Book Review: Multicultural Politics of Recognition and Postcolonial Citizenship

Rachel Busbridge
Multicultural Politics of Recognition and Postcolonial Citizenship
(Routledge, 2017)

Reviewed by Nicolas Pirsoul (Australian Catholic University)


(This is a prepublication version of this review. The published version will appear in Thesis Eleven Journal, available soon on the T11 Sage website)


The rise of populist right wing parties and movements in Western democratic countries over the past decade highlights the continuing tensions and unease over questions of national identity, immigration, and multiculturalism.  Academic research on the recognition of minority groups in Western societies, therefore, remains as relevant today as it was when the literature on recognition first flourished in the early 90’s. Rachel Busbridge’s book on recognition and postcolonial citizenship is a particularly relevant addition to the literature on recognition in multicultural societies as its aim is to analyse  how struggles for recognition can reshape citizens’ understanding of the nation and its institutions. More specifically, Busbridge’s book offers a political approach to the theory of recognition that goes beyond intersubjective relations of recognition to encompass the ways the nation frames the relations of recognition between groups while also being transformed and reshaped by struggles for recognition. The author argues that this process of rearticulation of norms and identities leads to what she calls a “postcolonial citizenship” which she considers as a supplement to multicultural citizenship. There is currently a lack of literature on the relationship between recognition, national institutions, and national identities that this book partially remedies.

The book focuses on Australia and the introductory chapter highlights the tensions between ideas of national belonging and cultural diversity. The author illustrates and introduces these tensions by discussing the populist nationalist Reclaim Australia movement. In this chapter, the author makes the pertinent argument that while “conceptions of nation play an important role in contemporary experiences of misrecognition in Western multicultural contexts” (Busbridge, 2017), other approaches to nation, which are less exclusionary, are possible. Busbrige argues that minorities usually do, in fact, appeal to the idea of nation to make their claims by trying to push and expend the boundaries of the national imaginary. This is an interesting claim as it is usually understood that nationalism, by definition, is hostile to minorities while, in fact, some subaltern groups do express strong attachments to the nation. The indigenous Zapatista protests of the 90’s and early 2000’s in Mexico is a good example of subaltern identities expending and reappropriating the meaning of the nation (Muñoz Ramirez, 2008). Busbrige, therefore, makes a useful distinction between the Nationalism of far-right and populist movements and a small-n nationalism that relates to an approach to nation that contests the preconceived meanings of national identity.

Chapters two, three, and four set the theoretical framework by reviewing debates on the relationship between the theory of recognition and literature on nationalism, postcolonialism, and feminism.  I found Busbridge’s inclusion of Fanon’s criticism of Hegelian recognition in colonial contexts through Glen Sean Coulhard’s research on indigenous people (chapter three) particularly illuminating on the ambiguities that arise from the materialisation of the theory of recognition in settler societies: in a colonial context, the Hegelian ideal of mutual recognition between equals does not materialise but instead reproduces relations of domination under a new, in appearance more humane, light. Importantly, however, as the author points out, this criticism does not mean that Fanon was an anti-recognition thinker as such, but, instead, that the ideal (and implementation) of recognition needs to be thought of carefully to avoid reproducing subtle forms of misrecognition in a colonial context.

Chapters five and six offer two interesting case studies. After discussing the reasons for global hostility towards Muslims, chapter five discusses the struggle for recognition of Muslim communities in Australia with a particular emphasis on their attempts to challenge demeaning stereotypes through popular culture and the use of humour. Busbridge decided to illustrate these attempts by focusing her attention on the disruptive discourses emerging from two comedy shows: Salam Café and Fear of a Brown Planet. Chapter six discusses the struggle for recognition of the nation’s Aboriginal people. In that chapter, after giving an informative historical overview of Australian misrecognition towards Aboriginal people, the author mainly focuses her attention on the process of reconciliation in Australia, the political apologies for the “stolen generation” disaster, and the impact these measures have had on Australia’s imagined community, before briefly discussing the disrupting effects of Aboriginal claims for sovereignty. Her critique of the notion of reconciliation as recognition and her alternative approach to reconciliation as the potential perpetuation of disagreement and an “overlapping dissensus” was interesting and reminiscent of contemporary debates in political philosophy over the tensions between recognition and disagreement (Honneth et al., 2017).

The author’s decision to analyse the struggles for recognition of Muslim and indigenous citizens in Australia was very pertinent as these two groups suffer from intense forms of misrecognition both domestically and transnationally. These two chapters, however, offer a limited analysis of the complex dynamics that inform these groups’ struggles for recognition and could have illustrated more the book’s main topic and endeavour which is to show how minorities’ struggles for recognition can reshape the nation.

The chapter about Muslim communities could have benefited from a broader approach to Islamic identities. Since the goal of the book is to show the interplay between national values and subaltern identities, an analysis of the internal conflicts and debates over socio-political norms within Muslim communities would have been beneficial. While the author recognises that Muslim communities represent a plural phenomenon, it could have been an important addition to show how different Muslim communities articulate their Islamic identities with Australia’s legal and normative framework. For example, it would have been interesting to see how some Muslim citizens may embrace and use Australia’s liberal democratic values to struggle against some extremist ideologies and how Islamic identities are reshaped in the process. This emphasis on internal struggles within the Australian ummah and the “appropriation” of norms could have helped to soften the perceived divide between Islamic and Australian identities. Paying more attention to the voices of Muslims, beyond pop culture, and offering a more complete analysis of Islamic communities’ ideological battles and reflections would help to illustrate how Muslims engage in a process of politicisation of identities (Renault, 2004) by disrupting and reshaping both national and Islamic identities in a dynamic interplay. This phenomenon is also present in the chapter on Aboriginal people in which not enough is said about what the claims, internal disagreements, and political strategies of aboriginal people are. The chapter does not offer the necessary material to satisfactorily weight the disrupting potential of Aboriginal’s claims for sovereignty on the Nation. It is likely that length constraints reduced the author’s freedom to develop these themes but, by not engaging robustly with these communities’ complex inner struggles and evolving ideas, the author is missing the opportunity to decisively show how these two groups have the potential to radically alter established norms and identities in Australia.

The restricted dimension of the author’s analysis of the case studies that I have highlighted in this book review does not diminish the value of the book but, instead, shows that this book represents an interesting and understudied approach to research on the relationship between postcolonialism, recognition and nation. This approach opens the way for further in-depth analysis of the ways struggles for recognition reshape our understanding of citizenship in multicultural societies and Busbridge’s book offers a valuable step in that direction.

References

Busbridge, R. 2017. Multicultural Politics of Recognition and Postcolonial Citizenship: rethinking the nation, London, Routledge.

Honneth, A., Rancière, J., Genel, K. & Deranty, J.-P. 2017. Recognition or Disagreement: A Critical Encounter on the Politics of Freedom, Equality, and Identity, New York, Columbia University Press.

Muñoz Ramirez, G. 2008. The Fire & The Word: A History of the Zapatista Movement, San Francisco, City Lights Books.

Renault, E. 2004. Mépris Social: Ethique et Politique de la Reconnaissance, Bègles, Editions du Passant.

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