Interview: Recalibrating values in Libya, Arab world

EGIC President Dr Mitchell Belfer

ROME - The Euro-Gulf Information Centre began their historical lecture series this month with a talk on the Italian scholar of Libyan history, Leone Caetani, by Dr Benedict Koehler, which explored the dazzling insights of this giant of Islamic scholarship in the West from over 100 years ago, The Italian Insider spoke to the EGIC President, Dr Mitchell Belfer, about modern Italian Libyan relations and how the history of imperialism and the imposition of rationalism should affect the way we view the two Mediterranean countries today:


 Q How do you think the history between Italy and Libya effects the integration of immigrants today?


 Firstly, here in Rome there is an organisation we’ve actually been in touch with, the expatriate Libyan community of Italian Libyans, who have been forced to come back after (former Libyan leader Col. Moammar) Gadhafi came to power, and lost all their assets. They are very keen to reclaim those assets and they are pushing the Italian government to cease deals with Libya or Libyans until their assets are returned. It is not going to happen and I actually don’t think it effects the majority of Italians, or even Romans, but I think there’s deep history and perhaps it is important to contextualise that Italy requires a strong and stable Libya. I don’t think they want to treat the symptoms of systemic problems within Libya, they’d rather deal with the root problem at its core and maybe prevent state failure there which would ultimately destabilise Italy, as we have seen in the migrant flow. Because its not only Libyans coming over, Libya is a gateway, and because of that I think there is a vested interest, as there was historically, to try and stabilise Libya.


 Q How important do you think the respect of local cultures factors into the relationship between the two countries?


 I don’t think its about necessarily trying to respect their local culture and what not. Italy just has to deal with its own national interests, and, in fact, now Italian national interests are the same as European national interests in general, in the plural sense, because to have this unaccounted, and unaccountable, flow of migrants is destabilising Europe, is causing a polarisation here. I really think that Italy needs to continue on the path that it has been on, which is not necessarily following Europe, and encouraging a dialogue between the stronger factions and actors within Libya. They’re going to plug the holes and in the process stabilize Libya and produce benefits for Europe in the end. So a stable Libya, whether done by Italy or the EU, is going to produce benefits for everyone.


 Q How can the West interact with the East in a mutually beneficial way?


 My personal opinion on some conflicts, like the one that we see in Libya, is that in pursuit of your national interests you should let the local actors sort out their affairs. I think our only role should be ensuring genocides and ethnic cleansing doesn’t take place. Also ensuring not to empower one actor, they have their own processes, and until they go through that process of creating a hierarchy and some semblance of stability, we are going to have situations that repeat themselves in which the locals have no ownership over the state. If you want them to have ownership then you have to let them go through the longer process of state development and that requires less involvement, only going in to ensure that spillover doesn’t get into Europe -- generally though not to empower one or the other, because then a group is going to be disenfranchised and you’ll have to go through the same cycle again.


 Q Do you think elements of Western rationalism can enter Islamic societies without being rejected?


 Yes, definitely. I think that generally Libyans, especially under the Gadhafi regime, were very educated, and it is through education that people recognise what individual interests are. I don’t think there’s some deep mystery to Western individualism being a reflection of individual interests -- pursuing the career path you want to, choosing the partners you want to, developing yourself economically in an environment that is relatively free of pressure from above. I think that, much as in Libya as the rest of the Arab world, we are experiencing a re-calibration of values relating to individual interests and an abandonment of the larger collective, the pan Arabism, the pan Islamism, and finally now you’re getting national interests that are the collective reflection of individual interests, a shareholder society.  


 Q Doesn’t the shift from pan-Arabic identity to nationalism and individualism undermine the idea that its simply the West that is acid washing local cultures?


 I don’t think so, I think the talk that we had was especially focussed on territoriality and I don’t think we’re referring to territoriality in that way but rather in terms of a spiritual reawakening. I think there are universal truths for which it doesn’t matter if you’re from Arabia or Europe, you’re going to share in -- freedom to choose your belief, freedom to choose the direction of your life. That doesn’t necessarily have to be territorial. I think the talk we had about the territorialism of Europe and the East is one part of a larger debate. I think for individuals that the concept of individualism is important across the board.


 Q Is it time to view migrants as following the pursuit of their individual will as opposed to just being part of a mass movement from the east to the west?


 The preservation of human life is certainly the most important thing but the migrant crisis today is not just about that, its also about … Let’s put it like this, on the one hand there is a universal ethic but on the other hand there are realities that people have to face. Not everyone has the same access, not everyone has the same capabilities. People may be aiming for the same thing but not everyone is going to be able to reach it. It is a terrible tragedy that we have 60 million people who would gladly come over to Europe for work, to participate in the European society, because life expectancy is higher, its safer, there’s no war. So it is not just the few million in North Africa, it’s the whole Middle East, Africa, Northern in to sub-Saharan Africa, there are just 60 million people, in estimation, that would come over and not all of them would be able to. You would have to measure one set of interests against another and just because Africans want to come to Europe, that doesn’t mean that Europeans feel they can integrate all of them, there simply is no way to integrate 60 million people.


  Q If there is this divide between the east and the west and 60 million want to come into Europe, hasn’t the eastern model of society been shown to fall short?


 To be honest, I don’t believe in the East West distinction, it's all just a fiction. And if you look at the big picture, Europeans have also been migrants, not just accepting migrants. Central Europeans fled to Western Europe under Communism, Western Europeans fled from the Nazis to north Africa, to America. I think it is important we don’t have these  kinds of East West distinctions. I think Dr. Koehler’s talk was a much better understanding of the cultural ties between the north and south Mediterranean while not being reflective of East and West as most people would like to look at it. There is something very particular to the Mediterranean world versus, for instance, east Asia, the indo-Pakistani frontiers, or Afghanistan. It is important to contextualise each one of the chapters we’ve been looking at. That is what I liked about the discussion, that he compartmentalised the topics, he didn’t just give the broad strokes of this mystical Islamic world and this mythical western world, Europe -- it is important, it is refreshing.