Bahrain: the Question of National Identity and Political Reform

Hasan Moosa Shafaei

Hasan Moosa Shafaei

Bahrain does not suffer from an acute identity crisis, for the majority of its people share the same religion, language and political environment, all contained within a historical identity ( by this I mean Bahrain from a geographic point of view). Yet Bahrain -as with other countries- faces challenges in regards to the question of identity on three different levels:

The first challenge lies in the amount of foreign workers, particularly from non-Arab countries, for statistics show that the number of foreigners in the country almost equals the number of citizens (the total number of the entire populations is one million). There are those who have expressed concerns regarding the influence of incoming foreign identities on the Arab identity of the country, and especially from the Indian subcontinent which represents the majority of foreign workers. However, this problem remains less serious in Bahrain than in other Gulf States (excluding Saudi Arabia, in which foreign workers represent a third of the total population: 8 million foreigners as opposed to 15 million citizens). This challenge can be described as a moderate one and until now it does not appear to have had any serious effect on the Arab identity of Bahrain, despite the fact that some Arab researchers have exaggerated the problem and its potential consequences out of proportion, claiming that there is a serious danger.

The second level is the question of sectarian and ethnic diversity in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Although Islam is a unifying factor which supposedly transcends sectarian and ethnic extremism, in reality Bahrain is very much affected by sectarian tension- most of it from the outside- and is influenced by the various foreign political circumstances, particularly as result of the political changes which stormed Iraq and Lebanon. Events have proved that Bahrain is not immune from the impact of sectarian tendencies which constantly fluctuate according to local and external factors, and cast their shadows on individuals and communities in the Kingdom of Bahrain.

The third level is related to the building of a local national identity. It has to be said that Bahrain possesses all the necessary requirements for the establishment of a strong national identity that can face all the challenges mentioned above. Bahrain is a historically well-established entity which possesses clear and undisputed geographic boarders, and a fair amount of social interweave and tolerance among its inhabitants. This in addition to other political considerations such as the consensus over the country’s independence and its political leadership which have been granted legitimacy in the 1970 referendum and in the second one, held almost thirty years later and included in the National Action Charter in 2001. Moreover, Bahrain has no linguistic problems or acute social, religious, sectarian or ethnic fractures which could all hinder the building of a national identity, and thus all the raw materials are available to produce a solid national culture and a strong national identity.

Currently, however, national identity in Bahrain is not sufficiently strong, though the idea has been reinforced as result of the political reforms which started almost eight years ago. This is because it is difficult to imagine building a national identity in the midst of oppression, as this could only yield a weak state with a deformed national identity, bound to fail when confronted with any real test, as we have seen in Iraq during the American invasion. Undoubtedly, promoting the national identity of any country is strongly connected to the political issue, and, therefore, the political reform initiated in Bahrain has paved the way for religious, political and cultural freedoms. The political reform constitutes the ideal path for the establishment of a strong identity through elected legislative institutions. It also provides an opportunity for the growth of a solid national identity despite the prevalence of a sectarian culture in neighboring countries. This latter, despite its negative effects, was unable to hinder the rise of a national culture in Bahrain which is the sound basis for any political change.

Political reform can only be achieved through equality, justice and stability. In other words, it provides the necessary environment for building and promoting the national identity required, and this is what is happening in Bahrain at the moment but at a slow pace. Another important and sensitive issue is discrimination. Discrimination in all its forms cannot continue in any state which claims to bear the flag of reform, and cannot be supported by an evolving national culture or by a state intended to be guardian of the law. Discrimination is the fundamental problem facing national identity in Bahrain and is the antithesis of any national project. A culture which encourages policies of discrimination cannot continue and that any attempts to weaken discriminatory religious, sectarian and tribal cultures will only mean an additional promotion and enforcement of national identity, so that Bahrain can be protected from all foreign penetrations which are manifested in sectarianism and tribalism among others.

Political reform must continue at a faster pace so all obstacles facing the Bahraini national identity can be removed. The government should also have some additional programs and projects which aim to detect these problems and to work towards containing their negative effects on the social fabric or preferably to totally eradicate them.