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Europe's amnesia

I am writing this in Malta, a small island state in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, just south of Sicily. It is at the crossroads of the Mediterranean and so has had a key strategic role to play over the centuries. It is the historical home of the Knights of St John, who were central to the Crusades and has been occupied by, among others, the Romans, the Ottomans, the French and the British. With that sort of legacy the people of Malta should be used to seeing people from different backgrounds, but the legacy of government and education has been wary stares greeting the sight of my wife's and daughters' hijabs. With only a very small Muslim community and one mosque on the island, Muslims are almost an invisible presence.


The European tourists here, especially the Brits, are often plain hostile, with cocky laughs and snide remarks as we pass them around the hotel. The few friendly people are the exceptions that prove the rule. Again, education is partly to blame along with a largely populist media that panders to xenophobic whims. And yet, when we landed at Malta's only airport, the stewardess welcomed us to Malta with "Marhba"; the milk we pour into our cereal bowl is "halib"; the toast is made from "khubz"; the roads in the towns are "Triq" (tariq); the receptionist at the hotel counting some change arrived at "mil khamseen" (150). Yes, the local language is infused with Arabic. Even a local city known as "the Silent City" because no cars are allowed there, the old capital of Malta, is called "Mdina"; I don't need to explain where that one comes from. And, yes, the town of Sliema does mean "peace, comfort".

 

So what is it about Europeans that they cannot accept or acknowledge that their – my, our – culture has benefited from Arab-Muslim culture for centuries? Why feel threatened when approached by a culture that has already enriched European civilisation for centuries? If Britons have such distaste for "the Other", why do they travel abroad so much? Above all, why the arrogance that Europe is best and can only teach, not learn from, those Others?

In the Middle East, this collective amnesia and official hypocrisy manifests itself in the terminology used to report the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. Every time some Palestinians are killed by the Israelis, they are "militants"; Israelis shrug off any criticism of its brutal attacks on Gaza as a response to "terrorism". They are the masters of double-speak, Israel itself having been formed on the back of Zionist terrorism against the British and the Palestinians, and committing state terrorism against civilians for the past sixty-two years. "Terrorism" also dismisses the Palestinians' right enshrined in international laws and conventions to resist a brutal military occupation of their land.

The latest Israeli bomb attacks against Gaza were greeted by a spokeswoman from Britain's Foreign Office with, "We encourage Israelis and Palestinians to focus efforts on negotiation and to engage urgently in US-backed proximity talks." This makes a change from the more usual calls for "restraint" from both sides, as if we are talking about equally-armed combatants. The FCO knows more than most that this is absolute nonsense, when one side is so heavily armed that it can hit Palestinians targets at any time and place of its choosing – and does so with depressing frequency – while the other is a largely civilian population under siege for whom these talks are yet more pie in the sky supported by an international community that has the tools but neither the political will nor courage to bring the Israelis to heel. Did the French Resistance "focus efforts" on talks with the German occupiers? Of course not; its brave members resisted the occupation of their land. They have never been called "militants" for doing so; they have been and remain lauded as heroes, and rightly so. Have the Bielski Partisan group of Jews who fought back against the Nazis in Belarussia ever been referred to as "militants"? Of course not, and why should they? They stood up to tyranny and oppression.

Palestinians, however, have the misfortune of being occupied by the descendents of the victims of the same Nazi regime, some of them perhaps even descendents of the Bielski Partisans, and Europe is so fraught with guilt at what it allowed Hitler's odious regime to get away with that they are prepared to let the Palestinians pay any price for keeping the state of Israel happy. Crocodile tears about Israel's horrific assaults on civilian targets have lost their meaning; the Palestinians and increasing numbers of people around the world can see them for what they are. The European Union pays millions of Euros to the Palestinians and does little more than sigh when Israel destroys the facilities that Euro-aid has built, the same Israel that has preferred trading status with the EU. Where is the sense? And why don't the voters of Europe do something about it?

The answer lies in the collective amnesia about Arab-Muslim contributions to European culture and achievements. The antidote is education and it is fitting that London's Science Museum has had the most successful exhibition of its kind in "1001 Inventions", an examination of the everyday "Arab-Muslim" influence on Europe's way of life. Once people realise this, and acknowledge it as genuine and not some expensive public relations scam, they tend to be able to see beyond the headlines. They also tend not to be readers of the right-wing press in Britain and Europe, for whom "Moslems" (pronounced "Mozlemz") are manifestations of all that is wrong with this world; and for whom the Palestinians are obstacles to Zionist Israel's complete occupation of an Arab-free "Greater Israel" as a prelude to the apocalypse.

I hope to be hearing "Marhba to Malta" again, because we have as much right to visit Europe (and Malta is part of the EU) as anyone else. But as long as Europe persists in referring to its "Judeo-Christian" heritage while ignoring the Islamic foundation of Europe's Renaissance, biased reporting and political double-standards will continue to hinder genuine progress towards peace and justice in the Holy Land. "Triq il-Sliema" will remain an elusive goal.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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