas les exigences morales du demandeur d'asile. Cet article vise a remettre en question la politique de l'asile en tant que charite en faisant appel a des discours differents prenant leur source dans le recit biblique de l'Exode et dans le recit coranique de l'Hegire. Dans ces recits, la fuite de l'oppression est representee comme l'exercice d'une capacite morale, et emerge alors la capacite du demandeur d'asile dans son alterite de faire une demande morale en tant que soi-meme. En consequence, on soutient qu'une politique d'asile basee sur ces alternatives doit remettre en question les presomptions surerogatoires.


The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.

--Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1)

Arendt's critique of the international community's response to the statelessness crisis of the Second World War is well-known and well-worn in the field of refugee studies, but it remains a pointed and poignant critique of the limits imposed on refugee subjectivity. Solely human--without political affiliation--the refugee subject is an exception to the logic of state-centric legal systems, which, in turn, recognize no obligation to the refugee. This exceptional subjectivity is further entrenched through narratives about refugees that locate refugee identity in portrayals of passive victims upon whom the larger force of persecution works. Refugee identity as passive objectivity is then reified through supererogatory policies of protection; the refugee is again the object of an outside force.

The central question of this essay is whether and how it is possible to reimagine asylum-seeker subjectivity in a way that recognizes the moral demand asylum seekers make on receiving states. What follows is an adumbration of and introduction to a larger project that aims to challenge the idea of asylum as charity and disrupt the cycle of narrative and policy that perpetuates the figurative, and consequentially literal, exclusion of asylum seekers. (2) In particular, I want to examine the ways in which current conceptions of asylum-seeker subjectivity obscure the asylum seeker's moral demand and to suggest that alternative narratives exist--I draw on the Hebrew Bible story of the Exodus and the Qur'anic story of the Hijra--in which flight from oppression is conceived as an act of moral agency.

This article is inspired and informed by the possibility inherent in the work of Emmanuel Levinas and by thinkers, in particular Judith Butler, who have taken up the possibilities inherent in Levinas while struggling with the philosophical abstraction that distances the Levinasian ethic from personal and social experience. …

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