Here is an English version of my Arabic article, the Road to Barcelona, initially published in Arabic in Al-Hurra
Photo of King of Spain attending minute of silence for victims of Barcelona’s Terror attacks- Via NYT/Getty Images
Al-Andalus, Year 1010 – Muhammed II appealed for aid from two Catalonian leaders, the count of Barcelona and the count of Urgel, to regain Cordoba from his rival Sulayman. A raging civil war was unfolding in Cordoba. Muhammad II initially dethroned his cousin, Caliph Hisham II, in 1009, but the Berber generals of the Umayyad army preferred Sulayman. With Catalonian help, Muhammed II prevailed, but he was later assassinated, and the civil war [fitna] continued for years. It ultimately ended the Umayyad rule in Cordoba.
Last week’s horrific terror attack in Barcelona invoked memories of several discussions I had in the past with many Islamists. As a rule of thumb, the word “Al-Andalus” would always be mentioned in any conversation with any Islamist, regardless of his affiliation.
During 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympic, my praising of the hosting city did not please an Islamist acquaintance. It triggered a long debate on various topics – from why revealing sport clothes are forbidden for women to why we Muslims should not be fascinated by the West. Al-Andalus, off course, was mentioned, with the usual romanticism of the golden era. But he casually added an intriguing sentence, “even the Catalans killed Muslims.”
It took me years to discover the historical origin behind his twisted allegation. Only a sick mind would see this brief historical encounter as an example of Christians killing Muslims. Inter-Arab divisions and Arab–Berber rivalry were the main reasons behind the civil war in Cordoba. The Christian role in the war (Catalans or other) was a secondary detail.
A misguided perception, prevalent in the Arab world, is that radical ideology is irrelevant to them. That is not entirely true. Although the actual culprits behind Barcelona’s terror attacks may be ignorant, radical Islamists base their actions on a wider, well-established political Islamist ideology that has its own interpretations of Islamic history and is specifically obsessed with Al-Andalus.
Two moths ago, on June 11, Egyptian Islamist Ayman Khamis spoke on the Turkey-based Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood channel Mekameleen TV and described Al-Andalus as an occupied land, adding, “We shall take Al-Andalus back from Spain just like we shall take Palestine back from the Jews.”
In their quest to dominate the political scene, Islamists needed an example from the past in support of their claim that a Sharia-based governance can be multicultural and successful. With that goal in mind, Al-Andalus has become an important pillar of the Islamist propaganda machine. Islamists beautify the past, cherry-pick historical details, and enrich themselves with religious justifications.
This propaganda machine, however, does not exist in a vacuum. Islamists exploit a much wider nostalgia, which is prevalent among ordinary Arabs, toward what they perceive as their “golden age” of Islam. But while ordinary Muslims are proud of the open, tolerant history of Al-Andalus with its romantic poems, music, and architecture, political Islamists focus on the religious domination and how it had once been a road for empowerment.
Amidst the endless political turbulence in the Middle East, many see this nostalgia toward Al-Andalus as a benign, harmless, and much-needed morale-boosting exercise to restore the Arab’s faith in his own abilities.
The terror attacks in Barcelona, however, should challenge that naïve assumption. The road to Barcelona started long ago as benign nostalgia to the land of glory, Al-Andalus. Then it has evolved into an obsessive fixation on the past by political Islamists and has now taken a dangerous, violent turn by radical groups.
We Arabs have every right to be proud of our past civilisations, but we should not let our pride distract us from historical understanding. Our past civilisations were not perfect. Al-Andalus was a land of love and romance but also the land of bloodshed and betrayal. Arab ventured into the Iberian Peninsula with deep mistrust between them and their Berber cadres. It ultimately led to a destructive civil war that effectively ended the Umayyad rule and paved the way to the final decline.
Arab tourists happily pause next to Granada’s magnificent Alhambra palace, but perhaps a visit to the ruins of Cordoba’s Madina Azahara, and its tragic tale of the medieval civil war, would help them to complete the picture.
Empires rise then eventuality fall. Al-Andalus was no exception. It is not a model that can be replicated. The context in which Al-Andalus existed is impossible to emulate in our modern time. We should not let the Islamists manipulate our psyche. Romanticising the past will neither resurrect it – nor bring a better future for the Arab world.