Coexisting in the Mediterranean: interculturality as a tool for dialogue

Dialogue between the various regions of the Euro-Mediterranean area was the topic of the "Mediterranean intercultural dialogue: recognising ourselves in the culture of others" conference jointly hosted by Diplocat and IEMed

The Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia (Diplocat) and the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed) have today Wednesday, 30 September, hosted the Mediterranean Intercultural Dialogue: recognising ourselves in the culture of others conference at the Palau de Pedralbes in Barcelona in partnership with the Catalan Government and Barcelona City Council. Its purpose was to discuss and showcase the role of Mediterranean societies and cultures in addressing global challenges.

The event was opened by representatives of the organisers. Alfonso González Bondia, Director General of European and Mediterranean Affairs in the Catalan Government, noted that since July there have been several discussions marking the 25th anniversary of the Barcelona Declaration to underscore the importance of interculturality and the Mediterranean debate for Barcelona and Catalonia. He also outlined how the various institutions are trying to ensure that interculturality is baked into Euro-Mediterranean policies on the basis of Agenda 2030 and intercultural dialogue. He wound up by pointing out that a new intercultural strategy had been put in place a year ago in Catalonia which hinges on inclusion, progress as a society, the value of dialogue and rights as part of an open, committed and supportive society. This has to be transferred to the future of Euro-Mediterranean dialogue in order to ensure that the forthcoming 25 years are a people-centred process of renewal, inspiration and transformation.

Khalid Ghali, the Commissioner for Intercultural Dialogue and Religious Pluralism at Barcelona City Council, drew attention to the value of Barcelona as a coastal and Mediterranean city and the historic role this has played in making it a culturally diverse city. He stressed the importance of the intercultural approach in which values safeguard rights and freedoms and where knowledge and acknowledgment of them are crucial to ensure dialogue between the various stakeholders. He also underscored the importance of tackling ignorance rooted in mutual unfamiliarity and stereotypes and thereby setting up venues for social cohesion at the local and international level anchored in empathy and dialogue as key tools for getting to know each other.

Josep Ferré, the Director General of IEMed, noted that this is the fourth discussion they have held to mark the 25th anniversary of the Barcelona Declaration and the Mediterranean Strategy. He thanked Diplocat and the Quaderns per la Mediterrània journal team for the work they have done and said that now is a good time to acknowledge the generosity of the three authorities which set up IEMed, the Catalan Government, Barcelona City Council and the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and he welcomed their support in promoting the principles and values of the Barcelona Declaration. Ferré mentioned COVID-19 which has a significant social and economic impact on all of us. Inequalities are more apparent and growing and this entails a risk of society becoming more exclusionary. He argued that interculturality does not only lie in dialogue between countries as it also concerns domestic discussions inside them and the cohesion of societies, which are increasingly diverse yet also more complex and conflicting. Ferré concluded by saying that these trends are not new and we need to know how to leverage this situation and move beyond concepts such as tolerance and social cohesion in order to be more proactive, learn about others, accept differences and debunk stereotypes.

Laura Foraster, Diplocat's Secretary General, welcomed the audience and took the opportunity to describe what Diplocat is, what it does and why. She said that Diplocat's commitment to teaming up with others is evident in events such as this and that cooperation and coordination between institutions is one of the foundations of public diplomacy for internationalisation. Another of the cornerstones of public diplomacy is listening to the public in order to reach the right audience. Foraster added that Catalonia seeks to deliver solutions to global challenges and join forces on the international stage. Turning to the Barcelona agreements, she noted that one of the key areas was and continues to be bringing the two sides of the Mediterranean closer together.

Andreu Claret, a journalist and Executive Director of the Anna Lindh Foundation from 2008 to 2015, moderated the first panel discussion entitled "What Future for Dialogue between Cultures in the Mediterranean" and which featured writer Tahar Ben Jelloun; Nabil Al Sharif, Executive Director of the Anna Lindh Foundation (Alexandria); and Nayla Tabbara, Deputy Chair of the Adyan Foundation (Beirut).

Nabil Al Sharif began by stressing the importance of dialogue between people from diverse geographical and cultural backgrounds. He said that although the perspective is different today, some problems in intercultural dialogue are the same as 25 years ago. Drawing on his standpoint as director of the Anna Lindh Foundation, he argued that promoting dialogue is a specific mission of the peoples and institutions of the region. He spoke about how the pandemic has threatened people all over the world and the way we relate to others, and that we have to adapt our way of thinking in a situation which is changing the way we live and will last a long time. In his view, the pandemic has posed challenges which have particularly affected women, young people and refugees as travel has been restricted, there is a new recession and these groups are the ones who most need to develop the technological knowledge required in the current environment. Institutional and organisational resilience also has to be worked on to integrate all institutions. He said that intercultural discussion is founded on moving out of our comfort zone and that there needs to be a community which shares experiences and ideas among peers at a global and local level and helping and supporting each other. Al Sharif also reviewed his foundation's experience of working with civil society since he thinks that it is civil society which will bring about changes in interculturality and governments should bear this in mind when making decisions and transforming society. He wound up by saying that although these 25 years have not brought about any great changes, this does not mean we should stop working in this direction.

