Edition 4 Volume 2 - January 22, 2024

Is there a Mediterranean identity?

Inventing a cooperative identity - by  Roberto Aliboni

It fits to have a Mediterranean identity, independently of whether it really exists or not.

An indivisible security agenda - an interview with  Stephen Calleya

Identity is something much stronger than what we have here.

The Mediterranean of the imagination - by  Mark A. Heller

Even geography no longer imparts a basis for "Mediterraneanism".

A Mediterranean identity and the Arab Mashriq - by  Salim Tamari

Arab nationalist theorists tended to be hostile to the Mediterranean idea.

Inventing a cooperative identity
by Roberto Aliboni

After World War II, the Mediterranean concept flourished because of the interplay between anti-American trends in southern Europe and Cold War alignments. France--as a country with persisting great power ambitions--and a number of political groups in southern Europe, such as leftist parties in many countries and the left wing of the Christian Democratic Party in Italy, tried to create a sense of Mediterranean solidarity so as to contrast it with the strongly emerging role of the United States in the area. From the global point of view, the Cold War objectively brought together former colonizers and colonized under the umbrella of communism or anti-imperialism. These political trends were based on a Mediterranean identity ideology, which proved attractive and helpful even for non-state actors, e.g., the emerging Italian oil company’s struggle against the “seven sisters" (international oil conglomerates), and Vatican policy towards the Terra Santa.

The Mediterranean ideology slipped into the European Community because of the overwhelming French influence on everything concerning former colonies--in particular, development aid to African and Mediterranean countries. In 1972, Brussels technocrats, always under French influence, launched the “politique méditerranéenne globale” (in the sense of "comprehensive") with the aim of homogenizing policies towards the countries in the region and rationalizing their management. It was a hub-and-spoke policy, and was construed as the expression of the special Mediterranean solidarity existing between Europe and the southern Mediterranean countries.

This Mediterranean geopolitics is solely Europe’s. During the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States used to distinguish on strategic grounds between western North Africa and the Middle East, the latter a huge area stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to the upper Gulf. Today, particularly in American eyes, the Middle East has enlarged into the Greater Middle East, with the Maghreb remaining aside, and Europe retaining its Mediterranean policy by developing it into a "Mediterranean Partnership". The strategic and geopolitical reality of the Mediterranean, however, is fragmentation and opposition, with conflict flashing here and there.

While Mediterranean identity is an invention, this is not a good reason to reject it. People have many identities, some of which are obviously bound to prevail. Any cultural or political attempt to make people believe that there is a prevailing “natural” identity (e.g., if one happens to be Italian he/she has to believe in "my country, right or wrong”) must be rejected. We have many identities, many riches, and we are responsible for choosing those identities that fit, with a view to the public good and making human solidarity prevail.

In this sense--and admittedly in a very rationalist perspective--a Mediterranean identity can be of very good use. After the end of the East-West confrontation, the attempts made by the European Union to upgrade its Mediterranean policy--the Barcelona process--reflect a number of objective changes and emerging trends in the area. In this sense the setting up of a Mediterranean framework sounds like a good suggestion. In fact, the most significant such trend would be the peaceful cohabitation in Palestine of Israelis and Palestinians. We do not know if and when the Middle East peace process will succeed. If--as this author believes--it will, then Mediterranean solidarity could be a sound platform to make cooperation work between Arabs and Israelis and to involve the Europeans.

Such a Mediterranean arrangement in Euro-Arab-Israel relations would make much more sense than the idea of two separated identities, one Arab and one European, with Israel destined to become an EU member and thus included in Europe. Including Israel in the European identity would not only create unease and misunderstanding with the Arabs but also with a good number of Israelis. If a Mediterranean identity is accepted, "invented" as it may be, it could work as a unifying factor, stirring cooperation between diverse peoples. Rendering it acceptable is a “rationalizing” act that governments and non-governmental organizations should prepare carefully, so as to make it a convincing and convenient option for interested people.

Besides being a convenient framework for fostering Arab-Israel cooperation in a triangle with Europe, the Mediterranean concept may help also with respect to changes stemming from migration. Emigration towards Europe from the Middle East and North Africa, from Arab and Islamic countries, has substantially changed a previous situation of asymmetry, whereby Arabs and Muslims were scarcely present in Europe whereas the European presence in the Middle East and North Africa was fairly developed. This balancing trend has been fully realized, for example, by the Catholic Church. The church had been accustomed to look at the Middle East in the same way as the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia, whereas today it looks at the region as a component of a single Mediterranean area to which both Europe and the Middle East pertain: the Catholic and Christian communities in the Middle East being now balanced by the Arab-Muslim communities living in Europe. European governments should retain this Catholic vision as well.

