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Reconquista Mythology in 21st-Century Iberia

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the Spanish government seeking to make amends for the expulsion of the Sephardic Jewish community in 1492. One of the ways in which it has sought to do so is by extending Spanish citizenship to any living descendant of the Sephardim. Of course, the manner and parameters of this offer (which still has not been approved by Spanish parliament) remain unclear, but it appears that the Spanish state is attempting to rectify one of the darkest chapters of its history. However, some people have rightly pointed to a clear double-standard of the Spanish state since it has failed to either discuss or even contemplate a similar offer in the case of the descendants of the Iberian Muslims forcibly Christianized in 1502 and expelled in 1609-1614, the so-called Moriscos, of whom at least 1-3 million reside in North Africa.Worse, certain Spanish politicians have not only ruled out the possibility of doing so, but have also gone out of their way to justify the murder, systematic torture, forcible conversion, mass expulsions of the Iberian Muslim community that took place between 1502 and 1614. They have also sought to deny that the treatment of the Hispano-Muslims during the 15th, 16th and 17th century constituted persecution, preferring instead to reaffirm old myths and emphasize that the expulsions were simply security measures taken during a time of war. This refusal to consider the atrocities committed against Iberian Muslims certainly needs to be questioned.

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A recent example of this misrepresentation of history:

http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-Features/Following-Spanish-law-for-Jewish-return-Muslims-demand-equal-terms-341982

“Portuguese lawmakers who drafted the country’s law on Sephardic Jews rejected calls to naturalize the descendants of Muslims who were expelled, citing the fact that the expulsion of the Muslims was part of a war to end the occupation of Spain by North African invaders.

“Persecution of Jews was just that, while what happened with the Arabs was part of a conflict,” Jose Ribeiro e Castro, a Spanish lawmaker who drafted Portugal’s law of return, said. ”There’s no basis for comparison.”

Mr. Ribeiro e Castro (who, unsurprisingly, was the leader of the Portuguese Partido Popular, a Christianist conservative party), a 21st-century Portuguese politician, had the audacity to actually justify and rationalize a policy that religiously and ethnically-cleansed Spain of its 900-year old Muslim population through massacres, forced conversion, enslavement and mass expulsion. Moreover, as if justifying these horrendous policies is not problematic enough, he resorts to historical fabrication to make his point. Like many have done before him, he seeks to emphasize the supposed “foreignness” of the Iberian Muslims in order to paint a picture of an embattled and indigenous Christian society fighting against a brutal ruling caste of foreign Muslim conquerors, an 800-year struggle that culminated in the latter being legitimately conquered, converted and expelled “back to Africa.” As appealing as this narrative may seem to many people, it is simply false. Yes, there was a Muslim conquest of Iberia in 711 and yes, there was a Christian conquest of al-Andalus which ended in 1492, but aside from these basic facts, the “Reconquista” narrative is far too simplistic, overlooks key aspects of the political and cultural history of medieval Iberia, and is largely a historiographical construction that gained currency during the early years of the Spanish empire in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Obviously, there is a lot more that needs to be said on this issue, but this is not the place. It is merely important to underscore that this paradigm is very problematic.

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Regarding the alleged “foreignness” of the Iberian Muslims, even a basic study of the demographics, culture, and society of medieval Iberia shows that a substantial component (even the majority, according to some historians) of the Muslims of Spain and Portugal were actually indigenous to the country (or, more accurately, as indigenous as those peoples who came to be known as Castilians, Catalans, and Portuguese). Many of these Muslims were actually speakers of Castilian, Catalan or Portuguese. It seems that, like many ignorant individuals before him, Mr. Ribeiro e Castro seems to have assumed that being a Muslim automatically makes one an Arab. Arab/Berber settlers who made up the initial class of conquerors numbered no more than 30-40,000 (this is the very high-end estimate) and the bulk of the Muslim population of al-Andalus/medieval Iberia was made up of Hispano-Romans or Visigothic converts. As early as the eleventh century and most certainly by the late fifteenth century  intermarriage and acculturation had produced a completely unique society that was composed of all these elements. However, but if we were to speak in “ethnic” terms (and, generally, we should not), then it becomes obvious that the Muslim community of al-Andalus was at least as “Spanish” as the northern Christians who eventually conquered the peninsula. This has all been extensively studied and well-documented. Moreover, to speak in terms of “indigenous” and “foreign” also implies the existence of an established cultural entity known as “Spain,” whereas in fact medieval Iberia was composed of well over a dozen “ethnic” and linguistic groups, which were eventually homogenized into a coherent, single unit during the course of the early modern period. The suppression of Iberia’s Muslim and Jewish heritage was actually part of this process.

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Hispano-Muslim, or Andalusi, culture was largely bilingual, with Arabic being the dominant mode of cultural expression among the Muslim community. These facts are obviously completely ignored in favor of a (false) narrative in which “Spain” was “occupied” by “invaders”. Spain, of course, being identified as a primordial Castilian, Christian nation to the exclusion of everything else. It seems that Mr. Ribeiro e Castro is drawing upon outdated and xenophobic notions rooted in “Reconquista” and “limpieza de sangre” (Purity of Blood) mythology to justify the clear double-standards. A better approach for him to have taken would have been to honestly declare his opposition to the possibility of a significant number of Muslims being granted Spanish citizenship. The reduction of 900-years of Islamic civilization in Iberia to “North African occupation” is not only deeply ignorant, but is actually reflective of the problematic, ultra-nationalistic narratives that apparently remain alive and well in certain quarters in Spain and Portugal.

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Let me clarify: the Spanish government has the right to deny the descendants of the Moriscos the right to citizenship. Personally, I do not feel that extending citizenship to any group, whether Sephardim or Moriscos, can rectify the historical injustice that these communities were subjected to by the early modern Spanish state. I also do not think that giving millions of Muslims Spanish citizenship is a practical option, given the nature of Spain’s fiscal and political situation. However, I do feel that it is important to challenge these politicians when they attempt to put forth a baseless historical narrative. It is really problematic that in order to legitimize their decision they feel the need to falsify a narrative in which Muslim communities of Iberia (misleadingly identified with the inaccurate and racialized term “Arab” or, worse, “Moor”)–some of which existed for almost 950 years!–were legitimately destroyed as part of a war with North Africa (a substantial portion of which was actually ruled or “occupied” by Spain between 1497 and 1750). More troubling is the skirting over the fact that many of those Moriscos expelled were actually genuine and faithful Christians (as a result of a policy of forced, systematic conversion carried out over three generations). Even the Spanish debates surrounding the expulsion of the Moriscos in the late-sixteenth century exhibited far more nuance than this law-maker.

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For anyone interested in the actual historical context and the reality of the Moriscos (which, in many ways, did indeed parallel the fate of the Conversos or Sephardim), see the following works:

James S. Amelang, Parallel Histories: Muslims and Jews in Inquisitorial Spain. 2013.

Matthew Carr. Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain. 2009.

Anwar G. Chejne. Islam and the West: The Moriscos, a Social and Cultural History. 1983

L.P. Harvey. Muslims in Spain, 1500-1614. 2006.

Kevin Ingram ed, The Conversos and Moriscos in Late Medieval Spain and Beyond: The Morisco Issue. 2012

Henry Charles Lea. The Moriscos: Their Conversion and Expulsion. 1901.

I also highly recommend this article by Roger Boase: https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2012/08/17/the-muslim-expulsion-from-spain-an-early-example-of-religious-and-ethnic-cleansing-by-roger-boase/


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