Sunday, February 18, 2007

Legend & history   posted by Razib @ 2/18/2007 08:55:00 AM

A few months ago a friend made an offhand comment about how they were on the side of the "Andalusian model." His assumption was that Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain, was far superior in its method of dealing with religious pluralism than Christian Spain. I've read a fair amount of popular & scholarly work on this period and region, and the reality is more complex than the hype. The friend holds a Ph.D. in a social science from Harvard and has a position as an assistant professor at a moderately elite university. He isn't an uintelligent individual. I tried to communicate to him a few general points:

1) Religious pluralism was a reality in both Christian and Muslim Spain

2) Subordination at the expense of the religion promoted by the the elite was the norm throughout this period

3) Persecution of Jews occurred both in Muslim & Christian Spain

4) One can see a general trend where the dominant religion, whether it be Christianity or Islam, tends to become less tolerant when its numbers are great enough to dispense with accommodation with the majority (or what has become a minority)

The issue that I had was that my friend was making an identity between Muslim Spain and the post-Enlightenment West in regards to freedom of religion when that freedom did not exist in the former. Al-Andalus' tolerance only exists on a relative scale in comparison to the later Spanish expulsion of Jews, Morsicos (crypto-Muslims) and persecution of religious nonconformists (Protestants). The expulsion of Jews from Spain looms large in our minds because of its recency (and its memory in the Sephardic Diaspora), but the pogroms in Muslim Spain during the 10th or 12th centuries were nothing to sneeze at. Similarly, Jews and Muslims played roles in the life of Christian states throughout the transitionary period from 1000 to 1500 (e.g., Muslim soldiers were employed by Christian kings). It would not be factually incorrect to romanticize some of the medieval Spanish kindgoms set against the oppressive nature of the Spanish monarchy after 1492.

There are two major issues that loom in the background for me. First, was Al-Andalus more tolerant than Christian Spain? Let's say we evaluate the period between 700 and 1800. If you construct a "persecution" index with a host of parameters (e.g., expectation someone is subject to a pogrom in any give year, etc.) I would probably bet on Al-Andalus. That is, integrating over the time from conquest to reconquest religious minorities might have had a better time of it in Muslim Spain than Christian Spain from 700 to 1800. That being said, the difference is quantitative, not qualitative. Second, one needs to put the contextual issues on the table. Muslims were a small minority in their domains for the first few centuries of Al-Andalus, so it was simply not practically feasible to engage in excessive religious persecution. Similarly, afer the Visigothic monarchy converted to Catholic Christianity from the Arian sect in the 6th century there seems to have been more persecution of Jews. Why? Was Catholicism fundamentally more anti-Semitic than Arianism? I suspect not, rather, the Visigothic elite before their conversion were a religious minority, and as such they were in no position to use the ideology of religious conformity to support their rule since they themselves were at variance with the majority confession. After their conversion to Catholicism they had nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by engaging in religious intolerance as it solidified their rule and identification with the religious majority whom they had so recently joined. Similarly, the Catholic rulers of the Iberian peninsula did not become any less tolerant over the five centuries of the reconquest, the demographic balance of power shifted from Muslims to Christians (just as Christians had once converted to Islam, so Muslims who lived under Christian rule slowly converted over time to Christianity).1 What people tend to do with cultures in a historical context is similar to what they do with individuals in regards to the Fundamental Attribution Error. Instead of Muslim or Christian tolerance & intolerance emerging out of the situation, they become reduced to cultural essences. My friend had internalized and essence of Muslim Spanish culture that it was "tolerant" as a matter of principle when in reality it seems more a matter of pragmatism. The reconquista states also engaged in this pragmatism for centuries before the expulsions and forced conversions began. Conversely, during times of chaos and stress, and when Muslims had attained numerical dominance, Jews and Christians also were on the receiving end of Islamic persecution.

Which brings me to my final point: attitudes and sentiments about Muslim Spain are not about history or an analysis of the data, they are about the beliefs we hold about the modern world in regards to the values we deem to be precious. That is, my friend, scholar though he is, was not really interested in the nature of life in medieval Spain, he was making a comment about his adherence to the principle of religious toleration and the separation of church & state. Muslim Spain is simply a notional marker, a signal, the historical details are pretty much irrelevant, it is the legend that matters. I bring my friend's educational qualifications up because this is a person who is intellectual in orientation, but in hindsight I realize that bringing up the minutiae of historical detail is pointless, and fundamentally a distraction for him. The history is grist for the mill of ideology, not a thing in and of itself. An analogy might be the Bible, no matter the reality of the scholarship Christians will extract from the text and historical details points of relevance to them and their daily lives. Similarly, conservatives and liberals will take from the life of Thomas Jefferson the slices which are relevant to them, no matter the reality of the sum total of his beliefs and sentiments.

This does not mean we can not glean reality from the past, and understand how it was. Rather, I am implying that for most humans such scholarly points of detail are not important, the past is a fiction which simply allows them to justify their own ideals with a more ancient patina. Of course, on this blog I do insist upon fidelity to reality as we understand it. It is simply an acknowledgement of reality and its power than I concede that historical accuracy is of little concern to most, and so it shall ever be.

1 - The Moriscos expelled in 1600 were crypto-Muslims who could not be assimilated into the Spanish state because of the nominal nature of their Catholicism. But, that does not mean that all Muslims living under Spanish rule were destined to become Moriscos, rather, it seems likely that the great majority converted, just as many Jews became Catholics.

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