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Wonderful, Wonderful Cordoba

Posted By David Solway On August 27, 2010 @ 12:05 am In FrontPage | 34 Comments

The proposed construction of the “Cordoba” mega-mosque near Ground Zero has served as a catalyst for a renewed interest in the history of Cordoba under Islamic rule in Al-Andalus (Spain). Many of those who are opposed to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s presumed “bridge building” initiative, as represented by the project first called Cordoba House and now renamed Park51, have gone back to the history books, or have decided to speak out and address the purport of the designation: “Cordoba.” For instance, Victor Davis Hanson in a recent interview alludes to “the rather silly evocation of Cordoba; in toto, it was not really a utopian medieval city of understanding.” And Lisa Graas shows that “things started out rather bad under Muslim rule…and went downhill over time…The history for us is clear and it is a history that no Catholic would like to see a repeat of in Manhattan.” Cordoba Jews fared better for a time, as Jane Gerber lavishly chronicles in The Jews of Spain, but they too eventually fell victim to persecution. Even the renowned Jewish sage Moses Maimonides was forced to flee the city, escaping to Fez where he lived for years disguised as a Muslim.

And yet all this should have been evident in the weeks and months  after the Twin Towers were destroyed and nearly three thousand people were murdered by so-called “Islamist” terrorists. For it would not take long before Muslim and non-Muslim apologists for the “religion of peace” would hearken back to the ostensibly genial and temperate era of Moorish Spain, a time, we were instructed, when Christians and Jews were welcomed by their Muslim overlords and peacefully integrated into the life of the realm, permitted to worship freely and even received into the learned professions, many as katibs (secretaries) to the Caliph. Such conjurings by journalists and pundits constituted nothing less than an intellectual embarrassment. Mutatis mutandis, these fairy tale votaries resembled an updated version of Danny Kaye and crew singing “Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen,” that “friendly old girl of a town.”

I recall coming across numerous references to the splendors of Cordoba in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, which were obviously intended to deflect indignation and fury and to distill for a supposedly vulgar multitude the deeper meaning of Islam. For example, in order to strengthen and validate a benign conception of Islam, attention was (and still is) frequently drawn to the intellectual activity of Cordoba, in particular to the translation and transmission of the seminal texts of the classical world that would otherwise have been lost to mankind. What such advocates for the great Islamic contribution to the Western library forgot is that none of this material was original to Islam.

As David Bentley Hart writes in Atheist Delusions, “Islam was the beneficiary of Eastern Christendom.” It was “Syriac-speaking Christians who provided an invaluable caste of scholars and physicians, and through them the achievements of Greek and Roman antiquity passed into Islamic culture.” In fact, not Moorish Spain but medieval Italy was “perhaps a more important port of entry for Greek texts into Western Europe…in the late eleventh century,” when scholars, poets, clerics and doctors fled from the Muslim conquest of Constantinople to Pisa, Venice and Palermo. But resonant specifics are precisely what the glib justifiers of a presumably Islamic monument to human progress, of Cordoba as a shining city on the hill, have labored to suppress.

The point they were (and are) trying to make, of course, is that this particular epoch represents the essence of Islam, a religion which, according to President Obama, advances “the dignity of all human beings,” and which was later hijacked by extremists who perverted the root message of the faith. The destruction of the WTC and the human carnage of the event was, somehow, an aberration, a “man-caused disaster” which had nothing to do with the real Islam. Ground Zero was only a grotesque distortion of the true Islamic inglenook where marchers for peace warm their bunions.

In order to maintain this fantasy, there is no recognition of the fact that the suicide terrorists, as Charles Krauthammer points out in an article titled “Moral Myopia at Ground Zero,” “were the leading, and most successful, edge of a worldwide movement…with cells in every continent, with worldwide financial and theological support, with a massive media and propaganda arm and with an archipelago of local sympathizers.” Those who defend the Cordoba project, dreaming the dream of pastoral reconciliation betokened by what is, at least in part, an Andalusian mirage, facilitate the task of the jihadists.

As I argued in The Big Lie, which I began writing in September 2001 a few days after the catastrophe (and which was published in 2007), the golden age of Moorish Spain that features in the history books and glitters in the public imagination is, to a significant degree, something of a historical fiction: the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties were by no means an unbroken halcyon interregnum in the annals of Islam but cruel and intolerant dispensations given to fervid and prolonged outbursts of savagery. Even the famed Caliphate of Cordoba, as Hanson and others indicate, was not the uniformly enlightened Castle in Spain of popular fancy. Islamic tolerance, as Bat Ye’or in her The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians Under Islam unpacks for us, is more of a modern fable than a historical verity.

Nothing is ever uni-dimensional when it comes to historical exegesis; complexities must always be allowed for. The history of Cordoba, which Richard Fletcher masterfully elaborates in Moorish Spain, was exceedingly chequered: “years of peace and plenty under the Caliphs of the tenth century,” patronage of the intellectual and scientific disciplines and economic prosperity, broken by years of turbulence, political intrigues, exactions of tribute, fratricidal strife, sumptuary laws, vestimentary differentiation, slavery and in general the ill treatment of minorities. Ultimately, as Fletcher writes, “The simple and verifiable historical truth is that Moorish Spain was more often a land of turmoil than it was a land of tranquility.” One wing of the historical diptych is impressive in the context of the age; the other is disfigured with the limning of atrocities. It is this second panel that is left out of the picture of Cordoba that has been painted for us.

And that is the trouble. A half-truth readily morphs into a complete lie. The misery and spoliation of conquered peoples, the executions and martyrdoms, the humiliation and oppression which is also Cordoba, are airbrushed out of the historical register. Amnesia and “bridge-building” are the order of the day. The pristine figment of an idealized Cordoba, the cherished beacon of tolerance and enlightenment in an otherwise dark and barbarous period, is meant to disarm skepticism in the present. “Cordoba” is, paradoxically, code for both grandeur and deception. I would respectfully suggest that the Shanksville memorial in honor of the heroic victims of Flight 93, currently under construction and scheduled to be dedicated on September 11, 2011—which is, interestingly enough, also the slated opening date of the Cordoba mosque—might be a far more relevant and exalted pledge of remembrance than a minaret at Ground Zero.

Meanwhile, a vast chorus of Islamophiles are still busy warbling a melodious ditty to the pleasures, delights and glories of an immaculate Cordoba, a wonderful, wonderful Cordoba with its “welcome so warm and gay,” the Copenhagen of its day of which the Park51 mosque is touted as an exemplar and a revival. It is pitched to an increasingly dubious public as a metaphorical “bridge” to the long-desired destination of ecumenical harmony. Perhaps it should just be called al-Qantara, “the Bridge,” rather than the inscrutable Park51.

A bridge, however, is not always what it seems. Richard Fletcher reminds us that “the first mosque in Cordoba was built on a central site in the city near the Roman bridge over the river Guadalquivir.” The parallel is striking. The thirteen-storey high Cordoba House mosque is planned for the “central site” in New York City near the place where an architectural cynosure once stood. Is the mosque a bridge or a structure meant to overshadow it?

Questions remain. Assuming it is some kind of bridge, who is crossing it? Which way does traffic flow? Both ways? Or is it rather a permanent and grandiose pontoon intended to facilitate an inexorable invasion under cover of “mutual understanding,” what former Muslim and author Sayed Kamran Mirza calls “an iconic symbol of Islamic victory”?  And where exactly will we find ourselves once the bridge has been crossed? In the modern or the medieval age? In New York? Or in Cordoba?


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