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March 14, 2004

Madrid now, what next?

I don't like to comment about current politics/affairs much because I don't know jack shit more than the average blogger about this stuff, frankly less since I tend to tune it out. But...in this case, I'm going to go out on a limb and make a few projections.

Next: watch for Sicily or southern Italy.
After that: northern India.


As people have noted, Osama bin Laden has spoken of Al-Andalus, Spain, before. Wahabbis sometimes recall in Al-Andalus' relatively cosmopolitan culture of Christians, Jews and Muslims the lack of Islamic piety that leads to decline and defeat at the hands of infidels. Other Muslims see in Al-Andalus a model for the future, a beacon of light that echoes down through the ages, a remembrance of a time when a Muslim polity left the dhimmi on a loose leash.

Today Islamic Spain is remembered as crucial interface between classical learning and the scholastic renaissance (see Aristotle's Children). I recall a moment years ago when my father was drinking tea with a few friends of his, all educated South Asian Muslims from the eastern edge of the Dar-al-Islam, and a cardiologist wondered out loud, "What happened to Islam that we must make our living here in the West?" The common answer was, "Ah, but we lost Spain!" There was little analysis of this reason given, these were chemists, doctors and engineers, who had no great interest in the details of Al-Andalus' intellectual life, the prominence of Jews, the relative marginality of figures such as Ibn Rushid (Averroes) in Muslim thought after the victory of Al-Ghazali. Al-Andalus is a magic word, a treasure of causative power that explains the great paradox, why does God give material prosperity to unbelievers? They stole it! The details, the realities, of Muslim Spain do not matter, it is rather a potent symbol in Islamic collective mythology on the popular level.

Moving beyond historical memories, the targeting of Spain for atrocity seems peculiar to me insofar as England is the most loyal vassal of the "Great Satan." Perhaps there were security concerns, it seems that England has a far larger Muslim community than Spain, which could cut either way. One can not truly know what lurks in the minds of terrorists, but it seems that this hammer-blow against one of the reconquested areas of the Dar-al-Islam was done with purpose.

Islam has retreated in particular locales in the past 1400 years. Russia
and the Balkans were under Muslim hegemony during the period of Turkish ascendency. But neither of these areas produced a great cultural efflorescence that is remembered with fondness from one edge of Eurasia to the other.

On the other hand, Al-Andalus and northern India, were thriving Muslim civilizations that evoke memories of grandeur. The irony about the creation of "Pakistan" in 1947 was that it excluded the precious hearth of Muslim South Asian civilization, the region of the upper Gangentic plain where Moghul poetry and architecture thrived. Islamic militants already engage in jihad against India through Kashmir. A third target that I think might be possible, in light of the attacks on Spain and the reasons given concerning support for the Iraq invasion, are Sicily & southern Italy, which like Spain were centers of Muslim civilization, before their conquest by Norman warlords.

But we must remember about Al Qaeda and its members is that though they might display the appearence of historical memory, what they espouse is a very modern day mythology, rooted in a few basic facts. Note above that the Muslims I have heard speak of Spain did not envision a reconquest, or imagine that if a land was once part of the Dar-al-Islam, it always was, rather, they mourned the passing of the dominance of the civilization that they associate themselves with. Nevertheless, they understand that the "magic" of the days of old can not be recaptured by conquest of the lands where that magic manifested itself most gloriously 1000 years ago. The paradox still exists, why did Allah decree plentitude for non-Muslims, but various groups will come to different conclusions. The resolution and emergence of a dominant model will have ramifications for us all.

Posted by razib at 12:30 PM