by Michael Lame, posted on August 16, 2010
Most of the editorial comments, pro and con, regarding the proposed new mosque complex for lower Manhattan, are concerned with Who and Where: the people behind the mosque and its proximity to Ground Zero. My purpose in these articles is not to support or oppose the project but to examine a different set of questions, What and How: What are the assumptions and premises of the project promoters? How do they intend to build interfaith bridges to Christian and Jewish communities?
The first article examined the ideas of the group led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf regarding jihad and the supposed hijacking of Islam by violent extremists. Presumably these ideas will help shape the new Islamic center’s outreach to Christians and Jews.
Another key to understanding Imam Rauf’s thinking is his use of the name Cordoba. His non-profit group is called the Cordoba Initiative and, until very recently, the mosque project was called Cordoba House. In order to emphasize “the community center aspect of the project rather than religion,” that name has now been changed to Park51, a more hip, New York style name that offers no associations to another place and time (except perhaps to Studio 54, which I’m sure is unintentional). Cordoba House, by contrast, summons up a host of images and historical references for those familiar with Islamic, Spanish, or medieval history and culture.
The Cordoba Initiative’s website offers this explanation of the Cordoba connection:
“Despite what many think, Islam and the West have a long history of coexistence and harmony. For nearly 800 years, the city of Cordoba in Spain endured as a shining example of tolerance among the three monotheistic religions. Muslim, Christian and Jew cohabited in prosperity during a period known for its outstanding literary and scientific productivity.”
From this blurb it sounds as if medieval Cordoba was an idyllic oasis of brotherly and sisterly love, the sort of world we should all aspire to re-establish. Many writers have waxed rhapsodic about a golden age of peace and prosperity in Muslim Spain. But is that really what it was like? “Nostalgia is the enemy of historical understanding” warns historian Richard Fletcher, author of Moorish Spain. “The simple and verifiable historical truth is that Moorish Spain was more often a land of turmoil than it was a land of tranquility.”
The 800 years referred to by the Cordoba Initiative constitutes the entire era of Muslim rule in Spain, stretching from 711 to 1492. Yet Cordoba itself, the cultural and for long periods of time the political capital of al-Andalus, succumbed to Christian conquest (or reconquest) in 1236.
Imam Rauf’s book, What’s Right with Islam: a new vision for Muslims and the West, narrows the pertinent time frame, explaining that the Cordoba Initiative is “named after the period between roughly 800 and 1200 CE, when the Cordoba Caliphate ruled much of today’s Spain.” This formulation is also problematic. To be a bit more precise regarding chronology and terminology, the Umayyad emirate of Cordoba, established in 756, was proclaimed a caliphate in 929. Barely a century later, in 1031, the last Umayyad caliph abdicated, after which Cordoba ceased playing the central role in Spain’s political and intellectual life.
Yale professor Maria Rosa Menocal, in The Ornament of the World: how Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of tolerance in medieval Spain, further whittled down the time period in question regarding Cordoba’s heyday: “From about the mid-eighth century until about the year 1000 this was an Islamic polity, centered in Cordoba, which at its height, in the mid-tenth century, declared itself the center of the Islamic world.”
Though any identifiable Cordovan era of good feelings lasted closer to 250 years than to the 400 or 800 years posited by Rauf, those two and a half centuries also contained episodes of intolerance and bouts of anarchy. Still, for Rauf, the name Cordoba “reminds us that Muslims created what was, in its era, the most enlightened, pluralistic and tolerant society on earth.” That is a big, bold, though commonplace assertion. The idea of an Andalusian golden age, when Christians and Jews lived contentedly under Muslim rule, has become a fixture of Western historical thinking over the last hundred years. But is it true?
Professor Fletcher weighs in on the question: “Early medieval Spain was multicultural in the sense of being culturally diverse, a land within which different cultures coexisted; but not in the sense of experiencing cultural integration. Toleration for Christians and Jews as ‘Peoples of the Book’ is enjoined by the Koran. But in practice it was limited – Christians under Islamic rule were forbidden to build new churches, to ring church bells, to hold public processions – and sometimes it broke down altogether. In 1066 there was a pogrom in Granada in which its Jewish community was slaughtered. Thousands of Christians were deported to slavery in Morocco in 1126. Thoroughly dismissive attitudes to Christians and Jews may be found in the Arabic literature of al-Andalus. It is a myth of the modern liberal imagination that medieval Islamic Spain was, in any sense that we should recognize today, a tolerant society.”
Regardless of historical accuracy, the very name of Cordoba exerts a powerful appeal for many who long for a multi-religious, harmonious pathway to the future. As Rauf writes, “We strive for a ‘New Cordoba,’ a time when Jews, Christians, Muslims, and all other faith traditions will live together in peace.”
In considering the “Old Cordoba”, however, one should not forget that Cordovan tolerance was predicated on Islamic rule. Jews and Christians, once they accepted their status as dhimmi, protected albeit subservient peoples, could participate in the intellectual, artistic, and economic life of the broader community. But one fact was clear throughout medieval Spain, that a single faith was dominant – Islam in the south and Christianity in the north – and the other religious communities were allowed to remain at the pleasure, or rather the sufferance, of the dominant religious-political power.
Sufferance as the basis for a multi-religious society is not a model that will appeal to 21st century Christians, Muslims, or Jews. For that reason alone, Cordoba is a questionable symbol of inter-faith co-existence. A better model might be … New York City! Predominantly Christian, with sizeable Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu minorities, a Jewish mayor and a Catholic state governor, NYC is a place where religious freedom is guaranteed by law, with constitutional protections to prevent arbitrary revocation of that freedom. Whether the designated location for the Park51 mosque is a good idea or not, whether its current backers are the right people to build it or not, no one is questioning the legal right of Muslims to build mosques in America and to practice Islam openly.
As we have seen, the suggestion of Cordoba as a relevant religious-diversity prototype for New York City raises questions of historical accuracy and acceptable majority-minority relations. In looking for examplars, we might do better to reverse the geographic direction of the search by asking: Does New York’s multi-faith freedom of expression offer a good role-model for the cities of the Middle East?
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