Eyeing new publics: Ceiling and the performance of civic visibility

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Colonial legacies and the demands of the global economy have led to vast demographic movements of people in new directions and pathways. These new patterns of migration have stirred debates on border controls, and the implications are being felt in the rhythms of everyday life in various corners of the world. In these connections and collisions of people, issues of nationalism, identity, and belonging are brought into visibility in complex ways while at the same time creating new forms of invisibility. Infl ected by local politics, the subject of immigration is inevitably entangled with issues concerning religious, racial, and gendered identities. Sensationalized by the media, the scripting of immigration by different constituencies serves as a point of departure to address how cultural and social issues are drafted into public debate in the complex, transnational environment that we are in today. The growing presence of transnational Muslim communities in the West has sparked explosive discussions about the politics of citizenship and the integration of immigrants. New migrants articulate modes of civic participation and assert claims on nationhood that run counter to normative frames of public life. The patterns of Muslim migration in both Europe and the United States have to be situated within the current geopolitical context of war, terrorism, and the currents of neoliberal capitalism. The desire and effort to de fi ne the national body is accompanied by aggressive identifi cation of the nonassimilative Other. How do issues of Islam, especially with respect to gender, surface in the public realm of Western modernity? How does Islam test the limits of the secular, liberal state? How does the West perceive Islamic identity as a viable modality of public presence and engagement? How does this impact the enactment of citizenship and its performative possibilities available to Muslims in the West? The encounter between Islam and the West is routinely described in polarities that reinforce existing stereotypes of Muslims as antithetical to the rational subject of the West. Ahistorical explanations of the friction that ensues from these points of contact only serve to quarantine Muslims in a culturalist discourse which legitimizes their exclusion and exaggerates their Otherness. A politics of cultural avoidance, according to Nilüfer Göle, is no longer possible, yet there is a growing anxiety about "a perceived breakdown of boundaries, a loss of identity that accompanies the dynamics of this encounter and is leading to the reinforcement of national and religious identities."1 Over the years, Muslim women have been used strategically as a rationale for the exertion of benevolent power. A predictable, civilizational logic inevitably accompanies dominant Western discourse describing Islam's stance toward women. In particular, the dress codes of Muslim women have come to signify their subordinate status and lack of agency. The veil has been endowed with a formidable range of political and symbolic meaning, and the practice of veiling almost instantaneously marks the Muslim woman as a premodern subject by embedding her within a religious system that is portrayed as inherently illiberal and oppressive.2 The rhetoric about veiling, which has surfaced in various registers throughout European colonial history, is currently being reshaped and deployed within the context of global migration and the security state. This chapter will discuss the politics of the veil from the point of view of the limits that are enforced on the processes through which immigrants can engage modalities of public participation. These patterns of representation about Islamic communities and their presence in the Western liberal state force a reexamination of the presence of alterity in public life. In a time of transnational mobility and complex forms of national affi liation, the transparency of the public sphere cannot be assumed. By foregrounding the processes of public engagement, it is possible to understand how social worlds are reproduced and regulated. The manner in which questions are being raised about citizenship, integration, and community has serious consequences for democratic public engagement. The tensions between national master narratives and transnational cultural processes heighten the contested nature of public life in contemporary European society.3 When the topic of Muslim women appears in the media, cultural differences are cast in terms of a civilizational clash, and the gendered body of the Other surfaces only in terms of rescue. The narrative is typically of the enlightened West exerting its pastoral power to save the gendered body from a putative premodern and oppressive religious structure. A stand on the veil becomes an ideological "litmus test, " according to Joan Scott, who writes that "having an opinion about it serves to establish one's credentials on the heady topics of individualism, secularism, and the emancipation of women."4 Global diasporic movements have set a very complex transnational circuitry in motion through which various discourses about nation, belonging, citizenship, and community travel. This chapter specifi cally examines comments made by two British politicians about Islam and the veiling practices of Muslim women. The comments serve as a point of departure to elaborate on how questions of difference and religio-political issues are publicized in a global context, especially with respect to Muslim women. In late 2006, Jack Straw, a senior British politician, wrote a newspaper column that sparked intense discussion around the world. Straw confessed that he felt "uneasy talking to someone face-to-face who I could not see."5 This was immediately followed by a speech highly critical of multiculturalism by the then-prime minister Tony Blair, who admonished immigrants to adhere to the nation's "essential values."6 The column by Straw presents the actual demand to conform to performative conventions, and Blair's remarks about integration set the abstractions about the imagined community of the nation. Together they advance a discussion about the nature and form of publicness and its largely unquestioned universality. Michael Warner argues that there are "ambiguities, even contradictions" in the idea of the public and notes that as it extends "to new contexts and new media, new polities and new rhetorics, its meaning can be seen to change in ways that we have scarcely begun to appreciate."7 Responding to this challenge, this chapter discusses these questions: What do forms of publicity and public belonging mean in the transnational context when global Islamic communities are scripting new forms of public comportment and presence? What are the modalities of public engagement that are set into motion when actors with distinct cultural and political trajectories interact? Particularly, how are questions of modernity and tradition inserted into the discussion and managed both in terms of symbolic and material meaning?.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationPublic Modalities
Subtitle of host publicationRhetoric, Culture, Media, and The Shape of Public Life
PublisherThe University of Alabama Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)9780817355852
StatePublished - 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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