After the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War and the erosion of the city-state in ancient Greece, Diogenes of Sinope was asked what city he considered to be his home. The philosopher, who believed the very idea of the city-state was rotten, replied, “I am a kosmopolites”—a citizen of the universe, not bound to any one piece of earth.
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is a 21st-century Diogenes of Canadian, Iranian, Swiss, Russian, and Armenian citizenship who has written a sharp, compelling, and often humorous book about the evolution of citizenship and the rise of a new form of statelessness. As she contends in The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen (Columbia Global Reports; Paper $12.99), if in the 21st century “the nation is being called into question as a result of globalizing technology, trade and crisis, it makes perfect sense for our connection and allegiance to the nation to be challenged too.” A cosmopolite is a global citizen who manages to be “‘of’ the world without belonging anywhere within it,” she writes, all the while exploring and challenging the parameters that determine who among us gets to be global. Abrahamian discusses two avatars of the global citizen that pose the fiercest challenge to the idea of the nation-state. One is the bidoon (Arabic for “without”), the population of disenfranchised men and women who are denied citizenship and rights in their native Kuwait and United Arab Emirates. The other group is composed of the young and rootless wealthy of the West, whose connections, networks, and influences transcend fixed notions of nationality.
As the Gulf states sought to establish themselves in the modern world, they—like every other country with day-old borders drawn in the sand—imposed an alien idea of belonging over their traditional, more informal structures. Following the modern practice of defining identity and citizenship through strict, exclusionary guidelines, they established administrative frameworks to categorize their population. Kuwait treated its bidoon as full citizens until 1985, when it declared them to be foreigners living illegally in the country. Kuwait acted on tribal and religious prejudice, a desire to realign electoral demographics, and, most curiously, as Abrahamian writes, “shrinking government coffers.” At the time, bidoon accounted for nearly 80 percent of the soldiers in the Kuwaiti Army. They had the right to die for Kuwait, but not, apparently, the right to belong to it. The bidoon suffered from poverty, widespread unemployment, and a lack of rights, a condition that Kuwait ignored until the early 2000s, when its stateless began to protest their treatment on blogs and other social media. So in 2008, after decades of rising tensions, Kuwait asked the Union of the Comoros to accommodate the stateless population that Kuwait itself could no longer ignore or tolerate. “The newer the country,” Abrahamian writes, “the more arbitrary the distinction between those who are said to belong inside and those who belong outside.”
The Comoros is a tiny, depressed African state. Around 45 percent of its population lives below the poverty line. Only 60 percent of residents on Grand Comore, the largest island, have electricity, and many lack access to running water. Initially, the country was flattered and intrigued to find itself aggressively courted by oil-rich Kuwait and the UAE. In return for large-scale investments, the Muslim-majority nation agreed not only to grant citizenship to Kuwait’s bidoon but also to accept as “permanent residents” those among them who had criminal records. Law-abiding bidoon would receive new passports as well as five-year visas allowing them to remain in Kuwait, an official at the Interior Ministry told Abrahamian, but the criminals would be packed off to the Comoro Islands “where they will be provided with a private apartment in the buildings that Kuwait invested in.” Bidoon with criminal records would have no choice in their deportation and no right to return to Kuwait. The Comoros, meanwhile, would have even less control over becoming a penal colony.
In the Emirates, the bidoon were similarly dispossessed and rendered invisible to the state, even though thousands of them were born and had lived all their lives there. Abrahamian profiles Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, a bidoon blogger of Baloch heritage who was arrested for demanding universal franchise and equal rights. Khaleq was accused of “insulting the country’s rulers” and sent to jail. Another bidoon blogger was arrested and charged with the Kafkaesque crime of being “a traitor without a nation.” After his release, Khaleq was given a Comorian passport and swiftly deported. Khaleq never asked for Comorian citizenship; it was forced upon him. “The government prevented us from doing anything,” he tells Abrahamian, “registering our children’s births, renewing your driver’s license, renewing your health insurance card—marrying, even. So the Comoros passport became the only solution.” Comorian citizenship would also clear the way for Khaleq’s banishment from the UAE, a catch-22 he discovered only after receiving his passport. As a stateless bidoon, he could not have been expelled from the UAE because most countries refuse to accept travelers who have no home country to return to.
Khaleq’s itinerary of statelessness is despairing. After being bounced around Emirati jails and kept in solitary confinement, he was released and presented with deportation to Iran, Afghanistan, or Pakistan—options he rejected before reluctantly deciding to settle in Thailand. His new country, the Comoros, was, as Abrahamian notes, “conspicuously absent” from the list of countries he could choose from. Abrahamian’s description of Khaleq boarding a plane to Bangkok in his prison uniform evokes the words of Edward Said cited at the beginning of The Cosmopolites: “I still have not been able to understand what it means to love a country.”
