Re-Thinking the Mediterranean

In a world where the “clash of civilizations” is unfolding as a self-fulfilling prophecy, reclaiming the Mediterranean as a cultural bridge acquires unprecedented import and urgency. Countering the United States’ crusade of neo-colonial hegemony, disregard for international law, xenophobia and unchecked projection of immense power on the world stage necessitates a world-wide rejection of fundamentalism, whether in the north or the south, the east or the west. People of conscience everywhere are compelled to unite in resisting empire, or else the ravages and devastation of the old world colonialism will pale in comparison with what we might expect in this modern “crusade,” to borrow George W. Bush.

Rather than succumb to the “clash” temptation by reinforcing “defensive self-pride,” it is time to come to terms with “the bewildering interdependence of our time,” as Edward Said called it years ago in his article about “The Clash of Ignorance.” We are called upon “to reflect, examine, sort out what it is we are dealing with in reality, the interconnectedness of innumerable lives, ‘ours’ as well as ‘theirs,'” debunking, in the process, the confused and confusing myths about who or what the West or the Other may be.

The Mediterranean has once again found itself representing a conflict mired in myths and misunderstanding; but it is also from the Mediterranean that new paths can emerge. Despite its tendency to close itself within a fortress, the European Union includes within it strong civil society organizations, which can play a key role in forging a new partnership with all progressive forces within the Euro-Mediterranean region and beyond. Such an alliance can elaborate and push forward a program for holistic development in the interrelated fields of politics, culture, the environment, and the economy.

A progressive alliance that focuses on the Mediterranean can be a credible, indeed a crucial, core of a larger alliance that presents a counterweight to American unilateralism and European cultural ethnocentrism and economic protectionism, as well as a new paradigm for cross-regional partnerships based on a harmonizing vision and a geopolitical philosophy that is essentially at odds with the neocon worldview. It is not civilizations or even cultures that are pitted against each other, but the haves and the have-nots, the “powerful and powerless communities, the secular politics of reason and ignorance, and universal principles of justice and injustice.”

Although religion assumes at times key significance in the Euro-Med discourse, as evident in the ongoing debate on Turkey’s prospects for accession to the EU, it is important to reexamine the hypothetical line in the sea separating Christianity from Islam. The increasing population of Muslims in Europe and the indigenous presence of Christian Arabs are often ignored when drawing such a rigid line. Furthermore, the centuries-long religious co-existence in the region has been lost on the “clash” theorists. If fundamentalism in all religions is undoubtedly a source of schism and hostility towards the “Other,” diversity in faith per se does not have to be divisive. Malta, as a possible bridge between the “two sides” of what could be viewed as one region with a wealth of diversity, is one place where this re-evaluation of the “divide” can be carried out by critically re-reading the past and rethinking the taken-for-granted present.

Religion aside, Euro-Med skeptics on either side present a number of compelling arguments that ought to be considered.

On one side of the proposed cross-Mediterranean bridge we have a largely successful experiment of integrating very distinct European nations that have in the not-so-distant past led protracted, devastating wars against each other; while on the other we have one Arab nation, interspersed with indigenous national minorities, torn apart by former colonial powers into separate countries with artificial borders and still languishing under fragmentation, authoritarian rule and developmental stagnation. That’s what any snapshot of the two sides would reveal. But if snapshots may account for part of reality, they ultimately remain distorted images that freeze the time and space context and thus fail to reveal the complex processes at play and the inherent potential for change. The Mediterranean region’s latent strength should not be underestimated.

The Mediterranean domain is where some of the world’s most vibrant civilizations once thrived on interaction, acculturation, trade and common interest. It is a region that has contributed a disproportionately great share to human philosophy, arts and sciences, anchored in a seamless blend of different cultures. Its potential is embedded in its history. It is also borne by geopolitical and economic realities of the present.

Pragmatically speaking, both sides stand to gain from such an alliance.

