Arabia: Dream Or Reality-A European Point of View
By Gaither Stewart
29 March, 2008
Arab resurgence was born on the heels of European occupation of Arab lands in the 19th century as an anti-European, anti-imperialist struggle. However instead of Pan-Arabism the awakening spawned Pan-Islam, today reaching from Morocco to Indonesia. Islam’s concepts of religious universality and political theocracy overshadow all ideas of nationalism and political democracy espoused by militarized America in Iraq.
(Rome) One evening not long ago I was surprised to hear the Italian political analyst, Sergio Romano—a self-defined conservative and ex-Ambassador to NATO—speak of the East as if he were a representative of Communist Refoundation Party, against NATO and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in favor of negotiations with Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
THE WRATH OF THE SPIDERS
On that same afternoon I had watched a documentary on the Third Crusade of 1191 led by the Norman King of England, Richard Lionheart, which prompted this essay. Like the disastrous Second Crusade forty years earlier in which German and French armies were massacred, Richard’s goal was re-capturing Jerusalem. It was eerie to behold. The setting and atmosphere of the Christian invasion 800 years ago was the same story as today: a Christian-Jewish alliance and Islam battling over control of Palestine and Jerusalem.
“Warriors of the Faith” depicts King Richard’s Crusade as fragile as are Road Maps today. So fragile that one of the minor incidents history recalls is the demoralizing effects of the terrifying attacks of desert tarantulas against the armor-clad warriors in Richard’s encampments along the coast between Acre and Jaffa.
As the Crusade progressed, both King Richard and King Saladin claimed for their faiths the holy city of Jerusalem. In a missive to Saladin, King Richard stressed that the city was holy for Christians. Ditto for Moslems, Saladin answered. Neither could renounce Jerusalem. Yet each of them, European and Arab, recognized the existence of the other as an equal and the legitimacy of the other’s claims to Jerusalem.
The ferocious soldier Richard regarded Arabs as human beings like himself and tried to arrange a marriage of his own sister with Saladin’s brother in order to insure peace. How different the story of intoxicated Israeli claims to Jerusalem today, backed by power mad America, two “chosen peoples” engaged in perpetual warfare and for whom everybody else is the enemy! Policies of no compromises: kill all the Palestinians.
Just as Islam stood behind Saladin, the Catholic Church fostered the Western jihads to the Holy Land. Though the city of Jerusalem was indefensible and Saladin’s authority waning, Richard, after twice arriving at the gates of Jerusalem, retired to occupied Jaffa without a fight. Richard could have taken the holy city as easily as America took Baghdad. Yet he wisely concluded that he couldn’t hold it long, isolated in the heart of the Moslem world hostile to the infidel invader.
That history passes unnoticed by our brave leaders today.
The two kings however arrived at an accord: the Christians kept Jaffa and Acre and a slice of the coastline; Moslems kept Jerusalem. That the two faiths could share Jerusalem was not even a consideration. Jerusalem! The city of three faiths, all of which consider it the most holy city in the world and claim it as theirs. Hebrews built it in 1000 B.C. Babylonians captured it in the 6th century B.C. and exiled the Jews. Subsequently Greeks, Egyptian Arabs and Syrian Arabs have controlled it. Moslem armies captured it in 638 and ruled for 450 years and Ottomans held it for another 400 years.
In sum, Islam
has had a much greater effect on the city than others. Moreover, it is a
geographical fact that the city has always been an island surrounded by Arab
In his classic History of the Arabs Professor Philip K. Hitti—a text from the time of my Islamic studies at Munich University—notes that of all the lands comparable to Arabia in size and of peoples approaching the Arabs in historical importance, no country and no nationality has received so little consideration in modern times. “What is not known about it is out of all proportion to what is known.”
Arabia is the fount of the Semitic family of peoples which later migrated to the Fertile Crescent and became the Babylonians, Assyrians, Phoenecians and Hebrews. Arabia, Hitti recalls, is also the fount of the rudimentary elements of the three monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
cities of Algiers and Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and once Baghdad, are emblematic
of one Arab spirit, that of the townsfolk. Contemporary with Charlemagne in 9th
century Europe, Baghdad under Harun al-Rashid was the world’s greatest city of
culture and science and wealth.
The artistic world of the nearly forgotten Bowles, who lived 52 years in Tangier, is frequently set in Arabian deserts just on the edge of Europe. In the desert the Westerner is lost. Natural man defeats the neurotic product of technological society. Primitive man, Bowles believed, has retained things that western man has lost; he can operate in natural surroundings. And Americans, he noted, are less prepared than Europeans in such circumstances because they think everyone must do it the American way. Therefore it’s hard for Americans to establish contact with others. Self-subsistent primitive man is also more adapted for communal life than is dependent western man. Primitives have a communal life. No one owns anything. Everything belongs to all.
As soon as personal property appears, you have to invent another system. Before arriving in the desert, Bowles’ protagonist in Under The Sheltering Sky said he didn’t need a passport to prove he is a member of mankind but when he loses his passport in the desert he is lost: he is only half a man without it, and no longer knows who he is.
Albert Camus’ hedonistic Arab differs dramatically from that projected in the New World as barbarous and fanatic. According to Camus whose roots were in the Arab world, “Man must live within the circle of his flesh (l’homme doit vivre dans le cercle de sa chair), because the real evil, the writer believed, is abstraction. Speaking of the people of Algiers, Camus declared: “Cette race est indifferent à l’esprit.”
