This is another illustration of the dangers of whitewashed history: it becomes the foundation for contemporary political action. Here is a columnist in a North Carolina paper saying with a straight face that “we could do far worse…than imitating Spain’s Islamic era at its best.” Oh really? I am confident that Sarah-Ann Smith (a “former diplomat”!) didn’t really mean that we should institute a Sharia state with institutionalized discrimination against Christians and Jews — but that’s because the whitewash of history she has read (Menocal’s Ornament of the World) didn’t tell her, except briefly and breezily, that those were elements of Muslim Spain at all.
From the Asheville Citizen-Times, with thanks to Anthony:
My recent trip to Spain has prompted some thoughts about our post-Sept. 11, 2001, relationship to the Islamic world. A wonderful book, “The Ornament of the World” by Maria Rosa Menocal, had excited my interest in Spain’s medieval Islamic period, and I had to see the relics of that beautiful culture for myself….
More important than the remains of the buildings is the culture they recall. In Islamic Spain adherents of all the three great Western religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – coexisted under a government that recognized their common biblical foundations. The Islamic system protected and gave each a place in the society as a whole – a place more tolerant by far than that accorded Jews and Muslims in the succeeding Christian era, dominated by the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition.
As Menocal notes, “This was the chapter of Europe’s culture when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived side by side and, despite their intractable differences and enduring hostilities, nourished a complex culture of tolerance … it found expression in the often unconscious acceptance that contradictions … could be positive and productive.”
The era ended in 1492, with the Spanish Christian monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand conquering the Alhambra, the last Muslim stronghold, and also expelling the Jews from Spain (as well as financing Christopher Columbus’s journey of discovery).
Some Jews remained, perhaps as many as half the total number, along with an Islamic remnant, both being required to convert to Christianity. But, for the Jews at least, as contemporary Spanish writer Antonio Munoz Molina notes, “those who stayed behind ended up as alien in their homeland as those who left … scorned not only by those who should have been their brothers in their new religion but also by those who remained loyal to the abandoned faith.”
Thus, Molina demonstrates, present-day Spain continues to struggle with a past characterized by a diversity that its Christian rulers spurned 500 years ago. The Muslim issue has again become one that must be dealt with, and not only in terms of the terrorist threat demonstrated so tragically in last spring’s train bombings that killed 192 people.
Spain currently has an active Islamic population, reaching close to a million, whose needs the Spanish authorities realize they must consider. Spanish Prime Minister Zapatera [sic] has called for “an alliance of cultures” between the West and the Islamic world, to isolate the violent fringe.
In 2003 a new mosque was opened in Granada to serve the city’s estimated 15,000 Muslims. It was financed in large part by a United Arab Emirates sheik, to show, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, he reportedly said, “that Islam is fundamentally moral rather than political in nature.” At the opening ceremony Granada’s deputy mayor expressed the hope that the mosque would promote the religious tolerance that characterized the city in the past.
This event was far from free of controversy. The mosque’s construction was delayed for years, partly by the opposition and lawsuits of local residents. And since the March bombings, many Spaniards have been even more nervous about the increasing numbers of North African Muslim immigrants, since the main suspects in the bombings are Moroccans. Others, however, recognize the importance of a dialogue with moderate Muslims. Spaniards’ ambivalence is currently being played out in the trial of suspected terrorists, at which the former and current prime ministers are testifying.
From the point of view of an ordinary traveler, it appears that the understandable nervousness in the wake of the March bombings has not resulted in a paranoid anticipation of repeated terrorist acts. And the tourist industry at least is more than happy to highlight the magnificence of the remains of Spain’s Islamic past.
Back home, I keep thinking of Spain’s experience, contemporary and historical, in all its complexity, and realize that, for better or worse, we’re all in this post- Sept. 11 world together – Christian, Muslim, Jew and, yes, secularist.
And the only way to genuine peace and security, and freedom from fear, is through tolerant acceptance and appreciation of our differences and mutual encouragement of the best in all our traditions. We could do far worse in this respect than imitating Spain’s Islamic era at its best.
And now for some reality about Muslim Spain, first from Menocal herself. Even she acknowledges in her book that the laws of dhimmitude were very much in force in this Islamic paradise of tolerance:
The dhimmi, as these covenanted peoples were called, were granted religious freedom, not forced to convert to Islam. They could continue to be Jews and Christians, and, as it turned out, they could share in much of Muslim social and economic life. In return for this freedom of religious conscience the Peoples of the Book (pagans had no such privilege) were required to pay a special tax “” no Muslims paid taxes “” and to observe a number of restrictive regulations: Christians and Jews were prohibited from attempting to proselytize Muslims, from building new places of worship, from displaying crosses or ringing bells. In sum, they were forbidden most public displays of their religious rituals.
So much for a paradise of tolerance and multiculturalism. Historian Kenneth Baxter Wolf observes that “much of this new legislation aimed at limiting those aspects of the Christian cult which seemed to compromise the dominant position of Islam.” After enumerating a list of laws much like Menocal’s, he adds: “Aside from such cultic restrictions most of the laws were simply designed to underscore the position of the dimmÃ®s as second-class citizens.” These laws were not uniformly or strictly enforced; Christians were forbidden public funeral processions, but one contemporary account tells of priests merely “pelted with rocks and dung” rather than being arrested while on the way to a cemetery.
Yet if such laws were on the books in al-Andalus, then a fundamental premise of Menocal’s thesis (or what others like Sarah-Ann Smith have made of it) is undercut. If Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together peaceably and productively only with Christians and Jews relegated by law to second-class citizen status, then al-Andalus has precisely nothing to teach our age about tolerance. The laws of dhimmitude give all of Menocal’s accounts of Jewish viziers and Christian diplomats the same hollow ring as the stories of prominent American blacks from the slavery and Jim Crow eras: yes, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington were great men, but their accomplishments not only do not erase or contradict the records of the oppression of their people, but render them all the more poignant and haunting. Whatever the Christians and Jews of al-Andalus accomplished, they were still dhimmis. They enjoyed whatever rights and privileges they had not out of any sense of the dignity of all people before God, or the equality of all before the law, but at the sufferance of their Muslim overlords.
There is more on this in Onward Muslim Soldiers.