Europe and the “Identité” Problem
Last week, in the French city of Nantes, an Islamic woman
was fined for wearing a “full veil” while driving. The affair made headlines
when France’s Minister of the
Interior, Brice Hortefeux, investigated the woman’s husband,
accusing him of polygamy. “The man sleeps with four women,” one reader wrote
to Le Figaro, “but he’s only married to one. If that’s illegal, half
the men in France should be
All over Europe, the nervousness
is palpable. Last November, Switzerland forbade the
construction of mosque minarets. The Turkish bid for membership in the
European Union keeps running into roadblocks. A prominent Dutch politician,
accused of racism, publicly defends himself: “I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam.”
His constituency applauds.
This happened once before, this invasion. Schoolchildren from Rome to Oslo still read about
the heroic exploits of El Cid, Roland, and Charlemagne against evil
“Saracens.” The centuries-long medieval conflict was overtly – and
“heroically” – a war to prove whose God was greatest.
Despite the much-touted chivalry, honor, and courage of
Christian knights, the Islamic Moors, marching north from Africa, easily invaded Spain and part of France in the early
eighth century. They ruled an ever-shrinking slice of southwestern Europe for almost eight
centuries. The Christians in adjacent lands never accepted them as
established rulers but saw them, to use the modern parlance, as illegitimate
“occupiers.” Viewed from France or England, commented upon by
troubadors and priests, Mohammed was by turns the Antichrist or God’s scourge
against a sinful Christendom. His followers were idol-worshiping pagans.
Consistency and logic were never the hallmarks of medieval romance.
But in “occupied” Spain itself, something
surprising happened. For a time, at least, when Christians, Jews, and Muslims
traded with each other, exchanged knowledge, and rubbed shoulders, they found
they had a great deal in common and even that they could all profit by
learning to respect each other and work together.
The Moors had a natural ally in the large and culturally
significant Jewish population, which had dwelled in Spain longer than either
the Christians or the Muslims. Prior to the Islamic invasion, Jews had been
severely oppressed by the Christian Visigoths. In certain regions, to
preserve their lives and faith, some (perhaps most) Jews aided the Moorish
invaders. The Moors initially rewarded them with a cultural and religious
pluralism unusual in that day, and the Jews of the great cities – most
notably, Cordoba, Toledo, and Granada – prospered.
Jewish merchants, philosophers, poets, physicians, statesmen, and even
military generals allied themselves with the interests of their Arab and
It would be misleading to apply the term “tolerance,” in its
contemporary sense, to any dominant culture of that period. No one expected a
dominant culture to treat a subjugated culture as its equal. Concepts such as
equal rights, opportunity, and justice did not exist within the mainstream of
Christian or Islamic political philosophy. Dhimmi status – that is, the
status of the “protected” faiths under Islam – Christianity and Judaism – was
precarious. The same culture that produced a famous Jewish vizier in Granada in the eleventh
century also crucified him and then massacred the Jews of Granada.
This was hardly an isolated event. Nevertheless, Spain remained uniquely
multicultural from the eighth through the twelfth centuries. Flavors from the
three great religious and cultural traditions blended into a rich cultural
stew. The seeds of the European Renaissance germinated in Spanish soil.
After the fall of the Roman empire, classical thought
had been stifled in Europe but preserved in
the Middle East. Now, the thinking of Plato and Aristotle
flowed back into Europe, filtered, commented upon, and critiqued
by brilliant Islamic scholars including Alkindus, Avicenna, and Al Gazali.
Jewish thinkers translated and expanded upon the scholarship of these Islamic
philosophers and their classical predecessors. Yehuda Halevi, Ibn Gabirol,
Moses Maimonides, and others contributed masterpieces of their own. Later
Christian theorists, including Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas,
acknowledged their debt to the Muslim Averroes and the Jew Maimonides.
