Europe and the “Identité” Problem

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 arrested.”

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 Berber rulers.

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.