Knowledge without borders

Baroness Bakewell, President of Birkbeck, addresses the College’s newest graduates as she congratulates them on their achievements during Graduation Week.

In her speech, she emphasises that the upheavals of a changing world and the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union should not be allowed to stand in the way of knowledge-sharing and education, and how our new graduates can help to break down borders.

It is always a great pleasure to be with you here and offer my congratulations to you on your success. This is a day you will always remember; a watershed in your lives, your careers, that will have a lasting influence on how you live your future life – where you go, what you do and. most importantly, what satisfaction it brings you.

When I look out across a sea of faces and listen to your names, I am impressed by the range and diversity of our graduates. As for your names – you may notice that I try to catch the first name of each of you as I meet you as you cross the platform. That’s because each of you matters individually to Birkbeck. It’s not always easy; I can’t always get it right. There are some names that are not familiar to my own background in the north of England. But even as I hesitate in my wish to get it right, I take pleasure in knowing what a global reach Birkbeck has. I am always delighted to speak with those of you from places across the world. Birkbeck embraces you within its academic fold. And that goes too for my fellow Europeans.

Indeed, I want to say something more about this sense of belonging and the barriers that inhibit it. These are troubled times, when matters of identity – who you are and where you came from – are increasingly used to define and, indeed, restrict what you can do, where you can work and where you can make your home. The whole of Europe – and indeed the larger world – has a long history of men who drew lines on maps and made laws giving power to those lines. We are the inheritors of those maps, and we both thrive and suffer because of them. Not just in Europe but across the Middle East, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Americas  – tribes of mankind have settled and developed, have lived within those lines and traded across them. They are the nation states we have today.

I, the people on this platform and all of you enjoy crossing those lines.  As a young student long ago I remember being woken in the night on the train south by a man in uniform demanding my passport and shouting:  “We are now crossing into Switzerland.” I was thrilled. At the first station I got out to buy fresh Swiss coffee and cakes. It was all so new. I had grown up in a country at war so, of course, only the servicemen of our armed forces got to travel abroad. France, Belgium, Holland and beyond were all occupied by the Germans. I got my first taste of crossing a frontier when I went to France at the age of 16.

I offer these personal reminiscences to show just how much times have changed. And then something important happened: the foundations of what we today call the European Union were created. And something happened in our family, too. Something I had never seen before: my father wept. He wept with joy that never, never again would there be war on the continent of Europe such as he had seen twice in his lifetime: the First World War with its death toll of 17 million. And the Second World War, including the war in the Pacific, with over 50 million dead.

He cried for himself and for his children: they would inherit a safer, more coherent Europe. And so it came about.

But wars did happen, and barriers took on a new significance. In the Middle East, and across Africa, people fled their homelands, crossed legal lines between countries to seek refuge from conflict or to seek a better life for themselves. They crossed frontiers in their millions and, in so doing, changed not only their own lives but the lives of those from whom they sought asylum. One of the outcomes of these shifts has created the world we have today: a world at odds with itself, finding it hard to formulate new rules by which to live – and, incidentally, defying the precepts of many of the world’s great religions which is always to “welcome the stranger”; make him welcome within your gates. People have increasingly become dogmatic, hostile, uneasy about their lives and their homelands.

But there is another – and, I believe, more powerful – impulse at work in the world: and we here today can be part of it. Knowledge is universal. The discoveries of science, medicine, social welfare, anthropology, literature, cultural studies are shared by scholars and institutes of learning around the world. It is crossing lines. It knows no boundaries.   The wisdom of study, the richness of shared understanding, the value of scholarship is something we are taking part in, simply by being here today.

Your remit extends around the world and your future careers will reach into many countries and communities. What we have in common is stronger than what divides us; stronger than the lines on the map; and we are here today to celebrate that shared outlook. Congratulations again to you all.

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Orientation 2017: Welcome to Birkbeck

New and returning students joined this year’s Orientation events.

A new year at Birkbeck kicked off with Orientation, a range of events to enable students to familiarise themselves with the campus, get to know fellow students and refresh academic skills to boost their confidence.

