Sunday, October 10, 2004

WELL, IT SEEMS that the first step towards the Alliance of Civilizations didn't go exactly as planned:
A conference called to further mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims over their shared history on the Iberian peninsula has been marred by catcalling and acrimony.

The meeting was summoned by the Spanish royal family and the socialist government as a "congress of dialogue" with representatives of the Arab and Jewish world.

It was held in Cordoba, a jewel of Islamic Spain and a springwell for the enlightenment that led to the historic period of conviviencia when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in harmony.

The conference organisiers, led by the financer of the event, the Kuwaiti tycoon Abdul Aziz al-Babtain, set out to confront stereotypes of Islamic extremism.

But even the supposedly benign field of Islamic poetry and the history of Andalusia - known to the Moors and to modern Arabs as al-Andalus - touched raw nerves.

An academic speaking in English was heckled by jeering Arabs even though there were extensive translation facilities. In the end, he spoke in Arabic.

But the peace was shortlived. There was more shouting when European historians touched on Islamic sensibilities by discussing the more liberal era when Muslim women did not wear the veil. An African Muslim was also heckled for complaining of Arab dominance of his faith.

The only Jew to speak was heard in polite silence, but it was assumed that was because he was preaching the destruction of Israel, which he described as an apostatic state: a point of view which presumably went down rather well with the audience. It was uncertain, though, how this squared with the seminar's title of "Arab-Islamic civilisations and the West: from Disagreement to Partnership".

The organisers described the event as a success but the angry tone of the debate will have disappointed Spain's new government.