Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Europe's Islamic and Arabic Heritage

Right, now I've finished my 2006 tour of the southern Mediterranean, I'm in a much better position to make a comment about Europe's Islamic and Arabic heritage, and the relevance of said heritage for Turkey's EU accession talks.

First up, BB and I visited Dubrovnik at the end of February/beginning of March. No picture of that, as it's been well documented on this blog already, for example here. Fiercely independent, the Republic of Dubrovnik, or Ragusa as it was known in the Middle Ages, worked hard to balance between competing powers in the form of the Ottoman Empire and Venice. Trading with the Ottomans was clearly a way of life, and a way of staying prosperous.

Second on the list was last week's trip to Malta, a country distinguished in the European Union by the fact that its language is Semitic in origin, and closely related to Arabic. (I should note that this picture dates from an earlier trip in 2004).

During the Convention on the Future of Europe, the first 'official' speech in Maltese within an EU institution was given in 2003 by Maltese Government Representative at the Convention Peter Serracino-Inglott (pdf), who is a mighty interesting person as you can see from this link. This was an important breakthrough, first because in advance of Maltese accession, the EU authorities and the interpretation services were very reluctant to allow the use of accession state languages, except in controlled circumstances where they provided the exact text in advance, and second, because it was the first time that a Semitic language was used in the EU context. I remember him telling me, when I was lucky enough to meet him, that when he stood up to speak, it was not what he said that mattered, but the language in which it was said (otherwise he always spoke in English). On this occasion, he said, all the other members of the Convention put aside their headphones and just listened to the original language, to appreciate its cadences and its profound 'difference' from other indo-European languages (and Finno-Ungric) languages represented in the Convention and in the EU.

And now, finally, to Ronda, which may date back to Celtic times, but saw its first heyday as an Arab town, until 1485, and the Christian reconquest of Spain. The building you see photographed on the left is the Minaret of San Sebastian (scroll to the bottom), original the tower of a mosque (you see the window at the top for the calling of the faithful to prayer). Showing flexibility, those who came afterwards later used it as the tower for a now disappeared church of San Sebastian, and now it appears to be attached to residential property.

Anyway, does this tell us anything about the issue of Turkey's candidacy for EU membership, and the possibility that it may be admitted. As is well known, France has already decided that any future accessions (after a putative Croatian accession) will be subject to a national referendum (as indeed the UK, Irish and Danish accessoins were - although that referendum was of an advisory character only, and a Turkish accession one would be binding on the French state). So, many might say that discussing Turkish accession is a largely academic exercise - even more so than discussing the Constitutional Treaty. Moreover, if you regard the case for Turkish accession as fundamentally geo-political in nature, and related to (a) its strategic position in the middle east and (b) its current occupation of a pivotal position within NATO and the Western strategic alliance (not to mention its very large and professional army...), then the fact of historic European engagement with Islam, Islamic cultures and what one might regard as the quintessential Islam language perhaps matter not one jot. However, in practice the popular case is always made about the difference of Islam, and the fundamentally Judeo-Christian heritage of Europe. Not entirely true, as the Spain, Malta and the Western Balkans undoubtedly tell us. Time for a rethink, I would suggest.

Update: the morning after writing this post, I listened to an extensive presentation and Q & A session with the controversial Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan. BB wants me to blog about it. We'll see whether I get the time before my memories fade.


Blogger SimonHolyHoses said...

Very interesting post that!

A large body of what we still have of classical western literature is with us thanks to Islamic peoples who were interested enough to want to assimilate it into the body of their own knowledge, while we were all supposedly busy deconstructing the Roman ways.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006  

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