Tahar Ben Jelloun then pointed out that the road to interculturality is long and littered with differences and similarities, and that we ought to acknowledge and accept each other on a cultural and ideological level. He said he was tired of seeing inter-Mediterranean affairs run aground and decried the European tendency to put the economy before life and health. He also expressed his disappointment at the lack of success given events in Syria and Lebanon. He stressed that dialogue takes place between people and the role of civil society is crucial. Turning to the role of intellectuals in the inter-Mediterranean debate, he contended that it was no longer as germane as it had been in the 1990s. 

Nayla Tabbara began by saying that since the explosion in the port of Beirut, her perspective has changed and she now views the future of inter-Mediterranean relations more confidently as the support they have received from Mediterranean countries has helped them to bounce back. She pointed out that the Foundation works on intercultural, interpolitical and interpersonal dynamics and that there are many different discourses in the plural. She commented that people began to talk about intercultural, inter-Mediterranean and inter-religious discourse before having dealt with colonial and anti-colonial discourse. She also mentioned the importance of being able to talk about wounds and history openly and honestly in order to build common ground for dialogue because the history of interculturality has to be acknowledged and remembered, even if it is sometimes not always constructive. She agreed with Ben Jelloum about how the North's discourse on values is hollow in placing the economy above them and how this has become evident with refugees for example. Tabbara also argued that the conversation should take place within communities and each country since as we have seen with the Black Lives Matter movement, we have to unmask who we are, listen to each other and get to know each other as a community in order to be able to talk about interculturality. She added that the Anna Lindh Foundation does extremely significant work to promote intercultural dialogue. She referred to a survey which showed that 30% of young people in the north and 40% in the south of the Mediterranean believe that members of other faiths do not deserve the same rights and she set out the educational and training work performed in this area. However, she challenged its usefulness in a society in which political values do not tally with the work done by foundations such as hers to foster interculturality. Nonetheless, she feels that in addition to interculturality it is also essential to talk about and raise awareness of inter-religious issues. Here she stressed the importance of the fact that Pope Francis and the Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayyeb signed a document in which they accepted religious diversity and affirmed points such as that people of the other religion would not go to hell. In Tabbara's view, diversity within Islam needs to be understood and seen.

The Q&A session for this first discussion addressed the importance of the differences between communities and how they are crucial to inter-Mediterranean dialogue, while one of the great challenges is to see others as they really are and not as we would like them to be. The failure of public policies in the intercultural conversation was also examined along with the role of populism and the far right in today's discourse of fear and difference, and how inclusive and open discourse is a rational discourse which has faded into the background following the rise of the identity and national discourse. Finally, the role of women was also explored and Tabbaraha pointed out that the fact that women have a greater presence in the intercultural debate is not a gender issue and that it is personal values which make someone more inclusive and empathetic.

The second panel discussion looked at "Coexisting in the Mediterranean: interculturality as a tool" and outlined the shared values based on humanism which bring us closer together and enable better dialogue. Oriol Amorós, Secretary for Equality, Migrations and Citizenship in the Catalan Government, introduced the discussion topic and posed the same first question to all the panellists about the significance and ramifications of COVID-19.

José Enrique Ruiz Domènec, Professor of Antiquity and Middle Age Studies at the UAB (Barcelona), underscored the role of historians today as they search for similar circumstances in the past which we can learn from. He reviewed three pandemics and how they were handled. Ruiz Domènec thinks that we are indeed seeing a change of era, but the crucial thing is to look at how long it will take to manage it. Spanish flu took 30 years to bring under control and we cannot afford this. Finally, he mentioned a line by a Greek poet which refers to the importance of seizing the new situations which life brings us. When there is doubt about being or doing, the Mediterranean has to do. The being has to be overcome by doing, which will bring us the harmony of diversity.

