Political and Cultural Diversity Within the Mediterranean


Political and Cultural Diversity Within the Mediterranean

[Key opening speech by A.S. Bishtawi to the conference: ‘Barcelona: The Next 10 years, Bridging the Gap’, organised by ELSA (The European Law Students Association) and held at the Riviera Barecolo Spa Resort, Mtarfa, Malta on the 14th of October 2006.]

Ladies and gentlemen, good morning;



Buenos días,


Well, I shall not go on. I just wanted to give you an example of how many greeting forms you can use to address Europeans whereas one is sufficient for 57 Arab and Muslim countries: Assalam Alaikum (or peace upon you).

I shall discuss the dazzling diversity of the Mediterranean peoples in more detail in just a moment but let’s begin by saying that like a great number of other issues, all things Mediterranean can be introduced in terms of good news and bad news.

It is still early in the morning and I am hopeful this event will be a very useful opportunity for discussion and understanding, so let’s get the bad news out of the way first.

A quick surf through the ancient and not so ancient history of the Mediterranean region reveals the type of bad news that may lead certain students lacking in courage and vision to conclude that all will be lost one day, and to look to the future with pessimism and trepidation.

This gigantic lake we surround, while poor in marine life because of overfishing, is bordered by shores which are very rich in human colour and innovation. This innovation created, not far from its southern shores, some of the most momentous achievements in the history of mankind not simply by giving birth to human civilisation but also by enriching it over the millennia and spreading it to the four corners of the ancient world.

For all of us justifiably concerned with the urgent issue of how to breathe new life and vigour into the relationship between the European Union and its Southern Arab neighbors and Turkey, it would be helpful to look at this relationship from the widest perspective possible, for here too one cannot understand the present, nor predict the future, let alone help in formulating an understanding of its trends, unless one considers the past.

The contemporary Mediterranean, as many of you will certainly understand, was shaped into the diverse region it is today not by the passage of time alone, but by the interaction, both peaceful and bloody, of the peoples of the region almost 3,000 years ago. For with the advance of civilization and improvement in agriculture and crafts, there was bountiful opportunity for trade.

There were certainly much earlier activities, but the Phoenicians turned trade into an art and their ships carried agricultural produce, pottery, tools and other items from ports along the Syrian coast to other destinations deeper and deeper into the Mediterranean. These were essentially the forays of an emerging trade-based empire, with outposts and colonies created along the shores of the sea and even further into places like Malta. But it was a hundred miles to the North, in Sicily, that Carthage, originally a Phoenician colony bought by the famous queen Elsa in return for the skin of a bull, that the conflict between East and West flared.

This was the beginning of the first Punic War (Punic is Latin for ‘Phoenician’) between Rome and Carthage. Initially the experienced Carthaginian navy prevailed against the newly-seafaring Romans, but Rome soon learned from its mistakes and moved the the battle to the walls of Carthage, which was eventually destroyedits lands sprinkled with salt to ensure longterm barrenness.

Further conflicts led to the seizure from Carthage by the Romans of important coastal strips and islands including Sardinia and Corsica. After three wars intermittently spanning about 120 years a new age of Mediterranean civilization passed into the sphere of influence of the first intercontinental European power, and the Mediterranean was declared by the Romans “mare nostrum” or “our sea”.

By the end of the first century B.C., the Roman Empire effectively controlled the Mediterranean with most of its trade routes and absorbed the entire Eastern Mediterranean region, turning most of Europe and North Africa into a single political and economic unit.

The rule of Rome was followed by that of Constantinople, its eastern cousin, which we know as the Byzantine Empire, ruling areas that stretched all the way to Euphrates river until Arab armies conquered the Levant and Egypt between 634 and 641 AD. By 750 AD, the Arabs were in control of vast stretches of land larger than those controlled by the Roman Empire, including a Western expansion into Europe that included Spain, Carthage’s most important dominion after Tunisia.

