Media and Cultural Representation: Visibility, Wahhabism and Inner Exile

Lola Bañón

Journalist and professor at the Universidad de Valencia

The contemporary Mediterranean is facing the challenge of generating a narrative that interweaves the plurality of differences and incorporates the economic, cultural and social vision of a common project. Culture and language, the great forgotten of the political macro-plans, are ways of creating cohesion just when the crisis is exacerbating the visions of segregation between religions and countries. Constructing a solid citizenship that is made visible has become a cultural and political objective: it is necessary to generate discourses that articulate the common values of diversity and the shared challenges to relaunch the Mediterranean project. This must be done in a context of economic failure in the southern European countries and, therefore, a cultural creation is needed that supports the generation of a shared political and social discourse that sets limits on uncontrolled liberalism and promotes the protection of national identities, respect for people’s sovereignty and a profound reflection on the processes of expansion of Wahhabi ideology and radicalisation. 

The imagination of Mediterraneity is fed by the presence of visual and sentimental coincidences that millions of people feel at some time in their life. Rafael Chirbes describes it when he recounts his experience reading Fernand Braudel’s book about the Mediterranean, in which he comments on how after several incursions into the text his discoveries of diversity lead him to a kind of common recognition: “What seduced me in my first reading of Braudel is what I considered stranger for me, more distanced in space and time, a Mediterranean populated by surprises rather than by constants: the white of the sails of a ship unfolded in the wind against the blue sky; the glow of the canons; the shine of the gold and the colour of the caravans that transported it from Oran; the opening silence of the deserts; the minarets of Istanbul […]. Once this initial flash was extinguished, I had to return to Braudel for him to be my guide on a journey opposite to the one he had made, because my gradual fascination for the Mediterranean had not emerged out of the surprise of an unexpected meeting but rather out of the gradual discovery of geological layers of my own being. It was not a flash but an excavation.”

On many occasions in literature this introspection of recognition that Chirbes describes he felt with Braudel takes place, an inner journey of creation of universes in which the media and cultural representation of the Mediterranean has been cemented, with accounts full of romanticism and mystery derived from the travellers’ experiences and imagination. When we speak of discourses we are referring not only to the words but also to the cultural representations. Some arts such as architecture entail an intention, and authors such as Tito Rojo note the existence of ideological operations and meanings in, for instance, something as playful as an Islamic garden.

In recent decades, in contrast, the extension of audiovisual and digital media has mostly turned collective representation into images of conflicts: a sea surrounded by wars, in which people die in its waters in an attempt to migrate or a sea that witnesses the birth or growth of extremists who sow terror among the civilian populations. There are exceptions in this representative majority model, such as the television series Méditerranée by Fernand Braudel, which was an experience of collaboration between the academic and media worlds. This work provides a polyphony of voices from the two shores that coincide in the narration and fabric of a unified and coherent space, in which, despite the frontiers, there beats an everyday life with clear convergences.

The challenges faced in recent decades by the two shores of the Mediterranean have been very delicate and quite unpropitious for the formation of strong collective self-esteem: the diversity of political conditions, immigration and the varying reception of Muslim communities who have arrived in Europe are situations in which the generation of stereotypes has impeded a real knowledge of otherness. Added to this limitation in the portrayal of human realities is the phenomenon of radicalisation, both with the emergence of extreme rightwing forces and the outbreak of Jihadism. The result is that the intra-Mediterranean perception suffers from religious and ideological exploitation; and, on many occasions, diversity, the great value of our reality on the two shores, far from producing the effect that Chirbes describes in his experience with Braudel, is seen as a threat.

This constraint in social and cultural representation has consequences for the political agenda: the images of people trying to enter the northern Mediterranean, for example, devoid of contextualisation, becomes a kind of icon of an alleged threat to the established order that strays from the definition of the real problem: the absence in the shared debate of an agenda that proposes to overcome the growing economic and human fracture in the heart of our area. Jean Daniel refers to the need to transcend a certain feeling of acceptance to enter into a collective reflection and overcome what he defines as resigned fatalism, building a creative shared future in an attempt to drive the evolution together through dialogue and sharing the ambition of building a common civilisation.

For this reason, we must generate a shared cohesive narrative that paves the way to policies built from the Mediterranean perspective and, in this respect, the awareness of our models of collective representation is relevant; because no political or social project can be maintained if it is not based on a discourse or the promotion of human capital. Mediterranean people find it difficult to be visible in the international media agenda; for instance, we are not generally considered as part of the list of political or cultural leaderships because in the communication system companies and agencies from the Anglo-Saxon world numerically and thematically prevail.

Moreover, along with the absence of Mediterranean figures in the discourse of the most important media outlets, our narrated reality is limited to tragic events. The Mediterranean is thus confined as an area of conflict while non-resolution of the tragedies taking place in our sea has a great symbolic dimension because, as Javier de Lucas explains, what have been shipwrecked in recent times are the migration and asylum policies and, therefore, also the values that are at the origin of the idea of Europe.

The Syrian war and attacks such as that of Barcelona have generated discourses and reflections on the processes of integration and radicalisation. But Wahhabism, the inspiring ideology of the Jihadists that commit terrorist attacks, emerged thousands of kilometres from the Mediterranean shores, in the Arabian Peninsula. Its presence, although frequent in our audiovisual media narrative, is not characteristic of our area. Confusion and capsizing are intermingled in a public and media discourse in which there are continuous references to Islam although the spiritual experience of most Mediterranean Muslims rejects this radicalism and even recalls that this reading goes against the principles of the Koran.

Faced with this diverse and complex situation in which the Mediterranean is placed, there is no other possible efficient action than strengthening and organising citizens. As Sami Nair argues, it is necessary to create the conditions for a true cultural debate between the two shores, because building a shared future is our only human solution. One enterprise is interculturalism, which Abdelmalik El Barkani defines as a way of managing the diversity that takes into account differences as positive elements, but without denying the possibility of conflict. The empowerment of Mediterranean civil society is crucial to row towards equity in a general geographic context of democratic deficit. It is not at all easy but the great work of organisations, particularly women’s, in a country such as Tunisia, for example, was fundamental in achieving what is considered the only successful experiment within the complicated Arab revolutions that began in 2011.

The Mediterranean, despite this inner exile that still impedes it from finding a uniqueness of power faced with its choral nature, is a unique space in world cartography; the place where three continents come together and where there are no physical distances that cannot be overcome; everything is relatively close, even the intense common past. Chirbes’ Mediterranean finally speaks of the images’ capacity of representation: “Again and again, this map has taken me from the private to the public and returned me to privacy. Over time, I have reached many places and have had the impression that all the journeys helped me to better read the original place. This is what this book is about. About the echoes and mirrors whose multiplying images have finally taken me back to myself.” 

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