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Session C5036 (Is There a Modern Muslim Mediterranean?), 2017
During the colonial period, Muslim writers in the western Mediterranean region did not generally talk about themselves as “Mediterraneans.” That is, they did not identify themselves vis-à-vis the Mediterranean as a cultural or geographic category. Instead, other imagined regional paradigms prevailed: the greater Maghrib, the Islamic umma, the Arab world, the “two shores” (al-‘udwatayn) of the Strait of Gibraltar, and so on. In more recent times, writers and politicians from Morocco and Tunisia have affirmed their “Mediterranean” identity in order to mark their proximity to Europe, to participate in regional organizations (such as the Union for the Mediterranean), and to signal their commitment to cross-cultural and interfaith dialogue.

I will approach our thematic conversation on the modern Muslim Mediterranean with a few questions in mind. When, why, and how did Muslim writers in the Mediterranean region start to speak or think of themselves as “Mediterraneans”? In other words, how do we historicize the idea of a Muslim Mediterranean, and what are the ideological contours of this idea? Is the race to Mediterraneanism merely a response to the geopolitics of a post-9/11 world, or are there other political and cultural factors at play? I am particularly interested in tracking when and how the category of the Mediterranean (as cultural, regional, or ecological unit) emerged in Arabophone culture, since I suspect that this phenomenon was primarily driven by Francophone writers and thinkers.

My research on colonial North Africa has led me to conclude that the Mediterranean was not an operative category of identification (or political mobilization) for Muslim writers in the nineteenth century and for most of the twentieth century. I am interested to learn, though, whether my co-panelists have found political or cultural uses of “Mediterraneanism” in other Muslim contexts during the colonial period. If not, then I would like to have a debate about whether and how we can rehabilitate the Mediterranean as a helpful category of historical analysis. My sense is that the Mediterranean is deployed asymmetrically in the Mediterranean basin, foisted by some “Mediterranean” (often European) cultures on others. Despite this concern, I am eager to discuss how we can productively move beyond the conceptual categories that have shaped and constrained the study of Muslim cultures in the Mediterranean up until now.