The upheaval in North Africa holds the possibility of a renewal of the Mediterranean Union, if Europe can overcome its obsession with Islamic fundamentalism and the 'Muslim Question', argues Mustapha Tlili of New York University.
This commentary was authored by Mustapha Tlili, a research scholar at New York University, founder and director of the NYU Center for Dialogues, and a member of Human Rights Watch's advisory committee for the Middle East and North Africa.
"Mediterranean countries are experiencing turbulence unseen since the era of decolonisation and independence. Popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have swept away entrenched autocracies. Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi is holding on by the skin of his teeth, and political leaders in Algeria and Morocco are scrambling to maintain authority.
Can a Mediterranean space nurtured by shared democratic values, interests and hopes emerge from this maelstrom?
The Mediterranean countries are home to 475 million people – 272 million Europeans, including 20 million Muslims, and 200 million non-European Arabs and Jews. It now seems possible that the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), the mechanism that French President Nicolas Sarkozy set up in 2008 to increase regional cooperation, may actually step up to the challenge of reclaiming the region's past as the cradle of reason, tolerance and humanism. The UfM could offer a model for co-existence to a world injured by dictatorship and fear of Islamic fundamentalism.
Rising tensions in Europe over what has ominously crystallised as 'the Muslim Question' has made it all too easy to forget that there was a time when Islam – a more tolerant and inclusive civilisation than it appears to be in the post-9/11 West – was fully a part of European life.
Today, no less than yesterday, Mediterranean people – Muslims, Christians, and Jews –share inescapable geopolitical, demographic, and economic realities. They should remind themselves that demonisation, exclusion, and division are not the only options – and should not be the region's destiny.
Among Sarkozy's main interlocutors at the birth of the UfM in 2008 were Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Now that they are gone, so is their limited and limiting approach to international dialogue, based almost exclusively on state-to-state relations without any significant input from civil society."
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(Published in partnership with Project Syndicate.)