The Purging of Muslim Spain

January 31, 2010

Cast Away



The Purging of Muslim Spain

By Matthew Carr

350 pp. The New Press. $28.95

Who remembers the last survivors of Muslim Spain, whom Spaniards contemptuously called Moriscos (“little Moors”)? Impressive research on them has appeared in the last 30 years, yet until now, none of it has escaped beyond the walls of the academic ghetto. Matthew Carr’s well-balanced and comprehensive book brings the story of their tragic fate to a wider public.

“Blood and Faith” is a splendid work of synthesis. The story begins with the 10-year war — a crusade — to conquer the Moorish Kingdom of Granada. The Christian victory in 1492 signaled the beginning of the long ethnic cleansing of Holy Spain. Spanish Jews were the first victims; they were quickly forced into exile. The other ethnic and religious minority in the Iberian peninsula, the Muslim Moors, posed a more complex problem.

Moors had lived for centuries in Spain and were valued for their hard work and expertise as farmers and craftsmen. Every noble landlord knew the old saying “Whoever has a Moor has gold,” and aristocratic fortunes were built on a simple basis: “The more Moors, the more profit.”

The slow breakdown of this living-­together (convivencia) began with the conquest of Granada. In 1492, the Muslim Granadinos were unwillingly incorporated into Christian Spain, but this brought nothing but trouble. Most fought an unremitting rear-guard action in defense of their culture, Islamic faith and social institutions, resisting a forced conversion to Christianity by any possible means.

They posed a real danger to Christian Spain. Granada’s long coastline offered an open frontier to the Ottoman Turks, Spain’s mortal enemies. In 1568, after repeated small revolts, a civil war of unceasing savagery erupted. It was bloodily suppressed by 1571, and thereafter there was no going back on either side. As many as 80,000 Muslims — men, women and children — were deported deep into the Christian heartland. Yet this provided no solution. Some contemporary writers had contrasted the “peaceable” Moors of Aragon and Castile with the “savage” Moors of Granada, but this distinction soon became irrelevant. All Muslims, peaceable or savage, were increasingly regarded by their Christian neighbors as malign and dangerous.

What was a Morisco in their eyes? A murderer, highwayman or bandit. All Moriscos became pollutants of Roman Catholic Spain, with their secret Islamic rituals and contempt for the values of the majority. And like the Jews in 1492 they were impure, their blood self-evidently corrupting; their very presence in Spain was an abomination.

Over the next four decades, Spanish officials planned the purgation of the Muslim threat. Every remote possibility was canvassed — drowning, castration, exposure on the icy shores of Newfoundland. As time passed, the government’s resolution hardened: it was no longer a matter of if but of when and how. Finally, from 1609 to 1614, an estimated 300,000 Muslims were marched to the coasts and put on ships for North Africa.

Carr, the author of “A History of Terrorism,” charts this steady breakdown, though without demonizing either Christian or Muslim. He suggests that the growth of mutual mistrust and the spiral of increasing violence were the igniting spark of the final expulsion. Yet it is impossible to read this book without sensing its resonance in our own time.

In his epilogue, “A Warning From History?,” Carr’s message is stark. The current language of outrage in Europe — indulging prophecies of imminent demographic doom brought on by fertile Muslims — is heading toward the idea of an “agreeable holocaust,” which is what a 17th-century Dominican friar called Spain’s final solution to its insoluble problem. We should know better.

Andrew Wheatcroft’s most recent book is “The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe.”


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