Identity in Exile: National Belonging and Cultural Hegemony in the Bahraini Diaspora

By Andrew McIntosh & Jawad Fairooz

A paper presented in SEPAD annual conference ‘What does it mean to belong?” on 15 December 2022


Bahrain’s 2011 Pearl Uprising taught a valuable lesson to the Bahraini government: the survival of its authoritarian system depends on their ability to control information, regulate cultural spaces, and proactively shape consensus in the country. In the decade following the Arab Spring and its crackdown, Bahrain’s political opposition has been banned, its independent newspapers shuttered, and online spaces are now heavily policed. In the Bahraini context, Antonio Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony, where control of information and culture shapes social consensus and the perception of what is possible, is reliant on the exclusion of dissenting cultural narratives, a tactic that seeks to exculpate elements of the opposition, notably the diaspora, from the country’s politics, culture, and history. In contemporary Bahraini media and cultural narratives, their identity has been erased.

Identity is an essential demand of any human being; an unavoidable need that must be met. On the socio-political level, identity is often related to bodies such as the State, which ideally provides security and safety. Those qualities have the potential to enhance identity and create peaceful coexistence. They also have the power, however, to fragment identities and create parallel power structures that accommodate the marginalised and oppressed. Moreover, in Gramscian terms, the state is conceived of a continuous formation and supersession of unstable equilibria between the interests of the dominant group and those of subordinate groups – equilibria in which the interests of the dominant group mostly prevail. Authoritarian states, who are often vigilant against potential unrest, understand that a degree of mass consent must constructed via the shaping of consensus for them to remain dominant and stable.

In order to shape state consensus in Bahrain, subaltern groups such as the Baharna and Ajam are kept in a social and intellectual state of siege: supressed by broad laws against dissent and “inciting hatred” and marginalised by a Khaleeji Arab, Sunni dominated culture industry, their ability to shape consensus in the country is severely limited. This tactic enables core concepts of self-definition and self-representation to be internalised, or, to some degree, endorsed by many Bahraini citizens, including some subaltern. And those definitions reflect the state narrative.

The diaspora, on the other hand, has some means of challenging hegemony from outside of Bahrain. Moreover, many dissidents have been victims of citizenship stripping, denying them, and potentially their children the right to be legally classified as Bahraini.  Adapting to new means of disseminating information and constructing narratives that focus on their religious, ethnic, and political identities in exile, the Bahraini diaspora is attempting to forge new consensus that fits their circumstances and seeks to challenging the cultural hegemony of the Bahraini superstructure, especially in the international sphere, while cultivating a new, transnational identity for themselves. Put more plainly, activists in the Bahraini diaspora often function internationally, who utilise their linkages to exercise soft power, which amplifies their stories and heritage. Oppositional memories among exiled subaltern have formed a new consensus, one they are disseminating among a grassroots movement and international actors.

Michael Barnett notes that while strategic factors were important to Bahrain and the GCC’s response to perceived internal and external security threats during the Arab Spring, identity was a critical factor in shaping the definition of the threat and the alliance’s response. The Bahraini government’s attempt to frame the protests as an effort by “Iranian” agents – coded to refer to the country’s Shi’a population – both reified the legitimacy of Sunni, Khaleeji Arab rule and sought to isolate Shi’a history and identity from national consensus by denying their identity within it.

Engaged in a war of position, the Bahraini government has sought to preserve its dominant moralities and common sense by deploying ideological hegemony: via politics, economics, art, education, and history. The best examples of this can be found in the way the Bahraini state has altered the civil society of its superstructure – the institutions that construct culture – in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

In the public sphere, Shi’a mosques and shrines were punitively destroyed by security forces. Those that were reconstructed were done so in new locations, further afield from public view. In media, Al-Wasat, the last domestic newspaper that frequently appealed to Shi’a Bahrainis, was forced to close in 2017. Bahraini television primarily represents its Sunni-Arab population, with only Sunni religious services broadcast. The Baharna dialect and slang are also excluded from popular culture. In order to view Shi’a religious programming, Bahrainis typically must watch Iraqi or Iranian channels via satellite, something that reinforces state narratives that the Shi’a population have “competing loyalties”.  At the National Museum of Manama, Bahrain’s Shi’a history, along with that of Baharna or Ajam culture, are not part of any exhibition, despite there being artefacts on display that date as far back to the 6th century BC. For Bahraini children required attend the National Museum, this is the nation’s official history.

For the diaspora, which primarily consists of Shi’a from the Baharna and Ajam ethnicities, exile and statelessness have, despite their brutality, become an opportunity to express their identity and culture in new ways abroad, often through the lens of human rights and political activism in international media. Not only have they formed human rights NGOs and worked with Western media and international institutions, such as the United Nations, to highlight continuing human rights abuses and authoritarianism in Bahrain, they have brought their identity as marginalized groups to the fore in these media narratives. The institutions the Baharna and Ajam have built and utilised abroad, have provided a global voice that openly challenges hegemony in Bahrain.

Although there have been several waves of exiles over the past 40 years, the sudden influx of Bahraini elites to Europe, North America, and Australia resulted in the creation of organised NGOs and alternative Bahraini media, based abroad, and but meant for those sympathetic to the Bahraini opposition. These institutions have formed a parallel civil society among the diaspora.

By utilising NGOs, creating linkages with sympathetic international media, and establishing a consistent presence at the UN, the diaspora has effectively broadcast their message globally, often making their collective works on human rights among the first things seen when Bahrain is placed through a search engine. As the diaspora has grown more connected, these movements have encouraged new modes of cultural expression at the grassroots level. These have manifested communal actions, such as public displays of identity and pride, as well as criticism of the Bahraini government, at Ashoura processions in Edgeware, London, or the holding Baharna poetry, folk songs, and storytelling workshops in the UK, which make the unique struggles and marginalisation the community faces both in Bahrain and in exile, visible. In these communal actions, subalternity becomes the means to declare solidarity and strength. As Ali Al-Jamri observed of the Between Two Islands Baharna workshop, held in 2021:

While not all the… participants were political, as Baharna, everyone’s identity was politicised. We could celebrate this important part of our identity without having to worry how to justify this identity – not to a western gaze, nor a Khaleeji gaze either – and could instead immerse ourselves in it.

NGOs run by the diaspora have also reflected solidarity and strength in the subaltern, such as Salam Democracy and Human Right’s “I am Bahraini” campaign, which focuses on giving voices to stateless Bahrainis abroad, and magnifying the culture the Baharna and Ajam, as well as the persecution they have faced, and continued to face in Bahrain.

These narratives run counter to the official government line taken, that the Bahrain is a diverse, cosmopolitan, and tolerant nation. Despite government attempts to enlist PR firms in London and Washington and deploy them to shape international consensus by softening the country’s image in international media and excluding these subaltern identities and the injustices they face, such actions have in fact strengthened the media presence of diaspora NGOs and human rights networks, who remain highly active in international media.

The diaspora has been using these networks to engage in a long war of position, where grassroots movements, NGOs, international organizations, and sympathetic politicians collaborate with calls for human rights and sectarian and ethnic justice as a means of what Sunaina Maria describes as “besieging the siege” of state narratives and international image laundering.  The subaltern identities of sect and ethnicity, and how they have shaped their relationship, being both Bahraini and diasporic, are one of the primary drivers of this international phenomenon.