There is no doubt that migration goes beyond ideology and invention: today’s Arab-Muslim migrants will become tomorrow’s European citizens. In this perception the Mediterranean can be seen as a substantive link among countries. It can legitimately be assumed as something people have in common.

Thus we have at least two examples in which it fits to have a Mediterranean identity, independently of whether that identity really exists or not.-Published 22/1/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Roberto Aliboni is vice president of the Italian International Affairs Institute-IAI, Rome, and head of the Institute's Program for the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

An indivisible security agenda
an interview with Stephen Calleya

BI: Is there a Mediterranean identity?

Calleya: The Mediterranean identity is something that is very widely debated, but my impression is that it is misunderstood. Strictly speaking, from an international relations perspective, it is difficult to identify groupings that fall into this category. If you look at the Mediterranean region, what really emerges are constellations of sub-regions; you have for instance southern European countries, you have countries in the Maghrib and countries in the Mashriq, in what we refer to sometimes as the Middle East. But when you actually then try to group all these countries together, it is clear that geographically you can speak of riparian states, you can also refer to the Mediterranean commonalities in cuisine and weather, but when it comes to geopolitical trends, there unfortunately seems to be a lack of "Mediterraneanism". So I refer to not a Mediterranean "identity", but a Mediterranean "personality". Identity is something much stronger than what we have here.

BI: What are the roots of a political desire to craft a Mediterranean identity?

Calleya: The Barcelona process and the Euro-Mediterranean partnership were launched in November 1985 by the European Union, together with 12 Mediterranean counterparts, including Malta, Cyprus and Turkey. In the last eight years, significant attempts have been made to nurture a Mediterranean dimension in the areas of politics, security, economics and socio-cultural [concerns].

Progress has been registered in some situations but a decade into the process, we are still far from the expectations that were raised in 1985. That is largely due to an inability to articulate for what and why the Mediterranean countries should cooperate with one another. That is not to blame the European Union, but it is a fact: we don't have a pan-Mediterranean attitude and for that matter, we don't even have a pan-Mediterranean security forum over and above the Barcelona process.

BI: What are the issues on the Maltese agenda at these forums?

Calleya: Malta is primarily concerned with raising awareness of security issues in the Mediterranean region at an international level. On May 1, Malta becomes a member of the European Union and it is currently undertaking an overhaul of Maltese foreign policy primarily to make sure that, as a member of the European Union, much more attention will be paid to the Mediterranean region.

It will be doing that by referring to specific security issues: the necessity to provide more financial, economic and political support for the countries in the region so that they can cope with the issue of illegal migration through the issues of development, [and fighting] unemployment in their countries and so that they can carry out the necessary reforms and meet the expectations of their citizens.

The other headline goal dates backs to 1975 when Malta put forward the idea that security in Europe and security in the Mediterranean are indivisible. Anyone who thinks that anything happening in the Mediterranean is the problem of the Mediterranean countries [alone] is very shortsighted. The international community, even if it is late in the day, has come to recognize this.

BI: Can you talk about the security concerns driving this rather new structural process?

Calleya: The headline issues of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism--these raise the eyebrows of everyone. And [since September 11] there have been more regular meetings within the Barcelona process, and some of the other sub-regional groupings. Migration is an issue that has crept up on the agenda. It is a big concern for the European countries, which have seen a steady increase, and it is a concern for everyone from a humanitarian perspective.

Having said that, we are talking here about either specific groupings of countries or European and southern Mediterranean countries together taking the initiative; it is not as if southern Mediterranean countries are taking the initiative as a group.

BI: What worries you about the future of this region?

Calleya: I am somewhat surprised that we don't have more intention on an international level when it comes to the Mediterranean. It is one thing to say that we want programs and political and economic reforms, but it is another thing to be able to do that, and when you look at all the countries on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, they face an incredible task. I would argue that it is an overwhelming task unless the international community, the likes of the United States and the European Union and of course the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, are going to pay a lot more attention.

The other side of the coin is that the countries in the Mediterranean region need to realize that if they want to progress, they must become more serious and more accountable in their interactions with the international community. Otherwise, I worry about the next decade, that it will be more missed opportunities, and that the price will be paid by all of us who live in the Mediterranean region with the risk of instability.-Published 22/1/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Stephen Calleya is deputy director of the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies at the University of Malta and advisor to the Maltese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Mediterranean of the imagination
by Mark A. Heller

The Mediterranean has become the focus of numerous experiments in region-building. Over the past decade, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States have all launched initiatives of one sort or another to organize the Mediterranean.

The premise underlying these efforts has been that a "region" could constitute a useful framework for constructive action somewhere between ad hoc bi- or multi-lateral cooperation, at one end of the spectrum, and participation in universal institutions like the United Nations, at the other. But whether or not that premise is valid elsewhere in the world, it is altogether misplaced with respect to the Mediterranean, because the Mediterranean does not constitute a region in any meaningful sense of the word. Indeed, it is highly doubtful that it even possesses enough of the precursor attributes of a region to justify attempts through institution-building to create one.

The Mediterranean does not embody a common identity. Its members do not share a cultural tradition, language, religion or recent history of administrative unity. Its political systems cover the entire range from liberal democracy to rigid authoritarianism. And it is not driven together by the kinds of common external challenges or threats that normally create alliances or functional communities, except at the very highest level of abstraction. Indeed, the only thing Mediterranean societies and states have in common is geography.

It is geography, or, more precisely, the stereotypical rhythms of life emanating from climate, that seem to sustain the notion of the Mediterranean as a distinct socio-cultural or ecological space. But this space is really the Mediterranean of the imagination--of sunshine and red tile roofs, of wine and olive oil, of afternoon siestas and late dinners, of warmth and vitality and perhaps even a touch of hedonism. In short, it is the Mediterranean of long ago and far away, of images that inspired European writers and artists and were bound to fire the imaginations of cold and slightly puritanical northerners.

But apart from these rhythms, even geography no longer imparts a basis for “Mediterraneanism.” In the more distant past, it may have given those on or near the sea some sense of shared identity or fate, because the state of technology dictated a direct correlation between proximity and the intensity of economic and cultural interaction. Dependence on sea-based transportation and communication and the fact that the Mediterranean was practically a closed lake gave it its distinctiveness within the world arena. But while geographical proximity is a constant, its socio-political significance is not. For Europeans, the opening of the Suez Canal made the Mediterranean into a route to somewhere else, rather than a self-contained world, and subsequent advances in communications technology and land and air transportation reduced the relative importance of the sea as a medium of economic and cultural interaction or power projection.

Proximity still matters. That is why western Europe is so concerned about the spill-over effects of systemic dysfunction in North Africa. But without a common political, economic or cultural substructure, there is no basis for any sustained cooperation among the disparate societies and polities ringing the Mediterranean. Most significantly, the lack of any common set of values with respect to democracy, the rule of law, government accountability, human rights, cultural and religious tolerance, and gender equality precludes a common diagnosis of the challenges confronting the area, much less a common prescription to deal with them. Instead, the bureaucratic-patrimonial or authoritarian regimes on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean are actually threatened by the transformation agendas of the Europeans on the northern shore (and of the Americans). Those in the West may differ on their understanding of the preferred means for promoting change or the likelihood of success, but they at least agree that the lack of change constitutes a security threat to them. But for the former, as well as for conservative social and cultural forces and economic interests in their countries, it is precisely the prospect of change--through the liberalization of political, economic, and social/cultural systems--that threatens their sense of security and self-affirmation.

As a result, “the Mediterranean” is little more than an abstraction whose regional existence can barely be affirmed at the conceptual level, much less the organizational or institutional level. And any institutional superstructures arbitrarily erected to express that idea will inevitably spend most of their time inventing ways to justify their continuing existence. Rather than persisting in the futile effort to fit this heterogeneous area into the Procrustean bed of a comprehensive agenda derived from geographical determinism, policymakers ought to be promoting differentiated agendas based on “coalitions of the willing” with convergent views or interests. By adopting a policy of "Wider Europe" and thus implicitly conceding the limitations of the Barcelona Process, the European Union, at least, appears to recognize this imperative.-Published 22/1/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Mark A. Heller is director of research at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University.

A Mediterranean identity and the Arab Mashriq
by Salim Tamari

In the European imagination, as well as in a rich tradition of scholarly discourse, there is an intellectual current of positing the Mediterranean idea in contra-distinction to other cultural traditions which constitute "cold" European industrial cultures: the Nordic, British-Celtic, Slavic and Germanic. In the social sciences, Ferdinand Braudel and his followers set the grounds for an overarching frame of analysis that considered the common (and differential) boundaries of Southern European, North African and Eastern Mediterranean cultures. In the Republic of Cousins, the anthropologist Germaine Tillion introduced the provocative idea that it was rules of kinship and preference for paternal cousin marriage--with far-reaching social consequences--that separated Mediterranean cultures (Greek, Arab, Turkish, Balkan, and to a lesser extent in the former Yugoslavia, southern France and southern Italy) from the rest of European cultures. On a more popular level, and certainly in literature and the arts, "the Mediterranean" continues to evoke a Northern European (and perhaps North American) iconography that is associated with the idyllic and rustic culture (real and imagined) of Tuscany, Umbria and Provence.

With the turn of this century, however, a noticeable shift took place in Europe. Immigration controls were introduced to curb unauthorized labor migration from North African countries into Spain, Italy and France. Mediterranean conferences, sponsored by the European Union in Rome, Marseilles, Casablanca and Barcelona began to focus on Mediterranean studies from a security angle. Security here was defined as a demographic-cultural obsession with North African migration as a threat to the (cultural?) stability of the European Union. Tariq Ali treated the historical roots of this obsession in a dramatic Channel Four film entitled "The Final Solution" (Bandung Series) in which the roots of the Mediterranean-European cultural divide were traced from the Spanish Inquisition to the establishment of modern and ruthless border patrols in Andalusia in the mid-1990s.

In the Middle East, the "Mediterranean idea" suggests an implicit cultural notion that is counter to the nationalist idea, and gives privileged status to commonalities across ethnic boundaries. I use the term "implicit culture" to signify the manner in which these social practices are observable but not usually acknowledged as being stronger than the acclaimed nationalist bond. For example, we are aware that the cuisine of greater Syria (bilad al Sham) has more affinities with Turkey, Greece and the Balkans than these all have with Iraqi, Arabian and Yemeni food cultures. The same may be suggested for crop arrangements, agricultural techniques, folk dancing, traditional building modes, organization of urban space, and so on. Another feature of the East Mediterranean is the duality of coastal and mountain tradition that is not found in other Arab, non-Mediterranean countries.

In all of these cases the patterns exist but are not officially recognized. The implications of these observations are not self-evident, but have tended to undermine ideologically-constructed notions of Arab unity. Theorists of Arab nationalist ideologies such as Sati' al Hussary and Constantine Zureik posited cultural similarities among Arabs as given without assessing them in their wider context. In contrast, they invariably argued that Arab state boundaries are colonial impositions with no internal cultural legitimation.

Because of these ambiguities, Arab nationalist theorists tended to be hostile to the Mediterranean idea. They took it for granted that it undermines their interpretation of Arab cultural unity. They further identified the Mediterranean idea--with some justification--with nativist anti-Arab intellectual traditions in the Arab East: the Phoenician ideology of Said Aqel in Mount Lebanon; the Pharaonic principle of Hussein Fawzi and Salameh Musa; the Canaanite nativism of Palestinian nationalism, and Israeli Hebraism (Ratosh and Boaz Evron). It is true that some of these ideologies were explicitly anti-Arab nationalist (particularly in Said Aqel's writings), but others were either ambivalent or agnostic about it.

In Israeli academia, the Mediterranean idea was adopted as a way of resolving Israel's isolation (imposed and often self-imposed) from the Arab world. Reaching out to European cultural affinities may have been geographically problematic, but the Mediterranean idea seems to have created possibilities for allowing the Jewish state to be "of Europe" if not "in Europe". Furthermore, it was a convenient way for bridging the Sephardic-Ashkenazi cultural divide without acknowledging the Arab component of Mizrahi culture.

In the Arab world, Mediterranean studies centers seem to be confined to Tunis, Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine. Here they exist as either environmental research centers (Alexandria) or as institutes for tourism networking (Tunis, Morocco, Lebanon). Increasingly, however, as Nasserist and Baathist currents lost their historic potency as political mobilizers, Arab intellectuals began a protracted struggle to redefine an intellectual core for Arabism in cultural terms--Islamic, regional and inter-regional. With this enhanced complexity of perception, it is possible today for many Arabs to define themselves as Arabs and Mediterraneans, without abandoning their affinities with other non-Mediterranean Arabs. The problem, however, is that the notion of being "Mediterranean" has become too diffused to have any instrumental meaning today--except perhaps as a platform in which Europeans, Turks and Arabs (and possibly a de-colonized Israel) can discuss a common future.-Published 22/1/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Salim Tamari is director of the Institute for Jerusalem Studies. Until recently, he co-directed the Mediterranean Studies Unit at Birzeit University, Palestine.

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