As the constant flow of migration shows, the Mediterranean and its surrounding regions are full of brave and resourceful people who are willing to work hard, even to risk their lives, to carve out a better future for themselves and for their families and communities. With its surplus of underutilized university graduates on its Northern and Southern shores, the Mediterranean, in partnership with all forces of good will, has the potential to come up with the practical solutions of its own problems and to serve as a model for other regions of the world where global powers wield their unrestrained control.

European proponents of Euro-Med politics are well aware of the region’s potential in helping Europe translate its massive economic power into political potency and international influence, currently in short supply. Having easier, safer and cheaper access to Arab oil (until safer, cleaner sources of energy are developed), enjoying open trade in a stable, prosperous and free zone and having access to the growing Arab market are all factors that enter into their calculations. Arabs who strive for a pan-Arab unity as a necessary condition for resuming healthy development and transcending fragmentation and powerlessness ought not dismiss this alliance out of hand, either. For Europe is, above everything else, an appealing, if embattled, model of political and economic integration that can be emulated. Striving to form an alliance with Europe may indeed act as a catalyst for democratization and preciously needed modernization in parallel with Arab reunification. Furthermore, open cultural and intellectual channels with Europe can help progressive Arabs combat fundamentalism and corruption, both inhibiting true progress in the Arab world. And it can empower those Europeans on the left of what is left of the political “spectrum,” especially those involved in concrete ways in the new global movements, in their efforts to reclaim the unified continent from the choking hold of multinational corporations, to debunk myths and to counter the demonization of the Other, both within Europe itself and in the surrounding Mediterranean countries. By strengthening their ties in the region, European progressives will be in a better position to understand those who are crossing the sea to enter an increasingly unwelcoming Europe and to propose and run projects that would really make the lives of people throughout the region more dignified, thus worth living.

Repositioning the Mediterranean in the centre of a new progressive project means thinking about this diverse region and its resources in original and truly sustainable ways. The Mediterranean, for example, has an overabundance of sunlight that can provide countries in the region and beyond with cleaner energy. This would not only have serious, long-term positive effects on the health of our planet as a whole but would also promote the region as a hub of research in the field of sustainable energy development. Europe, on the other hand, would provide already available technology and know-how, and possibly the initial investment that sets the ball rolling. Of course, this is not meant to encourage the rich to waste more energy and the poor to produce it for them – it is meant, rather, to encourage a new reliance on renewable sources and to start a chain reaction of sustainable practices throughout the region and beyond, an outreach guaranteed by the millions of tourists who visit the region every year and who would therefore be exposed to this wave of green innovation. The other long-term effect would be to establish a more fruitful relationship between equals and to provide more skilled jobs for people on all sides of the Sea.

Another area in which civil society, possibly in partnership with the institutions, can play a major role in rethinking and rejuvenating the Mediterranean and the relationship between the various cultures and resources within it is cultural, ecological and agricultural tourism. As a hub of research and production of alternative energies, the region could attract people through conferences, research visits and the like. It could also provide renewable energy to small-scale farms, resorts and cultural sites and thus have a direct effect on the income and livelihood of people in the region who would not need to flee to continental Europe in the hope of a better future. The shift from mass tourism, which has a devastating impact on the environment, and therefore on all living species in the region, to cultural, ecological, and agricultural tourism would also pave the way for more research into traditional, more sustainable and holistic ways of living, and possibly even to ethical tourism.

Moreover, with its popularity among so many northerners, the Mediterranean is a region with a great potential to develop fair trade, encouraging local communities to produce crafts and foodstuffs that reflect and respect their environment and culture and guarantee fair wages for the producer and a fair price for the consumer. There are already some important fair trade producer initiatives and “social cooperatives” in Palestine and Southern Italy, to mention but two. A democratic strategy based on empowering local communities has the potential to succeed because it aims to provide for a generally guaranteed demand but also because it has the potential to create a new demand for forms of “recreation” or leisure such as eco-villages that have long-term effects even on those who benefit from them as visitors or short-term residents. These are initiatives that start to refuse the “ours-theirs” divide that Said talks about and builds on the “interconnectedness of innumerable lives.”