Until the beginning of the 11th century, France, the greatest power in Europe, eyed its Arab/Islamic neighbour across the Pyrenees with suspicion, but Al Andalus was no less powerful and the prevalent balance of power largely kept the peace until the Cordoba Khilafa collapsed in 1009, and the TaifaKings became vulnerable to both the northern Christian states on the Iberian Peninsula and France.

Meanwhile, the Turks, another Islamic race, were expanding westward into Asia Minor and the Byzantine Emperor Alexus Cuminous turned to Pope Urban II for help. After a fiery sermon at the Council of Claremont, the First Crusade was launched and Jerusalem fell one year before the 11th century came to a close.

Following this series of no less than nine gruesome wars which ravaged the Eastern Mediterranean (in addition to isolated campaigns targeting Egypt and Tunisia), between 1095 and 1291, neither Christianity nor Islam (or shall we say East and West) emerged out of the smoking rubble and scarred battlefields of the Holy Land the same.

The conflict was bloody and destructive, but it was not conclusive. The impact of these wars left an everlasting impression on mindsets of Europeans and accelerated development throughout what had been a bitterly disunited continent, however, the Muslim world also changed forever. The cruelty of the invaders, often reciprocated, was felt more so by Muslims whose lands were under attack. They grew bitter and far more radical and some sought revenge.

A century or so after the fall of Acre, major advances into the lands of Christian Byzantium were made by the Ottomans, and in 1453 Mohammed the Conqueror stormed Constantinople and the long life of one of the greatest empires of the ancient world came to an end.

Three centuries later, a western thrust towards the East began again when Great Britain and France, enemies for the previous 300 to 400 years, combined their forces to destroy the Othman Sultanate. The masters of Turkey in the few years leading to World War I were impressed by the German Empire and sided with it against Britain, France and Italy but the Turks bet on the wrong horse. Their prized south-eastern colonial possessions were captured and eventually split between the victorious allies. As a matter of fact every single Arab country we know today was occupied by either Great Britain, France or Italy with the exception of Saudi Arabia, and the occupation continued until the 1950s and 1960s of the 20th century.

So, ladies and gentlemen, this is the bad news. Whether involving the Persians and the Macedonians, the Carthaginians and the Romans, the Arabs and the Byzantines, the Crusaders and Saladin, the European powers and the Ottomans, the long history of the Mediterranean region can be viewed as the scene of some of the greatest conflicts that have shaped today’s world.

Will the differences between the North and South of the Mediterranean lead to another conflict soon? Will racial, religious, political, social and cultural prejudices and intolerance push all of us towards a new catastrophe? Will we have a lasting peace or simply an interval before the next conflict flares?

I shall attempt to answer these questions and others later, but first I would like to share with you my thoughts on the good news that has always existed alongside the bad, but has unfortunately gone unnoticed by the lazy history student until he removes all the veils of prejudice and looks at the region from an entirely different perspective.

And I would like to begin by stating that there isn’t one method of studying history; there isn’t one theory, one angle, or one approach because we are dealing with people, and people are complex and multi-faceted. History is not solely the accumulative bits and pieces of information which researchers gather from chronicles and old references, but also perceptions held by people concerning certain important events in history.

History is really a narrative and as such there is always colour and vitality that can be easily ignored by students who are only searching for hard facts.

The Crusades, for example, were bloody and gruesome in every sense but look at its positive consequences?

What were Venice, Pisa and Genoa before the crusades? What were they afterwards? The so called ‘trade revolution’ was to a large extent the product of the Crusades, during which knights and arms and other logistics were sent away and booty and slaves brought back by the shipload. Many of the Crusaders that invaded the Levant were familiar only with silver coins, and many had never held or seen a gold coin until they reached the East.

Those who tell us the Crusaders lived only to fight did not tell us the truth. It is not true that the only sounds they were familiar with were those of clattering swords or the charge of the cavalry into battle for in the Middle East they listened to new music, tasted new food, drank new drinks like soda (quinine for headaches) and tonic waters, wore new clothes and jewelry and read new books and were exposed to an exotic culture they never knew before.

