Spain Seeks Answers In Its Arab Past

Roundup: Talking About History

David Sharrock, The Times (London), 06 Oct. 2004

The eyes of Abdul Aziz al-Babtain filled with tears as he walked beneath the horseshoe arches of the Mezquita, one of Islam's greatest architectural jewels, and said:"When the West consider the Arabs, they should think of this."

Six months after the Madrid bombs, when Islamist extremists murdered 191 train passengers, Spain is reopening the debate over its rich Moorish history in a search for answers to why it became a target.

In the old capital of al-Andalus -the Islamic name for the Spain that the Moors occupied -the Spanish Royal Family and the Socialist Government are sponsoring a week of dialogue with the descendants of the country's former rulers.

The inspiration for the event came from Mr al-Babtain, a Kuwaiti businessman with a poetic bent, who holds biannual conferences to promote the Arab world's literary heritage.

Strolling through the famous orange tree patio of Cordoba's former mosque -a cathedral since 1523 -he admitted that the encounter took on a new sense of urgency in the wake of the September 11 and March 11 al-Qaeda terror attacks.

Mr al-Babtain's literary hero is Ibn Zaydun, whose love letters to Princess Wallada, written beneath the walls of the Mezquita, still inspire modern Arabic poets."We were going to hold a conference in Zaydun's honour in Damascus, but after the terrorist attacks I decided that it was vital that we came to his birthplace and try to bridge the gap between our cultures, to show the true face of Islam."

His initiative thrived because it touches still-raw wounds in Spain, where rising unease over Muslim immigrants has fused with the country's sudden sense of vulnerability.

Extra police officers have been dispatched to Spanish cities with a larger than average Muslim population, most of whom arrive from Morocco. Jose Antonio Alonso, the Interior Minister, has announced plans to crack down on the proliferation of mosques and to control their preachers, some of whom preach jihad. This was the same message that al-Qaeda gave after the Madrid bombs, calling for a"holy war" to"liberate al-Andalus".

Spaniards are now torn between clashing ideas. On the one hand, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the Prime Minister, has called for"an alliance of civilisations" between the West and the Islamic world and remains strongly critical of the United States-led war in Iraq.

His predecessor, Jose Maria Aznar, the conservative leader, however, is urging the West, and particularly Spain, to wake to the ambitions of the religious extremists.

"There are those who think that the Madrid attacks are related to the support given by the Spanish Government to the Iraq war," he said at Georgetown University in Washington this month.

"The problem with al-Qaeda came from before that -as long ago as 1,300 years," he said, referring to the arrival of Moorish invaders in Spain.

Mr al-Babtain regretted Senor Aznar's reading of his country's history."I was very sorry to hear that, I felt deeply disappointed because it is well known that we Arabs lived here in peace for centuries. All three great religions -Islam, Christianity and Judaism -lived together under our rule."

His claim is argued over by Spanish historians attempting to unravel fact from myth in the period of what is called la convivencia ("living together"): was the 700 years of Muslim rule really such a paradise?

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