Dialogue and Cooperation between Europe and the Arab World

19.01.2006 - Speech

Minister Farouk Hosni,
Dr Al Ansary,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to you here at the Cairo International Book Fair.

Germany is the very first country to be invited to the Book Fair as guest of honour. We are delighted and highly honoured. I would like to express my sincere thanks to the organizers, in particular to you, Minister Hosni, and to you, Dr Al Ansary, Chairman of the General Egyptian Book Organization.

Allow me to take the opportunity to thank all those on the German side who have together organized the event on behalf of Germany. These include Mr Jürgen Boos representing the Frankfurt Book Fair, Mrs Limbach, President of the Goethe Institute and Mr Bettermann, Director of the Deutsche Welle and of course all their staff as well as the staff of the Embassy. You have all helped make a success of Germany’s appearance at the Book Fair.

I entitled my speech “Connecting Cultures” as this is what I would like to speak to you about today – in a somewhat pensive vein. Given the most recent debates on culture and philosophy, some of you may be wondering whether the title “Connecting Cultures” denotes a state of affairs or rather an aspiration. Is it perhaps ultimately impossible or at the very least Utopian to establish such a connection between cultures?

History certainly teaches a different lesson. Although relations between the Occident and Orient were not always free from armed conflict, they have also been shaped by economic, social and cultural exchange for more than a millennium.

The intriguing and dramatic life story of the famous statesman and geographer we call Leo Africanus can serve as proof. The Lebanese author Amin Maalouf has eternalized the tale: born in Granada in Spain, fled the Reconquista settling in Fès in Morocco, travelled to northern Africa on diplomatic missions and finally sold as a slave to Rome where his education and knowledge took him to the top of the ladder. The life of Leo Africanus was one of drama and hardship but also full of inspiration and exchange around the Mediterranean.

Over the centuries, Europeans have been fascinated by the achievements of the Arab and Muslim world. They recognized the scientific, technological and cultural accomplishments of the world of Islam and strove to harness these to their own advantage.

For the Europeans of the Middle Ages at any rate, there was a close connection between cultures, even a certain dependence of European on Islamic culture. The idea of connecting cultures was for them something entirely natural.

This is mirrored by the literature of the day. In his epic poem “Parzival”, Wolfram von Eschenbach, perhaps the most important German author of the Middle Ages, has the hero’s father die in Baghdad as a loyal vassal of the Caliph. His novel “Willehalm” describes the great love between a Christian knight and a Muslim princess.

Particularly European science and philosophy were influenced by and thrived on Arab and Islamic influences. Imagine modern mathematics without the decimal system and the number zero, a concept the Arabs passed on to the Europeans!

Imagine medicine today without the treatment of the human body that knows no taboos! That, too, is an achievement that would have been inconceivable without Islamic influences. Even the Catholic rulers of the Middle Ages had their children treated by doctors trained in Arab methods.

The exchange between Orient and Occident always embraced trade as well. Nor was this exchange ever one-sided. The inventories of the estates of well-to-do figures from the Arab world list pieces which were without a doubt imported from the West, for instance European furniture or clocks and jewellery.

Conversely, Christian churches in Europe used incense from Oman in their services, Yemeni mocha was served in European court feasts, brocade and damask from Damascene workshops adorned both the dining table and robes of church dignitaries.

We Europeans owe much to the Arab-Muslim world. It made an enormous contribution to the cultural and scientific development of our civilization. Underlining this here and now is very important to me.

“Connecting Cultures” – this can also be reflected in shared curiosity. Over the last few centuries, we have been bound by a common interest in the ancient civilizations to the south and east of the Mediterranean. And it is of course not just scientists who are entranced by the ancient Egyptian culture to this very day.

The beauty of the perfect geometry of the majestic pyramids and the mysterious Great Sphinx of Giza are amongst the very first images of foreign cultures imprinted on the minds of our children.

Egypt is right to be proud of this especially rich cultural heritage. It stretches from the Pharaohs and the Lighthouse of Alexandria which as a technical masterpiece is counted among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, to the famous Library of Alexandria whose tradition lives on in the modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

The centres of Islamic teaching are also part and parcel of Egypt’s cultural tradition such as the renowned Al-Azhar University in Cairo, one of the oldest and most respected education establishments in the Islamic world. I am also thinking here of Egyptian book production, from the classic Islamic age to the great writers of the 20th century including the eminent thinker Taha Hussein, the world-famous Nobel Laureate Nagib Mahfuz and the modern author Alaa Al Aswany.