An Arab friend used to tell me that in everything concerning Islam it was important to keep their language in mind. According to an Arab saying ‘wisdom alighted on the tongue of the Arabs’ … for it is the language of the Koran and the wisdom of an ancient people. Alla-a-ah akhbar echoing across the world from Morocco to Indonesia, from Hamburg to Sudan is a reminder that holy people of Islam consider the Arabic language the basis for the “genuineness” of their faith. After the birth of Islam, Arabic became also the language of diplomacy and social intercourse from Central Asia, across North Africa to Spain.
The Bedouin is an Arabic-speaking purist, proud of his genealogy, who traces his lineage back to Adam. Bedouins were nomads, the original Arabs, barbarians and pagans. “The time of ignorance” Arab historians call pre-Islamic time, a time of guerrilla wars and plundering, but with little bloodshed. They stole from each other but it stopped there. The pagan Bedouin was not eager to get killed and had no concept of heaven and angels.
The Semitic Berbers of Morocco, Algeria, and Libya, “free men” or Berber Arabs, (historically known also as Numidians or Moors, who occupied much of Spain), also speak related Arab dialects.
The prophet Mohammad fought many wars for the unity of the diverse and dispersed Arabs. Arab scholars teach that Arab unity is the real meaning of Islam. Thus Pan-Islam and Pan-Arabism are related concepts. Fired by anti-imperialism and today by anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiments, Arab nationalism has turned into regional nationalisms, while Pan-Islam is the glue for all Moslems such non-Arab Iranians and Afghans and others farther to the East and the South.
Nonetheless the Arabs built an empire greater than Rome at its zenith. Under Islam they developed a world culture which transmitted to Europe the intellectual influences that engendered the Renaissance. Historians recognize that no people of the Middle Ages contributed more to human progress than the Arabs. Other ancient peoples such as the Phoenecians have disappeared, but the Arabs remain, and in a cultural sense we owe them.
solidarity and internationalism play a role in the European Left’s pro-Arab
sentiments, ideology is not the only factor. Nonetheless today we are almost
obliged to think, “poor Arabs!” crushed between Israeli arrogance and thirst
for vengeance and American blindness and thirst for oil.
The Saladin-Richard relationship mirrored the interwoven relationship between the Arab world and Europe, a relationship that so overshadows the European-Israeli relationship today as to be incomparable. One forgets that for ancient Greeks and Romans, Jews were just another of the Semitic peoples, cousins of the Arabs.
When the star
of Islam was rising three centuries prior to the Third Crusade, Arab sea rovers
arrived in Sicily. In 831 Palermo fell to Arab armies. Through skillful
political administration, Arab agricultural techniques and gifted artisans the
new rulers turned the fertility of the Mediterranean’s biggest island to great
account and made it one of the richest parts of the Sultan’s realm. Within
Palermo’s walls were 300 mosques, the Sultan's court, prison, arsenal and
council chambers. Beyond the four city gates lay the caravansaries and the
merchants' quarters. In Islamic Palermo there were bazaars of oil vendors,
money-changers, grocers, tailors, blacksmiths, coppersmiths and corn sellers,
great open air markets that still today are in the same places. Arab Palermo
was a meeting place for traders from everywhere—Greeks, Sicilians, Lombards,
Arabs, Berbers, Persians and Tartars.
theories proffered by some contemporary Jewish historians such as Madame Bat
Ye’Or, the Moslem heritage in Europe has been largely positive.
Moslems were part of the cosmopolitan group King Roger gathered round him in the mixture of cultures that coursed through south Italy: Latin, Norman and Byzantine. In that ethnic mix were Greek men of affairs, learned lawyers, French and Provencal troubadours, Arab poets, administrators and story-tellers, and an Arab cook in Roger's kitchen. As in Moslem times, this island off the tip of Italy waxed rich.
After Roger II’s death in 1194 Moorish influence in Sicily declined. But it left behind treasures that spread from there and from Spain to become a part of Western life: silk weaving and Moorish pottery, embroidery, brilliant jewels and fine dress. From the Arabs came the pointed arch and other decorative motifs, details of fountain construction and design, the use of the olive as food and the game of chess. The Arabs introduced many words into the Italian language, such as carciofo, artichoke. Arab ways are persistent in southern Europe from Granada in Andalusia to Messina in Sicily. Many things in modern Sicily, from cathedrals to donkey carts, are still ornamented with Saracen arabesques and Eastern designs. And lemon orchards are called lemon gardens, giardini di limoni.
One feels a certain melancholy about the brief Norman era in Sicily, a melancholy marking the gentle Sicilian people today and recalling the nostalgia in Argentina for a former Europe that lives chiefly in peoples’ fantasy. It has been said that the complex Norman Kingdom of Sicily and South Italy contained the seeds of its own destruction, in itself a melancholic consideration. The 64-year old Kingdom was too heterogeneous, too eclectic and cosmopolitan to develop a national tradition of its own. It couldn’t last. Though the Normans and Lombards, Greeks and Saracens, Italians and Jews of that great Sicilian Kingdom co-existed happily, they never coalesced into a nation.
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
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
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.
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.
Europe sees that world with different eyes than the USA and Israel.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 States in 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.
Stewart, a Senior Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal/tantmieux, is a
novelist and journalist based in Italy. He has lived most of his adult life in
Europe, chiefly in Germany, Holland and 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,
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