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Palermo: a historical host

Report on the 28th Congress of the Union Européenne des Arabisants et Islamisants (union of European Arabists and Isalmists (Special interfiath edition issue 65 March 2019)

Originally published on Issue 40, October 2016

The biannual academic conferences of the Union Européenne des Arabisants et Islamisants (UEAI) on the theme e-defining a Space of Encounter – Islam & the Mediterranean; Identity, alterity and interactions’, was held between the 12th and 15th of September in Palermo Italy. The event was organised by the UEAI and the University of Palermo and sponsored by the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Sicily Region and the City of Palermo.  Founded in 1962, the Union Européenne des Arabisants et Islamisants is the most prestigious association of European Arabists and Islamicists with over 300 senior scholars of Arabic and Islamic studies representing most European nations.
In this year’s congress, 120 scholars from all parts of Europe presented papers over a period of five days. The work of the conference started with an inaugural session held in the Great Hall of the Palazzo Steri with welcoming speeches by Prof. Fabrizio Micari, Rector of the University of Palermo,  Prof. Leonardo Samonà, Director of the Departmentof Humanities, Prof. Antonino Pellitteri, University of Palermo, Prof. Leoluca Orlando, Mayor of Palermo, Prof. Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila, President of the UEAI.

The opening lectures were delivered by: Prof. Mohammad Ali Shomali (Director of Islamic Centre of England – London) , Prof. Mohamed Hassen (Faculté des Sciences Humaines et Sociales, Université de Tunis) and Prof. Antonino Buttitta (University of Palermo).

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Both academic and political personalities spoke about the significance of having this congress in Sicily – Palermo is a region with a rich history formed by layers of cultural experiences, a result of the variety of people that have conquered and settled in it.

From the various discourses it was clear that the inhabitants of this land proudly recognise and celebrate the history of this land and its people have much in common with the people of the African side of the Mediterranean. In fact from 827 to 1061, Sicily was under Arab rule. They had taken it from the Greek Byzantines. Arab Islamic rule of the island represents a period of enlightenment in which cultural, social and economic reforms had a profound and long-lasting impact. Arab rule in Sicily passed through three North African dynasties: the Aghlabids, the Fatimids, whose power base was in Cairo, and then the Kalbids. In 948 Hassan al-Kalbi declared himself Emir of Sicily, but he was challenged by rival “emirates” which emerged on the same island. Eventually the island was divided into three administrative districts, whose names survive still today: Val di Mazara, Val di Noto and Val di Demone. By becoming part of the Islamic world Sicily joined the most advanced civilisation of its time and benefitted enormously. New agricultural techniques were introduced which gave birth to new crops such as almonds, aniseed, apricots, artichokes, cinnamon, oranges, pistachio, pomegranates, saffron, sesame, spinach, sugarcane, and watermelon.  Eventually after nearly 200 years of Islamic rule new conquerors descended upon this reach and fertile land. These were the Normans, the same people that conquered England.

The Normans were quite appreciative of superior civilisation and admired the rich and layered culture in which they found themselves, taking on the attributes of Muslim rulers in dress, language and literature. Soon the court of Roger II became the most luminous centre of culture in the Mediterranean, attracting scholars, scientists, poets, artists and artisans of all kinds. In Arab-Norman Sicily laws were issued in the language of the community to whom they were addressed:  governance was based on the  rule of law so there was justice. Muslims, Jews, Byzantine Greeks and Latin Normans worked together to form a society that created some of the most extraordinary buildings the world has ever seen.  Indeed, for a brief period of history Arab-Islamic-Norman Sicily was the most civilised place in the western world. This cohabitation however come to an end when the Normans were superseded by the Hohenstaufens and there began a deliberate policy of genocide against the Muslims and the Jews which made the high culture of the past a recent memory.  It is memory with which the participant and organisers of the 28th Congress of the Union Européenne des Arabisants et Islamisants are fully cognizant. It is in this spirit that the objective of the congress has been to initiate and facilitate a better understanding of the Arabo-Islamic culture of the Mediterranean not only in field of academia but also at a social level with cultural exchanges via the work of universities and the involvement of organisations and institutions outside of the athenaeum.

In this respect the organisers of the congress in cooperation with Department of the Region of Sicily and the office of Mayor of Palermo arranged a workshop in one of the many historical palaces of Palermo ‘Palazzo Cefala’, by the title “Besides the tunnel. The role of Universities and Culture.”  

The members of the panel were: Dr Sebastian Guenther, (University of Goettingen and vice president of UEAI), Dr Adham Darawsha (Consulta of Culture),  Prof. Georges Dorlian (University of Balamand – Lebanon),  Prof. Mohamed Edweb (University of Tripoli),  Prof. Mohamed Hassen ( Faculté des Sciences Humaines et Sociales – Tunis) Prof. Antonino Pellitteri (University of Palermo),  and Palermo councillor  Giusto Catania.

The discussion centred on the importance of culture and how the universities can work or contribute in this area. The role of the student appears to be fundamental through programmes of exchanges with universities across the Mediterranean area in order to  help further understand  each other’s cultures. The panellists expressed regret that at present these exchanges are not taking place because of the current upheavals in Arab and Muslim countries of the region.

It was in this context that Dr Shomali set the tone of his speech in his inaugural address to the participants of the congress. He underlined the importance of one’s identity and of understanding our own position in relation to the ‘other’,  not in an exclusivist and distancing way but an inclusive and connecting one. He further stressed that creating an identity based on fear and exclusion does not work in the world we are living in now.

If we reflect on how religions, cultures and traditions have developed we will realise that there has always been a central question and that is how to keep the adherents of one’s faith and how to convince them that by remaining on ‘the inside’ of the circle of a particular religion, tradition or culture they would be better off. This is very much related to issue of identity, understanding your position in relation to other people. Unfortunately, and I don’t think any religion is exempt from it, to demonstrate this is to distance ourselves from others. So it means instead of being more constructive and productive in saying what we are, we focus on saying or demonstrating what we are not.

For example if I am a leader Muslim, Christian or Jewish, and I am trying to keep my community together to make sure they do not deviate from the path, I may say, if you stay with us you will go to heaven and if you go to others you will go to hell.

This is a kind of identity which is based on fear and based on exclusion. This type of thinking will not work in the world we are living today (Read full text of Shomali’s lecture on page…)

The initiatives of the Mayor of Palermo with regard to facilitating the settling of people of other cultures and religions in the city of Palermo are significant. Acknowledging the role and contribution that they make to the city the Mayor set up a body made up of representatives of various ethnic communities that will represent their voices and is  directly connected to the office of the Mayor. The body is officially known as the Consulta of Cultures. The Consulta is supposed to represent all those who have a non-Italian nationality or who have acquired Italian citizenship. This is a consultative organ that will advise local politicians on administrative and political decisions that affect their lives.

During the closing remarks of the 28th congress of the UEAI Professor Pellitteri explained how it has been the intention of the scientific committee of the congress to involve various sections of the city rather than only the university.  Dr Pellitteri thanked all the participants and organisers giving a special thank to all students who volunteered to help in the day to day running of the congress. Their involvement underscores how ultimately they must be the beneficiaries of all this work.

Islam Today issue 65 (Special Issue) is dedicated to the interfaith work undertaken by the Islamic Centre of England over the past few years. Download the full pdf here:

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