Mohamed Tozy, Director of the School of Governance and Economics in Rabat, connected live from Morocco and called into question the dream of globalisation which the pandemic has completely shattered. In his view, the system of states has become outdated and responsible individuals with collective responsibility are needed. In terms of what comes next, he proposes the "culture of the hedgehog" in which the essential thing is the clan or the family. He looked at two aspects of intercultural dialogue: the regional standpoint, where solidarity has to be assembled since nation states often do not leave room for diversity and so intercultural dialogue will fail, and the change in representation and values where we have to rise above the stereotypes we have about others.

Ricard Zapata-Barrero, lecturer in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at Pompeu Fabra University (Barcelona), noted how the pandemic is revealing the shortcomings of the global system in which exchanges between cultures have been restricted. He argued that the problem is that the Mediterranean political debate is centred on Europe, there is little information and most of it comes from NGOs in the area. Finally, he underlined the need for long-term policies which are what will really resolve the area's problems, in particular migration.

Esmat Elsayed, co-founder of Young Mediterranean Voices (Cairo), spoke about the importance of young people and of tackling and prioritising the problems they face. Since the emergence of COVID-19, the problem with jobs is not just about finding one but about being able to keep it. Elsayed argued that all young people must be empowered and not just the most privileged and those who have had access to a good education. He also set out the importance of building a Mediterranean identity and standing up to the nationalisms which only separate us. The purpose of this identity is to see ourselves as equals. Mediterranean dialogue should not be about giving and taking but rather about a society which talks to another and where young people share challenges which unite them.

In the final round of interventions, Ruiz Domènec said we should not give into fear or repeat the mistakes of the twentieth century and concluded that he was confident that Catalonia would lead the process of harnessing the pandemic to improve as a society. Tozy reiterated the importance of putting aside stereotypes and historical forces such as colonisation and trying to build a future together as Mediterranean citizens. Zapata underlined the role of cities as drivers of change, especially in migration and border control issues. Finally, Elsayed stressed once again the significance of young people and how institutions need to support them with investment rather than exploitation.

The third panel discussion entitled "The Practice of Dialogue: testimonies and proposals from the Mediterranean association network" featured Driss Khrouz, Director General of the Esprit Foundation (Fes); Mercedes Giovinazzo, Director of Interarts (Barcelona); Mohamed El Amrani, Chair of AZAHARA (Girona); and Anis Boufrika, network coordinator at the Anna Lindh Foundation (Tunis). It was moderated by journalist Cristina Mas.

Driss Khrouz said the pandemic has shown that the association network has been the foundation of a large family and community movement in cities, neighbourhoods and countries. However, he cautioned that civil society needs to be bolstered because COVID-19 has also revealed the weaknesses of the association network and the inequalities brought about by border closures which have severed relations and made it impossible to move around. Khrouz pointed out that the world is now global and civil society cannot do anything on its own without the backing of policies and institutions. Asked about the contribution of intercultural dialogue to the cohesion of the network, he said that 10 years ago he had definitely seen this contribution but that today he was less sure. The Anna Lindh Foundation and the IEMed were set up a decade ago and the dialogue enabled relations between the east and west of the Mediterranean. Now it is digitalisation and new technologies which are allowing young people in Morocco to communicate with young people in the rest of the Mediterranean and the world. Interculturality means getting to know others and seeing them as they are, and this has made it possible to build an association movement and learn lessons about human rights and democracy. Khrouz concluded by championing the struggle of young people and the importance of engaging them in intercultural dialogue with the help of academia when politics is deadlocked.

Mercedes Giovinazzo outlined the values of Interarts which is based on the idea that culture is an essential part of human development. She underscored the value of cooperation between peers to achieve a common goal and of the network as a venue for dialogue and generating knowledge. She went on to say that the current crisis is like a war affecting the system of governance, straining it and changing the way of life in the north of the Mediterranean. The crisis has endangered participation in cultural life as it is not enough for culture to be open and digital. We need to ensure that everyone can go and enjoy culture in a specific place and time, which is fleeting and hard to reproduce and calls for contact and dialogue drawn from the experience of human beings. The digital approach renders some existing cracks even more apparent and there is a social responsibility to address them. Asked about the role of culture in shaping the new mindset, she said there was no straightforward answer because of culture's financial reliance on the public sector and the fact that the economic and social emergency is now a priority. Even so, she pointed out that culture cannot be halted; we have to continue striving for creation, reflection and dialogue which gets individuals involved and engaged as critical, responsible and participatory citizens in politics.