As Christianity slowly reconquered southwestern Europe, it initially
preserved this multi-cultural status quo, at least with regard to the Jews,
who were not perceived as a threat by comparison with the Muslims. Thus, in
the thirteenth century, Ferdinand III of Castile pushed back the
Moors, but Aragon and Castile remained the only
kingdoms in all Christendom where Jewish commercial and intellectual activity
continued unrestricted. However, as Christian domination grew more absolute
and the Moors retreated further, minority freedoms diminished across the
board. By the end of the fourteenth century, Christian domination was
absolute. Not only was Islam suppressed; throughout Spain, Jews were forced
to convert or massacred in a series of pogroms which created a class of New
Christians or conversos.
By the late fifteenth century, Islam in Europe had withdrawn to
the tiny emirate of Granada, where political
rivalries eroded defensive capabilities. Queen Isabella correctly perceived
that the conquest of Granada would solve her
own serious financial and political problems, but she lacked the means to
bring it about. Enter King Ferdinand of Aragon. He too saw opportunity
glistening at the southern tip of Spain; but his kingdom was too small and
distant to take on Granada alone. Together, they formed a pact.
To raise money for the battle, Ferdinand and Isabella developed
a mechanism for plundering the wealth of their own people. That mechanism
became known, in time, as the Spanish Inquisition.
By that time, conversos had come to dominate the wealthy
merchant and professional class of Castile and Aragon. Aristocrats and
peasants alike resented their ascendancy. By accusing New Christians of
insincerity in their recently acquired faith, the Spanish Inquisition
justified the seizure of their wealth. Breaking with Christian tradition,
Isabella and Ferdinand fought hard for the right to appoint high-ranking
prelates and inquisitors themselves, and to divide seized converso wealth
exclusively between the Spanish Church and the Crown, bypassing the
degenerate and weak papacy.
In other words, the Spanish Inquisition was not a fight of
Christianity against Judaism. It was class warfare. The Church of Spain was a
weapon in the hands of those who wanted to preserve the feudal order against
the rise of a new, largely converso bourgeoisie.
518 years ago almost to this day (April 24th, 1491),
Ferdinand and Isabella launched their final assault against the capital of
Granada. Nine months later, the last Islamic political entity in Western
Europe was no more.
By that time, the royal coffers of Castile and Aragon were once
again depleted. Not wishing to sell off any of their new real estate,
including the magnificent Alhambra castle, Isabella and Ferdinand found
another source of wealth to steal. By expelling all the Jews from Spain, and
forbidding them to export any gold or silver, the monarchs were able to
consolidate their hegemony over the vast regions they now controlled. The
gold of the New World – whose discovery had largely been financed by conversos
– constituted yet another immense resource to plunder. Isabella and
Ferdinand laid the foundations of a great empire.
In the process, they lost a huge portion of their merchant and
intellectual class. Centuries later, when colonial expansion and massive
theft became untenable as sources of wealth – to be replaced by industry and
expanded trade – Spain was left in the dust.
However, it wasn’t until after the Holocaust that Europe began
seriously reconsidering its ancient traditions of intolerance and cultural
uniformity. Climbing out from under the rubble and the piles of dead Jews,
the good Christians of Germany and France asked themselves how they had
descended into such barbarity. Haunted by memories of the Crusades and the reconquista,
they knew the answer. And so they set about enacting anti-hate laws and
promoting a new tradition of pluralism.
On a recent trip to Belgium, I ventured into the Islamic
neighborhoods of Brussels. “Is Europe becoming Islamic?” I asked the barrista
in a café, a clerk in an Internet-phone rental shop, a salesperson from whom
I bought a pound of sahli olives for my wife. “For sure,” the younger
people told me proudly. “Look around. It’s only a matter of time.” The older
man – the olive merchant – just shrugged.
Under the laws of post-World-War-II Europe, this invasion
cannot be stopped. However, it is understandable that many Europeans fear the
rise of a cultural and religious force that, in Saudi Arabia and Iran,
brutally suppresses dissent and diversity.
As the three great western cultures continue to intermix, let
us pray the result will be a fruitful collaboration, as in the best of Golden
Age Spain, rather than violent confrontation.