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“SEND THEM HOME!”: Critical discourse analysis of petitions against Rohingya refugees in Malaysia during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Mohamad Jamil, Siti Nurnadilla (2021) “SEND THEM HOME!”: Critical discourse analysis of petitions against Rohingya refugees in Malaysia during the Covid-19 Pandemic. In: 8th New Zealand Discourse Conference 2021, 10th- 11th December 2021, Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand. (Unpublished)

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The difficulties brought by the implementation of the cordon sanitaire in Malaysia to contain the spread of Covid-19 and longstanding local grievances have led to an explosion of xenophobic sentiments towards refugees in the country during the pandemic. The prospect of more refugee boats arriving after hundreds were turned away (Ratcliffe, 17 April 2020) worsened the situation. In the context of deepening crisis, according to Bremmer (2018), nationalism grows from a need to reassert control by declaring shared solidarity among the people who belong in the “imagined community” (see Anderson 2006). Here, it is important to note that the fact that we assume a nation to be “an imagined community and a mental construct” (Wodak et al., 2009, p. 22), in no way implies that it is not “real”. On the contrary, it “is real to the extent that one is convinced of it, believes in it and identifies with it emotionally” (Wodak et al. 2009, p. 22). Such a sense of nationalism, i.e. “a sense of heightened and pronounced national feeling, a sense of belonging and devotion to a particular nation” (Kecmanovic, 1996, p. 15) is generally expected to thrive in times of crisis like a pandemic, when multiple reasons for fears are encountered. These include fear of the virus, of the number of daily infected cases, of death, of economic instability, of the unknown, of the number of refugees; in principle, of almost anything that can be constructed as a threat to ‘Us’, an imagined homogenous people inside a well-protected territory during the pandemic. This paper analyses 22 anti-Rohingya refugee petitions on Change.org in 2020. While online petitions are broadly used by the public to make a formal request to an authority to change something, they are first and foremost directed to the people themselves, persuading people to get together in support of a common cause by raising awareness around an issue, expressing their views, and urging people to stand up and demand a change in the form of electronic signatures. Petitioning is therefore considered to be a powerful democratic means for mobilizing collective action since it enables citizens to significantly impact governmental decisions and policymaking through participation in setting agendas for policy change (Chen, Deng, Kwak, Elnoshokaty and Wu, 2019). This way, Ghaltakhchyan (2013) argues that “petition writing enables people to build social authority in order to achieve influence on the ruling system of the country. Its mission is to close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want’” (p. 100). Against this background, justification of anti-Rohingya refugee petitions is therefore argumentative in nature, as it typically involves persuasion through the reinforcement and clarification of existing ideas, as well as consideration of various viewpoints during the petition period. Since one’s justification of creating the petition is very much one’s personal opinion, as a form of complex verbal action it is goal-oriented and must be defended and supported, which explains why they exhibit certain argumentative structures and strategies such as proving (or making) their own positions plausible and/or others’ untenable. The arguments made in the selected anti-Rohingya refugee petitions were therefore analysed using the Discourse-Historical Approach’s (DHA) argumentation discursive strategy (Reisigl and Wodak, 2016), whose conception follows Kopperschmidt’s Habermasian theoretical framework, as well as nomination and predication discursive strategies which reflects a dichotomous view that links to the papers’ general argumentative strategy. Moreover, taking my lead from KhosraviNik and Esposito (2018), rather than reducing this phenomenon to digital affordances per se, this paper includes double critical contextualization of research findings at both digital participatory as well as social and cultural levels. The findings highlight how online petitions as an emerging genre can be used as a tool of hate, carving new (and deepening existing) social divides among marginalized refugee communities while providing the necessary sense of community and purpose under three overarching topoi across the discourse of ‘we-ness’, namely patriotic values, prioritization and responsibilization, to weather trying times during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Slide Presentation)
Additional Information: Hybrid conference
Subjects: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Kulliyyahs/Centres/Divisions/Institutes (Can select more than one option. Press CONTROL button): Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences
Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences > Department of English Language & Literature
Depositing User: Dr Siti Nurnadilla Mohamad Jamil
Date Deposited: 04 Jan 2022 15:02
Last Modified: 04 Jan 2022 15:04
URI: http://irep.iium.edu.my/id/eprint/94726

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