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Migration and Racism: A Southern European Perspective

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The Mediterranean has become a hotbed of human trafficking and carnage resulting from desperate attempts by people from Africa and most particularly sub-Saharan and North Africa to flee famine, civil wars and trade their belongings to trust their luck in crossing over to Europe in pursuit of a better life. Migration has, however, been a constant characteristic of this region of the world which has constantly raised a series of issues concerning cultural hybridization and the way different people are represented, as well as different forms of racism based on cultural and historical ignorance. A number of these issues are addressed by Peter Mayo in a forthcoming book Politics of Indignation. Imperialism, Postcolonial Disruptions and Social Change (Zer0 Books/John Hunt Publishers, 2012). This is an edited excerpt from a chapter in this book.

Migration has always been an important feature of the Mediterranean. For centuries, according to Ferdinand Braudel, to live in the Mediterranean was to engage in exchange – the longue durée. In this day and age, however, the exchange takes on a different form. In terms of mobility of personnel, occurring ‘on a scale never seen before in history,’1 the exchange does not occur on a level playing field. The movement has, for the most part, been unidirectional, a movement from the South of the Mediterranean towards the North.

Moreover, as Slavoj Žižek argues, ‘in the much-celebrated free circulation opened up by global capitalism, it is “things” (commodities) which circulate freely, while the circulation of “persons” is more and more controlled’2. The movement has been from North Africa towards Europe and more recently from Sub-Saharan Africa, through North Africa towards Europe. Needless to say, migrants suffer immense hardships in the process, often selling their belongings. Travelling via Libya, their life is in jeopardy since they are often mistaken for mercenaries (several people still have access to weapons) recruited from Sub-Saharan Africa by the deposed regime to quell and quash the rebellion.

Those who travel – and many have been doing this for years, well before the uprising in Libya – are often placed on rickety boats. It is alleged that they could be forced to swim when danger in the form of advancing patrol boats is sensed or when land is in sight. Drowning occurs frequently, suffice to mention that in 2011 no less than 1500 people lost their lives when crossing over from North Africa in an attempt to reach Southern Europe. Between July and September 2006, just to provide an idea of the tragedies’ scale, no less than 8849 clandestine immigrants landed in Italy. 168 were discovered dead while 144 were dispersed.

The Spanish newspaper El Pais reported that 490 bodies of immigrants were recovered from the African and Spanish shores. The same newspaper reports that the Red Cross and Mezzaluna Rossa believe that the number of clandestine migrants who have disappeared amounts to between 2000 and 3000. 3

There are many reasons for their departure from their homeland: common reasons would include civil wars fuelled by an arms industry and exacerbation of tribal conflicts often resulting in rape and being disowned by family, the attempt among women to avoid female genital mutilation, the negative effects on African farming of subsidies provided to farmers in other continents, the negative effects of climate change, an impoverished environment (the ransacking of Africa) and a colonial ideology which presents the West as the Eldorado and a context for the ‘good life,’ structural adjustment programs, the quest for better employment opportunities … and one can go on, perhaps falling prey to western stereotypes and constructions of ‘Africa’. There is however one major global reason, as provided by David Bacon with regard to the US and Mexico, namely the quest for low cost labor by corporations and other businesses alike which serves as a ‘push and pull factor.’ As he argues, hegemonic globalization necessitates migration, but it is the same victims of this process who are rendered illegal and criminalized as a result, often victims of the ‘carceral state.’ 4.

Difference and identity

With regard to immigrants from North Africa and other parts of the Arab world, where unemployment is excessively high and has been the cause of uprisings, it is quite common, in Europe and elsewhere, to refer to immigrants from these areas as simply ‘Arab.’ They are therefore represented as ‘unitary subjects.’ The differences in their subjectivities are underwritten – Muslim or Christian,5. Tunisian, Libyan, Moroccan, Algerian etc. – not to mention also the distinction between Arab and Berber etc. In so doing, we also tend to underwrite the intersections between their ethnicity and other subjectivities (class, gender, urban/rural…)

The situation concerning identity can be quite complex, as indicated by Ahmed Moatassime with respect to the Maghreb where numerous contrasting and contradictory identities cross each other’s paths: Berber, Arab and francophone identities.6 Predrag Matvejevic drew a distinction between identity of being and identity of doing, the latter involving what Carlos Alberto Torres would regard as the opening up of ‘areas of negotiation in the context of progressive alliances based on multiple identities and learning communities.’7.

