What Does It Mean To Be A Citizen in an Interconnected World?

13 March 2019

by Ali Hamilton

In 2016, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” Less than three years later, the government was revoking the British citizenship of Islamic State recruit, Shamima Begum, leaving her effectively stateless. This has raised big questions in society and the media about what it means to be a citizen. Many question the legal precedent of leaving a person stateless, while others note the willingness of terrorists to renounce citizenship bestowed on them by birth. Belonging to a state gives rights and protections to citizens, even the most hostile and threatening nationals. However, should it also come with certain responsibilities? To explore this deeply complicated, philosophical and political question, we must analyse the origins of citizenship.

An Ancient Greek Debate

Like most things in political philosophy, the origins can be traced to the Ancient Greeks. They were the first to move towards a system of statehood, although states were usually the size of a city. Being a member of a city state in this time was a chance to secure your freedom in a world of abundant slavery. People belonging to the state of Athens, for instance, were allowed to vote on laws. Foreigners were banned from participation in democracy, as were women. This may have been a crude and early version of citizenship, but wealthy, older men were afforded protections from slavery for perhaps the first time in human history. Institutions and courts were set up to enshrine these protections.

However, the idea of statehood was not universally accepted. The word cosmopolitan was first coined in Ancient Athens and literally meant world citizen. It was Diogenes of Sinope who invented the term, viewing confinement to one city state as a sort of slavery. Being a citizen of the world meant he was free to travel to any place he liked. However, it also meant that there was no government to guarantee his rights. During the same period, Alexander the Great sought to unite city states into one empire. The European Union, though a peaceful and democratic structure, has a similar aim of uniting citizens across different states.

The Nation State and Globalisation

The birth of the nation state can be traced back to the French and American revolutions of the 18th century. Nation states promoted liberty, equality, and fraternity, as well as the right to property and the pursuit of happiness. Representative democracies were set up along with codified constitutions to enshrine the rights of the people. Through the philosophical work of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, this meant the setting up of a social contract between the state and its citizens. This suggests a role for personal responsibility for those protected under a bill of rights.

Since then, the world has shifted yet once more. Supranational structures such as the European Union, along with multinational corporations and the internet, means that the role of nation state has started to decline. This rapid globalisation has led to issues like the case of Shamima Begum. Borders are less well defined and determining which state an individual belongs to has become more difficult. In this modern age, it is important to remember how citizenship guarantees the rights, freedoms and happiness of human beings. However, we need to find a way of integrating it into a global context.

Oxfam’s Teaching Controversial Issues resource supports teachers to tackle tricky subjects in the classroom.

Ali Hamilton is a freelance writer

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>