Amb. Alberto Fernandez is former vice president of MEMRI. He is currently president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
Spain, or at least the Spain of Islamic conquest and primacy, Al-Andalus, looms large in the Islamist psyche, particularly so in the context of Islamist supremacists like Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Spanish speaking world today - Spain, Latin America and beyond - which has in many ways moved on from what seems a distant historic past, is often blissfully unaware of the power of symbols and of history which can and do affect us.
We may recall the artistic beauties of Islamic Spain and the idealized vision of convivencia (coexistence). We have drummed into us the politically correct pabulum of the evils of Western culture and civilization and the superiority of all cultures but our own. We swallow whole the "myth of the Andalusian paradise" and naturally and understandably forget a sustained foreign military invasion that swallowed up most of Iberia and only seemed to ebb at the Spanish Muslim defeat at Tours, central France, in 732.
For the Arab world, Spain, or at least the romanticized and nostalgic image of Al-Andalus, is still a concept to conjure with. The great liberal Syrian writer Abdel Salam Al-Ujayli (ironically, from a prominent family in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa) dealt with this theme in his evocative and sympathetic story "The Lanterns of Seville" (1954). Much of the narrative is about an idealized past being lost and this as part of a larger decline. In this sense, the lament is as much or more about "the Muslims" than about Spain itself. This is a common theme. In 2014, the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Qasim Suleimani, listed the decline of the Muslim world as beginning with the fall of Muslim Spain.
Other echoes of Al-Andalus are more subtle or diplomatic. In 1997, the Saudi ruling family built a massive white mosque at the foot of the great cliff of Gibraltar (Gibraltar is named, of course, for the conqueror of Al-Andalus, Tariq Ibn Ziyad, and so Gibraltar is "Tariq's Mountain") in the British Overseas Territory of the same name. The December 22, 1997 account in Al-'Alam Al-Islami, published by the Muslim World League and translated by MEMRI, is surprisingly straightforward. It is mostly a historical account of the struggle for supremacy of the site between the Muslims, the Spanish and later, the English, but noting that "the flag of Islam waved high in the Iberian Peninsula, for eight centuries of glory, culture, thought and science." There is little or no whining, special pleading, or loaded language.
But much more common is the idea that the loss of Spain is an historic wrong that must be erased by violence. Salafi-jihadis from Osama bin Ladin to ISIS fighters in North Africa have frequently made this point. "Let the whole world know that we will never accept that the tragedy of Al-Andalus would be repeated," was a sentence used by bin Ladin in October 2001 in a video message after the September 11 attacks. In 2013, the Taliban called for reconquering Spain, accusing the infidel West of having "alienated Muslims from their glorious history." Urdu-speaking jihadis compared the loss of Kashmir to that of Al-Andalus.
The official media arm of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) official media arm is called Al-Andalus. Launched in 2009, the name was intentionally chosen "because it is the Muslims' lost paradise." AQIM justified the name by quoting seminal jihadist activist and founder of Al-Qaeda, Dr. Abdullah Al-Azzam, as saying, "Jihad has been an individual obligation since 1492, when Granada fell to the infidels - the Christians - and is to this day. And jihad will remain an individual obligation until we restore every bit of land that was once Islamic to the lands of Islam and to the Muslims." In another dispatch from 2007, AQIM called Spain "the stolen land."
Al-Andalus is also the name of a pro-Al-Shabaab radio station in Somalia. One ISIS spokesman recently spoke of using Libya as a launch point for the conquest of both Rome and Spain. In still another, chilling ISIS video from March 2016, child soldiers in Syria are indoctrinated to strive to reclaim both the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and Al-Andalus.
The bloody thirst for conquest amplified through social media is often paralleled by an aggressive, usually Salafi-inspired broadcast media effort to convert Latin Christians to Islam. What cannot be won by the sword can, perhaps, be won by preaching, especially if Westerners are unsure in their own beliefs and ripe for conversion.
The Saudi-funded Cordoba International TV, broadcasting in Spanish since 2012 from studios in Madrid, talks of building bridges to other cultures and religions but is actually a barely disguised effort at proselytization aimed at both Spain and Latin America. As a former Saudi ambassador says in an article on the channel's website titled "The Pains of Al-Andalus," "Al-Andalus could have led to all of Europe becoming Muslim land."