Unequal Multi-Ethnic Relations: Colonialism Transposed

Against this scenario, we continue to witness (an ongoing process) the transformation of Mediterranean cities. The population in these cities is increasingly becoming cosmopolitan, in view of the influx of migrants. The global exists alongside the local in a situation of hybridity which has led to what is currently being described as the ‘multicultural city’. In certain Southern European cities and towns, the cupolas of churches which, for centuries, have been perceived as bulwarks of Christendom against Islam, now co-exist alongside minarets. This co-existence of architectural symbols of the different monotheistic religions, that have been the subject of much conflict in the past, is becoming an important feature of the skyline of many a Southern European city. Although one can always argue that they have historically been so in certain Spanish cities where minarets serve as bell towers, La Girandola in Seville being the most prominent, and mosques are turned into cathedrals such as La Mezquita de Córdoba (now the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción).

Within this cultural hybridity, a characteristic of several Mediterranean cities, one can easily encounter the tensions which have characterized the region for centuries, exacerbated by the global media in the aftermath of the second 9/11. The phenomenon of multi-ethnicity poses important challenges for education in the Mediterranean as educational policy makers and educators, hopefully aware of the fact that education is not an independent variable (it cannot change things on its own) and should not be romanticized, seek to educate for greater conviviality, a conviviality hopefully predicated on the principle of solidarity rather than on the condescending concept of ‘tolerance’.

With respect to Southern Europe, the theme of ‘multiculturalism’ has been gaining prominence, with conferences and projects on the subject abounding in a number of Latin Arc countries. Much of the discourse is however related to questions of race and ethnicity. One must also bear in mind that the relations between ethnic groups are unequal ones, reflecting a non-equitable distribution of resources. It is this which should induce us to avoid a very facile discourse concerning intercultural dialogue or education since, as Handel Kashope Wright argues, this often avoids the fundamental question, a critical pedagogical question: who dialogues with whom and from which position? 8.

And this immediately brings to mind a very important feature of the Mediterranean – the scars of Northern colonialism and their effect on people’s subjectivities.

These scars are felt in many countries of the Mediterranean. They are often also reflected in those countries, in the North Mediterranean, which are recipients of migrants from southern areas. The idea of post-colonialism, the term used here in a manner which accounts for processes of domination, which have their origin in European colonization, but which extend beyond the period of direct colonization to take on new forms, is something which is relevant not only to the immigrants’ country of origin but also to the receiving country.

Language in a postcolonial context

With the influx, in Southern Europe, of people coming from the Southern Mediterranean, one can expect to find this reality in a number of countries in the region. A key issue in such a colonial or postcolonial context concerns language. In genuinely multiethnic settings, one comes across situations when children receive an education in both the adopted language and the language of origin, a situation which prevailed in the USA and which drew reaction from the ultra right ‘English only’ movement and more recently the Tea Party. It is a situation which is being undermined by a number of moves and propositions.9.

This has implications also for the teaching of literacy, be it early literacy or adult literacy. Illiteracy is a key feature of education among Southern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern states.10. John Daniel, former UNESCO Assistant Director General for Education, states unequivocally that ‘the Arab region has some of the world’s lowest adult literacy rates, with only 62.2% of the region’s population of 15 and over able to read and write in 2000-2004, well below the world average of [84%] and the developing countries’ average of 76.4%.’11.

