Islamophobia 2

The printed edition of the Daily Telegraph on Saturday had a review of James Reston Jr, Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition and the Defeat of the Moors. (It doesn’t seem to be on the Telegraph’s website). This discusses the late medieval conquest of Moorish Spain by Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. The review concludes with the following statement:

I find it hard to gave a monkey’s about the loss of Al Andalus, which was never the multicultural paradise portrayed by today’s hand-wringing apologists for Islamism. The Moors, were, after all invaders. But the expulsion of the Jews was a different matter…

Damian Thompson, the author of the review describes the expulsion of the Jews from the reunited Christian Spanish kingdom as an ‘outrage’ and a ‘cowardly, fanatical and pointless act’. This makes it clear what his values are: persecution of Jews bad, persecution of Muslims, fine.

A positive valuation of the Spanish Arab states didn’t start with apologists for Islam. William Chester Jordan, Europe in the High Middle Ages (2001) argues that it started with nineteenth or twentieth century liberal or anti-clerical Spanish scholars, looking at a backward Spanish society and imaging a time when the Church was less powerful. Jordan, however, still sees the Muslim period as marked by ‘less violence’ than the later Middle Ages with its Christian political domination.

I don’t know the specific details of treatment of Christians and Jews in Arabic Spain, but there was a general pattern in the Islamic world of discrimination combined with limited toleration. Christians and Jews had to pay additional taxes and there were also some restrictions on their religious practice. They were not, for example, allowed to carry out missionary work, there were often not allowed to build new churches/synagogues, have church bells or generally have a very visible presence. Otherwise, the religious minorities were more or less left alone. As a result, Christian and Jewish minorities survived for centuries in Muslim ruled countries (some still survive today, such as the Jews in Iran). The fifteenth century Spanish Christian state, by contrast, could not endure such religious minorities. The Jews were expelled or forcibly converted. Jews who did convert were often later persecuted by the Inquisition, who mistrusted their sincerity. The pattern with Muslims was similar. There were attempts to forcibly convert Moors after 1492, against the treaty agreed at the capitulation of Granada. In 1502 Muslims who refused to accept Christianity were expelled from Spain. The poor treatment continued and in the early seventeenth century Philip III expelled around 250,000 Moriscoes (descendants of Muslims who had converted) to Africa.

Even if you go by the extremely limited criterion of treatment of the Jews, the reconquista of 1492 replaced an Arab state which tolerated Jews with a Spanish state that ethically cleansed or killed them. Why does Thompson feel this is positive? His answer is that the Moors were ‘invaders’. This calls for an analogy. Suppose I were to say: ‘I find it hard to gave a monkey’s if the USA disappeared, which is not the multicultural paradise portrayed by today’s hand-wringing apologists. The white Americans, were, after all invaders.’ I would, rightly, be regarded as a nutter and a vicious one at that. The obvious point is that while white Americans may have conquered and colonised North America, that was over 300 years ago. It is irrational to claim that their descendants deserve to be punished for this act. The Moors, however, hadn’t been in Spain for 300 years in 1492. They had conquered it in 711, nearly 800 years previously. I suspect that due to intermarriage and voluntary conversion, the population of Muslim Spain was probably more genetically Spanish than Arab or Berber, as far as such ethnic labels make any sense at all. The Moors were as Spanish as any Castilian.

Except not for the casual Islamophobes so prevalent in today’s West. Muslims once conquered Christian territory, so violence against them is eternally justified. For them the European Muslim can never be more than an anomaly, however long established, can never be assimilated while maintaining their religion. He or she is the eternal Other, an object of suspicion and fear, a replacement for the medieval European figure of the Jew. I hope this time it takes less than European genocide of a religious minority to realise that such thinking is a bad idea.


3 thoughts on “Islamophobia 2

  1. Thanks for that! It was insightful. Funny how, when Christianity is an official religion, the state is intolerant towards other religious groups! I’m not sure if Jesus would approve of that…


  2. What a shockingly unsympathetic review! I’ve always had an admiration for Islamic culture since visiting the Alhambra in Granada many ears ago. In fact there’s a touring exhibition I hope to see Palace and Mosque:Islamic Art from the
    Victoria and Albert Museum

    Knowing little Spanish history I found another review by Giles Milton of The Washington Post which is much more balanced –


    • …continued (rest of my comment got lost)

      The debt that modern Europe and America owe to Spain’s Islamic empire of Al Andalus is an unfashionable subject and — given today’s political climate — likely to remain so. Yet Reston rightly argues that some of the greatest achievements of the early Renaissance, including the discoveries of Columbus, were conceived in medieval Al Andalus. Islamic scholars translated Arabic science and mathematics into Latin and enriched the language with new words — “zero,” “algebra” and “elixir” all come from Arabic.

      Giles Milton, The Washington Post.


      Reston points out in his prologue that the bombers who killed 191 Spanish commuters on March 11, 2004, justified their actions by invoking the defeat of the Moorish caliphate in 1492. The events in Dogs of God may have taken place more than 500 years ago, but there are times when they seem chillingly, worryingly familiar.

      Another example (for me at any rate) how history is constantly viewed in the light of thinking today.


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