By Mohammad Najjar, Amman, Jordan
In 1995 15 countries of the European Union along with 12 non-EU countries signed up to the Barcelona Declaration, the aim of which was to develop security, stability, trade and cultural co-operation in the Mediterranean region. This was the stepping stone that led to Discover Islamic Art in the Mediterranean the idea of which, basically, was that the shared heritage of the Mediterranean countries could and should be used as common ground for cooperation; an opportunity to enhance these countries commonalities as much as to treasure their diversities. This task was not an easy one due to the complexities of the relationship between the Western and Eastern Mediterranean countries, better known as the Near or Middle East. From the moment of its conception to the present day, the Middle East as a geopolitical concept has been defined by Western powers mainly in terms of the problems it might cause for them. On the other hand, given this complex history of the “West’s” involvement in the Middle East, it is not surprising that many people in the region view everything that comes from the West with deep suspicion.
To make any progress, therefore, it was necessary to build a platform where upon different points of view could be freely expressed. The aim was not to refute the others’ perception and not to neutralise all the many different perceptions – definitely not to counter one statement with another that might be saying the exact opposite – but to highlight the diversity of opinions and utilise the scope this variety of interpretations might offer. In this way a space was created for countries to present their history from a local prospective; an opportunity to confront the many “stories” under discussion and create an atmosphere that fostered the freedom necessary to make their own judgments. Information technology made the task much easier.
As a result, the world largest online museum was created by MWNF in cooperation with 14 countries of the Mediterranean Basin. Forty museums have contributed to the creation of this unique presentation of Islamic art, interrelating artefacts from its collection with those of all the other 40 participating museums, and with Islamic monuments and sites from around the Mediterranean.
From this, the world’s most comprehensive approach to Islamic art and culture in the Mediterranean was created.
From a personal perspective, it became clear to me while working on the project that the strength of Islamic art and the vibrancy of Islamic culture lay in the multiple ways external influences have been adapted and integrated. These external influences were never a threat to any culture, including Islamic culture, and only become a threat when the indigenous culture was loosing its relevance.
While MWNF realises that we cannot create an ideal agreement by ourselves, we consider that what we have done and what we are doing is actually something of utmost importance: we are creating pluralism; building a meaningful public-academic platform upon which it is okay to disagree.
Among the achievements about which we are very proud – besides establishing the world’s largest online Museum of Islamic Art and in so doing bringing together more than 120 researchers and museum experts from 14 countries around the Mediterranean and in Europe to work together for three years to create it – is the fact that by the time EU-financing came to an end we had initiated several follow-up-projects, namely in the fields of education and responsible tourism, using our own resources. Thus MWNF has demonstrated the sustainability of the work already carried out and breathed new life into a unique forum for dialogue, cooperation and knowledge sharing.