One wonders to what extent lack of literacy also in the mother tongue constitutes a feature of immigrants from these areas and whether bilingualism should constitute a feature of a progressive literacy education in the receiving country. This is a form of cultural hybridity, if you will, which reflects the cultural hybridity which has always been a feature of postcolonial societies (e.g. the learning of Maltese and English in Malta or Arabic and French in Tunisia, with code switching between the two languages – colonizer’s and colonized – occurring in many contexts). Antonia Darder has written extensively on the need for a bicultural education with regard to people living a bicultural existence, drawing on her own experience as a Puerto-Rican who had to move out of her territory towards California as a result of ‘operation bootstrap.’12. Her writings and advocacy in this regard have greater resonance and apply to not only Hispanics in the USA, but also to migrants settling in Southern Europe and elsewhere.

Learning to be effectively bilingual is part and parcel of a postcolonial education in that it enables one to retain a strong connection with one’s ethnic roots, a key feature of one’s multiple subjectivities, and at the same time ensures that one learns the dominant language if only not to remain at the periphery of political life. Confronting the colonial by entrenching oneself in the traditional subaltern colonized culture often results in ghettoization. The alternative to this is, of course, assimilation.

Assimilation is therefore characterized by a forsaking of one’s ethnic roots and one’s contribution to the bolstering of a Eurocentric colonial structure of oppression. The ability of people to operate skillfully in their two cultures can be perceived as a source of enrichment of their ethnic culture, in that it does not remain stagnant, but proves to be organic, and of the larger society in general.

Decolonizing the Mind?

There is a larger issue with which to contend in such a postcolonial context, one to be faced in both countries that receive migrants and their countries of origin. It is the issue of ‘decolonizing the mind,’ to use a phrase associated with Frantz Fanon and Ngugi Wa Thong’o.13. This is one of the great challenges for education in the Mediterranean – providing learning situations which enable participants to decolonize the mind. It should be an education which is based on a problematization of Eurocentric knowledge with its colonizing foundation.

It should also be an education which valorizes, without romanticizing, the different cultures of the different groups that form the multi-ethnic society. A critical approach to multi-ethnic and antiracist education should allow participants to cross their mental and cultural borders, to use a phrase so dear to Henry Giroux. 14.

Crossing borders would, in this context, entail that one begins to understand something about the culture of others, religion included. Needless to say, a critical multi-ethnic education, as part of a larger multicultural education predicated on the valorization of difference and identity, involves a process of democratization of the entire educational system in terms of curricula, texts and the entire pedagogical process. The curriculum is a selection from the cultures of society. It would be pertinent to ask: In whose interest is the selection being made? These questions would be posed in any society in terms of the social differences involved – gender, class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, religious affiliation etc. These questions will be posed with greater vehemence the more socially differentiated and secular a society becomes.

As far as the issue of cultural contestation is concerned, one must, of course, recognize the complexity of the region in this context. At the risk of reproducing a ‘colonial’ argument, I would submit that, for all their subtle and not-so-subtle forms of discrimination (often institutionalized forms of discrimination), there are countries in the Mediterranean, particularly those around its Northern shores, which offer greater ‘spaces’ than others in this regard. It is more likely that one discovers greater opportunities for the affirmation of different cultures in settings which are characterized by a spirit of secularization than in settings wherein, for instance, a particular religious culture is hegemonic (e.g. Catholicism in Malta, Islam in a number of Arab countries and elsewhere, the Greek Orthodox religion in Greece).

There are cases where it can be argued that the presence of a secular state does not signify a spirit of secularization in the country or certain regions. Turkey strikes me as a case in point with respect to the last mentioned.

