While the Government determines what political direction a nation takes, it is civil society which determines the national identity of a particular country – both how that country is perceived abroad and how the public sees themselves.
Without an active civil society there is no opportunity for a vibrant cultural life, and few opportunities for citizens to gain a clear understanding of how they see themselves and their wider society.
Bahrain has one of the strongest profiles in the region for cultural activities and events. This is evidenced by a network of art galleries and cultural centres with the relatively recent addition of the Bahrain National Theatre.
However, this wealth of cultural diversity needs to be defended. If we want to protect our cultural identity and the freedoms which define us as Bahrainis, civil society must be ready to speak out against those who seek to limit our rights and redefine our identity.
Identity & culture wars
The national identity of a country is constantly changing between different generations, and as different religious and cultural factors become prominent. Sometimes we see competition between conservatives and progressives to define the national identity: Is the country’s identity backward or forward looking?
Some nationalists try and narrowly interpret culture to exclude all “foreign” influences; forgetting that if we go back far enough, all these cultural practices have been introduced, nourished and enriched from outside.
One of the main sources of cultural tension in Bahrain and the Gulf is between Islamists and those with a more progressive vision. Islamists claim that liberals are trying to introduce Western and un-Islamic practices; while liberals say that their rivals are trying to introduce a harsh and intolerant interpretation of Islam, totally out of step with the tolerant and inclusive Muslim heritage of the Kingdom.
Islamists in Parliament have recently been campaigning to abolish mandatory music lessons in schools and cut government funding for cultural events. They have also tried to curtail women’s rights and limit the freedoms of non-Muslims, for example; lobbying to ban pork and alcohol, while restricting non-Islamic banking.
We can see how these efforts seek to impose a particular vision on the whole of Bahrain, a vision which is not just unattractive to non-Muslim residents and visitors; but also for many Muslims with a more inclusive and tolerant worldview.
The problem is that while Islamists constitute an organised and highly motivated movement, we do not find a strong voice which reflects the views of liberals and progressives in Bahrain, despite the fact that many share their views and that most would lose out if an Islamist agenda damaged tourism, commerce, cultural freedoms and the economy as a whole.
Civil society and identity
A nation’s identity, an institution’s identity or an individual’s identity is only what people believe it to be. Bahrain has always been noted for its open and diverse cultural tendencies, but without civil society standing up to defend and promote this heritage, others with an intolerant agenda, despite being a minority, can be remarkably effective in imposing their own identity on those around them through legislation and activity in the cultural sphere.
Bahrain’s cultural and social identity deserves fighting for and protecting. We should be seeing MPs in Parliament standing up and speaking out in favour of children’s musical and cultural education. We should see greater public support for measures to make Bahrain more attractive as a cultural destination, thus securing our future prosperity; and we should be defending our cultural freedoms and celebrating the diversity and tolerance, values which have been inherent to our Bahraini island identity over the centuries.
ABC of civil society
Human rights – next week