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Chan'ad Bahraini

(Scomberomorous maculatus Bahrainius)

Note: This page has moved to a new address. Please click on the following URL to get there: http://chanad.weblogs.us/index.php?s=The art of presence. Sorry for the trouble.

The art of presence

Thursday, July 22, 2004

In the latest ISIM newsletter, Prof. Asef Bayat has a great great article titled The Art of Presence (pdf 100KB). I think that we in Bahrain certainly have a great deal to gain by learning and adopting the "Art of Presence". Read the whole article, but the excerpts I've provided here should give you a gist of what this "Art of Presence" is all about.

What options do ordinary citizens [in the Muslim Middle East] have when faced, in political, economic or cultural domains, with constraining forces and institutions? Some might choose complicity or “loyalty” by joining the mainstream currents. Others, while not approving of the existing arrangements, may well disengage, surrendering their rights to voice concerns and thereby exiting the political stage altogether in the hope that things will somehow change someday. Then again, others may choose to express their contention loudly and clearly even if it means remaining on the margins of society: to be vocal but marginal, or, even worse, irrelevant. It is, however, extremely challenging to be heavily present at the heart of society, to struggle for liberation, and yet maintain one’s integrity; to be effective but also principled. More precisely, I am referring to that delicate art of presence in harsh circumstance, the ability to create social space within which those individuals who refuse to exit, can advance the cause of human rights, equality and justice, and do so under formidable political conditions. It is this difficult strategy, demanding sharp vision, veracity, and above all endurance and energy, that holds the most promise. Meaningful change in the Muslim Middle East may well benefit from such a protracted strategy.

Prof. Bayat goes on to talk about Iranian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi as an exemplifying the art of presence through her work. He then explains what the art of presence means in practical terms:

I envision a strategy whereby every social group generates change in society through active citizenship in all immediate domains: children at home and schools, students in colleges, teachers in the classrooms, workers in shop floors, athletes in stadiums, artists through their mediums, intellectuals in media, and women at home and in public domains. This means that not only are they to voice their claims, broadcast violations done unto them, and make themselves heard, but also take the responsibility of excelling in what they do. An authoritarian regime should not be a reason for not producing excellent novels, brilliant handicrafts, math champions, world class athletes, dedicated teachers, or a global film industry. Excellence is power; it is identity. By art of presence, I imagine the way in which a society, through the practices of daily life, may regenerate itself by affirming the values that deject the authoritarian personality, get ahead of its elites, and become capable of enforcing its collective sensibilities on the state and its henchmen. And in this, the role of women in challenging gender hierarchy in and outside home is indispensible.

By art of presence, active citizenry, I do not necessarily mean pervasive social movements or collective mobilization for political transformation, although such imagined citizenry is likely to welcome largescale collective action. For authoritarian rule not only impedes contentious actions, but it is unrealistic to expect society to be in a constant state of vigour, vitality, and collective struggles. Society, with its ordinary people, also gets tired, demoralized, and even repressed. Activism, the extra-ordinary practices to produce social change, is the stuff of activists, who may energize collective sentiments when the opportunity allows. The point is not to reiterate the political significance of contentious movements, nor to stress on the necessity of undercutting the coercive power of the states. The point rather is to stress how lay citizens, with their ordinary practices of everyday life, through the art of presence or active citizenry, may recondition the established political elites and refashion state institutions into their habitus.

Yes, he's nailed it. We in Bahrain who want to bring about social change must adopt this strategy. As Prof. Bayat says: "Excellence is power; it is identity". Instead of attracting the ire of the regime through revolutionism, we need to achieve excellence in whatever it is that we do in our daily lives and maintain a principled stand. This allows controversial personalities to exist in the public space without allowing the regime to marginalize them.

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