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Homi K. Bhabha on the dignity of refugees

Gaby Reucher rf
September 16, 2019

The Indian English scholar, a leading thinker in the fields of post-colonialism and integration, had food for thought for visitors at the Ruhrtriennale.

Deutschland Homi K. Bhabha | Ruhrtriennale 2019
Image: Daniel Sadrowski/Ruhrtriennale 2019

They leave their homeland in search of a new domicile in strange lands, flee within their own country or embark on the dangerous journey in rubber boots on the Mediterranean — always hoping for a better life, a life in dignity, says Homi K. Bhabha.

In the Turbine Hall of the Bochum's Jahrhunderthalle, an old industrial plant, the Anglo-Indian cultural scholar delivered the ceremonial address at the Ruhrtriennale, speaking of human rights, dead refugees on the Mediterranean and of migration and dignity — even in death.

Homi K. Bhabha is one of the most important thinkers on issues of post-colonialism and cultural diversity in the context of exile and migration. Rather than abstract theories, the Harvard University professor focuses on current events.

"I live in the United States. I find the views and the policy of Mr. Trump reprehensible," he told DW. Trump's language, he said, is not one of democratic discourse: "I find the language he uses about people, about people of different races, about women, about people from other countries disgraceful."

Toni Morrison taking the Nobel Prize in 1993
Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 — the first black woman author to do soImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

In memory of Toni Morrison

Homi K. Bhabha gave his speech at the Ruhrtriennale in memory of the African-American author Toni Morrison, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature who died in August 2019 and with whom Bhabha had collaborated in many university lectures.

Morrison's famous line, "Whose house is this?", the first four words of her book Home of 2012, were a leitmotif of Bhabha's speech. He views it as a dark house of national history that ignores the history of the new resident. Even though it's a foreign house, the migrant's key fits. 

But even in their own house, migrants feel like strangers, says Bhabha. Mexicans who legally live and work in the US found themselves suddenly defamed by President Donald Trump as thieves, murderers and rapists.

"For rulers who had been brutal, for wars that they never started, they are suffering for all of these reasons and yet they are treated and spoken of as if they are lazy, as if they are a virus in other societies, as if they are trying to displace national populations," explained Bhabha to DW.

Refugees in Donaji, Mexico en route to the US
In the US, they are unwanted, yet migrants from Central America continue on their trek, sometimes fleeing violence from youth gangs and destitution Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Ugarte

Trump was literally advised to adapt this "barbarian" behavior by his former adviser Steve Bannon in order to win the 2016 election, says Homi K. Bhabha, citing an interview Bannon gave the newsweekly The Economist in 2018.

Authoritarian men and growing nationalism

The US has no monopoly on such inhumane behavior. A populist and nativist nationalism that Bhabha calls "tribal nationalism" is currently on an upsurge in many countries, be it with Trump in the US, Modi in India, Maduro in Venezuela, Bolsonaro in Brazil, or with Putin in Russia and Orban in Hungary.

The Harvard professor is surprised that there are currently so many authoritarian leaders, most of whom came to power in democratic elections. "Something that does frighten me is that each form of nationalism has its own particularity," he says. "The world today is dominated by authoritarian men. I have never seen a woman in this role."

The search for respect and dignity in a 'foreign house'

Locking out refugees and migrants doesn't require an authoritarian leadership style. They are also unwelcome where refugee boats come ashore. 

Homi K. Bhabha spoke in his speech of garbage dumps in the Tunisian harbor city of Zarzis where the dead refugees that regularly wash on shore are thrown: only Muslim citizens of the city may be interred at the cemetery. He also spoke of the helpers who bury the dead on the beach, giving them dignity in death. 

Sandy hill, a coffin and a tree with two men in the background
Graves of refugees washed up on the shores of TunisiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Kremer

Authoritarian regimes stand out in particular for their violations of dignity. Human rights conventions, immigration and asylum laws are being purposefully undermined. Refugees are kept waiting in camps under deplorable conditions. This, says Bhabha, serves the purpose of keeping them detained and humiliated. Refugee camps on the US-Mexican border are a current example.

Governments repeatedly blame their economic and political mistakes on the weakest sectors of the populace: people of different cultures, transgender people or those belonging to other castes, as in India. Being poor is enough. "If we give the poor houses, they don't keep their homes well. If we give them welfare, they take advantage. They don't work because they are lazy," is how Bhabha quotes arguments made by the aforementioned populist governments.

Africans sitting in cramped quarters in a boat
Migrants off the coast of LibyaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/Küstenwache Lybien

Directed against migrants and used to foment fears in the citizenry, that same prejudice plays into the hands of nationalist-minded populists. Humiliation leads to disrespect, and that, in turn, to discrimination. Laws may prohibit the discrimination of minorities, but humiliation is not something that can be legislated against, the UN Human Rights Convention notwithstanding, says Bhabha.

Counteracting fear of foreigners

Education can counteract the fear of foreigners, Homi K. Bhabha pointed out. In this, he says it is the duty of progressive governments and media to initiate public debate.

In his speech, he called on people to show solidarity with refugees and to take responsibility, and not only out of empathy. "Not out of sentimentality because they are human beings like ourselves — for they are not, because we haven't stared death in the face — but out of responsibility, because our situation is better."

Homi K. Bhabha at the lecturn of the Ruhrtriennale 2019
Homi K. Bhabha's speech was followed by warm applauseImage: Daniel Sadrowski/Ruhrtriennale 2019

Homi K. Bhabha calls for proactive rather than reactive measures, such as granting refugees the right to movement.

The German author and philosopher Hannah Arendt, whose theories Bhabha has exhaustively studied, wrote that the concept of freedom should also include the right to movement. And, Bhabha adds, the right to movement is necessary to the mentality of hospitality.

Having made the difficult decision to leave their homeland, refugees risked death to insert the key into the lock — even though it's not the door to their own home. They've done so, says Homi K. Bhabha, in order to live in dignity. To the initial question "Whose house is this?", he says, there can be only one answer: It is also the house of refugees and migrants.