The role of culture as a “vehicle for dialogue” within the Euromed area was highlighted in a 2003 Report by the High-Level Group established on the initiative of the President of the European Commission, who at the time was Romano Prodi. Apart from the Barcelona process, the Group proposes to “involve civil societies in ending the discriminations from which European citizens of immigrant origin still too often suffer and the persistent situation of injustice, violence and insecurity in the Middle East, in implementing educational programmes designed to replace negative mutual perceptions with mutual knowledge and understanding, and so on.” Culture, the report suggests, must be used to “reinforce the emerging sense of fellowship and common destiny, so that Europe and its Mediterranean partners lay the foundations of a wider civic consciousness based on a convergent understanding of history and their common heritages.” The Group, which recommends mobility and sharing of expertise, proposes to make education a vehicle for learning about diversity and transmitting knowledge of the Other, and this includes, amongst others, redefining the foundations of the humanities and social sciences and the way they are taught, as regards the anthropological, legal, cultural, religious, economic and social dimensions of the history of the Mediterranean region, and to develop elements of common knowledge.

On an institutional level, the Barcelona Process launched by the Conference of EU and Mediterranean foreign ministers that was held in Barcelona in November 1995 can be a proper foundation for starting the dialogue — particularly among civil society representatives — about this alternative Mediterranean project. It emphasizes friendly relations based on: political and security partnership through the establishment of a common area of peace and stability; economic partnership by creating an area of shared prosperity; and partnership in social, cultural and human affairs, by developing human resources, promoting understanding between cultures and collaboration between civil societies.

Tackling these serious tasks, however, entails challenging the three main impediments that stand in the way: current US foreign policy in the region; Israel’s occupation of Arab land and denial of Palestinian rights; and Europe’s colonial legacy in the Arab world, manifested in socio-economic and political weakness in the south and uncontrollable immigration to the north.

Although Cyprus presents another serious obstacle that must be addressed, the fact that there is general agreement — supported by the UN and most major players — that the EU is the proper framework for solving this conflict, makes this issue not among the major impediments mentioned above. Reunifying the island on the basis of equality, democracy and withdrawal of all foreign forces, remains the only internationally-sanctioned solution, regardless of how long it may take.

Going back to the primary challenge to the suggested Mediterranean alliance, it is naïve to assume that the US will just stand by and watch while a competing Euro-Arab pole is being established. The possibility for aggressive and multi-faceted US intervention to thwart the effort should be taken into consideration in all phases of planning for this alliance. Emphasizing the UN’s central role as the best available — if not perfect — embodiment of international law and universal rights can attract wide international support, which will be needed to fence off any American attempts to sabotage the entire process. Regardless, Europe is invited to take a stand, to disengage from anachronistic, cold-war groupings such as NATO, to free itself of its current role of “washing the dishes,” while the US cooks the dinner and eats it too, as expressed by Robert Kagan, a leading neocon ideologue. With the ominous consolidation of power in the hands of fundamentalists, militarists and financial oligarchs in the US, the wider the Atlantic, the narrower the Mediterranean will be.

As for the second obstacle, although the Barcelona process has included Israel — for obvious reasons — it is time to critically analyze the roots and prospects of resolving the long standing Arab-Zionist conflict, the most deep-rooted conflict troubling the region. Despite differentiating itself from US foreign policy to various degrees in other conflicts, Europe remains overall submissive in its relation with the US in the Middle East. “We are friends and allies but we are not servants,” French president Jacques Chirac recently burst out in protest. Facts on the ground, however, can blur this distinction.

