The Muslim Right of Return to Spain

Posted by dianamuir on February 20, 2014


Spain is about  to pass a new law enhancing a policy, in effect since 1924, giving Sephardi Jews the right to become citizens of Spain.   Although the details of the new policy are still unclear, according to Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, it will benefit Sephardim, “who were unjustly deprived of their nationality and have recreated it through a love for Spain which they never lost, from this moment forward Spain is yours just as it is ours, as far as the law is concerned. “


Relatively few Sephardim have taken advantage of this policy to move to Spain, although Spanish diplomats in Budapest used it to save the lives of a number of Jews during World War II.   But the symbolic significance as a repudiation of Spain’s old-time anti-Semitism should not be underestimated.   Neither should the usefulness of the bill for propaganda purposes. 


Muslim political activists have seized on the proposed law to argue that the descendants of Muslims expelled by Spain centuries ago should also be given a right of return.


At first glance, the similarities between the Sephardim and the descendants of Iberia’s medieval Muslim community appear striking.


The Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula began with a raid in 711 and by  720 almost the entire peninsula was under Muslim rule.   Christian armies pushed back, but much of southern Spain was under Muslim rule until the 1500s, with the last Muslim stronghold falling to the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.   The fall of Muslim Spain generated an outflow of Muslims and to this day, thousands of Muslim families in North Africa proudly identify themselves as descendants of the Moors ofAl-Andalus.   


North African “Andalusians” have long been regarded by themselves and by their neighbors as superior to their neighbors, more cultivated, more intellectual, and racially “whiter.”   Sephardic Jews took a similarly lofty view of themselves and, like Muslim Andalusians, married and socialized with one another, snubbing the Arabic and Berber-speaking Jews of the Maghreb.   For what it is worth (and a lone study is rarely worth much), one study that looked at the Y-chromosomes of self-identified Andalusians in Tunesia found no significant paternal European ancestry, which would fit with Muslim Andalusians’ traditional narrative of descent from Iberia’s Muslim conquerors. 


War between the Muslim and Christian kingdom went on for five centuries, during which borders shifted frequently.    A distinctive set of rules of war developed.   By the eleventh century, Catholic armies in Spain had adopted laws of conquest based on sharia: upon conquering a city they required that Muslims and Jews acknowledge the superiority of Christianity, and pay a head tax. Neither Christian nor Muslim armies in Spain forced defeated populations to convert, they did not massacre them, or sell them on the slave market, as both Christian and Muslim armies elsewhere in that period frequently did.


The reason for this civility was that for several centuries the two sides were more or less equally matched.  Every knight and every king knew that today’s victor might be next year’s loser, therefore, they did unto the defeated as they hoped that their enemies would do unto them, if things should come to that.   Moreover, a newly conquered minority population whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish was less likely to rebel, less likely to flee, and more likely to go on peacefully paying taxes if it was not threatened with forced conversion.  This was a convivencia of pragmatism.  It ended with Christian victory.


When the last Moorish kingdom – the Emirate of Granada – fell in 1492, tolerance for Jews ended, but tolerance for Muslims lingered in some jurisdictions until 1525.   At that date Muslims were required to choose between baptism and exile.   As with Jews, this “choice” often amounted to forced conversion.   Jewish conversos were called Marranos, Muslim conversos were called Moriscos.


As late as 1568 the majority of the population in the region of Granada were Moriscos, and even in Aragon, in the far north, Moriscos made up a fifth of the population.  In the south, especially near Valencia, many Moriscos lived in Muslim villages and neighborhoods where, despite conversion,they remained faithful to Islam, spoke Arabic, circumcised their sons, and publicly celebrated Ottoman victories over Spain.


The Ottoman Empire was rapidly expanding westward.   Phillip II’s fear that  Moriscos would provide a fifth column for a new Islamic conquest made him decid to force the Moriscos to assimilate by banning both Arabic and Muslim religious practices, such as fasting on Ramadan and the ritual slaughter of meat.   The result was the great Revolt of 1568.  


The Revolt was commanded by a claimant to the Umayyad  throne, Muhammad ibn Umayyah, a Morisco who served as a city councilor in Granada before the Revolt.  The Ottomans sent military advisers from Algiers and Muslim soldiers of fortune poured in from North Africa.   The Revolt continued for two years, and it was fought very differently from earlier Iberian wars.  Spain now offered no tolerance to conquered Muslim populations, Philip ordered his army to give no quarter to Morisco villages and neighborhoods; they were raped, pillaged and slaughtered.  As the revolt failed, Muslims who could manage to do so escaped to North Africa.


Spain dispersed the surviving Morisco populations  across the kingdom to speed their assimilation, then persecuted them in ways that parallel the persecution of Marranos, driving more into exile.  Finally, in 1609, the remnant Morisco population of 300,000 was expelled.    


For the next four hundred years Spain was an exclusively Catholic country, but recent decades have seen large scale Muslim immigration to Spain, a revival of Muslim claims to Al-Andalus, and facile demands that, like Sephardim,  “the Moors… (get) a new citizenship deal, too.”


One pretender to the throne of Al Andalus (in his day job, he’s a professor) has sent an open letter to his fellow monarch, Juan Carlos of Spain demanding an apology for the Spanish victory of 1492, restoration of “stolen” Muslim lands, citizenship for the descendents of the expelled Moriscos, and citizenship for all Muslim illegal immigrants in Spain.


This kind of grandstanding, engaged in by sundry left-wing and Islamist groups, is a mere sideshow to the real issue.   Although Muslims constitute only 2% of the Spanish population, Spain is a country with a notably low birthrate and, since the financial crisis of 2008, there has been a dramatic out migration of young Spaniards.   But Spain’s Muslim population is growing rapidly.   And it includes thousands of “New Muslims”, Spanish converts to Islam. 


Al Andalus has a special place in the Muslim imagination.   Perhaps precisely because Spain was lost to Islam so many centuries ago, it is idealized as a paradise, a great pinnacle of Muslim civilization.  Across the Arab world the idea of reconquering Al Andalusfor Islam resonates in a way that the idea of reconquering such one-time Muslim lands as Hungary and Sicily does not.  Legal and political activists push hard forthe right to pray in the Great Mosque of Cordoba (which was a church before 784 and has been one since 1236),  for citizenship for illegal immigrants in Spain, and for more open immigration policies for immigrants from Muslim countries.  And for a right of return for the descendents of Al Andalus.

It is in this context that Portuguese statesman Jose Ribeiro e Castro dismisses Muslim claims to a right of return to Portugal and Spain on the grounds that, “Persecution of Jews was just that, while what happened with the Arabs was part of a conflict.”




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