Mohamed el Amrani discussed the changes in the perception in youth associations and the shortcomings they have shown during the pandemic. He mentioned digitalisation and the need to educate ourselves in the use of technology yet also to be aware of digital rights. Communication between the association network and other people should be improved as it is sometimes difficult to reach out to them, as should public cooperation between social organisations, government and the private sector which often take very different paths. Asked about the vision of interculturality from the perspective of a child of both sides of the Mediterranean and about the role of young people, he argued that we need to start seeing young people as political players who think, act and lead initiatives and social movements. Furthermore, youth leadership is not usually hierarchical but rather horizontal and networked. As far as interculturality is concerned, he contended that it is an odd process inasmuch as different life processes are blended under notions such as welcome, inclusion and social cohesion without trying to naturalise identity. Schools all too often slip into folklore and the stereotyping of diversity. He said that we need to understand and listen, but until the hidden racism which exists everywhere is acknowledged and these young people have a political and communicative voice, things will not change. His approach is not just living side by side but rather striving to build a single diverse society.

Anis Boufrika pointed out that crises have often been times of cultural and social openness for the Mediterranean, yet equally they bring out the best and worst in people, including extremism. The values of recognition are essential to the development of civilisation. Crises provide solutions for survival and natural evolution in the Mediterranean which are cultural and regional and led by young people. He said that in Tunisia, civil society works in lockstep with the authorities to support the health and administrative system and hence these actors are pioneers and the best placed to contribute to the Euro-Mediterranean area despite travel restrictions. We need to restore intercultural dialogue and bring it back to universities because it is one of the great victims of COVID-19. Digital presence may be a solution but it is still an impoverished exchange.

Asked about the legacy of the Arab Spring, he said that dignity resonates but has taken different forms over the past eleven years. The revolution was pro-dignity but also against war, hunger and exclusion. However, crises, war and many policies put a brake on interculturality and encourage the denial of the other, which is why we have to support young people and women who continue to struggle for their emancipation. Today, Tunisian society is opening up to new technologies and associations need to shift towards a digital approach featuring cutting-edge tools to attract young people. The values of recognition, dignity and diversity enable agreements to be reached and promote interculturality, and when women lead and take the initiative, barbarism and extremism are reduced. Boufrika believes that young people are brimming with enthusiasm in Tunisia and are experiencing interculturality in a new way. As for the concept of identity, he pointed out that in the Mediterranean it is not unique but diverse and so you cannot talk about the south as if it were uniform, something which is very common in the north.

This was followed by a Q&A session which looked at the most effective mechanisms for changing mindsets and explored issues such as social media, public policies, culture, academic exchanges and the need to reach out to everyone. Emphasis was also placed on the peril of the echo chamber, whereby in daily life we only surround ourselves by people who are similar to us.

Once the panel discussion was over, Nabil Al Sharif, the Executive Director of the Anna Lindh Foundation, took the floor to present his organisation's Virtual Marathon for Dialogue. He said that the Marathon was their contribution to the 25th anniversary of the Barcelona Process and that they sought to give a voice to cultural and solidarity associations in the Mediterranean. They seek to give a voice to young people, the media, academia and institutions that share the purpose of showcasing the significance of Euro-Mediterranean discussion and cooperation for the sustainability of the region and raising the profile of the work being done. Al Sharif said that the Marathon will be coupled with a media campaign and seminars, workshops and discussions will be held in conjunction with members and partners.

Journalist Cristina Mas spoke about the importance of the media. It is not always apparent but they have more power than it might seem as they can bring us closer together or drive us further apart. She also stressed that there are often the same problems and issues on both sides of the Mediterranean. In turn, Hajar El Hawari emphasised the inclusion of women, who should be subjects and not objects of inclusion so that they can become an active part of work projects and organisations and build more collaborative societies. She also touched on young people and the need to educate them in diversity and difference in order to achieve an adult, diverse and plural society in the future.

Bernat Solé, the Catalan Minister for Foreign Action, Institutional Relations and Transparency, wrapped up the event by speaking about the role of Catalonia in intercultural dialogue in the Mediterranean. He thanked the panellists for their input and for setting out the path towards where we want to go and how we want to get there. He stressed the commitment to rebuilding by putting people at the centre of policies. He also addressed the need to create venues for intercultural dialogue and strive to ensure that the border separating the two sides is not a border of death. Solé contended that you cannot look the other way when people arrive in your country and confirmed Catalonia's readiness to play an active role in the response to migration. He welcomed the fact that Catalonia has been invited to be a key and vibrant part of intercultural dialogue and noted the need to work on the concept of Mediterranean citizenship, to create new perspectives on social cohesion and to bolster the cultural agenda against racism, xenophobia and violent extremism. The Minister concluded by underlining the need for an inclusive Mediterranean with flexible and responsive governance in which exchange is considered rewarding and where societies are the custodians of peace.


Organized together with:


Generalitat de Catalunya

With the collaboration of:

Ajuntament de Barcelona