Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Voices of the People : Understanding Citizenship and Identity

This replacement article ran instead of the piece on Rule of Law.. 

I have written in the past on the challenges we of Fiji face when it comes to understanding ourselves as one nation. Today I share with you what others think of citizenship.

In the recently published book, “Voices of the People: Perceptions and Preconditions for Democratic Development in Fiji,” the results of research conducted by the Institute for Research and Social Analysis of the Pacific Theological College included a section on citizenship. The study collected the views of Fijians from all sectors of society through 41 focus group discussions involving 330 participants, and conducting 82 in-depth interviews.  It found that identity is perhaps the most crucial element of citizenship.

Culture, religion, production, and to some extent, the self, are composites of identity. For the iTaukei, three institutions are paramount: lotu (church), Vanua (land) and matanitu (government). These represent the three powers vested in the chiefs – spiritual, economic and political. For Fijians of Indian descent, identity is defined by birth, close family relationships and production (namely, success in education, business and careers).

There are significant differences between iTaukei and non-iTaukei views on identity; for example, the ‘communitarian’ view of identity is much more pronounced among the iTaukei than the Indo-Fijian participants and interviewees. However, there is also a shared view with regards to identity: it is best defined in relation to the narratives of others, which includes language, religion, history, customs and family relations.

Simply put, the shared conception of identity is best understood from a narrative point of view, as most communities seem to describe their identity in relation to a situated place with its multiplicity of narratives and texts.

The common name ‘Fijian’, which has been decreed by the current government to apply to all citizens of the Republic of Fiji, is acceptable to most participants and interviewees; birthright was the main reason given for this acceptance. While the distinctiveness of ethnic identities at the village, community and national levels were affirmed, there is a realization that a national identity is long overdue. It is also believed that a common name may assist in eliminating racial discrimination.

Helping citizens to recognize that their ethnic and religious narratives, while particular, are inter-twined, is essential to national unity and belonging. Learning one another’s language and culture is essential to strengthening citizenship and national identity. Some interviewees also believe that developmental benefits could flow from allowing dual citizenship.

Most interviewees believe that sport plays a key role in strengthening national identity. The national anthem and the flag constitute other important elements in reinforcing a national identity. It was suggested that these should be reviewed to adequately reflect the reality of Fiji. Generally, most participants and interviewees believe that race relations are much better now than in the past, but noted that they become problematic whenever race is politicized by politicians in their election campaigns; this occurs mostly in relation to urban areas, and, more specifically, to the central division. Community education and rallying citizens around Fiji’s national symbols are crucial to forging a common identity.

While most participants and interviewees are accepting of the common name ‘Fijian’, some believe that acceptance should come about organically, through awareness and dialogue, and not through a decree. Some feel that the change of name will not make any difference, because ethnic and cultural differences remain. There are concerns that the common name was introduced too fast without consultation and agreement; rather, it is felt that there should be education in this regard, so that the people accept and understand the rationale behind it.

There are also some who disagree with the use of the term ‘Fijian’ as the common name for all citizens. In addition, there was confusion surrounding understanding the difference between the concept of citizenship, and that of belonging to a cultural tradition; in particular, some thought that the term ‘Fijian’ was usually used solely when referring to the iTaukei, so that it was felt that classifying everyone as Fijian in relation to citizenship would be problematic because of the differences in values, cultural practices and identity between the iTaukei, Indo-Fijians, and other ethnic groups.

Such views not only highlight the lack of awareness and consultation, but also the need for education about Fiji’s common identity. Education plays an important role in alleviating ethnic suspicion. Some interviewees regarded the implementation of policies on the zoning of schools, and changing school names to reflect the vision of a ‘Fiji for all’ as positive not only with regards to forging good ethnic relations, a sense of belonging, and a common identity, but also with regard to development in general.

Aside from the conflicting views expressed on the common name and identity, some interviewees stated that there is an emerging cosmopolitan identity. Three of the main factors cited as contributing to this emerging identity were education, urbanization and international exposure through travel, study and work. Changes in eating habits, food and dress cultures, and the form of the English language used today, particularly among the younger generation, were also seen to contribute to this emerging identity.

In other words, education about citizenship, and not just education for voters, is necessary.

In addition to issues regarding participation in certain communities, there are also problems for entire communities whose voices are not heard, and which do not have access to the necessary mechanisms for actively participating in Fiji’s political life. In particular, reference was made to the following groups: the Rabi, Kioa, and the descendants of Solomon Islanders and Ni-Vanuatu.

Much will depend on the identity the people of Fiji choose for themselves; their understanding of freedoms and obligations, and the rule of law; and whether they wish to limit Fiji’s form of politics to rights on the one hand, and welfare on the other, or whether they will take a bold step towards defining its politics according to moral engagement.

For now, political education in schools and communities, and citizenship participation and representation in politics, is crucial. Consensus on these issues will greatly influence the kind of life the people of Fiji wish to live, the way they relate to each other, to state and informal institutions, and to the society they live and work in. Citizens’ forums could form crucial elements in discussing the common good and issues of social justice.

The findings of the study suggest that the kind of politics and vision that the people of Fiji will eventually develop for themselves will not be about levelling the good of cultures, religions and philosophical traditions; rather, it will be a vision of the common good that takes difficult moral questions seriously, and brings these to bear on economic, political and social policies.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

Rev. James Bhagwan is currently a student of the Methodist Theological University’s International Graduate School of Theology in Seoul, South Korea. He is a member of the Institute of Research and Social Analysis’ Strategic Think-tank. Email: padrejames@gmail.com or visit http://thejournalofaspiritualwonderer.blogspot.com

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