Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 2

Cloister of the Monreale Cathedral, Sicily
Cloister of the Monreale Cathedral, Sicily. Click for attribution

The Contribution of Islam

In the previous installment we have spoken of the Egyptian society described by Naguib Mahfouz and of the Tunisians. We have also mentioned Italian Naples and Sicily (see the splendid Monreale cloister above). We wanted to emphasize the mutual influences between the North and the South shores of the Mediterranean and at the same time show how many behaviours – defined as Islamic, such as the patriarchal control of women – belong in reality to the endless past of the civilizations.

The Muslims influenced not only Italy but Spain, Greece and other Mediterranean areas as well. In truth they influenced almost the entire world since between the VIII and the XII centuries AD Islam stretched from the Atlantic in the West (Spain) to large portions of Asia. For the very first time in history more than 3000 years of experiences were accumulated from civilizations the most various – Sumer, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Syria, Persia, China and India.

Most importantly, all this was re-transmitted by them to the rest of the world: forgotten Greek texts and medicine, Indian numerals (called Arabic since that time), Chinese papermaking and thousands of other innovations. This whole wisdom and refinement was concentrated by the way (and for a long time) in the city of Baghdad, that same city whose historical treasures were looted and destroyed because of the present foolish Iraqi war.

It is hence fair (and a bit uncomfortable) to remember that Europe – which during the Middle Ages had forgotten a lot – was gradually given back by the Muslims not only large portions of its classical culture but also something that went well beyond the confines of the Greco-Roman civilization. The big leap Europe was about to make at the end of the Middle Ages was possible also because of this contribution.

More than We are Willing to Admit

North Africans and Islamic countries are linked to Europeans more than we are willing to admit. If the Turks want to enter the Euro zone it is also because they feel somewhat part of our world. Southern and Northern Italians (think of Venice), Spaniards, Greeks etc. received many elements from the Oriental cultures.

Hard-to-deny connections. This might though disturb some reader (of this devil’s advocate) 😉

Why? Because Muslims are not well seen today. A post by Nita, an Indian journalist and blogger (and an excellent source of knowledge on India), provides statistics from the Pew Research Global that show how “while more and more Muslims are turning away from the extremists, more and more people are turning away from Muslims.”

A PewResearch table cited by Nita

In the Wikipedia’s entry on Sicily I was reading yesterday that in a “recent and thorough study the genetic contribution of Greek chromosomes to the Sicilian gene pool was estimated to be about 37% whereas the contribution of North African populations was estimated to be around 6%.”

True or not, I read between the lines – I may be wrong – like a desire to prove that Sicily and Southern Italy have little to do with North Africans. Even if so, hasn’t genetics – as far as I know – little to do with cultural transmission? One can be mostly Greco-Roman genetically though subject to multi-layered cultural influences coming from no matter where.


We will end up this second (and last) part of our journey with two notes.

Marble head of a veiled Greek Woman
Marble head of a veiled Greek Woman. Late 4th century BC. Click for source

Veiled women. As far as the veil, to think of it as Islamic is incorrect because it was widely used by the Assyrians, Hittites, Greeks (see the picture on the left), Romans and Persians. In medieval Europe (and in Anglo-Saxon England) women were dressed more or less like Muslim women are dressed today.

In Judaism, Christianity and Islam “the concept of covering the head is or was associated with propriety. All traditional depictions of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ, show her veiled.” (Wikipedia).
I remember my mother always wearing a veil in church. It was a common practice in Catholicism (but not only) until the 1960s.

Sexual jealousy. It seems to be present in Islamic societies and in all those patriarchal societies obsessively concerned for true paternity. In today’s Islamic forums there is a lot of discussion (and more or less condemnation) about jealousy.

It is said that Sicilians and Calabrians are usually more possessive than other Italians. Some cultural connection with Islam in this respect may be possible. It is to be noted that honour killings were easily forgiven by law in Italy, France and other Mediterranean countries until recently.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Related posts:

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 1
Permanences. Rome and Carthage

The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean
Love Words from Egypt
Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 1
Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 2

Western Values, Again (2)

Relativism, Yes

The commentator thus commented my first comment to Rob’s post, saying: “Was the above (specifically regarding our values versus terrorists) a defence of moral equivalism?”. Well – apart from endorsing Islamic terrorism, which of course I don’t – if being a relativist means (as I think it means) not believing in absolute truths valid forever and outside any historical and social context, yes, I am a convinced relativist. Also democracy to me is relative (I can see many readers jumping up in their chairs).