In non-secularized contexts, there are severe limits to the degree of multicultural democracy, as conceived of in this article, which can occur. Not that discrimination, in the form of racism, homophobia and sexism, is a feature of only non-secularized contexts; it exists everywhere. It is common knowledge, however, that certain countries of the Mediterranean lag behind others regarding the acquisition, by traditionally marginalized groups, of what would generally be regarded, in other countries of the region and elsewhere, as ‘taken for granted’ rights. The Arab uprisings of the past year can be regarded as, apart from a quest for a greater share of the economic pie (the book discusses this in Chapter 10) , a struggle for the affirmation and achievement of such rights and civil liberties. Many people have placed their bodies on the line in these countries, giving up their ‘today’ so that the rest of the country hopefully live a better ‘tomorrow’ characterized by some of the liberties enjoyed in Western contexts, even though there are also those fighting battles with an unmistakably religious purpose, and possibly a fundamentalist religious purpose, in mind. And recent actions by the armed forces in Egypt do not augur well in this regard.

Politics of Representation

The various situations of conflict which characterize this region, and which can cause tension in multi-ethnic societies, render comparative studies in different areas, including comparative religions, very pertinent. Studies such as these which can take different forms, depending on the level, can help foster greater understanding. Many of the Southern European regions of the Mediterranean have traditionally been steeped in the Christian religion, mainly Catholic and also Greek Orthodox. It is imperative, in a truly multi-ethnic environment, that knowledge of the different religions is provided in schools and in other educational sites.

There is always the danger, however, of providing a caricature. The complexity of the situations can easily be ignored, with religions being represented in simplistic terms and possibly distorted. The representation of different religions should therefore be approached with the utmost seriousness and best preparation possible, with special emphasis being placed on the teacher or media worker doing justice to the different religions involved.

Misconceptions regarding Islam abound in the Western world. Countries in Southern Europe, which are recipients of immigrants from Arab countries and Muslims from Sub-Saharan African countries such as Somalia, are no exception. One of the greatest misconceptions regarding Islam is its strong identification, in the minds of many, with the Arab world. In effect, the Arab world is characterized by difference also in terms of religious denomination, while Islam is a truly international religion. Islam knows no geographical, racial and ethnic boundaries.

For instance, this religious affiliation is prevalent among the many Somalis who cross the Mediterranean and settle in Southern European countries. It is common to find distortions of religions in many school texts, as Mahmoud Elsheikh so clearly points out with regard to the way Islam is presented in Italian manuals. Some of the distortions are as serious as that of attributing the words of the Qu’ran to Mohammed rather than to God (the Koran as the object of revelation) and of producing representations, in miniature, of the Prophet when it should be common knowledge that representations of Mohammed and God are not allowed by the Qu’ran. 15.

With regard to societies in the northern part of the Mediterranean, a postcolonial education would entail a critical engagement with a cultural heritage that reflects a colonial past, as in centres of colonial power such as Spain and Portugal, and a past marked by crusades against the Ottoman Empire. The focus here would be on the politics of representation that underlies this heritage. Exotic and often demonic representations of ‘alterity’ abound throughout this cultural heritage, be it the colonized indigenous populations of the Americas or the ‘Saracen,’ the
latter constituting the traditional ‘Other’ in relation to whom ‘Christian Europe’ was constructed.

We often barely recognize that the silver and gold that adorn much of the relics in our churches and palaces were extracted at the expense of human lives, the extermination of indigenous lives and those of others, in Latin America and elsewhere. Human tragedy, in the form of genocide and rapacious colonial greed, lies behind the veneer of those ‘things’ judged as resplendent, ‘things of beauty’ perceived as a ‘joy forever.’16. And all this is based on the tragedy that results from otherising, positioning those who are different as “other,” tragedies which continue to occur today whether in the killing fields of Amazonia or the Mediterranean sea with its floating migrant bodies. The ‘other’ becomes the subject of a particular kind of construction, a form of Orientalism in Edward Said’s sense of the term. It is a demonization reminiscent of the French imperial construction of the Algerian and other colonial subjects, based on a false scientism, exposed by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth.17.