Europe’s understandable guilt over the Holocaust is often cited as the most profound cause of its direct or indirect acquiescence in aspects of Israel’s violation of international law, mainly its illegal occupation of Arab lands, its stubborn rejection of the right of Palestinian refugees to return and its entrenched and distinguished form of apartheid against its own Palestinian citizens. Going beyond moral inconsistency and guilt-generated injustice, though, requires overcoming this basic obstacle on the path of translating Euro-Med rhetoric into sustainable realities on the ground. Arab leaders may sign anything that overlooks this conflict, but their legitimacy is as solid as ice-cream on a hot Mediterranean summer day. The Arab world’s hearts and minds cannot be remotely represented by its unelected, despotic rulers. This is where civil society, even where it is stifled by corrupt institutions, can be empowered by a strong Mediterranean initiative.

Ignoring the gravity and implications of the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine, as the 2003 EU Report Dialogue Between Peoples and Cultures in the Euro-Mediterranean Area mentioned earlier does, is not acceptable or constructive. Creative, bold and morally sound solutions are indeed required to achieve justice and lasting peace in this century-old conflict. A project that has every potential to win wide Arab support for a Mediterranean alliance is the unitary, secular and democratic state solution to the Palestine-Israel problem. Only such a state can reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable: the inalienable, UN-sanctioned rights of the indigenous people of Palestine to self-determination and the internationally accepted rights of Israeli Jews to live in peace and security after justice has prevailed. Regardless of Israel’s establishment on the ruins of Palestinian society and as a result of massive ethnic cleansing of most Palestinians during the Nakba (catastrophe of 1948), Israeli Jews and Palestinian-Arabs (Muslims and Christians) should enjoy equal democratic rights without discrimination, and without ethnic supremacy of either community. The return and compensation of the Palestinian refugees, in accordance with international law, remains the cornerstone of any such historic solution to this long conflict. This would not only redress the injustice done to Palestinians and end the last remnant of colonialism in the world, but will also remove Europe’s sore thorn from the heart of the Arab nation. It may well spawn an authentic process of democratic reform in the Arab world at large, after denying Arab rulers their age-long alibi of the “conflict” with Israel. This home-grown political transformation will better promote and protect the process of integrating the Mediterranean region on shared values of freedom, democracy, rule of law and the fundamental equality of all humans, regardless of faith, ethnicity or nationality.

As for the last mentioned obstacle, the colonial legacy, it must be admitted that European colonial ravage and cruel exploitation of the south has left its nations impoverished, dependent and incapable of sustaining any meaningful development. Without seriously stopping its collusion with the south’s autocratic regimes and consistently investing into the region’s infrastructure and sustainable economic, political and cultural development as compensation for decades of organized robbery and horrific atrocities, we shall continue to witness this often uprooting phenomenon of one-way migration.

Forming a Mediterranean alliance of progressive forces everywhere in the region that attracts the support of similar elements elsewhere would be beneficial to all those involved and would reflect the Mediterranean’s true heritage of coexistence, multiculturalism, stability and prosperity. And as the eminent Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes says: “[C]ultures are not isolated, and perish when deprived of contact with what is different and challenging. […] No culture […] retains its identity in isolation; identity is attained in contact, in contrast, in breakthrough.”

* Omar Barghouti, independent political and cultural analyst who has published essays on the rise of empire, the Palestine question and art of the oppressed. He holds a Masters degree in electrical engineering from Columbia University, and is currently a doctoral student of philosophy (ethics) at Tel Aviv University. He contributed to the published book, The New Intifada: Resisting Israel’s Apartheid (Verso Books, 2001). He is an advocate of the secular, democratic state solution in historic Palestine. His article “9.11 Putting the Moment on Human Terms” was chosen among the “Best of 2002” by The Guardian.

Adrian Grima, a lecturer at the University of Malta, has published books and articles about Maltese Literature and about the Mediterranean and has read papers and poetry at conferences in Europe, the United States and the Caribbean. In 1999, he published It-Trumbettier, a prize-winning book of poetry in Maltese. Some of his poems have appeared in anthologies in Europe and Israel. His second collection of poetry, including a Maltese-Arabic bilingual edition, will be published in 2006. Dr. Grima is a cultural activist and the Maltese correspondent of the website about culture in the Mediterranean region.

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