Imagining a New Mediterranean World

NEW YORK – Mediterranean countries are experiencing turbulence unseen since the era of decolonization 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 coexistence to a world injured by dictatorship and fear of Islamic fundamentalism.

Rising tensions in Europe over what has ominously crystallized as “the Muslim Question” has made it all too easy to forget that there was a time when Islam – a more tolerant and inclusive civilization than it appears to be in the post-9/11 West – was fully a part of European life.