Even authors of canonical works in the receiving country are guilty in this regard and have been severely criticized by Mahmoud Elsheikh on these grounds. Exponents of Italian humanism, including one of its major figures, Petrarch, denigrated the Arab culture, considering it as ushering in a barbarian period which was responsible for the adulteration of the ideal of Greco-Roman antiquity. Dante Alighieri is not spared any of these criticisms, especially for the manner in which Mohammed is portrayed in the Divina Commedia, with the great Florentine poet guilty of reproducing distortions generated by popular accounts in the West. A notorious painting in Bologna’s San Petronio church captures one such scene from Dante. And this despite the fact that Dante, like other medieval European poets, owes much to Islam in the development of his work, a point registered by Spanish scholars such as Miguel Asin Palacios, while scholars such as Angel Gonzales Palencia highlighted Arab contributions to cuisine and other aspects of life.18.

Indeed much of the celebrated domains of study and the institutions which promoted them owe a lot to the Arab and, one should add, Iranian cultures, be it literature (and here one can also include pre-Islamic poetry), science, mathematics, medicine and philosophy. The same applies to those hallowed centres of learning that are the universities; the oldest of those that are extant is to be found in an Arab context. As far as Islam goes, Le Thanh Khoi indicates how the oldest universities in Europe have been influenced by this religion, and states that the teaching of medicine at Salerno was supported by the school of Kairuan while the University of Bologna and others adopted certain forms of Muslim teaching , such as the art of argumentation and the dialectic, and the ijaza, the ‘authorization to teach’ (or ‘license to teach’).19.

The Mediterranean which contributed to the formation of Europe is not just the Greco-Roman Mediterranean, but a much larger region which includes its North African shores. There was a time when the demarcation between North and South was blurred or non-existent, certainly during the time of the Golden age of Islamic culture, the age of Ibn’Rushd (Averroes), with Cordoba being the centre. The contribution did not simply consist of the Arab world, and more specifically the world of Islam, serving, for centuries, as the ‘Other.’ It consists also of
substantial contributions to many important areas, as outlined above. Referring to what he calls the ‘debtor’s syndrome’, Elsheikh states forcefully:

… the person to whom one is indebted is constantly a hated
person; particularly if the creditor, as in this case, is a strange body, rejected by the collective consciousness, hated by the political, social, cultural and religious institutions. If anything, the rage against the creditor, in these circumstances, becomes an almost moral duty and a necessary condition for the survival of that society.20

A similar politics of representation characterizes the realm of popular culture in the Southern European – or Northern Mediterranean – region, with the Sicilian marionette shows, involving Crusaders and the Predator (often the Saracen ‘Other’), being a case in point. In introducing immigrants to popular culture, one ought to be wary of its contradictions. It often contains elements which constitute a denigration of aspects of the immigrants’ own culture.


1. El Saadawi (1997), The Nawal El Saadawi Reader, London and New York, Zed Books, p. 122.

2. Slavoj Žižek (2004), Iraq – The Borrowed Kettle, London: Verso, p. 34.

3. Sources: Jack Shenker, ‘Migrants left to die after catalogue of failures, says report into boat tragedy. Council of Europe investigator says deaths of migrants adrift in Mediterranean exposes double standards in valuing human life’, The Guardian, 28 March, 2012; ANSA, Madrid 28 August, 2006; indebted to Melita Cristaldi for this information.

4. See David Bacon (2008) Illegal People. How Globalization creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.

5. Shaykh ‘Abd al Wahid Pallavicini (1998) ‘Identita` e Differenze’ (Identity and Differences), paper presented at the international conference, “Il Mare che Unisce. Scuola, Europa e Mediterraneo’ (The Sea that Unites. School, Europe and the Mediterranean), Sestri Levante, Italy, 22-24 October,

6. Ahmed Moatassime (2000),’Mediterraneo fra plurilinguismo e pluriculturalita`’ (The Mediterranean. Between Linguistic pluralism and Cultural Pluralism) in Giovanni Pampanini (ed) Un Mare di Opportunita`. Cultura e Educazione nel Mediterraneo del lll Millenio (A Sea of Opportunity. Culture and Education in the Mediterranean in the lll Millenium), Rome, Armando Editore, p. 113.