Separation of state and religion, ok, I like it a lot, but this is not enough to proclaim our superiority over other civilizations (such as the Islamic) plus why should secularism be an absolute truth? As regards democracy, it doesn’t seem in my view the ideal solution for some people, plus it is not granted, as many analysts now start to recognize, that economical growth automatically will lead to more democracy. The case of Russia and China is often indicated as instructive from this point of view. And I believe it really is.

This reminds me when all the world applauded (me included) when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev started to swiftly democratize the Soviet Union. At the same time all the world protested (me included) when the Chinese students asking for more democracy (hence imitating the Russians) were crushed by the military in the Tien An Men Square in 1989 (watch above a famous movie regarding that tragic episode).

But then, what the heck has happened? Who the heck was right? The Russians (who accelerated democracy) or the Chinese (who hindered it because they thought it would tear down a country of 1.5 billion people)? I have lived almost one year in Russia (in the year 2000) and I have witnessed the almost TOTAL collapse of a society and all the terrible consequences that ensued (this country now pulling itself together thanks btw to its new Caesar, or Tzar, Mr. Putin: can this be by mere chance?).

I know Anglo-Saxons are very sensitive about this democracy thing. They use it as a propaganda weapon, not many doubts about it, but there is something deeper. If democracy was invented by the ancient Greeks, only the British and the American people in modern times were capable of creating truly great democracies (plus, isn’t the Indian democracy – the biggest in the world – somewhat derived from Great Britain as well? I hope Falcon won’t be upset 😉 ).

We admire the Anglo-Saxons for what they have achieved, for this great contribution and influence in all this. But if they do not really try hard to understand the rest of the world, especially those very old civilizations so different from theirs (and ours), and if they do not get out of their mental schemes, I am afraid their decline (and ours, unfortunately) will be swifter than expected. They (especially the Americans) cannot expect they can export their political solutions (that took so many centuries to develop, from Magna Charta on) to totally different historical and social environments (like Iraq or Afghanistan) which might embrace these solutions in the long run, who knows, although it is not granted at all, I am sure it is not granted at all, not many doubts about it. In any case, I am for democracy, that’s for sure. I just wanted to add some elements of reflection.

The Ugliest of Tyrannies

I know almost nothing about Professor Norman Geras’ thought but in your quotations, Rob, he condemns the:

“apologists for terrorism, the mumblers and rootcausers, the people seemingly capable of understanding everything except the need for drawing a clear line between those who uphold the politics of democracy and those dedicated to their destruction. The left today …is a loose movement which is able … to mobilize … to oppose conflicts fought by the Western democracies against the ugliest of tyrannies and/or reactionary social and political forces…”.

Well, first of all I do not consider myself belonging to the left any more, hence many things he says here and elsewhere do not regard me much; secondly, I see in his words some hypocrisy, sorry to say that, exactly like in Tony Blair’s words (but I may be wrong and I’ll try to read more of his writings).

The thing is I am not blaming America for being a superpower and for fighting (sometimes badly, I’ll admit) for her interests. I love and admire America. And I believe she is a true democracy. But – as I said – I also believe that empires and powers (such as the Romans, the Turkish Ottomans, the Victorians, the USA etc.), are not ruled mainly by idealism or ethics; they are rather ruled most of all by Realpolitik, namely by practical considerations regarding their interests.

So, according to Norm, as you call him, am I an apologist of terrorism if I say that a democracy like America now says she fights against “the ugliest of tyrannies” (it is still to be proven for which reasons) while, at the times of Henry Kissinger, she fought for “the ugliest of tyrannies” (Greek colonels, ruthless dictators all over South America etc.)?
My opinion is that this passage by Norm is a bit abstract and apologetic, not to mention a few apparent doses of historical amnesia.

All the best,

Man of Roma