Five years ago, in an article for Quaderns de la Mediterrània in 2015 entitled “New Perspectives for EuroMed Education: Cross-Cultural Education for Intercultural Citizenship”, I tried to reflect on education in relation to the Barcelona Process from my position as an Arab and Muslim woman scholar engaged in diversity and inclusive citizenship education, and from within the post-Arab-Spring and post-ISIS context my region was witnessing. Today, my reflection comes in the context of two worldwide phenomena, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the #Black_lives_matter movement’s resurgence with the murder of George Floyd. My reflection here does not delve into educational curricula per se but tries to bring to the forefront what, in my opinion, are supposed to be the foundations of and the crucial questions for both intercultural education and Euro-Med neighborhood policies today and for the years to come.
Who Is the Norm?
If the Covid-19 pandemic exposed inequalities, highlighting that marginalized communities throughout the world were more liable to get infected than more privileged ones, and showing that we, as humanity, were not in the same boat even though we were in the same storm, the murder of George Floyd, on May 25, 2020, and the resurgence of the #Black_lives_matter movement have created a wave of awareness throughout the world about privilege.
Voices are speaking out more loudly than ever, not only in the US but also in our Mediterranean region, about discrimination, racism and dehumanization. Whether in the Northern or Southern part of the Mediterranean, racism in mentalities, in perceptions and in behavior are being exposed, and social media platforms are allowing this expanded outcry. The way domestic workers and black(er) persons are treated in the Southern Mediterranean and the way some European countries have dealt with migrants and refugees, especially with those coming by sea, were clear examples of this discrimination.
What is interesting in the current outcry is that it is bringing about an understanding of the dynamics of privilege and its counterpart. People are realizing that even when laws give equal rights, the mentalities do not give equal value to people. What this boils down to is that the lives of some people seem to be given more weight than the lives of others. In other words, we revealed that in all our mentalities, and throughout our cultures, some people seem to have more value than others: and it is generally the white, the male, the higher in social standing, and the ones belonging to the culture or religion of the majority. They are seen to have more value because, on a subconscious level, these most privileged groups are considered to be the norm. Subsequently, the others, those who are not the norm, have less value.
A perception that started out in academic circles in decolonial studies has now become widespread in grassroots culture. In education, formal and non-formal, this awareness should prompt us to go beyond inclusion in our curricula of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, inclusivity and acceptance of diversity, and also beyond our efforts in countering stereotyping, prejudice and generalization. It prompts us to go deeper, to revisit history and to unearth remnants of imperialism in mentalities. Colonialism is not very far back in history, only half a century away, and it was built on cultural imperialism as a mindset. We cannot expect this mindset to simply vanish with the end of colonial practice as it was deeply engrained in mentalities for at least two centuries. In some Arab and Islamic mindsets, an Andalusian colonial pride still lingers more than 600 years later! Thus, we cannot expect a Eurocentric cultural imperialism to vanish in a few decades. We need to be conscious of it and face it, in both our educational curricula and in our policies. The #Black_lives_matter movement showed that all the work in advocacy and education on human rights, equal human dignity and valuing diversity should be complemented by a change in our mentalities and eschewing all forms of hegemony, imperialism, colonialism and the insidious belief that “we are the norm”.
The #Black_lives_matter movement showed that all the work in advocacy and education on human rights, equal human dignity and valuing diversity should be complemented by a change in our mentalities
No one is the norm: not the white, not the black; not the man, not the woman; not the European, not the Arab… This is what diversity truly teaches us, and this is what needs to be engrained in all our mindsets, wherever our place on the colonial/imperial spectrum is (oppressor, oppressed, or oppressed re-enacting the dynamics of the oppressor…).
What Is the Norm?
If no one is the norm, does this mean that there are no norms? That anything goes?
If the colonial mindset developed the notion of moral monism, i.e. “the view that only one way of life is fully human, true, or the best, and that all others are defective to the extent that they fall short of it”, decolonial theory and diversity studies have, in contrast, developed cultural relativism. Although cultural relativity is fundamental in its recognition of the value of each culture, of the richness it brings to the human civilization as a whole, and of the legitimacy of the various systems and ways of different cultures, a pitfall of cultural relativism is a relativization of values. In other words, there is a danger in considering that fundamental human values, these values highlighted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and subsequent United Nations declarations, are optional.
It is true that some people, many people even, in Southern Mediterranean countries still see the United Nations as a western organism promoting western values. Yet, I argue that the UDHR is representative of the values that all of humanity has reached after historical trials and errors, and I am proud that a Lebanese, Dr. Charles Malik, i.e. from the Southern Mediterranean, was on its drafting committee.
There is a danger in considering that fundamental human values, these values highlighted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and subsequent United Nations declarations, are optional
I argue thus that the UDHR and all subsequent declarations should be considered by all of us, regardless of our culture, philosophy or religion, as the norm, that we can constantly update and enrich with new findings and values from world sapiential heritage. In consequence, if some countries abstain from voting or signing treaties or declarations, or have reservations on some parts of them, we cannot directly acknowledge these abstentions or reservations, out of respect for cultural diversity; for in many of these cases, discrimination, domination and oppression are being perpetrated in the name of cultural specificities. Colonialism, or empire, is not only between cultures but also develops within one culture in the form of racism, sexism and other forms of non-respect for human rights and human dignity.