According to Cordoba TV's manager, the name was chosen because it "responds properly to our vision as a channel serving as bridges of understanding between culture and religions, such as Al-Andalus, a multi-cultural country at peace, harmony, flourishing... a city that we are very proud was the capital of the world." Here the young manager, Yasin Puertas, touches on all the shopworn buzzwords of our Western post-modern society - "understanding," bridges," "multi-cultural," "harmony" - to gild what is obviously a Saudi Wahhabi project aimed at the West. Cordoba was, of course, certainly a flourishing "multi-cultural" place, but it was also the seat of a powerful and confident military state made rich by yearly raids for treasure and slaves into Christian territory.
While Salafi-jihadis' interest in reversing the expulsion of Muslim invaders from Spain is perhaps not so surprising, the concept of the fall of Islamic Spain as a cautionary tale for Arab Muslims everywhere is more widespread. In 2011, the leading pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera featured a remarkable four-part Arabic language documentary series titled "Story of How the Muslims Lost Al-Andalus."
It was produced by Dubai-based Hot Spot Films, a frequent content provider for the Doha-based broadcaster that presents itself as using the documentary format as "a tool for resistance." Featuring token Spanish participation, the tale is told mostly through the words of modern Arab scholars from Egypt and Morocco, presenting an idealized image of Islamic Spain where there was coexistence "even with the Jews" and where Al-Andalus fell because of Arab Muslim infighting, disunity after the fall of the Umayyad Caliphate, and plotting by the Christians waging a "crusade."
The Arabic-speaking viewer is clearly meant to draw a connection between the fall of Spain and the situation of the Arab Muslims of today. In this cautionary tale, the ills that affected the Arab Muslims in Iberia then and those affecting the Arab Muslims of today are essentially the same.
Helwan University Professor Zubeida Muhammad Atta notes that the bickering of 20 petty Muslim kings, after the fall of the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba, facilitated the task of the Spanish "Crusaders." The petty kings now had to pay jizya (poll tax demanded of "protected" minorities) to the Christian northerners rather than the other way around. The Christians also learned to play the ambitions of one Muslim prince against another, and while the Muslims became more and more divided, the Christians united against them.
Part two of the series, dealing with the fall of the last Moorish kingdom at Granada, reads like a compendium of very contemporary grievance language used in today's Islamist discourse. The Spanish kings "occupy" Muslim cities, the Muslim opposition to them is "resistance." A rising against the Spanish in Granada is an "intifada, similar to that of the Palestinian Intifada." What the Spanish call "piracy" is described as "seagoing jihad." The fall of Granada itself is basically portrayed as due to scheming Christians and divided, bickering Muslims.
The third and fourth parts of the series, dealing with the Moriscos (Spanish Muslims converted to Christianity), after the fall of Granada, also presents historical events in a plaintive language and form sure to be deeply evocative for Al-Jazeera's audience. Here the story is also one that is often found on the broadcaster, of Muslims unjustly oppressed, of Muslims as victims, expelled from their lands.
The work of the Spanish Inquisition is dealt with at great length in the documentary, although at least some of the woodcut images used are of the Inquisition torture of Protestants, not Muslims, taken from English sources propagating the "Black Legend." Echoing still another popular contemporary theme, one Moroccan expert expounds on the "betrayal" of the Moriscos, "who never got any promised help from Morocco or any Muslim country." Actually, in the convoluted power politics of the period, there were all sorts of plots from French Protestants and Ottomans to try to work with the rebellious Moriscos.
Bizarrely but tellingly, the documentary concludes by noting that King Juan Carlos of Spain apologized for the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain, but not for the expulsion of the Muslims. However, the Spanish Cortes, or Parliament, had indeed apologized for this. A Saudi daily described the descendants of these expelled Spanish Muslims as "marking every year in anguish" and in dire need of an apology.
One of the Moroccan consultants for the program says that this "symbolic apology" by Spain's parliament is not sufficient, and that it needs to be translated into concrete action in the religious, political and economic fields. In other words, there should be reparations.
One wonders where the Iberians should go to get an apology for the Muslim invasion of their peninsula in the 8th century. Ironically, the program refers to its appearance 13 centuries exactly after the Muslim conquest of Spain (711 A.D.) but the content is, of course, mostly about the victimization of Muslims by Spain.
