Rational discussions about Cordoba's history

Double arcades in La Mezquita, Cordoba, Spain

More than a few readers have asked us to take another look at a topic we broached last week -- the history of Cordoba, Spain. Historic Cordoba has been in the news because the proposed Islamic center near ground zero is part of what's called the Cordoba Initiative. The center was going to be called Cordoba and its backers said it was in honor of a golden age of interfaith relations. Others were aghast at the name because Muslims conquered Cordoba's Christians. The mosque's backers are now calling it Park 51. I already noted my dislike of the Islamophobia meme spreading through the media. Time's cover this week asks "Is America Islamophobic?" The associated story acknowledges a lack of evidence for the charge, but that's a bit late. In any case, the story's reporter Bobby Ghosh made a tour of cable news last week and one of his appearances caught the eye of more than a few GetReligion readers. I looked for the transcript at CNN but had trouble locating it. Media Research Center, a conservative site that analyzes media, has this transcript of the chat between CNN anchor Ali Velshi and Ghosh in the meantime:

VELSHI: The name Cordoba- some people are associating it with Muslim rule and bloody battles, when, in fact, Cordoba was one of the finest times in relations between the major religions.

GHOSH: Exactly right- in interfaith discourse-


GHOSH: And the great mosque of Cordoba that people are talking about and that Newt Gingrich was talking about- the man who built it, the Muslim prince who built it, bought it from a Christian group- paid money for it and bought it from a Christian group. And there was not a lot of alarm and anger raised then. It's- as I said, we- I'm afraid, at this point, no rational discussion seems possible-

A reader suggested that we look at Reinhart Dozy's book Spanish Islam: A History of the Muslims in Spain to see if this was accurate. Dozy's work is well regarded and he explains, in the section dealing with Cordoba that "In some respects the Arab conquest was even a benefit to Spain; for it brought about an important social revolution, and put an end to many evils under which the country had groaned for centuries." Indeed, "viewed as a whole, the conquest was not a great calamity . . . at least as endurable as that of the Visigoths." But he casts doubt on the idea that Muslims treated the Christian church well.

"Religion, for instance, was free, but the Church was not: she was on the contrary subjected to shameful and grievous servitude."

And his account of the sale of the Cordoba cathedral differs from the Time reporter's (my transcription of page 239):

All the churches in that city had been destroyed except the cathedral, dedicated to S. Vincent, but the possession of this fane had been guaranteed to the Christians by treaty. For several years the treaty was observed; but when the population of Cordoba was increased by the arrival of Syrian Arabs, the mosques did not provide sufficient accommodation for the new-comers, and the Syrians considered that it would be well for them to adopt the plan which had been carried out at Damascus, Emesa, and other towns in their own country, of appropriating half of the cathedral and using it as a mosque. The Government having approved of the scheme, the Christians were compelled to hand over half of the edifice. This was clearly an act of spoliation, as well as an infraction of the treaty. Some years later 'Abd-er-Rahman I requested the Christians to sell him the other half. This they firmly refused to do, pointing out that if they did so they would not possess a single place of worship. 'Abd-er-Rahman, however, insisted, and a bargain was struck, by which the Christians ceded their cathedral for a hundred thousand dinars, but obtained permission to rebuild the churches which had been destroyed. 'Abd-er-Rahman on this occasion acted equitably, but such was not always the case . . .

Other treaties were modified, or abrogated, quite arbitrarily, so that in the ninth century scarcely any traces of them remained. Further, the Moslem divines taught that the Government ought to manifest its zeal for religion by raising the assessment of the tribute exacted from the Christians, and so many extraordinary imposts were levied upon them that in the ninth century the Christians in many cities, including Cordova, were ruined or impoverished (on one occasion, a special contributon of 100,000 dinars was levied on the Cordovan Christians). In other words, that happened in Spain which happened in every other country conquered by the Arabs; their rule, at first mild and humane, degenerated into intolerable despotism.

Yes, this is complex history. No, I don't expect your average Time reporter or CNN anchor to know this level of detail. But perhaps they should not suggest that "no rational discussion" is possible with people who oppose the construction of an Islamic center at ground zero. Particularly if they don't have the firmest grasp on the history they're asserting.

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