Road to Congress: Engin Isin reveals the art in citizenship

From May 27 to June 3, York University will host over 8,000 delegates to the 75th Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (formerly the Learneds). In the run-up to Congress, one of the biggest academic events ever held at York (see YFile Feb. 2), YFile is profiling researchers whose focus is in the humanities and social sciences. Today, the spotlight is on Engin Isin, Canada Research Chair in Citizenship Studies, whose research advances the idea that citizenship involves social practices and acts that take place primarily in the city. His recent research calls into question a long-held assumption that citizenship was either invented or cultivated only in Western cities.

You have a Canadian passport, you can vote here. This means you’re a citizen of Canada, right?

Yes, in part, says Engin Isin (right), York’s Canada Research Chair in Citizenship Studies. But that’s not the whole picture of “citizenship”.

“Citizenship is generally understood to be your membership in a nation state with its rights and privileges. But there are subtle parts to it,” says Isin. “I see it as art – the art of negotiating ‘difference’. It’s the understanding of having to live with others…where you begin to think of yourself as related to those around you.

“In the West, we see citizenship as rights of entitlement, to everything from health care and education to voting. But what about the simple act of giving your seat to someone on a bus? I see that act as ‘citizenship’. It is a form of respect for the other, and something citizens are taught to do as a duty. We then teach our children to practise it, too, because if we didn’t, the act would be gradually lost.”

Rethinking what citizenship means is part of Isin’s research theme. After investigating citizenship practices in Western cities for more than a decade, he turned his mind to the 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century East, specifically to Islamic endowments, called waqfs, through which Ottoman cities were built.

Because it is assumed that the Ottoman Empire was run by despots, people also assume that people living in the cities had no rights, such as access to health care and education, and therefore, did not experience what Westerners calls citizenship.

Isin disputes that notion. “It’s like saying people with different language don’t have speech, just because their language doesn’t sound like ours.

“The Ottoman Empire didn’t have a social welfare state, but the well-to-do, and also less-well-to-do, with disposable property did give gifts-in-kind to their cities. They paid for roads, health care, schools, libraries, parks, animal shelters and so on, all through civic gifts. This practice is at least 800 years old – but this research is making an original connection between civic gifts and citizenship. Citizenship as the art of negotiating difference was by no means a Western invention.”

Isin is breaking new ground in his research. He says that while he has his critics, he hopes to convince them of the need for a cross-cultural and historical dialogue on citizenship with his research on the waqf. “It is a long process that involves painstaking research in the archives but I have already presented its preliminary findings in Istanbul, Cairo, Delhi, Beirut and Toronto,” he says with excitement.

This article was written by former YFile editor Cathy Carlyle,  now a freelance writer and contributor to YFile.