Their works and those of other writers from Egypt and the entire Arab world met with great interest at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2004. This was the first time a whole region, the Arab world, was a literary guest in Frankfurt. The success of this premiere was underlined not least by the positive press coverage.

Nor was this all just a flash in the pan, as shown not least by the increased sales figures for works by Arab writers in Germany.

That is why I am so delighted we have been able to build the bridge from Frankfurt to Cairo today with Germany’s guest appearance. Cairo International Book Fair is a particularly important platform for us. After all, it is not just the largest book fair in the Arab world, it is also much more than a closed-shop trade fair. It is a fair for the public in which the residents of this city show immense interest, a stage for leading publishing houses and established writers as well as for young, as yet unknown authors. Intellectuals use discussion rounds for an exchange of views with politicians.

This free exchange of views is probably one of the reasons why Cairo International Book Fair attracts so many people of this city.

That public interest this year again has been great is a clear indication of Egyptian society’s hunger for books, education and knowledge. This is why we have to take the findings of the Arab Development Report so seriously. According to its authors, by far not enough international literature has been translated into Arabic.

This has to change, above all for two reasons. On the one hand, access to education and knowledge plays an invaluable role when it comes to enabling people to help define the future of their country.

Then there is a second aspect. Only a knowledge society, a society whose citizens have broad access to basic education and to international scientific developments will be able to successfully master the risks but also share in the opportunities presented by globalization.

And in the 21st century our priority must be for the states of the Middle East to have an active share in, and benefit from, the possibilities opened up by globalization, whether by using the global information base or engaging in world trade.

There is one obstacle on this path that I do not want to pass over: the unresolved regional conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. After all, we are all aware of the close links between peace, stability and security on the one hand and economic development on the other.

We therefore welcome the Israeli Government’s courageous step to withdraw from Gaza and the northern West Bank, thus creating new scope for substantial progress in this to date very arduous peace process. A call goes out to the two sides in the conflict to use this opportunity. Together with our partners in Europe, North Americ and in the Quartet, we will offer our support.

We will continue to work for a peace solution on the basis of the road map which lays the foundations for a peaceful co-existence of Israelis and Palestinians as neighbours in two sovereign and viable states within secure and recognized borders.

Our commitment has taken on a new dimension here. The two civilian missions, the border mission in Rafah and a police mission, reflect the enhanced profile of our Common Foreign and Security Policy. Germany is providing both projects with financing and personnel because we are convinced this European engagement can help stabilize a difficult situation.

We are grateful that Egypt has brought its influence to bear in the context of the elections and the Gaza withdrawal. This commitment, including the stationing of 750 Egyptian soldiers along the Philadelphia corridor, the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, has not been without human toll. In my talks I expressed my sincere condolences.

Despite the worrying developments we must neither lose patience nor the momentum of our commitment.

After all, that is what “Connecting Cultures” means: close cooperation in overcoming the pressing political challenges in the region.

As well as settling regional conflicts and building security and stability, there is one thing people need above all else to participate in globalization: they have to be able to develop their full potential in order to keep adapting to the challenges of the future.

Just as Europe cannot master this adaptation process without the contributions and capabilities of its citizens, the Middle East also has to tap the potential of its extremely young and dynamic population.

The people in the region have to enjoy political participation and share in assistance from the state and social prosperity. To use the opportunities life offers, the rule of law and human rights must be guaranteed. They need capable, democratic states and successful economies, they need a strong civil society and modern education system.

These conditions can only be created through the initiative and long-term endeavours of the Middle East region itself.

The chances of success are good. The Arab world is rich in history, rich in culture and rich in resources. One of its key resources is the young generation including many gifted girls and women. This vast potential has to be unlocked.

Egypt in particular has set itself ambitious development goals. I congratulate President Mubarak and the Egyptian Government on their decision to push ahead with economic and political reform. The last elections were a major step in the right direction. We want to strongly encourage Egypt and its President to continue resolutely along this path towards more democratic participation.

Both bilaterally and in the multilateral context, we want to support the region’s reform efforts in a spirit of partnership. This is in our own best interests.

After all, in Europe we need the Middle East as a strong neighbour, a stable and peaceful region with democratic and economically prosperous states following the principles of good governance.