Bizarrely, as recently as 2013, a small demonstration gathered in Cairo to condemn the "Spanish occupation" of Al-Andalus: "No matter how long the Spanish occupation of Al-Andalus continues, the day will come, Allah willing, when we liberate it and Islam will return." The influential group behind it, the Ahrar Movement, began as soccer hooligans but has been recreated as youthful "revolutionary Salafists" who seek to "use the power of mass mobilization to fight a long battle of attrition against the West and local leaders."
There is even a feature-length Arabic-language animated feature (later also dubbed into Urdu) on the "Conquest of Al-Andalus," instructing young minds all about jihad against the "Kuffar" within the context of the invasion of Visigothic Spain. One suspects that European youth today are not very much inculcated with the values and stories of the Reconquista or of Charles Martel.
Interestingly, one rather significant jihadi public figure had a Spanish connection. Abu Musab Al-Suri (Mustafa Setmiriam Nasr) was one of the most consequential thinkers in the jihadist movement over the past few years. He also lived in Spain for more a decade, married a Spanish woman, and had Spanish citizenship.
Abu Musab has long been wanted for a 1985 bombing at El Descanso restaurant outside Madrid, the first successful Islamist terrorist attack in Spain. He also had some connection with the Al-Qaeda cell that years late carried out the worst terrorist attack in Spanish history on March 11, 2004 and was also tangentially connected to the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. Despite all his activism, he is best known for producing a massive and influential tome promoting the concept of constant small terrorist attacks against the West. Excerpts of his work were even reprinted in the infamous AQAP online magazine Inspire." Supposedly released from prison by the Assad regime in 2012 (the regime released many hardcore jihadis to influence the development of the opposition to the regime), Al-Suri has never been seen since.
But more dangerous than the distant historic connections of prominent figures are continued Iberian connections to actual terrorist plots. Repeated conspiracies have been exposed since the Atocha Station train bombings of 2004, many involving persons of North African origin or with connections to the Spanish North African cities of Ceuta and Melilla. The phenomenon has been well documented by Spanish scholars Fernando Reinares and Carola Garcia-Calvo.
The thwarted August 2015 attack on a Paris-bound train was carried out by Moroccan Ayyub Al-Khazzani, who had spent years in Spain as a teenager. One terrorist cell dismantled by Morocco in 2008 actually had the name "Fateh al-Andalus" (Conquest of Al-Andalus) and a couple arrested in Granada in February 2009 for terrorism charges was also producing videos calling for "the recovery of Al-Andalus."
Less violent than the work of terrorism, the idea that Spain should be reclaimed by Islam continues to periodically reappear, in Arabic or even in Spanish. One recent mysterious social media campaign invited Muslims worldwide to "return to Al-Andalus" and "restore its sanctity." The February 2016 announcement on Instagram actually linked with official Spanish government sites, which naturally denied any knowledge of the publicity stunt. A Facebook page in Spanish and Arabic linked to the campaign had to date 33,000 "likes."
The threat to Spain must be split between the aspirational and the actual. There is little doubt that the idea that the loss of Al-Andalus was a disaster for Muslims and should ideally be reversed is probably widespread among Muslim populations in a general, vague sense. It resonates in a way that the retaking of Muslim Sicily (1091 A.D.) or of the Muslim-ruled Balkans (which ended much more recently, in 1913) does not. But this does not seem to be an immediate burning issue among the masses, nor is there any Muslim state with the intention and ability to actually do anything about it. The actual challenge comes from various strands of global Salafi Jihadism, activism, and Salafi proselytism. The terrorism and the feverish vision of many of these groups are very real, and as long as they exist and have safe haven, they will continue to plot and to dream.
As a Dean at the Islamic University of Gaza noted in 2012, the conquest of Spain is "an old dream" but "something Muslims proudly hope for and will continue to hope for in the future," being certain that it will be accomplished, along with raising the flag of a restored Caliphate over the Vatican and Palestine. Given the romanticization of an idealized, if not imaginary, Islamic past, a deep sense of grievance and loss, and the disastrous crisis of authority and fascination with revolutionary violence that exists in much of the Muslim world, Islamic Spain as a symbol, a warning, and a rallying cry will endure, along with those other places of power, such as Jerusalem and Rome, drawn from history, faith and legend.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice-President of MEMRI.
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