It was an action-packed and busy day with nearly 2000 new and returning students signed up to browse the Fresher’s Fayre in the marquee outside the main campus, in order to find out about college sports and societies, ask current students questions about life at Birkbeck, and pick up some freebies.

There were also a range of talks throughout the afternoon on key topics to help students get their years’ off to a great start, on topics from looking after mental health, time management, to preparing for dissertation writing, and campus tours throughout the day.

Thank you to all who attended.

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Religion on trial

Dr Anton Schütz, senior lecturer at the School of Law reflects on the school’s annual ‘Law on Trial’ week, which this year focused on the theme of religion.lawontrial850x450From Monday 12 June to Friday 16 June, the School of Law, Birkbeck hosted the 2017 edition of its annual Law on Trial event.

The School of Law has staged a Law on Trial event each year since 2011, when it was introduced, on the basis of an original idea of Marinos Diamantides, by former Executive Dean Patricia Tuitt, who also contributed the formulation of the title. The theme for 2017 was ‘Religion on Trial’. Religion is generally understood as a human sphere with an existence and a concern very much of its own, though with a number of points of intersection with matters legal. Especially during the past two or three decades, matters of religion have provided an inexhaustible source for legal problems.

The first event of the week was taken by our key-note speaker, philosopher Akeel Bilgrami (Columbia University). Akeel led the audience through the problems that the political and legal philosophy of liberalism encounters in dealing with religion, and increasingly so since the beginning of the 21st century. Referring historically to a choice among the main topics of his own widely known writing (see his Secularism, Identity and Enchantment), foregrounding Gandhi’s example-based, rather than program-based political action, Salman Rushdie’s exemplification of the divide of artistic and religious imperatives in dealing with identity but also the author of the most celebrated political doctrine of liberal justice during the late 20th century, John Rawls, and his difficulty related to identity politics and deep religious commitments.

The programme of our second evening was placed under the sign of Rastafari religion, music, and forms of life, and was based on an idea from Patricia Tuitt. Author and poet Kwame Dawes was speaking and indeed — in his quotes from Bob Marley — also, if only for short moments, also singing, in a fabulous feat of bringing to life what Rastafari poetry calls the ‘Babylon system’ (‘vampire system, sucking the blood of the sufferah’), relating spiritual, political, geographical, iconographical, prophetic and cosmological features to spot issues of diaspora, oppression and liberation in a relation that is at once timeless and highly contemporary. Kwame Dawes‘study on Bob Marley, Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius, is celebrated all over the English-speaking world. The session was chaired by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera.

The session on Rastafarianism was followed by two sessions on topics related to current issues relating to Islam. The first, on Wednesday 14 June, convened by Birkbeck scholar Qudsia Mirza, staged the long-awaited and hotly disputed topic of Islamic Law and Gender Justice. Interpretations of the Qur’an and the Hadith literature within the classical Islamic tradition have famously given rise, based upon theological, legal and ethical principles, to a normative gender hierarchy. The teachings of Sharia are not a secret and neither are the challenges to them by reformist and progressive scholars. Islamic feminism in general, and the participants of our session in particular, have taken measure of the distance still to be bridged with respect to current notions of gender equality. How do reformists/feminists conceptualise notions of gender or equality? How, on the other hand, do issues of gender, widely discussed today, relate to the notion of an Islamic ‘purity of origin’ and to a discourse of authenticity? The panel contemplated the wide spectre of Western and non-Western religious and not-so-religious positions.

Rather different in its outlook was the second Islam-related session, Thursday 15 June , convened by a BBK PhD student Daniele D’Alvia (who also works in a Max-Planck-Institute in Germany) and chaired by Maria Aristodemou, dealt with the topic ‘Islamic Finance: the Middle East, Malaysia, and the West’. Once again, a highly qualified and bespoke-tailored international panel offered a fascinating debate dealing with conceptions of gharar and riba, in contrast to current Western conceptualisations of risk and interest. Doing so, it showed the presence of two different, almost opposing views on the relationship between current Western financial habits and the relevant Sharia rules. Some speakers highlighted the Sharia framework as a possible alternative to the current habits of the global financial markets (with their widely felt instability), something of a global therapy for the latter’s increasing, world-wide exposure to structural, self-engendered crises Other panel members saw the primary problem in the obstacles that Islamic populations are facing, when they are precluded from being clients of Western style global financial institutions, ascribing highest importance to the search of viable strategies of circumvention of Islamic rules of finance.