7. Carlos Alberto Torres (1998) op.cit p. 254.

8. Wright, H. K. (2009) Handel Kashope Wright talks to the project about Interculturalism vs Multiculturalism, Youth in Canada, USA and Europe, his relationship with project founder, Joe Kincheloe and critical pedagogy’s influence on his own work. Webcast, University of British Columbia, June 10, Montreal: The Paulo & Nita Freire International Project for Critical Pedagogy, McGill University.

9. Antonia Darder (2011) A Dissident Voice, New York: Peter Lang; Antonia Darder (2011) Culture and Power in the Classroom (20th anniversary edition), Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm.

10. Peter Mayo (2005) ‘ Adult Education in the Mediterranean’and Shahrzad Mojab (2005) ‘Adult Education in the Middle East’ in Leona English (Ed.), The International Encyclopedia of Adult Education New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave- Macmillan; See also GRALE Report, Confintea V1, Hamburg: Unesco.

11. John Daniel (2005) Education for All in the Arab World, Unesco, 25th January, p. 6 Quoted by Hassan R. Hammoud ( 2006 ), Adult Illiteracy in the Arab World’ in Adult Education and Development, No. 66.

12. See Antonia Darder’s interview with Carmel Borg and myself in A Dissident Voice and in Carmel Borg and Peter Mayo (2007), Public Intellectuals, Radical Democracy and Social Movements. A Book of Interviews, New York and Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

13. Ngugi Wa Thiong’O (1986), Decolonising the Mind. The Politics of Language in African Literature, Portsmouth: Heinemann; London: James Currey; Nairobi: EAEP.

14. Henry A Giroux (1992) Border Crossings Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education, New York, Routledge.

15. Mahmoud Elsheikh (1999), ‘Le omissioni della cultural italiana’ (the omissions of Italian culture) in L’Islam nella Scuola (Islam in schools), Innocenzo Siggillino (ed.), Editore Franco Angeli, pp. 30-45. p. 47.

16. See Edoardo Galeano (2009). Open Veins of Latin America. London: Serpent’s Tail.

17. Frantz Fanon (1963), The Wretched of the Earth, New York, Grove Press Inc., p. 296. For a discussion on the issue of Scientism and racism, see Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo (2000), ‘Scientism as a form of racism’ in Stan Steiner, Mark Krank, Peter McLaren and Robert Bahruth (eds.), Freirean Pedagogy, Praxis and Possibilities. Projects for the New Millenium, New York: Falmer Press.

18. Mahmoud Salem Elsheikh, op.cit., p. 38. See also Gramsci with respect to Palencia in Notebook (Quaderno 16) (note 5) in Antonio Gramsci (1975), Quaderni del Carcere (Valentino Gerratana Ed.), Turin: Einaudi, as underlined by Derek Boothman (2007) ‘L’Islam negli articoli giornalistici gramsciani e nei ‘Quaderni del Carcere’ ‘in NAE. Trimestrale di Cultura, Vol. 18, pp. 65-66 -argument in pages 65-66. See also Tim Wallace-Murphy (2006), What Islam did for Us. Understanding Islam’s Contribution to Western Civilization, London: Watkins Publishing.

19. Le Thanh Khoi (1999), Educazione e Civilta` Le società di ieri (Education and Civilisation. Yesterday’s Societies) (Giovanni Pampanini trans.), Rome, Armando Editore, p. 444; Le Thanh Khoi (2000), ‘Il Mediterraneo e il Dialogo fra le Civilta` ‘(The Mediterranean and Dialogue among Civilisations) in Giovanni Pampanini (ed.), Un Mare di Opportunita`. Cultura e Educazione nel Mediterraneo del lll Millenio (A Sea of Opportunity. Culture and Education in the Mediterranean in the lll Millenium), Rome, Armando Editore, p. 58.

20. Literal translation from Italian in Mahmoud Elsheikh (1999), op.cit. p.38.

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