Plural Magazine‎ > ‎Relations‎ > ‎

From the clash of civilisations to the common Mediterranean Identity

posted Oct 5, 2011, 5:58 AM by Plural CentroStudiEuropeo   [ updated Oct 11, 2011, 3:22 AM ]
Interview with Izzedin Elzir, President of the Union of the Islamic Communities in Italy 

In Borgo Allegri, an ancient street in the centre of Florence, in the heart of Tuscany, full of the fragrances and the vitality of the nearby historic market of Saint Ambrogio, we meet, on June 2nd 2011, Izzedin Elzir, President of the Union of the Islamic Communities in Italy. Blue eyes, warm and reassuring smile: the young Imam of Florence welcomes us into his office, while, outside, the voices of the street blend Tuscan dialectal expressions with exclamations and words in the Arabic language. Near the small Florentine mosque, there is a garden, where men of all ages, coming from different parts of the world, meet every day. 

In the Mediterranean, the historical and cultural wealth of the Muslim religious heritage has been regarded, for decades, by Western public opinion, as a lasting threat to the peace and stability of the area, rather than as a great opportunity for living together, and for a common growth; namely, the paradox of an important coexistence of Muslims, Christians and Jews, that constitutes, in itself, an insurmountable obstacle to brotherhood and common prosperity. A dramatic and mocking contradiction with what is professed on the subject of peace by the various religious doctrines, don’t you think? 

It is true, this is indeed a paradox: the Islamic faith aims at peoples’ peace and freedom. This faith has major common roots with the other religious cultures that coexist in the Mediterranean, and, in this sense, the path that we can embark on together leaves large positive openings for a common course. We must not renounce to be positive, on this point. If a distrust of the role played by religion exists, this is in part due to historical reasons, as well as to the fact that religion is too often used by those holding the power to keep people calm. In any case, one has to be very careful, and avoid the identification of Islam, Islamism and fundamentalism: every day, theories that have nothing to do with, and in fact do not even know the history of, Islam and of the Mediterranean, are being repeated, To say that, in the future, we will have to live conflicts of civilisations, of cultures, is a fundamental mistake. Cultures do not clash, it is the ideologies that disguise themselves as cultures that do. Our time has certainly the merit of having pointed out the right to difference, but one has to remember that values do not identify themselves with difference as such, but are determined by the relationships between differences. And it is here, and only here, in this relationship between differences, that a new laity, and a State that is not left to theocracy, but allows individuals to live their faith, can be born. All this can coexist only on the basis of respect. Respect for men, for populations, for their faiths.

 The prospect of a new interaction between civilisation 

Matvejević wrote that “every Mediterranean city has a great identity: different languages, different ways of understanding, different ways of saying, different ways of living. This is an identity of being, with respect to which there is a weak identity of doing. One cannot design this strength of the Mediterranean identity. And that is true for all the Mediterranean; it is true for Southern Europe, overlooking the Mediterranean, and it is true for the opposite shore as well”. In short, there is a complexity that often the Western mass media capture in a rather confused way: to quote T. Todorov, a large amount of information, but, as usual, a great difficulty to understand. 

I agree. We are bombarded with information, but we struggle to find syntheses, in-depth examinations. This is a problem that concerns especially us Europeans: nobody in the Northern shore of the Mediterranean expected the events of the Arab Spring to develop at this speed, even though the American media, in this sense, were more prepared than we were. The end of Tunisian dictatorship of Ben Ali evolved in a few weeks, the same happened with the fall of the regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt; various protest movements threaten to undermine authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, in Libya, but also in Syria, in Yemen. The common element of these events comes from the younger generations, from their demands for freedom. About the distorted image that is provided to us by the media, how many times we had heard someone say that “those people are not ready for democracy, dictatorship is the necessary solution in order to avoid chaos”. This is not the case. The young people of the Arab Spring want freedom, they ask for a perspective that will allow them to live a future of peace and security. They ask for the same things we ask for. This Arab Spring, I believe, closes the prospect of a clash of civilisations, and opens that of a new interaction between civilisations. 

This is undoubtedly difficult, but people who have lived under dictatorship are searching for freedom. The trend is towards democracy, all parties present in the various realities of the Arab world have realised that they have to work together in that direction, and the first steps have been significant of this path. I think that this will also help the Europeans to talk to them in a respectful manner. To everyone, not just to those who share their thoughts. Moreover, the model of the European Union is seen as very positive in the Arab world, and it constitutes a stimulus for several cooperative processes present in the Arab countries. I believe that, at this time, Italy, which could play a leading role, is losing a great opportunity. Italy is the most loved European country, its culture and its popular identity are viewed with respect and admiration. Yet the Italian institutions are proving to be more vulnerable and uncertain than their citizens: let’s just think about what happened in Sicily, with a major reception effort from the citizens of the island to help the immigrants coming from the sea, and to establish relationships with them. Positive dialogue, mutual exchange, do not arise when one wants to choose its interlocutor; instead, they arise when one is willing to accept the other, to help him if in need, but also to receive from him, to respect what he carries within himself. In this way, I believe, we will build our common Mediterranean identity.

                                                                                                Francesco Barilli

Plural CentroStudiEuropeo,
Oct 5, 2011, 5:58 AM