I feel it is especially important to underline that our commitment in and to the region of the Middle East does not aim to impose the political and economic system of the West. Rather what we want is to show the path we took with a view to letting it compete with other ideas without any trace of paternalism.

We are presenting a model which has brought peace, security and economic success in Europe and in which we believe. Past experiences in Europe have taught us that only democracy and freedom can guarantee the successful co-existence of peoples and nations.

This is why we are pleased to have now such a multi-faceted network of dialogue and cooperation with the states of the Middle East.

Institutional and political cooperation also brings our cultures closer together. Here too we can see “Connecting Cultures”.

In my talks with the Secretary General of the Arab League, we looked back together on the last ten years of the Barcelona Process. I am delighted the Arab League wants to revive the cultural aspects of the process alongside the economic elements. I believe this is the way forward. Concentrating on economic issues has perhaps created a gap in the cultural sphere which we should have addressed earlier.

Above and beyond the governmental level, we also need to make cooperation a fixture of civil society. I am delighted that the Anna Lindh Foundation took up work in Alexandria as a joint dialogue initiative. The Egyptian Government has sent out a signal by inviting this first joint institution in the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership to Egypt.

May this young institution not far from the fantastic new Bibliotheca Alexandrina have lively and dedicated users as well as ambitious topics and projects. How could it be otherwise given this locale which is so steeped in history and culture?

I am delighted that cultural policy cooperation between Germany and Egypt is now so dense. Upon taking office, I emphasized the importance of cultural relations and education policy and want to further intensify our cultural relations.

The starting position is very good. I would like to mention here the three German schools in Cairo and Alexandria where 2,800 Egyptian children are also taught. These schools are amongst the oldest and most respected German schools abroad.

We are pleased that German as a foreign language plays such a prominent role, not just in these schools but rather in the Egyptian education system as a whole. Some 100,000 are currently learning German in Egypt and interest is growing.

In 2003, then Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and President Mubarak opened the German University Cairo. Since then, the number of students has been constantly increasing. I am convinced that this beacon project in our cultural relations will remain a success story. We all stand to benefit.

The Goethe Institute here in Egypt is offering not just successful language courses but also a top-level cultural programme which of course can also be enjoyed during the Book Fair.

The German Academic Exchange Service, the German Archaeological Institute, the political foundations and many other institutions are also making a major contribution to our cultural relations policy in the states south of the Mediterranean. We want to reach young people in young societies, we want to attract new target groups, we want to address current social issues.

Our cultural exchange with Egypt and the region is an offer of dialogue. The prerequisite and the goal at the same time is for the cultures and societies to open to one another, to come into contact. This is where we will see whether “Connecting Cultures” is a mere Utopian ideal or a reality.

The fact that Islam is a defining aspect of life in the region must and will find expression in our cultural projects. Not least because Muslims are now a key component of the social mosaic in Europe. Fifty years ago, fewer than 100,000 Muslims were living in Germany, today it is more than 3.5 million.

As you know, Europeans’ relations with Muslim immigrants are not always free from tension. Migration and integration are not impeccable success stories.

For example, some critical Muslim observers sometimes maintain that the West and above all its media have a negative attitude to Islam. Conversely, the behaviour of individual Muslims in Europe is taken by some people to reflect that of Muslims as a whole.

The Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s recent denial of the Holocaust and his questioning of Israel’s right to exist met with dismay and condemnation in Europe. Many of my fellow Germans wonder if that is the opinion of all Muslims. It would be better and indeed clearer if the Islamic world were to resolutely counter such statements.

Dialogue with Islam can only be credible and successful if both sides conduct it openly and critically yet also with a measure of self-criticism.

In dealing with one another, we should not succumb to the temptation of only seeing what is spectacular, or else disconcerting. Our aim must be twofold. We want to increase awareness in Germany and Europe of the multi-faceted and interesting nature of Islamic culture. Conversely, we want the Islamic world to recognize all the aspects of our cultural and social life – and ethical concepts and religion should of course be part and parcel of this. If we manage to move closer to this goal, both sides stand to gain much.

“Connecting Cultures” – to come back to my opening comments – is an ongoing project which needs to be constantly reviewed, critically discussed and adapted by all those involved.

And then perhaps one day we will share the insight described so aptly in Goethe “West-Eastern Divan”: “He who knows himself and others here will also see that East and West like brothers parted ne’er shall be”. Let us work on this together. I can certainly think of no better place to do so than this Book Fair which I in turn wish every success.

Thank you very much.

Related content

Top of page