In recent days, the so-called Ground Zero Mosque has become a focus of debate in America and elsewhere. It has posited the right of a community to acquire property and build a religious-cum-cultural shrine in a free society against the phenomenon of ‘national identity’. What happens when an otherwise legitimate and legal right comes into conflict with mass opinion in a democracy? As India knows only too well, there are no easy answers.
While these issues have been commented upon, insufficient space has been devoted to the selected name for the mosque and cultural centre proposed to be built two blocks from the site of the World Trade Centre. Being promoted by a Muslim group called the Cordoba Initiative, the building was initially given the working title of Cordoba House. It was subsequently clarified that the larger campus would be known as Park51, and Cordoba House would instead be the flagship “centre for multi-faith dialogue and engagement” within Park51.
What is the significance of the name? Cordoba is a city in southern Spain. Between the 8th and 11th centuries, it was the capital of Al Andalus, as the Arabs knew the Iberian Peninsula, and seat of the strongest Moorish kingdom in Spain. It had a mixed population of Muslims, Christians and Jews, and was recognised for its prosperity and learning.
The Moorish colonisation of Spain lasted seven centuries. It had its benefits, including a transmission of Arab science to a Europe just recovering from the Dark Ages. This became a stimulus for the Renaissance. The success of Cordoba led to the label ‘convivencia’, or living together, a Spanish idea of multiculturalism.
Was Cordoba’s ‘convivencia’ myth or reality? Indeed, can it be called an act of enlightened design, Andrew Wheatcroft wrote in an otherwise sympathetic account in his book Infidels: The Conflict Between Christendom and Islam 638-2002, “To talk of convivencia as a fixed and settled entity… is a mistake. It was a structure of concession in which there was a dramatic imbalance of power between the majority and the minorities. When that balance changed, then the former basis for co-existence vanished… Non-Muslims were second-class citizens within Islamic society… In practice many of the more rigorous restrictions on Jews and Christians were not enforced, but the sense of inferiority, whether enforced by law or not, did not disappear.”
Jews and Christians paid a poll tax. The Great Mosque of Cordoba was an architectural marvel, but constructed on the ruins of an ancient church. Each of Cordoba’s three communities considered the other two unclean. In the ninth century occurred the episode of the Martyrs of Cordoba, one of the foundational reference points of the future Catholic Spain. Over a nine-year period, 48 Christians deliberately mocked the Prophet and invited death under blasphemy laws. Eulogius, the Bishop of Cordoba, was beheaded and his body thrown to the dogs. Today, he is remembered as a Christian saint.
Cordoba’s history has multiple narratives. At its height, it dazzled visitors. In the 13th century it was recaptured by Christians and its Moorish past was denounced as repression. In the 19th century, Reinhart Dozy, among Europe’s earliest scholars of Arab culture, wrote in praise of Cordoba’s “golden age”. Interestingly, 19th century Jewish intellectuals too produced glowing accounts of Cordoba and contrasted its treatment of Jews with that of Christian kingdoms. This was an attempt by the incipient movement for a Jewish homeland to embarrass European governments. In turn, 20th century Arab writers have drawn from such Jewish accounts. Historian Bernard Lewis has a more nuanced view, pointing out Cordoba’s minorities were not equal citizens. They had ‘some rights’, which was better than ‘no rights’ but not quite ‘all rights’.
What has all this got to with New York 2010? Frankly, that is the puzzling question. To laypeople in the West, the Moorish rule of Spain was simply occupation and colonisation by an alien people. That may not be the entirety of the story but it is certainly the popular one. As such which or whose Cordoba is the Cordoba Initiative invoking?
To use such a contested expression as a tool for PR and outreach to a wider Western population is rather strange. It is like naming a British Cultural Centre in Mumbai after Warren Hastings and pretending to be surprised that not everybody looks upon Hastings’ administration of India — and the man had his achievements — as an unmixed blessing.
There is one other disquieting note. The re-conquest of Al Andalus is one of the stated goals of al-Qaeda and among the reasons it says it executed the 9/11 attacks. For both an Islamist terror group and an Islam-West peace mission to claim inspiration from the same medieval symbol of Islamic triumphalism is decidedly curious. It doesn’t help perceptions of contemporary Islamic (or Arab) religio-political leaderships being over-obsessed with the past and unmindful of 21st century concerns. It is one thing to be insensitive; it is quite another to not even realise you are being insensitive.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal