Continued. Read Part I of the article here
By Gaither Stewart
I am writing this in the last days of March. It’s cold in Rome, strong winds blowing in from the Balkans. In Tunis a few hundred kilometers to the south it’s only slightly less cold, cool also in Jerusalem. For this is one world. The attention of Rome-based journalists is conditioned by the rest of the Mediterranean world. North Africa and the Middle East are part of the beat for many. The day Yassir Arafat spoke in the beautiful Rome Chamber of Deputies, I think in the 1980s, so many foreign journalists clamored to participate that one major section of the balcony was reserved for them.
The Mediterranean is called a sea, not an ocean. And the area of the community of nations on its shores peopled by 400 million inhabitants is not as vast as it might seem from North America . It is a tight region, linked by a common history and borders and disputed territories. Greece and Rome first occupied the Arab world. Then, after the rise of Islam, Arabs in turn occupied parts of Spain, France and Italy, and Ottoman Turkey’s army reached the gates of Vienna.
Historians date modern Arab-European interaction from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and the country’s liberation from feudal Mamluke overlords. The arrival of the French marked the beginning of the Arab world’s break with the past. The times of a self-contained, traditional life, unmindful of changes in the outside world, were over. After their long medieval sleep this contact shook them awake and set the world of Islam on fire. After Napoleon introduced an Arabic press, newspapers in Cairo, Damascus and Beirut gave birth to the modern idea of Arab unity and patriotism: the thesis was that all Arabic-speaking peoples were one nation.
During the last four decades, European countries can be categorized on the question of dialogue and cooperation with the Arabs as follows: France, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Ireland favor a politically supportive role; Great Britain, Germany and Luxembourg take a middle position; and The Netherlands and Denmark are relatively pro-Israel and less enthusiastic about strengthened ties to the Arabs.
An Arab Summit Conference in Algeria in 1973 reiterated a new Arab position: “ Europe is linked with the Arab countries through the Mediterranean , by affinities of civilization and by vital interests.” Arabs expressed their desire for long-term cooperation with Europe. On the other hand, Europe ’s chief objectives have been to maintain a steady flow of oil and access to Arab markets. But as a result of those economic realities and ancient historical relationships much of Europe supports agreements that take into account the legitimate rights of Palestinians.
Arabs however are divided in their views of Europe. Because its members include monarchies and radical socialist regimes, super rich and desperately poor, the loose-structured Arab League works well in non-controversial areas but is unable to coalesce on tough issues. But all Arabs need European technology as well as assistance against Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. In the Arab view those economic and political issues are intertwined. No wonder they consider unrealistic Europe’s aspirations for good economic and cultural relationships while downplaying issues of vital importance to the Arab world.
There is no doubt that the major obstacle braking European-Arab relations today is the hegemonic United States and its pathological relationship with Israel. The USA needs Europe’s support in its wars but illogically expects Europe to keep its hands out of things concerning oil and politics in the Middle East, in Europe’s backyard. I read of an unspoken American concern that Europe—because of its dependency on Arab oil and markets coupled with the absence in Europe of strong Jewish pressure groups as in the USA—is more capable than America of a balanced Middle East policy.
Europe has hoped that Israel’s oppressive-aggressive policies would ultimately force the USA to change current Middle East policies which are more disruptive in the region than European imperialism. Naively Europe has held onto the hope that its message of cooperation with the Arab world would prevail and bring about that change.
In the 19th century fit of imperialism, Europe carved up the Arab world: France took Tunisia and Algeria. France and Spain divided up Morocco into “protectorates”. Italy got Libya, the former granary of the Roman Empire. Great Britain and France occupied the Middle East, Egypt, Palestine, the present Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
Geography has always played a major role in Europe’s relations with the Arabs. The proximity of the two cultures has created both the tensions and the historical interplay of the two societies. Spain is separated from Morocco by the narrow 9-mile wide Strait of Gibraltar and the peninsula of Italy nearly reaches Tunisia and Libya. Spain and Morocco are discussing a railway tunnel under the deep bed of the strait so that high-speed trains will someday travel from Seville to Tangier in 90 minutes. Italy and Tunisia are speaking of a 100-mile railway tunnel from Sicily to Tunisia.
In good times and bad times, the Arab world and Europe are neighbors in labyrinthine condominium of the lands around the Mediterranean Sea . In one way or another Europe has always been present in the Arab world, while Arab influence is part of European culture.
In the historical sense—which America so lacks—the American occupation of Iraq is perceived as interference in Europe’s zone of influence and reinforces sentiments like those of Sergio Romano above. Europe is anti-American? So what else is new?
Whatever Europe’s faults vis-à-vis the Arabs, in European eyes the Arab world is not virtual. It is not a world seen on radar screens or in Pentagon planning boards and neocon think tanks. The Arab world is not an abstraction. Arabs inhabit a real world, different from Europe, but real. Despite the roles of religion, Europeans and Arabs are not natural enemies. Though different language families, different religions and different customs separate them, they are millenary neighbors.
No wonder Europe sees that world with different eyes than the USA and Israel .
No wonder that Europe views Israeli attacks on Arab lands with different eyes than the USA.
But the European-Arab relationship is more than proximity. Just as Americans are fascinated by exotic Mexico , the mystery of the Arab Oriental world attracts curious Europeans looking beyond their immediate horizons. The inscrutability of an Arab Casbah! No Westerner can walk through the medina of Tangier or Algiers without shivering in wonder (and admittedly, yesterday or today, with a certain trepidation) and regretting that it is threatened by the onslaught from the West.
The ancient city of Alexandria as described by Lawrence Durrell in his Alexandria quartet expresses a fundamental spirit of the Arab world inhabited by those ancient hybrid Greek-Semitic peoples. “The capital city of memory,” Durrell calls Alexandria , one of those ancient cities lining the south shore of the great sea.
And then Beirut , forever menaced with destruction. That scintillating white city which after World War II was called the Paris of the Middle East and became the playground for Europeans where French and Italians maintained vacation houses and Italian bands entertained cosmopolitan peoples in swank restaurants and clubs.
Tunisia today is a playground for Italians and French; Egypt’s Sharm el Sheik on the Red Sea, the favorite Italian winter resort.
Baghdad is another story. In an article in The Peoples Voice describing America ’s attack on 5000 years of culture, Malcolm Lagauche offers a sobering assessment of what has really happened to the city in the last five years. “During the Dark Ages of Europe, when all scientific thought was eliminated for centuries, Baghdad continued to excel in science and engineering. When the Dark Ages finally broke and Europe once again began to exercise science, it looked to Baghdad. Kingdoms, authoritarian regimes and republics have come and gone in Baghdad, but it still was the jewel of Arab cities…. When American troops entered Baghdad, they went into a city that had been mercilessly bombed and attacked. However it was the introduction of the troops that degraded and changed the city forever. Within weeks, concrete barriers were erected to protect the invaders. Today, they are all over Baghdad and make the Berlin Wall pale in comparison.”
At the same time, France and Italy , Netherlands and Britain, have so many Arab Moslem citizens and immigrants today that one speaks of the Islamization of Europe. Today 2.2 million Islamic Berbers live in Netherlands and France. In Paris, the Goutte d’Or quarter and Belleville are chiefly Arab. Areas around Rome’s Termini Station are strongly Arab. The two cultures, Arab and European, Islam and Christianity, continue to be interrelated, one influencing the other.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is spearheading a movement for a union of the Mediterranean peoples. Last summer he began discussing his plan with foreign ministers of Mediterranean states on both north and south shores. That project may be the centerpiece of France ’s presidency of the European Union this year.
Initially, Sarkozy’s proposal seemed aimed at the EU headache of Turkey, whose controversial membership in the European Union Sarkozy opposes. The Mediterranean Union is seen as an alternative for the big Moslem country, instead of membership in the EU. He prefers a “special relationship” with Turkey, something less than full EU membership. Europe must have a clear Christian identity, Sarkozy told Pope Benedict in a meeting in Rome after his election—its own culture, the cradle of which is Christianity, he said—with borders and limits, an area which has no room for Islamic Turkey.
Mediterranean waters connect three continents and 21 countries with a combined population of 400 million, not much less than the European Union. As desirable as a regional union of Mediterranean states appears on paper, tensions between Christianity and Islam are obstacles to be overcome. Moreover, many political leaders of North Europe tend to consider the Mediterranean basin no more than a geographical reality. North Europeans fear that such a union would exclude them and undermine the already shaky existence of the EU.
The USA , fixed on Israel and unenthusiastic about the EU in the first place, must view the Mediterranean Union as another divisive factor.
After the Algerian war in 1962, De Gaulle changed France ’s post-war pro-Israel policies, steering France toward today’s pro-Arab sympathies, because, Israel charges, Arabs are more important to Europe than Israel. In that sense, Sarkozy’s proposal is a continuation of the Gaullist vision of Europe and the Mediterranean world. Also Italy and Spain have long toyed with such a union. For France, Spain and Italy, the idea is attractive as a forum for dealing with the region’s problems, especially immigration, which from North Africa pour through South Europe ’s porous borders in the hundreds of thousands each year. The fundamental question is an old one: Can this region populated by Christians, Moslems and Jews, Europeans, Arabs and Africans work together as a political entity?
THE ISRAELI VIEW
Israel views the project with horror. In her book Eurabia:The Euro-Arab Axis, the Jewish historian Bat Ye’Or, born in Egypt of an Italian Jewish father and French Jewish mother, describes plans for unity of Europe and the Arab world as a conspiracy. Madame Bat Ye’Or—close to the Israeli Right and to activists like former Soviet dissident, anti-Communist and Zionist Natan Sharansky—depicts the transformation of Europe into Eurabia as an anti-Christian, anti-Western and above all anti-American and anti-Semitic plot of universal dimensions.
Her views on what constitutes conspiracy and what is gobbledygook are indeed peculiar … and disconcerting. She dismisses out of hand conspiracy theories about 9/11 before proceeding to construct another: the Eurabia project. She claims the project of Europe and Arab unity has been underway in secret since early last century. The charge is of a sell-out, that in exchange for oil, new markets and security from terrorism, cowardly Europe is ready to surrender to the evil Arab world. Zionist extremists have labeled the secret project to unite Europe and the Arab world the “Eurabia Code.”
EUROPE’S GUILT COMPLEXES
The former Israeli ambassador in Rome, Avi Pazner, in a recent interview elucidated Bat Ye’Or’s accusations, charging that since Arabs placed an embargo on oil to Europe following the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Europe’s Arab policies have been pure appeasement. The most pro-Arab in his view are European Socialists and Communists while the Right is more friendly to Israel, most probably, he adds, stemming from the latter’s guilt complexes. In general he shows little consideration for Europe, which, in his view, should bend to Israel. An image recalling Italy’s Foreign Minister under Berlusconi, the neo-Fascist Gianfranco Fini, going to Israel, hat in hand, to make peace with the same Jews his Fascist ancestors aimed at liquidating. For Pazner and Bat Ye’Or very little of Europe comes out Israel friendly.
Avi Pazner, Chairman of United Jewish Appeal, pinpoints the Six Day War of 1967 as the historical moment Europe’s attitude toward Israel and the Arab world began changing. Until then, Europe supported the young state of Israel. He says the Arab oil embargo tipped the scales: Europe realized it was dependent on Arab oil. Oil and Christianity, he believes, reinforce anti-Israeli sentiments. Unfairly, if not maliciously, Pazner then transforms Europe ’s legitimate pro-Arab orientation to anti-Israeli sentiments and thus into anti-Semitism: he who does not love Israel is ipso facto ant-Semitic.
It is true that Italian Communists have been traditionally pro-Arab and today support Hamas and Hezbollah. The same goes for most Italian intellectuals, most of whom are of the Left. According to Pazner, “They (the European Left) have turned the Palestinian cause into a symbol. Moreover, their attack on Israel has become anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic.” The latter is patently false. Though anti-Israeli sentiments are growing over the entire European continent because of Israel’s war policies and the deterioration of the former showcase image of Israel’s democracy, it is not true that the pro-Arab European Left is anti-Semitic.
On the contrary, anti-Semitism in Europe today lies in the labyrinth of resurgent Nazism and Right extremists in France and North Europe.
It is also untrue that the European Left has always been pro-Arab and the post-WWII Right pro-Israel. After De Gaulle, French conservative Presidents Pompidou and Chirac were no less pro-Arab than the Socialist Mitterand. Thus, Sarkozy’s proposal is continuation of France’s pro-Arab foreign policy of the last half century.
At the same time, America’s iron alliance with Israel cannot but eventually clash head-on with Europe’s pro-Arab sentiments, which will in turn add fuel to the fire of the latent anti-Americanism in Europe . Just as Europe does not classify Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorists and opposes the Iraq war and the graveyard America has made of that ancient land, opposition to the war in Afghanistan is building up. As far as war against Islamic Iran is concerned, Europe does not want to even consider it. Any kind of American attack on Iran, from enforced trade embargoes to bombardment or invasion, would be the last straw.
As a minimum Western Europe’s attempts at a balanced policy in the Middle East are shared by most of the community of nations except the United States. To the degree that Israeli occupation policies become more oppressive and the hatred of the United Statesin Iraq mounts, it will be increasingly difficult for America to convince its European allies that American policies offer the best hope for Middle East peace. On the contrary: Europe continues to hope that its policies will bring about a change in American Middle East policy.
However for politically disunited Europe —today an economic giant but a political midget without even a foreign minister—that hope is unfortunately not a position, but a chimera.
Gaither Stewart, a Senior Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal/tantmieux, is a novelist and journalist based in Italy. His stories, essays and dispatches are read widely throughout the Internet on many leading venues. His collections of fiction, Icy Current Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger and Once In Berlin are published by Wind River Press. (www.windriverpress.com ). His recent novel, Asheville , is published by Wastelandrunes, (www.wastelandrunes.com).