The Arab World Geographer

AWG 2001 Conference in Malta

Geographies of the Euro-Arab Encounter:
Past, Present, and Future

Thursday 4 October 2001
Welcome speech of Professor Roger Ellul-Micallef, Rector of the University of Malta

Honourable Minister,
Your Excellency,
Presidents of the Associations,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon and welcome to this conference here at the Foundation of International Studies.
On behalf of the University of Malta, I would like to wish you a very enjoyable four days of discussions and thank you all for joining.

This weekend we are gathered here for some sessions to discuss various dimensions of geopolitical and socio-economic cross currents as they relate to geographies of the European Arabic encounter. The AWG has chosen its subject well. It is of great relevance in the present context of global circumstances. They are brimming with energies requiring urgent comprehension to be channelled into actions for the benefit and welfare of our posterity.

Indeed, the setting for this weekend’s conference, here at the University, is ideally suited to the nature of these discussions. The University of Malta, with a tradition of almost five centuries has long been the venue for academic research whose mission is the application and tuning of rational resources to understanding the human predicament – whether through medicine, law, the sciences, philosophy, or geography. Today, through its international arm here at the Foundation, the University of Malta continues this practice of deepening the energies of this imitative. One way it does so is to welcome conferences as your own. They serve as a catalyst towards social cooperation, cohesion and collaboration. The number and quality of the participants gathered here today bear witness to the success of this initiative.

Moreover, the requirement for the rational determination and understanding of these human forces that together make up the broad mosaic of humanity is demanded more urgently then ever especially in light of some radical reactions to globalization that threaten the character, fibre and fecundity of our common human nature and heritage of mankind. As academics poised at a juncture of time in history, which is tentative and precarious at best, we all express our solidarity with social scientists and geographers whose aim it is to rise above irrationality, indifference and the fear of people of different races, countries, colours, creeds or commitments. There is no doubt that as geographers, you occupy a special place in this role. This is witnessed very nicely through the journal of the organizers of this conference – The Arab World Geographer. It is an undertaking of joint efforts with the aim of contributing to a permanent and lasting dialogue.

There is, however, another salient feature of the venue of this conference. It is a university located in the midst of the Mediterranean – a region which from its whispery deserts to its misty mountains, echoes the cultural heartbeat and the social narratives of generations who passed through. It is a legendary space where European and Arabic identities have intermingled for centuries, sharing memories, stories and dreams and who’s heartbeats, in many ways, have united in one pulse. Malta as a Mediterranean centre of convergence resonates with this pulse. It is a pulse that can serve as a paradigm to the world. Indeed, I am reminded of Elisée Reclus, the first geographer to view the Mediterranean as a subject of study unto itself. For Reclus ‘the pulse of civilization and the pulse of the Mediterranean are one and the same’.

Not that this rhythm hasn’t often been fuzzy, represented worst of all, perhaps, by the military expeditions from the 11th to 13th centuries. But as academics able to reflect on the follies of our ancestors and inspired by the integrity of a hope to build upon their strengths, today we have tools of critique with which to improve upon our European/Arabic past and indeed carve the future of this space into an authentic European Arabic encounter.

One such critical tool has been the unprecedented event of the EUROMED Civil Forum held in Barcelona in 1995. For the first time, more than a thousand qualified representatives of the civil society of the countries of the south and east of the Mediterranean and Europe met with the objective of installing a permanent convention of debate and cooperation. The Barcelona Convention, otherwise known as the Declaration of Barcelona, brought together foreign ministers from fifteen EU Member States and twelve Mediterranean partners (Algeria, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Malta, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority). Formal terms of agreement for a European-Arabic political partnership where signed. That meeting was more than a symbol of a new era in the relations between Europeans and Arabs. It was the beginning of a real process of regional integration between the Maghreb, the Mashriq and Europe. Further to that 1995 meeting, three follow-up civil forum encounters have taken place, the second of which was held just down the road from us, at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in April, 1997.

Besides the civil forum meetings of course, other tools have been developing. Everywhere today we witness the burgeoning of study centres, centres for human rights, peace programmes, journals, citizens’ forums, and networks of cooperation, etc. Devoted to the cause of European-Arabic Rapprochement. Indeed, AWG and EUMENESS, are two fine examples. Thanks, in large part, to education programmes in comparative religious studies, which are cropping up everywhere in the world, the west is learning about the riches of Arabic and Islamic cultures. More than ever, the west is learning about the dignity of the holy Koran and recognizing its debt to Islam. Islam laid the intellectual foundations for large portions of western civilization. From our numbers to our understanding of the stars, much of the basis of the civilization of the west is rooted in Islamic learning.

It is thanks to such tools of learning and critical acumen, that we can say with confidence that Samuel Huntington’s doomsdayish forecast of a clash of civilizations* need be no more than a radical myth.  More than ever, reason shows that, contrary to Huntington’s claims, the west cannot afford to have Islam as anything but a friend. Different cultures and different religions they may be, but nothing, a priori or otherwise, means that we cannot get along. Rather, the differences, if looked upon critically and in a spirit of tolerance, summon us to work together, to improve our understanding of each other, to break down misconceptions and erase the mistrust. Indeed the holy Qu’ran says:

O people! We created you from a single pair of a male and female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other, not that you may despise each other [49:12]
Such are the tools we have at our hands enabling us to rise above the past and mold a future into a culture of civil contentment. It is tools such as this very conference - a tool molded of the minds of geographers and social scientists such as yourselves - that deepens this hope of contentment amongst the north and south. And it is thanks to such conferences that, it can be said, we are one step closer towards preparing a world for our descendents, which is a little less troublesome and worrisome than we found it ourselves. I wish you a very fruitful and rewarding experience and I look forward to the results of the proceedings, which I understand shall be published in a forthcoming issue of The Arab World Geographer journal.

* Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993, 22-49.

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