According to the International State Crime Initiative, genocide begins with the process of denying citizenship and culminates in the wholesale annihilation of an ethnic group or community. Abrahamian writes only briefly of the Rohingya Muslims, but they have a ghostly presence throughout her book. In the first few months of 2015, 31,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis fled across the Bay of Bengal on rickety boats in an attempt to escape widespread persecution and finding refuge. The disturbing images of their persecution were swatted away by the Myanmar government, which has long disputed that the Rohingyas are an ethnic minority, claiming instead that they are Bangladeshis and therefore illegal immigrants. But the refugees, having grown emaciated and hopeless, drifted at sea for weeks waiting for a country to open their borders to them. They are said to be, relative to their population size, the most persecuted people on earth. Yet they are of no interest to the passport impresarios whom Abrahamian interviews and who speak eloquently—and convincingly—about the “freedom, privacy, and security” of multiple belongings.
One such impresario is Christian Kalin, the holder of five passports and chairman of Henley & Partners, a private firm that advises UHNWI—ultra-high-net-worth individuals—on “supplementing their portfolio of passports.” In a hyper-connected and globalized world, why have one passport when you could have many: one for legal identity, one for business, one for tax convenience? (Teddy Roosevelt, Abrahamian reminds us, dourly compared dual citizenship to “polygamy.”) On Henley & Partners’ client list are countries like St. Kitts and Nevis and Malta, seeking to sell their citizenship for a price. While Kalin’s firm acknowledges that borders remain very much in place, it promises that they “can be flattened for a price.”
While you may have no reason to enter the passport marketplace, you may nevertheless know of Henley & Partners from its annual visa-restrictions index, which ranks countries according to passport prestige, or how many other countries a passport permits its holder to enter without a visa. Germany and the United Kingdom are the world’s top passports, permitting unrestricted travel to 173 countries. I rank pathetically low on the prestige scale. I was born in Afghanistan, raised in Syria, and possess a Pakistani passport. Afghanistan is the worst passport in the world to hold, with Pakistan being the fourth worst. Syria ranks fifth from the bottom, though one can expect its stock to drop in Henley’s 2016 index. My grandmother, by comparison, was an Iranian Kurd. The Iranians rank only four spots higher than the Syrians. The Kurds can trace their ethnic identity as far back as 612 BCE, but because they are famously and historically stateless they don’t even make the list.
The disparities of the citizenship industry—whereby the wealthy are able to move freely across boundaries while the poor die trying in places like the Mediterranean and the Aegean—are obvious, and a glaring reminder of globalization’s inequalities and systemic unfairness. But Abrahamian explains that those who support the sale of citizenship argue that the very idea of “assigning people to places is feudalism and anarchy.” In the 21st century, how can it possibly matter where one is born? Or worse, even, where one’s parents were born? Why can’t citizenship be chosen rather than arbitrarily handed down? “The sale of citizenship is interesting not because it is scandalous or even morally reprehensible,” Abrahamian concludes, “but because it speaks to the very arbitrariness of the concept of belonging to a nation to begin with.”
So, too, do the efforts of citizens trying to shed their nationality. Abrahamian examines two cases. Garry Davis renounced his US citizenship in 1948, when he was 26. Fresh out of service as an Air Force pilot, it occurred to him that “nationalism, not human nature, was responsible for the bloodshed that had taken place.” Davis proclaimed himself a “citizen of the world” and traveled far and wide on a homemade cardboard world passport, campaigning for “frontierlessness.” (Davis presented one of his passports to Edward Snowden, whose US passport was revoked in 2013.) Roger Ver was less romantic about renouncing his passport. After deciding that he no longer wanted to be a part of a “country he considered violent, coercive and immoral,” Ver returned his American passport and bought citizenship from St. Kitts and Nevis. Ver is also a supporter of Bitcoin, the decentralized digital currency (“money without borders is a world without borders”). Ver and Davis share the notion that nationality is “limiting and unfair,” and both have spoken of the freedom they felt at cutting their ties to their birth country. But in an important distinction, Ver has no burning desire to be stateless.
The tangle involved in obtaining American citizenship is nothing compared with the process of trying to renounce it. The passport holder must not only be on foreign soil, book an appointment, and wait out the waiting list period, but must also pay an “exit fee” of over $2,000. Those whose net worth is greater than $2 million have the added pleasure of paying an “exit tax.” Legal provisions exist to bar certain renouncers from ever returning to the United States, and it is with no small irony that a bill introduced to deal with Americans expatriating for tax reasons is called the Expatriation Prevention by Abolishing the Tax-Related Incentives for Offshore Tenancy Act, or Ex-PATRIOT.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, has called Europe’s response to the refugee crisis at its doorstep “amnesiac” and “bewildering.” The European Union has absorbed approximately 700,000 refugees this year. Meanwhile, Lebanon, a country so small it constitutes a sliver of Europe’s total size, has absorbed 1.1 million refugees from Syria alone. Lebanon enjoys none of Europe’s resources, wealth, or support systems. Yet the number of refugees it has taken in amount to a quarter of its own population. By comparison, Europe has taken in 9 percent of its total population. David Cameron’s tone-deaf use of the word “swarms” to describe refugees at Calais, the haunting images of Czech police writing identification numbers on the arms of refugees pulled from trains, and the construction of razor-wire fences along the borders of Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Hungary so soon after World War II—all are chilling and ominous. With civil war in Syria, instability in Libya, and the failure of the state in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, informed discussions like The Cosmopolites about global movement, migration, and the politics of citizenship are more necessary than ever.