CNN offers lyrical view of Islamic Spain. But are crucial details missing from this image?


CNN came out with a longish-piece recently on how Spaniards are rediscovering their Islamic heritage. I’ve been reading up lately on the supposed Andalusian paradise that erupted in Spain under Islamic rule, so I was curious as to how CNN would deal with it.

Their treatment was mostly on how the architecture reflects Islamic rule that began almost exactly 1,306 years ago on July 26, 711, when Muslim armies defeated the Visigoth king of Spain, Rodrigo. In less than a decade, Islam moved across Spain, sending Visigoths fleeing for their lives, if they weren’t killed or forced to convert first.

These armies continued sacking and burning their way through southern and central France until they were defeated by Frankish armies in 732 in the Battle of Tours. Not until the late 11th century –- more than 300 years later -- did Catholic armies begin winning the country back. (This was the era of El Cid).

This is the era that CNN wishes to cover:

As he meanders through the spectacular Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, tour guide Yasin Maymir hones in on a section of ornate patterning on the interior walls.
"Arabic letters, Arabic phrases. There are more than 10,000 all around Alhambra," he proudly says of the inscriptions.
Maymir continues through perfectly manicured gardens and grandiose rooms, occasionally stopping to speak of Islamic philosophies and architectural techniques incorporated into the design.
His fascination is obvious. Yet he believes the finer details of this history may be unfamiliar to many Spaniards.
"In Spain, in the schools," Maymir says, "they would never teach you about the (country's) Islamic history."

The Alhambra is in the photo accompanying this blog post. The article not only touches on Spain’s architecture but also Islamic influences on the traditions of flamenco and Moorish cuisine. This period of conquest, CNN says is:

… often described as unique in terms of its relative religious harmony, with Muslims, Jews and Christians believed to have co-existed side by side for centuries in a multi-faith society.
But some have noted that non-Muslims may have have been regarded as being of inferior social standing at various times. Historian Bernard Lewis cites a document from 12th century Seville in his 1984 book "The Jews of Islam" which stated: "A Muslim must not massage a Jew or Christian nor throw away his refuse or clean his latrines. The Jew and the Christian are better fitted for these trades, since they are the trades of those who are vile."

That’s quite an understatement.

Christian temples were destroyed, those who resisted had their cities burned to the ground and their women taken as sex slaves. Islamic Spain was the Islamic State territory of its time, as there were plenty of Christians and Jews to subdue into dhimmi status, if not killed outright. Dhimmis were extorted for as much money as their masters could wring out of them; their freedom of religion –- or even movement outside certain areas of town -– was severely restricted; they could not display crosses on their person much less on their churches; they had to wear distinctive signs, they had to stand up in the presence of Muslims and the more often than not, their churches were converted into mosques.

If you wish to read up more on what life in Spain was like for Christians and Jews during that era, check out “The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise” by Dario Fernandez-Morera, which is where I got the background for this post. The restrictions on Christians and Jews take up several pages in his book and reveal a state of misery that’s almost unimaginable today.

CNN then brings us up to the present.

Today, Spain is a largely Catholic nation, and not a place widely associated with Islam. Just 2.1% of Spain's 46 million population are Muslim according to 2010 Pew Research Center figures (although this is expected to rise to 3.3% by 2020). Yet look closely and its Moorish heritage can still be glimpsed in the nation's rich cultural fabric.

Undoubtedly, nearly eight centuries of Islamic presence (711-1492) are going to leave their mark on a country and that should definitely be noted. But the article creates a bogeyman in the specter of certain “right-wing groups” opposing such a renaissance.

In recent years, fears have grown among some right-wing groups in Europe that the continent's myriad cultural identities could be eroded by an influx of outsiders, particularly from the Islamic world.
This point of view has been voiced by the likes of the National Front in France and the AFD in Germany. …While Spain today is home to numerous upstart political groups, the country has largely resisted the right-wing populism which has come to the fore in other European nations.

This might be because Spain hasn’t gotten the influx of Muslim refugees and immigrants that other countries have.

A 2016 report from the Elcano Royal Institute think tank found Islamophobia was "relatively weak in Spain."
However, conservative politician Esperanza Aguirre stirred controversy earlier this year when she tweeted that "with Islam we would not have freedom" on the January 2 anniversary of the fall of Granada to Catholic forces in 1492.
A Pew study from 2014, meanwhile, found that 46% of Spaniards had an unfavorable view of Muslims in their country.

Now why is that? Are such sentiments only the work of ignorant people or is there an underlying racial memory of the terror of the Islamic conquest? Or are people thinking of more recent threats by ISIS which was planning attacks on Spain’s tourism hot spots earlier this year?

Centuries ago, Cordoba was under an Islamic caliphate every bit as restrictive as what Syrians have had to endure.

It sounds like any campaign to educate Spaniards on their Islamic history might have some rough going. It would have been more honest of CNN to have started their story from the point of view of a people who suffered a horrible invasion centuries ago. To infer racism or bigotry on the part of those who haven’t forgotten the past is unjust.

Please consider this: CNN wouldn’t dismiss similar concerns about the past by Native Americans, would it? 

It’s easy for us in the Americas to sneer at fearful Europeans. After all, we're not living there.

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