THE BLOG

Arab Unrest: Fear Blocks Understanding

'If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."

As I attended a small, but in essence very important, meeting in the Sicilian capital Palermo I had followed the urge of rereading the masterpiece by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, 'The Leopard,' if only to realize how timely these words (uttered in the novel by Tancredi, the cousin of 'Prince of Salina') were, and how relevant for the West, in the context of what has been taking place on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

The Arab unrest, of which we only experience the initial phases of, certainly a process that will occupy us all for another decade or even beyond, left Europe stunned, confused, uncertain, frustrated, anxious, depending on which corner of the continent one is in.

It has taken months to see that there truly were efforts to understand what has been the true nature of the unrest -- or uprisings -- other than falling into the traps of 'defending the right side of the civilization, in order to block the other'.

Prisms are too old, dusty: they only show what one wants to see. They need new eyes, too: because what takes place is way beyond religious, sectarian, ethnic divides, and, most of all demand sharp attention to listen to the other. Beyond the 'get up, stand up' melody, there are old, legitimate aspirations that once shaped Europe into what it is today, with the ingredients of dignity, equality, freedom, respect, rights, predictability -- a better future. Of course, the deeper you go, the more nuances you see.

Primitive European reactions and responses to the cross-border unrest in the Arab domain raise the concerns even further. France, for example, emphasize its internalized prejudice that the entire turmoil might endanger the secularism across the Mediterranean even further. For Netherlands or Denmark, it is being used as a tool for whipping up Islamophobia. For economically troubled Italy or Greece, it seems to be only about a further pain on finding ways to curb illegal immigration.

It is apparent that the old recipes will be irrelevant, unhelpful and not at all constructive, to deal with the new, mutating conflicts and turbulences in Arab countries.

What new is there, to tackle the challenge? As the 'Arabic plot' thickens, how to force through public channels to be more open for deeper understanding? What language and approaches are more efficient than those tried until now?

In the age of globalism, how to enhance economic interdependence (an excellent tool for averting conflicts and wars) and how to build an equally important dimension, namely a constant cultural interaction?

That was the basis of what 'Palermo Group' -- a key group of journalists and academicians from the southern and northern parts of the Mediterranean -- discussed in depth recently at a venue not far away from the residence of the immortal Giuseppe Tomasi.

The group is more accurately called EuroMed Media Network, and it is operating further on, based on the manifesto established in an earlier meeting in Rome.

It said, in essence, the following:

'The wave of democratic uprisings in the Arab world provides a unique opportunity for Europeans to rethink their relationship with that Muslim-majority region. Islam has too often been seen as a problem linked to a threat against the West -- against modernity, against democracy, against universal values. In light of the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, part of a broad struggle for freedom and dignity, Europeans urgently need to rethink their attitudes. The Arab world and Islam are not immutable essences but equally open to such influences as Europeans and their various faiths have been.'

'The events in North Africa and the Middle East will have a profound and long-lasting impact on Europe -- whether in terms of politics, security, economics, migration or cultural and religious relations. Rather than fearing such changes Europeans should welcome them as a great reinvigorating democratic challenge. In addition they provide an opportunity to examine afresh relations with Muslim communities in Europe, which are also being deeply affected. Along with the countries and societies of origin they too are engaged in a major historical transition.'

'We are committed to improve public understanding, media coverage and academic analysis of these changes by bringing together researchers, journalists and civil society activists, leaders and intellectuals in both regions. European media devoted too little attention to covering social and cultural changes that led to the Arab awakening and helping explain why it happened. Ahead of the more dramatic changes to come and to prepare citizens and public policy for them much more engagement and knowledge are required. On a mutual and reciprocal basis between Europeans, Arabs and Muslims we must counter the active or willful ignorance which fans prejudice and stereotypes in too much of the existing discourse.'

'Palermo Group' now pursues models to ignite facilitation and media action, involving the new generation of social media users and the conventional practitioners of journalism to close the gap in between, because what raises confusion and what feeds further prejudice is the fact that Arab Unrest has exploded in the midst of a huge change in global media as well.

'Media have much to learn from these changes and need to overcome inherited prejudices in reporting them more accurately and comprehensively. That is difficult to do when cuts are made in editorial budgets, limiting international coverage. A younger generation of Arab journalists is keen to learn and much more can be done in common with them by networking, training and translation.' wrote Paul Gillespie, a commentator and a member of the EuroMed Network, in an article titled 'Media is vital in shaping view of Arab world', published by the Irish Times.

There is indeed much to do. Arab Unrest showed the West, that such social mobilizations now involve an enormous, 'horizontal' structures of reporting and commenting. As the conventional media faces bigger economic challenges, forced to downsize, as well as confront dangers for reporters in the 'field', the engagement for information gathering and sharing is a valuable tool for the inward looking Europe to adopt to new realities, be less fearful, more creative, and assist -- at will -- for transformation. For all this, we need to cooperate across the Mediterranean.