I have been following with interest reports of discussions in the committee of the Sudanese National Dialogue dealing with identity. National identity is a subject which comes up in many of my conversations with Sudanese people I meet and there have been some interesting exchanges on Twitter and Facebook recently. In my view it is one of the most important issues which Sudan faces today.
National identity is also a very important issue for us in the United Kingdom, as demonstrated by the referendum on Scottish independence, the upcoming referendum on our membership of the European Union and the issues around the recent increase in migration to Europe from Africa and the Middle East.
What is a national identity? Wikipedia describes it as one’s sense of belonging to a state or a nation. Oxford dictionaries defines it as a sense of a nation as a cohesive whole, as represented by distinctive traditions, culture and language.
In Sudan (and in Scotland) which tribe (or clan) you belong to is sometimes an important element of national identity. At the next level up some people in the UK ask ‘am I English/Scottish/Welsh/Northern Irish or British or European?’ and some people in Sudan ask themselves ‘am I Arab or African?’. For some people in both our countries religion is an important part of their national identity. Language is another component: most people in Sudan speak Arabic and most people in the UK speak English, but there are minorities in both our countries that do not speak the majority language – and other countries of course have many different languages.
On the face of it, it might seem that the more cohesive the national identity, the better for the country concerned. But history suggests otherwise – the Nazis in Germany between the wars fostered a very clear national identity which Hitler exploited for his own ends and which ultimately led to the Second World War and national disaster. Currently nationalist parties in a number of European countries are trying to exploit some electors sense of national identity against incomers. On the other hand many successful countries (the United States is a good example) benefit from a national identity based on ethnic and cultural diversity. This suggests that national identity should ideally be used to bring the people of a country together not to develop a sense of superiority towards neighbouring countries.
In my view the peoples of Sudan and the UK can both benefit from the wonderful diversity in both our countries. We both have long and complicated histories involving invasions and migrations with peoples moving in and others moving out. As an island the UK has sometimes had close ties with Australia, Canada and India, but we are also an integral part of Europe. Likewise Sudan has sometimes looked North to Egypt, at other times West across the Sahel or East to the Arabian Peninsula or Ethiopia. It is part of the Arab World and an integral part of Africa.
Personally I am proud of being English (especially when it comes to football), British (at the Olympics) and European (and not just during the Ryder Cup golf competition). A healthy internal rivalry (like that between the English and the Scots) can be a good thing, enriching our cultural lives and making football more interesting.
Sometimes tribes or minorities within a country will have particular links to another country – perhaps a neighbouring state, or their country of origin or relating to their religion. In Sudan for example the Beni Amer tribe have close links with their follow tribes people in Eritrea, the Zaghawa in Darfur with the Zaghawa in Chad and the Copts with their co-religionists in Egypt. In the UK some Britons of Asian origin support the national cricket teams of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh – whereas others choose to play cricket (very successfully) for England. We should have the confidence to embrace these differences and benefit from the advantages they bring in terms of deeper relationships with the countries concerned. What is most important is that everybody feels included and that the Government and fellow citizens demonstrate tolerance towards minorities and those who choose to be different.
Some countries and governments consciously set out to create and foster a national identity – that is the purpose of the Pledge of Allegiance recited daily by many US schoolchildren. For others (the UK but also in the Gulf), a Royal Family is a major focus of national identity. In many cases a historical event like a revolution or independence is an important element in developing a national identity. A national flag can also be a powerful emblem – consider New Zealand’s intention to create a new flag to reflect their national identity and the success of Canada’s Maple Leaf. But ultimately a successful national identity depends on the citizens of the country concerned feeling pride in their country.