Gilles Kepel’s naive hope is that France may turn after the riots into a “new Andalusia.”
The myths about Islamic Spain (known collectively as the “myth of Andalusia”) have their origins in the romantic writers of the early 19th century. Just as Sir Walter Scott, venturing beyond Scotland, painted a completely fictional portrait of the “noble Saracens” tutoring the Christians in chivalrous behavior, so the myths of wonderful tolerant Andalusia owe their existence to two highly imaginative works by convincing writers: “Tales of the Alhambra” by Washington Irving and “Le Dernier des Abencerages” by Chateaubriand. The latter, of course, thought nothing of making things up even about his own life — some of his entirely fictional trips are set down as fact in “Memoires d’Outre-Tombe.”
The apotheosis of this is the dreamy effort of Maria Rosa Menocal, entitled “Ornament of the World,” which purports to be about Cordoba, where “three faiths” worked harmoniously blah-blah-blah a lesson and hope for our age blah-blah-blah Maimonides blah-blah-blah. Now the first thing to know about this impressionistic fantasy is that it completely ignores, does not even mention in its bibliography, any of the major scholarly works on Muslim Spain — including those of Evariste Levi-Provencal, of Dufourcq, of Bousquet, of many others. It ignores a good deal else as well, including Maimonides’ own words: “…the Arabs have persecuted us severely, and passed baneful and discriminatory legislation against us…Never did a nation molest, degrade, debase, and hate us as much as they…”
This is particularly disturbing because this book received all sorts of praise, including some uncharacteristic guff from Fouad Ajami. The author is a “professor at Yale” and the “Director of the Whitney Humanities Center.” Well, no one takes academic standards very seriously anymore, what with Cornel West being snapped up at Princeton, and Rashid Khalidi offering his PLO propaganda at Columbia, and the “post-colonial hegemonic discourse” still apparently in full swing. And one cannot here resist the temptation to notice that more than one teacher of literature has publicly expressed his long-past-receiving-of-tenure version of a deathbed conversion, and publicly admits that all that theory, that post-hegemonic discourse, whether of the Derrida-delirium, or Saidian swamp variety, was a monstrous error, and that one would do better to teach students in this audiovisual age to read books with attention, affection, and a well-stocked mind. (See Frank Lenticchia, et al, who have attempted to express more or less the same thing).
Oh, al-Andaluz, al-Andaluz. Cordoba, and the red gitanillas flowing over the balconies above the whitewashed walls flanking the narrow alleys, and from outside one can hear the pleasing plash of fountains in the inside hidden courtyards, and one can see, in one’s imaginative mind’s eye, venerable old scholars, one Muslim, one Jew, one Christian (in a kind of backdated Benetton ad), walking together, talking animatedly of philosophy and spiritual manners, in an atmosphere of the highest mutual regard and understanding — for that was Al-Andaluz, wasn’t it? — and the smell of the orange blossoms, and in the distance a glimpse of the Guadalquivir, and….fill in the rest yourself, courtesy of the Tourist Board of Spain or your own imagination.
Islamic Spain was far from being a paradise. Cordoba was no “ornament of the world.” Maimonides had to flee the city because of the persecution of the Almohads, but even before the Alhomads the treatment of non-Muslims was dismal. When the Jewish viziers Samuel ibn Naghrela and his son Joseph were both murdered, and then the entire Jewish community of Grenada was massacred as well – yes, in Grenada, home of the “Alhambra” of which Washington Irving sung — it was not something without deep Islamic roots.
Richard Fletcher’s “Moorish Spain” and the scholarship of Levi-Provencal and others all show that this “tolerance” was born from the Romantic poets-in-prose mentioned above and is directly contradicted by the historical evidence. The records of the Muslim jurists, such as Ibn Abdun, confirm that the tolerance of Muslim Spain is a myth. In his opinion on the treatment of the Christians and Jews of Seville, Ibn Abdun insisted that “No…Jew or Christian may be allowed to wear the dress of an aristocrat, nor of a jurist, nor of a wealthy individual; on the contrary they must be detested and avoided. It is forbidden to accost them with the greeting, ‘Peace be upon you’…In effect, ‘Satan has gained possession of them, and caused them to forget God’s warning. They are the confederates of Satan’s path; Satan’s confederates will surely be the losers! (Quran 58:19). A distinct sign must be imposed upon them in order that they may be recognized and this will be for them a form of disgrace.”