The Crusades were not merely battles. Muslims and Christians were not at each other’s throats all the time. Trade thrived between Muslims and Christians and caravans from both sides crossed into each other’s held territory in return for a certain tax.

And when Napoleon Bonaparte led 38,000 men to Egypt in July 1798 he didn’t bring along only the most modern army in Europe but scholars and scientists and enlightenment. Napoleon captivated the hearts of the Egyptians. No wonder, then, that Egypt in the closing years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th became the birthplace of the modern Arab renaissance.

And it is true as I have just said that the British and French were occupiers of most Arab countries but it is not true that they pillaged the wealth of Arab nation. As of matter of fact Britain was feeding millions of Arabs with grain from Australia because 400 years of Ottoman occupation pushed millions of Arabs to the verge of starvation.

And it is true that British and French soldiers established military bases in the countries they invaded but it is equally true that they established parliaments and political parties and schools and hospitals, some of which have survived to this very day.

The great Arab historian Ibn Khaldoun noted that the conquered always imitate the conqueror in all ways and manners but I would add only if these ways and manners are better than his own. It is no wonder then that the exposure to French culture led to the publication in Egypt of the first Arab novel. It is no wonder that the availability of European books and their translations generated a taste for European literature that continues to this day and it remains the most influential in contemporary Arab writing. European fashion and tastes were adopted by millions of Arabs and French is widely spoken in many of its former Arab colonies.

Now, I have traveled extensively throughout Europe and the Arab world and lived and worked in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and others. There are vernaculars and customs particular to each Arab country, and in many instances even between large provinces, but I can say with confidence that most of the people living in the vast stretch of land between Mauritania and Kuwait are members of the Arab nation. They have one standard language, almost one history and they largely follow Islam. Moreover their most important traditions and social customs are not dissimilar.

Of course there are differences but I would not describe them as significant and they certainly do not set one country apart from the rest of the Arab nation.

But when we speak about social and cultural differences between one Arab country and another we have to acknowledge the existence of more important differences between one European country and another, and I am not referring simply to greetings. We are all aware of these differences but they are not considered an obstacle in the path of further European convergence.

But ladies and gentlemen, does it matter?

Does it matter if one wears a hat and another a kufiah; a scarf or hijab, a jalabiah or a suit? Look at us. We are all different. Different does not- and should not- mean better. Does wearing a tie make one more civilized than others who don’t? Does eating falafel make one backward but eating schnitzel progressive?

Not at all. These are simply differences dictated by local customs, regional climate and standards of living more than anything else. It also helps to create diversity which makes us, humans, interesting.

Still, there is one major difference between Arabs in particular and Muslims in general, and what we call ‘the West’.

How is it, one may ask, that for 1400 years Arabs have failed to rule themselves like the West does? On this point and this point alone, if those in the West would like to feel superior then I think they have the right to do so.

My judgment is not unqualified.


Because in a number of instances where Arabs exercised their right to vote, the West was not pleased with the result. This happened in Algeria and it happened in Palestine. The Palestinians didn’t vote for Hamas because of its religious credentials but because Hamas, unlike Fatah, is not corrupt. And look at what happened in Iran 53 years ago? The democratically elected government of Mohammed Mosadeq was ousted in a military coup that was organized and financed by British agents and the CIA’s man in the Middle East at the time, Kermit Roosevelt. The Shah Reza Pahlevi, a brutal dictator, was installed because he consented to a new agreement to distribute Iran’s oil wealth amongst the multi-national corporations.

Is it any wonder, then, that millions of Arabs and Muslims brand certain Western leaders as hypocrites because they advocate democracy in the Middle East but continue to support some of the worst dictators left in the world?

And let’s be frank. For almost 100 years Western powers have been meddling in the Middle East. They have invaded countries, toppled governments, forced dictators upon people and given them total support but still they preached democracy and labeled all those that opposed them as evil extremists and terrorists.

Let’s be even more frank. When we talk about violence today we have to remember that some of the most violent conflicts in modern times were between European countries. And let’s remember when preaching democracy that some of the worst dictators in modern times were Europeans: Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Salazar etc.