The fifth and last day of the series, on Friday 16 June , saw the launch event of a study, co-authored by Marinos Diamantides and Anton Schütz, two School of Law academics, that had been released that same week — Political Theology : Demystifying the Universal. Differing from the two preceding sessions, this focussed not on one particular religion opposed to other religions, but on the apparently non-religious question of the secular. With Stewart Motha (chair), Diamantides and Schütz tried to explain how the very stakes of Western-Christian religion have worked as conditions, rather than obstacles, to a society defining itself as secular (liberal, social) and its world-wide success and imitation. They commonly stressed that the secular religion of the West consists in an ongoing effort of managing continuing procedures. The return of explicit religious references under such circumstances was the subject of one ‘case-study’ (Diamantides), while Schütz, focussing on the theologoumenon of the Trinity and its geopolitical fate, explored the politico-legal relationship of Father and Son within the Christian Trinity in its Western evolution. The doctrine known as the ‘filioque’ has, through more than a millennium, transformed the Trinitarian God by endowing Father and Son, by assigning identical ‘rights’ to both, thereby implanting an unresolvable tension, a principle of intranquillity, at the very heart of the Western Christian divinity, altering it from a principle of being into its contrary, a principle of action.

Through the five days of Religion on Trial the public has been guided through: (1) a portrayal, by one of its international top representatives, of the divide between religion and politics in contemporary scholarly interpretation; (2) an in-depth depiction of the vital link of art and religion in Bob Marley’s poetry and its indispensable relationship to the unique and uniquely complex and attractive religious tradition of Rastafarianism, provided by the top international specialist on the matter; (3,4) two matters of extreme actuality in relation of contemporary Islam, the issue of the normative gender dissymmetry and that of contemporary modes of Islamic finance, both presented by highly qualified specialist panels; all rounded up in (5) a series of suggestions concerning the specifically Christian input within the Western model, in its religious as well as secular dimensions.

I would like to thank all of our guest speakers and panellists who helped to make the event such a success and greatly look forward to next year’s events.

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Law, Race and Brexit Britain

This blog was contributed by Devin Frank, a graduate of the School of Law at Birkbeck. He will soon be returning to the College as a PhD candidate and part-time seminar tutor.

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Credit: Cole Peters 2017.

On 15 May 2017 students and academics gathered for the launch of Birkbeck’s new research initiative, the Centre for Research on Race and Law, focusing on Law, Race and Brexit Britain.

After an introduction to the new Centre by the Acting Dean of the Law School, Dr Stewart Motha, and the co-director of the Centre, Dr Sarah Keenan, five speakers discussed how conceptions of race permeate law, politics and policy — not only in Britain, but across numerous jurisdictions.

At the heart of the discussion was an underlying paradox: conceptions of race and racism manifest through law, while law in itself is often a last defense against racism. Reflecting on my own experience working as a caseworker and paralegal, nowhere is this paradox more apparent than within the immigration systems of the Western world, particularly in the UK, US and Australia. Having endured the horrors of having to read and engage with Home Office refusal letters, it is abundantly clear that racism is not only tolerated within the diameters of immigration decision making, it is actively encouraged. When faced with a letter claiming that an individual’s immigration application is refused based on a legally accepted notion of race, the response of any lawyer is then to plead with the law, often in the form of an appeal or judicial review, to seek a legal remedy to the artificial and racist conception of law that allowed for injustice in the first place.

