A tour ofTHE EXHIBITION
Given the immense timespan and vast geographical area covered by this story, any attempt at completeness is obviously doomed to failure. We have therefore constructed our exhibition around the notion of ‘legacies’ – in other words, the traces that have remained from this centuries-long encounter and that pervade the material and spiritual civilisation of Europe.
Islam and Christianity have common roots. They are first cousins, both heirs of the Greco-Roman and Judeo-
Christian civilizations. For the Christians of Europe, Muslims are not strangers, as would be true of the Chinese, for example, but a branch of the same family: via Eastern Christians, the Greek heritage reached
Islam; via Christians and Jews came the Biblical heritage. It is not by chance that they share the same spiritual
ancestors. Abraham/Ibrahim, Moses/ Mûsâ, Jesus/ Isā, Mary/Maryam. These pairs illustrate more than a first cousin
relationship: there really is a common spiritual crucible for the three religions of the Book.
Islam places itself clearly in the footsteps of its predecessors. Although Mohammed is ‘the last of the prophets’ (Koran 33: 40), he does not erase those who preceded him.
From the conquest of Spain arose a civilization marked by the convivencia, the peaceful coexistence of the three cultures, Muslim, Christian and Jewish.
However, coexistence is not equality, nor the assurance of longevity. Christians and Jews became dhimmis, subjects protected by Islam.
The slow progress of the Christian Reconquista, lasting until 1492 with the fall of Grenada, would culminate in the eradication of the Muslim presence from Western Christian soil. But their expulsion didn’t remove the trace of the Muslim presence in Spain – in architecture, science, philosophy or vocabulary…
So much so that Andalusia, Sicily, conquered by the Muslims who overthrew the Byzantines as they arrived from North Africa, then by the Normans, is the crucible of an original culture that is a mixture of Berbers, Arabs, Normans and Islamic Christianity. An unusual dialect of local Arabic would also originate from there, that would also give rise to present-day Maltese. Maîtres de l’île au XIe siècle, les chrétiens – the Normans then, from the end of the 12th century, the Hohenstaufen of Germany – respected the Muslims, integrated them into their administration and adopted many of their habits and customs. Sicily continued to live under a regime of tolerance and openness, concerning which one exceptional character who we will meet on our journey, Frederick II (1194-1250), made a way of life. Sovereign, polyglot, with an enquiring, open mind, Frederick, the Emperor in djellaba, truly personified this amazing time of convivencia (coexistence), Sicilian style.
The second phase of the Muslim expansion, this time under the aegis of the Ottoman Turks, brought Islam into Eastern and Southern Europe. The empire was a multi-ethnic State in which the Muslim minority dominated a vast mosaic of peoples administered by the system of millets (communities that enjoyed freedom of worship and great tolerance if they paid a special tax).
Between the conquest and the failure of the second siege of Vienna (1683) which blocked the Ottoman advance towards the West, contact with Christian Europe was a mixture of violence and cooperation, determined by the specific moment or where the encounters took place. On both sides of a changing boundary line, always seen as provisional, each side was seen as the ideological enemy to be defeated, and at the same time as an entity with whom commercial and diplomatic relations should be pursued, both generally being true at the same time.. More curious about the Ottomans than they were of their European counterparts, the latter studied the Ottomans, learned their customs and drew inspiration from their letters and arts. This was known as ‘Orientalism’.
The Ottoman Turks, as early as the second half of the 16th century, entered into a lengthy period of decline.
Three centuries later, Christian Europe gradually took their place. In the Europe of the Balkans, the void was filled
by independent nation states; Eastern Europe and North Africa were taken by European colonial empires;
the British, Italians and especially the French.
The colonisation of areas that were formerly Ottoman was accompanied by the introduction of a tutelage system which took various forms – nominal independence (Egypt), protectorate (Tunisia, Morocco), settlement colony (Algeria), colony (Libya), international mandate (Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iraq).
In the second half of the 20th century, decolonization would leave behind it independent states whose
frontiers were often artificial. But if colonial rule forever changed the lives of the colonized populace, the latter also exerted a significant influence on the non-city-dwellers – on the demography, the economy, the urban
landscape, on art, on mindsets and lifestyles.
In broad outline, it can be said that the three major movements that defined the 19th and 20th centuries – the deliquescence of the Ottoman empire, colonisation and decolonisation – deeply impacted the whole of Europe, but in different ways: in the Balkans, it was geopolitical; in Western Europe it affected its demography, economy and culture.
The exchange was brutal, but rich. As with every area it reached, in other words, the whole of the planet, Europe imposed on Islamic soil its savoir-faire, its ways of thinking and acting, its institutions. What interests us here is what it imported: wealth and men, as well as literary and artistic influences that were banded together under the vague term ‘Orientalism’.
In Western Europe, after more than four centuries of absence, Muslims are once again present. In Eastern Europe, which they never left, they have
experienced dictatorships, then war and ethnic cleansing. In every region, the coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims paints a contrasting picture, one that combines both tragedy and hope.
In the Balkans, history has woven a community mosaic of extraordinary complexity. Bosnians, Kosovars, Pomaks, Tatars and others are citizens of both the country in which they live, and members of their own ethnic group. The Communist regime severely repressed this proliferation; its disappearance led to an explosion of rival ethnic nationalisms. The wars in former Yugoslavia, the last on the European continent, were savage. Their end, orchestrated by the
international community, resolved only the question of violence.
In Western Europe, forced out by poverty or persecution and lured by the promise of a better life, large numbers of Muslims arrived in successive waves.
After the factories, emptied by the departure of men into the trenches of the First World War, came the need for reconstruction after the Second, followed by the reunification of families. Lastly, conflicts in the Near East added their quota of refugees.
How many Muslims are there amongst the five hundred million inhabitants in the European Union today? No one is quite sure. A conservative estimate indicates a figure of around 20 million. Their integration, often only partial and uncomfortable, is made difficult by the deficient economies of the host nations, by the prejudices of the local populations and by their own difficulties in adapting to the cultural codes of their adoptive country. All of which is further complicated by the progression of a fundamentalist and violent interpretation of Islam within their communities, an interpretation that is active across the Muslim world.
But such generalized failures in integration mask the genuine success stories in every area of human activity.