Let’s also remember that not all people cherish peace; not all people cherish harmony, not all people want to live and let live, for in many instances interests, whether economic or political, are considered more important than human life, wellbeing, and happiness. This happened in the past, and I am a realist, so I will presume it will happen again in the future.

Some Arabs and Muslims view the entire West as evil but they are wrong. They look at history and find nothing but conspiracies against them but they are wrong again and they must be made to understand that things have changed. They must be made to understand that there are millions in the West who wish Arabs and Muslims no harm and they would like them to be free, democratic and prosperous and they are ready to do whatever they can to achieve all this.

And I would like to believe that these aims were on the mind of European politicians when, in Barcelona on the 27th and 28th of November 1995, the Euro-Mediterranean Conference of Ministers of Foreign Affairs was held. We were told in the literature at the time that the conference marked the starting point of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (the Barcelona Process), a wide framework of political, economic and social relations between the Member States of the European Union and Partners of the Southern Mediterranean.

Some of the more important objectives of the conference were to:

1.  Define a common area of peace and stability,

2.  Establish a zone of shared prosperity and the gradual setting up of a free-trade area

3.  Rapprochement between peoples through a social, cultural and human partnership aimed at encouraging understanding between cultures and exchanges between civil societies.

It does not take a genius to conclude the process failed to achieve any of its main objectives and one may go as far as claiming that we are in a situation where the opposite appears to have been achieved.

We can all blame it on each other but we should avoid the luxury of indulging in the popular exercise of finger-pointing, because we can’t afford to dismiss one of the more serious opportunities to achieve peace, stability and prosperity in the Mediterranean region.

We could spend weeks discussing what went wrong but I will it make simple: Europe did not have a partner at the Barcelona Conference and without a partner failure is assured.

Certain European states may have contemplated the use of the process to enhance their own interests in some of the southern states but there is no doubt in my mind that Europe wants stability above all else and the best way of achieving this goal is to adopt the appropriate common position.

What is in common amongst all non-European partners with the exception of Turkey is that they are all dictatorships. They are ruling without the consent of their people. There are all interested in survival, not in peace and stability. They rule by stifling dissent and the continual impoverishment of the people so they are not interested in freedom and prosperity. They want the peoples’ anger and frustration to be channeled outwards, towards the West, so their propaganda machines are encouraging hatred and animosity.

Moreover, Europe has been naïve. By providing these governments with aid, some European politicians assumed they could use the funds as leverage to induce openness and advancement of human rights. They were wrong. Most governments used the money to bolster their own institutions and become further entrenched.

Ten years ago at Barcelona the Middle East was the largest open prison in the world, with close to 300 million people within its compound. Ten years later the Middle East is still the largest open prison in the world. The Arabs today represent about 5% of the World’s population but they are ruled by 40% of the world’s dictators. Do Europeans want to tell me that these dictators are their partners in a process to achieve stability and prosperity in the Mediterranean region?

The history of the Middle East does not start with 9/11 as we are led to believe. The West stands accused of implanting Israel in the body of Palestine. It stands accused both directly and indirectly of responsibility for the almost daily traumatisation of Arab and Muslims everywhere due to the unbelievable savagery of the Israeli occupation. Iraq is torn apart by a similarly brutal occupation and radicalization in the Arab and Muslim Worlds is on the increase.

It would be a huge mistake, therefore, if Europe were to conclude now that not much has been achieved in the past 10 years and it is time to bury the ailing Barcelona initiative. Europe cannot afford to make such a decision. Europe must understand that the instability in the Middle East is not the direct result of misunderstanding between the nations of the region but the direct result of the understanding by the dictators that their best chances of remaining in power lie in chaos, instability and poverty and not the opposite. The failure of the process is not the failure of the nations but that of politicians, not of societies but of governments.

Something must be done. If for not for respect of universal human values, then for economic reasons. Since 9/11, the cost of security has sky-rocketed and is running into trillions of U.S. Dollars per year. At some stage, Western economies may buckle under the weight of such commitments, especially with the urgent need to cater for an increasingly ageing population.