An example from my country are the reservations voiced by Lebanon on articles of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW): namely paragraph 2 of article 9 dealing with equality in matters of citizenship laws, and paragraphs (c), (d), (f) and (g) of article 16 dealing with equality in family law. The reasons behind these reservations are said to be political, cultural and religious specificities, yet what they boil down to is pure discrimination against women. Lebanese women, until today, cannot give Lebanese nationality to their nonLebanese spouses, nor can they give it to their children, for nationality in Lebanon is only given through men. Also, as there is no civil code for family law in Lebanon, but 15 different religious laws (Christian and Muslim), in these codes women do not have the same rights to enter or terminate a marriage as men, and do not have the same rights in the custody of their children, in flagrant opposition to article 16 of CEDAW. To protect this patriarchal mindset Lebanon voiced these reservations. Yet, Lebanese women and NGOs are constantly fighting against this discrimination and against these reservations about CEDAW that were issued in 1996 by an all-male Lebanese cabinet, and ratified by a parliament that was composed of 125 men and three women.
This example is given to highlight the imperative of not taking at face value such reservations, or positions that oppose values and principles that form the foundations of our humanity today, in the name of cultural relativism.
In our educational curricula and in our policies, we thus need to be mindful and try to maintain a balance between valuing diversity, on the one hand, and rejecting despotism and discrimination in the name of cultural diversity, on the other. And we need to reflect together, from both sides of the Mediterranean, on that balance, for the issue is not an easy one and involves many nuances and fine lines.
Owning Up to Our Past and Present Reality
Just as no one is the norm, the Mediterranean is no more important as a region than any other part of the world, even though someone decided – for a purely political and ideological reason – to put it in the middle of the world map. Yet one specificity of the Mediterranean is the long history of interaction between its two shores: an interaction of trade, where my Phoenician ancestors seem to have excelled, and an interaction of knowledge, but also an interaction of annexation, domination or colonialism, from both sides.
As history-telling is generally biased towards written history, in the history of interaction between both sides of the Mediterranean we tend to forget the Prehistoric, namely Neolithic chapter. This interaction is actually a form of cultural colonialism that happened around 6000 BC, when people from the Near East went to Europe with their already domesticated crops and animals, and spread their culture throughout the Northern shores of the Mediterranean.
Then, in Antiquity, it was the other way around, with Roman control of the Near East and North Africa. In the Middle Ages, it was both ways, with Arab Muslims taking over large parts of the Iberian Peninsula and European Crusaders taking over parts of the Near East. Then, in more recent times, European countries colonized the Near East and North Africa. I have included this brief and oversimplified historical overview to remind us that, on each side of the Mediterranean, one is not the sole “perpetrator” and the other the sole “victim”, as we were both victims of each other’s expansionist policies and ideologies; similarly, neither is entitled to have a superiority or inferiority complex, as each side had its share of “colonial glory”.
In our educational curricula and in our policies, we thus need to be mindful and try to maintain a balance between valuing diversity, on the one hand, and rejecting despotism and discrimination in the name of cultural diversity, on the other
We tend to read history only in relation to the most recent events and, in those, the Southern Mediterranean is the injured party. The South finds still itself in a position of inferiority vis-à-vis the North, and has mixed feelings towards it: on the one hand, it respects what the North did with itself after World War II, and how Europe became the beacon of values for the world, values such as liberty, equality and human dignity. On the other hand, the South looks suspiciously at the interference of the North in its affairs, not only in view of the recent history of colonization, but in view of the role some European countries have played in current MENA conflicts, their arms deals, and their reasons for entering a conflict or not, which do not seem to be values-based reasons, but more economic-interest reasons. The South also denounces the double standards in some European policies, standards that reflect the “we are the norm” mentality. Yet the South does not mind receiving financial aid from the North, especially since the North now has more resources than the South, and that actually most resources of the South were “stolen by colonial powers”. Thus, the South envisions the funds it receives from the North today as a form of restorative justice, even though no one publicly puts it this way.
The South envisions the funds it receives from the North today as a form of restorative justice, even though no one publicly puts it this way
These dynamics need to be reflected in our educational curricula. We cannot expect students or learners to acquire the values of respecting diversity while remaining at the surface of history. We need to delve into it, own up to it, to its dynamics, to what it has generated and to how it affects our reading of current reality.
Twenty-five years after the launch of the Barcelona Process, we have taken a good number of steps. What is needed today is to take a few more steps. To do that, we need to acknowledge the dark sides of our reality and the dynamics of our relations, past and present, and we need to commit to the values that we have all agreed upon, for those provide our most sacred compass. Because of its history of constant interaction, the Mediterranean can be a model for other parts of the world, provided it owns up to this role and commits, in both its Northern and Southern parts, to the same standards in values and norms.