A well-known jurist and poet of Muslim Spain may have helped to promote the Grenada massacres in his famous anti-Jewish poem:
“Bring them [the Jews] down to their place and Return them to the most abject station. They used to roam around us in tatters Covered with contempt, humiliation, and scorn. They used to rummage amongst the dungheaps for a bit of a filthy rag To serve as a shroud for a man to be buried in…Do not consider that killing them is treachery. Nay, it would be treachery to leave them scoffing.”
This has not prevented such Muslim apologists as Abdul Rauf from starting their own little “Cordoba Dialogues” and suchlike; it will not prevent Zapotero and other Spaniards from wanting so desperately to believe that once upon a time, in an ancient land called Andalusia, Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived happily together. Nor does it prevent the sentimental and sloppy, such as Menocal, from adding their embarrassing mites. If I were she, I would try to recall all copies of the book, or at least publicly announce that she will never, ever, publish a book without doing her homework again — and write that on the blackboard at the Whitney Humanities Center 100 times, to be followed by a lesser mea culpa from Fouad Ajami for the blurb he gave her. If he does not know the truth about Andalusian Spain, he is certainly capable of learning it.
The Myth of Andalusia originates in the Western Romantic movement. And it is also linked with the human need to believe in a Golden Age. In the Western world, this myth has been summed up by Harry Levin in his essay on “The Myth of the Golden Age in the Renaissance.” (The same “myth of the Golden Age” has a Muslim version — the Sunna or behavior of Muhammad, and the kind of life the Prophet and the Companions led, which was perfect in all respects).
And nowadays, in an age which we think of as tough-minded, realistic, skeptical, and so on, the dreamily romantic mythmaking about Islam lives on for geopolitical reasons. It is difficult to face reality and a threat that will not disappear — not through word-conjuring, nor logic-chopping, nor further protesting-too-much that Islam is a “religion of peace and tolerance.” Too much evidence, and more of it every day, suggests the opposite.
So we are left with a myth of Al-Andaluz that requires ignorance of the facts to survive, and many — Menocal is hardly alone, and hardly the worst offender — are happy to oblige. Yet even these romanticizers who write of Al-Andaluz as the great exemplar of tolerance also consider it to be, at best, a unique example in the long 1400-year history of Islam — which already is a way of admitting that the treatment of non-Muslims under Islam in general was not a paradise of “tolerance” and fruitful mutual accommodation. In all of the history of Islam, the story of Muslim Spain is that only one where there is even a colorable claim for “tolerance.”
How pleasant it would be to make of history what it was not. How wonderful to think that at least once, just once, in the whole long history of Muslim conquest, there really was one spot where there was real tolerance — not the tolerance that is purchased by the Christians and Jews through payment of the jizya and submission in a hundred ways to a crushing regime of permanent degradation, humiliation, and physical insecurity. No wonder it is not only non-Muslims who like to imagine such a world, but also those Muslims who feel they must stick with Islam, they cannot jettison that belief-system with which their entire civilization, their ancestors, and they themselves are so identified. These believers must create, or must believe in, a mythical world of past tolerance that is now being “ruined” by these Bin Ladens and the others who have “hijacked a great religion.”
Oh, the Will to Believe is strong. One wants to believe in Eden, and Santa Claus, and Endless Peace (das ewige Frieden), and once upon a time living happily ever after, in the thrice-nine kingdom, over hill and down dale, and the princesse lointaine awakened by her prince, and in the “buzzin’ of the bees/In the cigarette trees/Near the soda water fountain/At the lemonade springs/Where the bluebird sings/On the big rock candy mountain.”
Dream-worlds do no harm — except in cases of civilizational peril. If dreams about the past or the present prevent sensible measures from being taken to prevent mass war, and to prevent the disappearance of one’s own imperfect, silly, but still-worth-defending Infidel civilization, then the hollowness of those dream-worlds, whether the creation of Romantic writers or of slapdash historians, aided by a publishing industry without standards, must be exposed.
The reality of Muslim Spain should be based on a familiarity with Levi-Provencal and other scholars of that period. One’s views should not consist of repeating phrases about “how wonderfully people of all faiths got along in Andalusia — gosh, why can’t we just do that again?” Schoolgirl gush is not permissible in current grim circumstances. Some “congress of dialogue.” Some “springwell (sic) for the enlightement.” Some convivencia.