Madrid - Spain is marking the 400th anniversary of the expulsion of some 300,000 Moriscos - Muslim converts to Christianity - in what is being described as an early precedent for European operations of ethnic cleansing.
The anniversary on Thursday of the expulsion order, which was signed on April 9, 1609, follows a meeting in Istanbul of the United Nations' Alliance of Civilizations project, a brainchild of the Spanish and Turkish prime ministers, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Official commemorations expressing regret for the expulsion of the Moriscos would be in line with the Alliance of Civilizations, which seeks to increase understanding between the West and the Muslim world, novelist Jose Manuel Fajardo wrote recently.
Some events, including conferences, exhibitions and book launches, are indeed being organized.
On the whole, however, 'official and academic Spain has withdrawn into the fortress of a cautious silence, which reveals its obvious discomfort,' novelist Juan Goytisolo observed.
Spain's Muslim history began in the 8th century with the arrival of conquerors, who became known as Moors, from North Africa and Arabia.
The Moors ruled parts of the Iberian Peninsula for eight centuries, bringing cultural advances and living in a relative peace with the local Christians and Jews for much of the time.
The so-called Christian reconquest of Spain was in fact a kind of civil war, because many of the Muslims of al-Andalus - as Moorish Spain was known - were by then of local origin, Moroccan expert Said Jedidi pointed out.
The reconquest was completed in 1492, when the last Moorish bastion, Granada, fell to Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella.
That same year, Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were ordered to leave Spain, but the agreed conditions of Granada's surrender initially guaranteed Muslims the practice of their faith and customs.
However, forced conversions to Christianity soon followed around the country, along with orders to abandon the Arab language, names or dress.
Many of the nominal Christians nevertheless persisted in their Muslim ways, defying attempts to create a homogenous state. There were doubts about their loyalty to the crown, and the Inquisition persecuted them.
In 1609, at a moment when a politically and economically weakened Philip III needed a victory over an internal enemy, his regime decided to expel the Moriscos from the kingdom.
From September onwards, the Spaniards of Muslim origin began to be shipped to North Africa in a well-oiled operation.
The expulsion, which lasted from 1609 to 1614, was 'the first European precedent of the... ethnic cleansings of the last century,' Goytisolo writes.
It took place in 'brutal conditions,' including killings of people who did not want to leave, explained the renowned Spanish novelist, who lives in the Moroccan city of Marrakech.
The majority of the Moriscos settled in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, where their descendants still take pride in their 'Andalusian' heritage.
Traces of the common heritage are visible not only in North Africa, but also in Spain, from architecture and music to cooking and crafts. The Spanish language has thousands of words of Arab origin.
However, an 'official one-dimensional version' of the Spanish identity was 'imposed' for centuries, equating Spanishness with being Catholic and conservative, Fajardo wrote.
Today, Spain's Moorish past is often used for ideological purposes, ranging from al-Qaeda calls for a Muslim reconquest of al- Andalus to visions of Moorish Spain as an idyllic paradise of multiculturalism.
A movement involving some Moroccan historians, Spanish and international Muslim groups wants to Spain to apologize for the expulsion of the Moriscos, and to make some gesture of compensation.
Many historians now concede that the forced conversions and the expulsion signified a major cultural and economic loss for Spain. An official recognition of that loss is, however, not on the government's agenda.
- Hussam Ayloush
- Hussam has been a lifelong human rights activist who is passionate about promoting democratic societies, in the US and worldwide, in which all people, including immigrants, workers, minorities, and the poor enjoy freedom, justice, economic justice, respect, and equality. Mr. Ayloush frequently lectures on Islam, media relations, civil rights, hate crimes and international affairs. He has consistently appeared in local, national, and international media. Full biography at: http://hussamayloush.blogspot.com/2006/08/biography-of-hussam-ayloush.html