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Islamic Roots Run Deep in Spain's History

The relationship is marked by centuries of periodic conflict and uneasy intimacy.

March 21, 2004|Henry Kamen | Henry Kamen is the author of "Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763."

MADRID — The train-bombing massacre carried out by Islamic terrorists in Spain on the eve of a general election had clear motives: to force a change of government, which it achieved; and to get Spanish troops out of Iraq, which it will certainly achieve. How to account for this astonishing success of the Islamic fundamentalist cause in Spain?

More than any other Western country, Spain has lived on intimate terms with Islam. For 700 years, from the 8th century to the 15th century, Muslims ruled the greater part of the country. They profoundly changed its culture, its food and its art. But they gradually lost their political hold and by the 13th century were in retreat. The last Muslim king in Spain left his capital, the city of Granada, in 1492, the year that Christopher Columbus set out on his voyage of discovery to the New World. That was the end of Muslim power, but hundreds of thousands of Muslims continued to live in Christian Spain until they were expelled in the 17th century. Spaniards thought that it was the end of their experience of Islam. The ancient Moorish palaces were allowed to crumble into rubble.

Spanish interest in the Muslim past was awakened in the 19th century, and then, quite improbably, by an American. Washington Irving had already attained considerable success with his books in the United States. His visit to Spain in 1815 so inspired him that he remained in Europe for 17 years, publishing first a history of the "Conquest of Granada" (1829) and then "Alhambra" (1832), which was about the history and legends of Moorish Spain. When Irving visited the palace of the Alhambra in Granada, it was nothing but a ghostly ruin. But his romantic evocation of its past caught the imagination of the public everywhere and stirred the Spanish authorities to take a renewed interest in their heritage.

Realizing that they had once had a Muslim destiny, Spanish writers, artists and, above all, politicians set out to recover it. Their view was a wholly idealized one. Writers of the Romantic school produced plays and novels about a past that had never really existed, in which Christians and Muslims lived together like brothers, frequently warring but always respecting each other. Historians represented Spain as a crucible of civilizations, in which the coexistence of Christians and Muslims set an example of a tolerant society. In their annual celebrations, still seen today, towns staged mock combat of Christians against Moors.

There was, however, an aggressive side to this historical re-creation, because Spaniards were always taught that they had "conquered" the Muslims. Politicians started looking for territories to conquer, and the closest candidate was Muslim Africa. Since the 15th century, Spain had occupied a couple of small towns on the African coast. In 1859, Spanish generals led a military campaign into Morocco to give Spaniards pride in their imperial prowess. The commitment to war against the Muslims absorbed Spanish leaders for more than 50 years but came to an abrupt end when the army was annihilated by Muslim tribesmen in 1921. "Morocco," a politician wrote, "was our last chance to hold our heads high in Europe."

Morocco did not retain good memories of the Spaniards, which must be borne in mind when assessing why the terrorists chose Madrid as a target.

Spain's large population of immigrants, most of them from Morocco, is a source of vulnerability. Of 40 million people, about 800,000 are Muslims, and if illegal immigrants were added, the figure would significantly rise. The birthrate of Moroccans in Spain is twice that of the Spanish. Tens of thousands of Moroccans hold low-paying and temporary jobs in every conceivable enterprise, mostly in the construction industry. They occupy entire areas of the inner city in Madrid and Barcelona, and their presence inevitably provokes a reaction from the host community.

Moroccan delinquents are disproportionately represented in crime statistics, and their cases tend to grab headlines. A Muslim religious leader's recent book offering hints on how to beat your wife without leaving visible marks provoked outrage.

The Muslims in Spain strongly condemned the train bombings. At least seven Moroccans are known to be among the more than 200 who died in Madrid.

Madrid is home to more than 200,000 Moroccans, most in the Lavapies district, where many of the bombing suspects lived. Spanish investigators suspect that Moroccans were also responsible for a terrorist bombing in Casablanca last May.

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