Looking for more in-depth analysis and complexity in the Mediterranean


Looking for more in-depth analysis and complexity in the Mediterranean
Nathalie Galesne

There are several reasons why we thought it would be interesting this year to open our annual meeting of the Babelmed journalists network to the public. Indeed, the cartoon crises has highlighted the petty symbolic and media war which is dividing the Mediterranean. And although this fantasy war is does not usually take on such extreme proportions – the fracture is more often expressed in seemingly inoffensive terms – it sparked off our decision to look at the role that the mass media plays in the relationship between the two banks of the Mediterranean.

The cartoon crisis has underlined three things:
- the entanglement of misguided perceptions that people have of each other
- the profound ignorance surrounding the Arab-Muslim culture in today’s Europe
- the instrumental way in which the media manipulates the general public’s beliefs

In this context, the use of the words “Islam” and “West” are obviously inadequate to describe the relationship between the two banks of the Mediterranean. We could even argue that they fuel a number of images, of petty myths which only serve to divide.

So what exactly are these misconceptions?

The most common concerns the clash of civilisations. In this version, Islam and the West are two, completely separate civilisations doomed to violent conflict. This concept goes back to the crusades. This type of depiction completely obliterates Mediterranean heritage, it’s multifaceted identity and interwoven culture which makes it so rich. Do we need to be reminded that it is from this very place, two thousand years ago, that Rome shaped one of the most mixed-race experiences in Mediterranean history. In today’s xenophobic outbursts which take place throughout Europe, it is important to remember that in the past, a Libyan Emperor or a female Empress were in no way shocking.

There are four other big myths that are interconnected:

- The first of these is that all Arabs are Muslims. A number of religions are in fact practiced across Mediterranean Arabic countries. This misconception also excludes that Arab citizens can have an identity which is not linked to religion.
- The second myth equates Islam with Islamism: which is only the political face of Islam.
- The third misconception is to equate Islamism solely with it’s most violent form of expression, in other words: to terrorism.
- Lastly, the fourth myth lies in assimilating all Arabic citizens to their governments by depicting them as lesser citizens who are incapable of reaching democracy and becoming the protagonists of their political destiny.

Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir wrote poignantly about this in his short work: “Glances at Arab Distress”, recently published in Italian as « L’infelicità araba ». By remembering the pertinence of his writings is our way of honouring the power and courage of this great intellectual who was assassinated last June.

On the other hand, simplistic preconception are also spreading in South Mediterranean countries. The most common being the pure and simple demonisation of the West. No distinction is made between Europe and America which are considered as a single destructive block.

These preconceptions are opposed by an equally extreme and sterile approach that exalts, idealises, romanticises the Mediterranean choosing to ignore its struggles and avoiding its negative or conflicting aspects.

The word dialogue: which is endlessly repeated in a sort of weak-willed rhetoric and is reminiscent of propaganda, uses the same approach. We are well aware that dialogue depends on a certain number of prerequisites. Today, despite 10 years of Euro-Mediterranean partnership, economic, social and mobility inequality persists for citizens living in Southern Mediterranean countries. It is only when you experience the humiliation of our Arab colleagues in a European Consulate Visa office, as they try to obtain permission to travel to a meeting like this one, that you understand basic equality which is at the base of all dialogue has yet to be reached.

I believe that culture is the best antidote for these simplistic misconceptions by bringing depth and complexity back to Mediterranean issues. And this is exactly what we are working for at Babelmed.

May 5, 2006
Nathalie Galesne

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