I have a number of proposals on how to reactivate the process, as well as ways and means of enhancing it, but I would like you first to think of what I have just said, to collect your thoughts on this subject and work out a plan, but I would like you please to consider with me the current situation.

There are far too many conferences, discussions, negotiations, meetings, seminars, workshops that have been held in various locations at great expenditure of time and money, but which produced astonishingly meagre results, or none at all. In far too many follow-up meetings, items on the agenda yet to be discussed haven’t even been reached yet. Still, we are told by diplomats and politicians that they don’t have the luxury to be pessimistic about the outcome of any of the difficult issues that have plagued the Mediterranean basin for decades…that work must go on, and it will take time.

For how much longer?

Already one generation of Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians has passed away without seeing the tunnel that leads to peace, let alone the light at the end of such a tunnel. The lives of two more generations have been empty of any hope of peace and prosperity, and the infants of the fourth in Gaza, Beit Hanoun, Ramallah, Lebanon and in most cities and towns of central Iraq are casualties of military onslaught, violence and fear.

Because it is viewed by successive U.S. administrations as essential to maintaining a permanent foothold in the Middle East, Europe has been essentially barred from any meaningful engagement in finding a just solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Americans would not have it. When Europe was finally permitted by the administration of president George W. Bush to be involved it was to send troops to South Lebanon following the recent war, in a move considered by many Lebanese and Arabs as aimed at protecting Israel.

Europe needs peace with its southern neighbors in order to achieve prosperity for its many nations. The battle for peace is ten times harder to win than battles of war but it is far longer-lasting and fundamental to the present and future of us all. Peace and prosperity are too important to be left only to politicians and dictators. Only when people like you and others in all societies and all relevant sections of societies concerned are adequatelyengaged can success become possible.

Politicians these days are not under the pressures of the 1960s and 1970s to produce results. For many, permanent conflicts ensure permanent employment. The massacres, the killing, the violence, the poverty, the sieges and the countless other facets of conflict are the “collateral damage” of political inaction. At best, action is nothing more than sedative or a pain-killer only temporary. In reality such actions, when taken, are wishful thinking that borders on deceit.

Absent from today’s world is the force that helped shape many opinions in the 1960s and early 1970s– the student movements.

A few weeks ago my elder son, Sammy, was accepted for a course in International Relations at the University of Malta. Anxious, like most other new entrants, to know more about this new and rich phase of his life, he wanted to know what it is like to be a freshman. I told him it would be verydifferent from high school. It is not a 9am to 3:30pm routine. At most, he can expect 15-20 lectures a week.

“What did you do the rest of time?” he asked.

“We were demonstrating.”

He looked puzzled. “Against what?”

Against anything, I told him. Against the Suez War of 1956, against the American involvement in Vietnam, to protest increases in he prices of bread and petrol, and sometimes to demand better sweets in shops. The Maltese know this very well. Maltese schoolchildren demonstrated for chocolate not so long ago and like us, they were confronted by police armed with tear-gas and truncheons. At the time, we had better sweets in plentiful supply-and the American ambassador understood our concerns well.

We were inspired by the student movements in France, and we condemned wars and oppression and the politicians had to take note of what we wanted and little by little policies were changed.

Students still demonstrate but governments in the most democratic of countries are ignoring them. Millions flooded the streets of London, Rome, Paris and many other capitals of the world to voice their objection at the Iraq war but it was launched regardless.

Like the media, students in many countries are either towing the government line, choosing compliance, or are paralysed by inaction. It would be grossly unfair to blame the students for all the sins of politicians but the fruit of inaction is inertia and we will all pay a heavy price for inertia one way or another.

The Americans have failed in Iraq and they have failed in Afghanistan and they have failed in Palestine and Lebanon, and Arabs and Muslims alike are now looking to Europe for help.

If you provide it you will have stability sooner than later.

If you don’t you will have a conflict sooner or later.

It is your choice.

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