After Professor Patricia Tuitt, Executive Dean of the Law School, skillfully laid the foundation for considering how race and racism permeates all institutions, including that of law, the next four speakers showed how race matters in political discourse, immigration controls, EU trade policy and Brexit Britain. Tuitt’s opening talk had reminded us that the colonial dogma of race still infects the bureaucratic mechanisms of all aspects of society, including the university – a critique from which Birkbeck and the Law School are by no means immune.

Professor Gurminder Bhambra (University of Warwick) aptly highlighted the need to ‘get history right’ in order for concepts to have useful meanings — something that was an abysmal failure in the Brexit campaign. Bhambra began by examining the Brexit referendum data to debunk the myth that the Leave result was the resounding voice of ‘the left behind’ white working class. Rather, Bhambra showed that the vote to Leave was determined by property owners, pensioners, and well-off white middle class voters.

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The rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ lacks any kind of historical or political reality: Britain is not and never has been a nation, rather it is an imperial polity. British citizenship only came to refer primarily to people living in Britain in 1981, as this citizenship was formerly shared between Britain and its colonies. The British psychosis brought on by a fear of non-white migration goes to highlight the need for research initiatives such as the Centre for Research on Race and Law to further facilitate discussion based on sound research, with dignity and respect.

Following the EU referendum, it became all too common to ignore the underlining causes, divert attention away from blatant racism and xenophobia and pose a simpler question: ‘what about the economy?’. Professor Diamond Ashiagbor (Institute of Advanced Legal Studies) discussed the relationship between economic inequality, race and global trade in the context of ‘Empire 2.0’, encapsulated in Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox’s, plan to negotiate new trade deals with Commonwealth countries in order to compensate for the EU trade that will be lost with Brexit. Ashiagbor argued that leaving the EU against the backdrop of rewriting/forgetting histories of empire, migration and race will exacerbate the internal economic equalities caused by open markets and global trade.

Drawing on ideas stemming from the political economist Karl Polanyi, Ashiagbor argued that markets only work without destroying society if they are constrained, and if social redistribution is facilitated. Pre-Brexit, such constraints and redistribution were put in place by domestic British law and also by EU law. The irony of Brexit racism, Ashiagbor argued, is that much of the labour migration upon which Britain has relied and against which the Leave campaign rallied, has long been fuelled by European plunder of the rest of the world. The sense of ‘the left behind’ voting for Brexit fails to capture the reality that the industrialised working class (both white and non-white) in the UK has long been supported by extraction from colonised states. Only through the plunder of resources and exploitation of labour from the Global South has the UK been able to build its welfare state.

Professor Iyiola Solanke (University of Leeds) sought to address the question: what of the forgotten groups that will be affected by Brexit? In the news and within mainstream discussion many rightly pose the question: ‘what status will EU citizens have in the UK and what status will UK citizens have in Europe?’. While this is a pertinent question, Solanke noted that it fails to address the situation of third country nationals, such as spouses and family members of European citizens in the UK, and so-called ‘Zambrano families’ (those who care for EU/UK citizens). While it seems likely that predominately white men, coming from the United States and earning high incomes working in London’s financial centres will find the legal categories to remain in the UK regardless of the ultimate Brexit deal, the future status of black parents from Nigeria, Ghana and Jamaica currently in the UK caring for their British children is much more ominous.

Finally Dr. Nadine El-Enany, Senior Law Lecturer and Co-Director of Centre for Research on Race and Law spoke about the importance of taking critical race scholarship seriously. With explicitly racist far-right movements on the rise in many parts of the world (including but not limited to the Brexit and Trump victories), El-Enany argued that it is more important than ever for legal academics not only to offer analyses which critique the role of law in upholding racism, but also to be creative about the strategic use of law for immediate survival of the most vulnerable in society. Drawing Mari Matsuda’s work, El-Enany argued that we have much to learn from critical race feminists who have written about the need to be strategic in relation to law in order to survive in a structurally violent world.  El-Enany recounted that during her own PhD studies she was told that race was not a useful analytical concept for scholarship on migration law, and that her intellectual development and psyche were significantly hindered by this falsity for many years. The new research Centre will lead the way, and provide a much needed space, to support the study of the relationship between race and law.

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