Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Hierarchies of Subordination: The Curious Case of Sudanese Muslims Fleeing Egypt for Israel

It is well known that difference tends to produce subordination. That is, difference can be given effect politically only by producing differences in treatment based on judgments as to the relative value of the traits on which difference is based. Much of the 20th century literature on the "color line" and race issues in the United States has been based on a tacit or implicit embrace of these understandings. See Larry Catá Backer, Altheimer Symposium on Racial Equity in the 21st Century: Culturally Significant Speech: Law, Courts, Society and Racial Equity, 21 UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS LITTLE ROCK LAW JOURNAL 845 (1999). What most people understood, though they quibbled about the details and the deepness of the effects, were that hierarchies of subordination existed based on race, that law had and might continue to institutionalize these hierarchies, and that in any case social and cultural practices might make it difficult even for law, by its "rule" to change them.

In the 21st century, a number of these insights were translated to the field of hierarchies and subordination based on religious affiliation. The last quarter of the 20
th century had seen the rise of religion as a new basis for political and social subordination. Religion, especially after September 11, 2001, became fuel for political conflict as well. In this century, the question, then, might arise: where there are multiple bases of culturally significant differences, that is differences producing the possibilities of social and political subordination, would hierarchies of subordination be created? In other words, if there are multiple bases for subordination, which tend to take precedence over others?

One thing seems clear--where racial and ethnic subordination are both possible, political communities still appear to ignore the positive values of religious solidarity to effect racial subordination. Race, it seems, may continue to top the list of difference producing enforced subordination.
Three recent news reports nicely illustrate these complexities of subordination in 21st century global politics. All three deal with different aspects of a curiosity: the specter of Muslims fleeing the dar al Islam (in these cases Egypt) for sanctuary in. . . . Israel.

The first article was circulated in a widely respected Egyptian publication--Al-Ahram Weekly: see Gamal Kkrumah,Here today, gone tomorrow Why are increasing numbers of Sudanese refugees fleeing Egypt for Israel, Al-Ahram Weekly, 2-8 August 2007. The article reports that "Dozens of Sudanese are reported to have crossed the border into Israel under the cover of darkness. Smuggling rings in Israel and Egypt are taking advantage of the desire of Sudanese refugees in Egypt to seek greener pastures in Israel and are making a killing out of the business." Id. The reasons, in large part are economic--wages and social services are better for the Sudanese refugees in Israel than in Egypt. Id. But economics does not appear to be the only reason:
Excessively harsh socio-economic conditions and racist attitudes in Egypt seem to be the main reason why Sudanese refugees want to relocate to Israel. Of the Sudanese refugees now resident in Israel 71 per cent report verbal and physical abuse as the main reason for their fleeing Egypt. Some 86 per cent had refugee status with the UNHCR in Egypt, though those crossing the border spent an average of six months in detention upon arrival in Israel. Others are subject to indefinite detention.
Id. Indeed, religion seemed to play a small role in relations between Egyptian and Sudanese. While the article noted that Israelis tended to be more suspicious of Muslim Sudanese than those from other regions, Egyptians had acted in ways that made even those differences supportable: "The December 2005 Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque incident, when police violently cleared a garden square of an encampment of protesting Sudanese refugees, killing many in the process, has had a negative impact on the refugees' view of Egypt. The numbers of Sudanese seeking to cross into Israel rose dramatically after the incident." Id. Race, it seems, trumps religion. And, of course, the author cannot help adding just that little sting to the article, but one which reveals the extent of the racial subordination in the region and the complexities of that subordination within the political/religious conflict in the region.
Sudan is considered an enemy state by the Israelis and Sudanese refugees are viewed as suspect. This is especially the case with Muslim Sudanese from Darfur and northern Sudan. Southern Sudanese are culturally more attuned to Israeli culture, and Israelis warm up to them. "The Israelis are suspicious of us because we are Muslim," complained a Sudanese originally from Darfur.
Id. Unbundling the intimations in that simple statement yields complex and ambiguous sentiments: it seeks to denigrate Israel by suggesting that culturally it has a close affinity to that of the Sub Saharan African Sudanese who are the object of Egyptian race prejudice. It also suggests that Israeli prejudice against Sudanese Muslims, but can muster only a complaint of "suspicion", the negative value of which is diminished by the story of Muslim on Muslim murder in Egypt. Race, religion and politics, are thus both tightly coiled and illustrative of layers of subordination.

All of these aspects of the store are reinforced by an earlier story reported in Al-
Ahram--Newsreel: Darfur Refugee Chase, Al-Ahram, Weekly, 5-11 July 2007. The story reported the shooting, by Egyptian police, of Sudanese refugees attempting to cross into Israel from Egypt. "Police opened fire on the group of 30 refugees near the Rafah crossing point into the Gaza Strip after they refused to stop, sources said, adding that three others were arrested while the rest escaped into the Egyptian desert." Newsreel: Darfur Refugee Chase, supra. Israel reaction was also telling--it was reported that the Israeli authories would return the Sudanese who had entered Israel, except for those "refugees from the western Sudanese region of Darfur caught in the grip of civil war." Newsreel: Darfur Refugee Chase, supra.

But, of course, Israel, Egypt and the Sudan might, from a certain perspective, be viewed as post colonial subaltern states (Wikopedia describes this perspective nicely as "a person rendered without agency by her or his social status, a sense that owes its influence to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's 1988 essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?"; For a bibliography of subaltern studies, click here). As such, none would have the legitimacy or authority to speak directly to the issues raised by the movement of the Sudanese or its meaning in subordination terms. That authority would have to come from the "center," that is from the person (or state) with agency (legitimacy or authority). In this case, that perspective was recently supplied , in a sense, when it was reported that Human Rights Watch called on Egypt to investigate its killings of Sudanese refugees, including women, trying to reach Israel. Egypt Pressed on Migrant Deaths, BBC Online, Aug. 8, 2007. In a letter to the Egyptian Interior Minister, Human Rights Watch stated:

We are writing to express our profound concern at reports this week that Egyptian border guards killed three migrants who appeared to be Sudanese nationals in a particularly brutal manner. We urge you immediately to take the following actions: 1) order a full investigation of the reported shootings and beatings of Sudanese migrants attempting to cross from Egypt into Israel the night of August 1; 2) invite independent international investigators, namely the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants and the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, to examine this and any other reported incidents involving allegations of excessive force against migrants; and 3) provide public assurances that you will treat humanely third-country nationals apprehended at the border and will not return them to any country where their lives would be threatened, or they would face risk of torture or persecution.

Letter from Bill Frelick, Refugee Policy Director , and Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa Director, Human Rights Watch, to Egyptian Minister of Interior Habib al-`Adli on the Deaths of Three Sudanese Nationals, August 7, 2007. In the interplay of race, religion, and politics, it seems that race and politics continue to trump religious solidarity, at least when it comes to Sudanese in Egypt. As a consequence, it is possible to posit that for some Muslims--especially black African Muslims--Israel may offer a safer haven than Muslim majority states in the Middle East. Now that is irony.

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