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Dateline: Restoring the Legacy of Muslim Spain - 2002-06-18

Many people believe that Jews and Muslims have been enemies throughout history. But some Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars are looking to the past to show that this has not always been so. These scholars point to Muslim Spain in the Middle Ages where, they say, members of all three faiths got along.

From the eighth century to the end of the 15th century, Spain was under the control of Muslims from north Africa. These Muslims of North Africa invaded across the Strait of Gibraltar in 711. Their rule lasted through the late 15th century when Spain was re-conquered by Christians.

It is this period that has interested several scholars and diplomats, particularly Joseph Montville. Joseph Montville, a former diplomat in the Middle East, now directs the Preventive Diplomacy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He and other scholars are involved in a project to trace the long history of Muslim Spain.

"Muslim Spain," Mr. Montville said, "was conquered by Berber Muslims coming across the Strait of Gibraltar into southern Spain as the Visigoth kingdoms [of Europe] were in a rapid state of decay. Quite significantly for Islam, the conquerors made treaties that were very similar to the famous pact of Omar with the patriarch of Jerusalem after the very bloody Christian crusaders were expelled from Jerusalem. The pact was basically a Qur'anic pact, which is that there is no forced conversion and there is no compulsion in religion [which is directly from the Koran] and that the clerics would continue to run their churches. There was a similar treaty called Arjuela that was negotiated with local Christians and rulers who were permitted to pursue their religion and keep their buildings and run their lives according to their religious codes of law. The period we're talking about goes up to 1492."

In the mid-15th century, Ferdinand of Aragon, and Isabella of Castile, the rulers of the largest kingdoms in a re-emerging Christian Spain, were married. Eventually, almost all of Spain was brought under their control. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews and Muslims from Spain.

This ended an extended period of Muslim and Jewish and Muslim collaboration in science, art, economics, and trade, according to Joseph Montville. "It was all possible," he said, "because it turned out that the interpretation of Islam that the Arab rulers brought to southern Spain was the rather libertarian approach to religion found in the Qu'ran, which says that there is no one between the individual believer and God."

If members of the three faiths could coexist in the Middle Ages, Joseph Montville has wondered, why the "apparent intractability" of the Arab-Israeli problem? Through his studies of medieval Spain, he said, he was able to "grasp a vision of what may still be possible" between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. One key to producing a modern-day Muslim Spain and possibly resolving the Arab-Israeli impasse, may be what he calls "Track Two diplomacy." Mr. Montville originated the concept of "Track Two Diplomacy," which asks adversaries to build working relationships at the non-official and informal level, along side formal diplomatic relations.

"The idea of 'Track Two' diplomacy," he said, "came out of an informal style of dialogue by representatives of groups in conflict. Once a relationship of 'working trust' can be developed, participants in a dialogue can begin to develop a vision of next steps. If this is done through the workshop process over a number of months and years, you can end up, as we did in the Middle East, with the Oslo process. It was the direct fruit of more than 20 years of unofficial and informal dialogue between Israelis and Egyptians and Palestinians. What has been missing from the process of dialogue in 'Track Two' diplomacy has been attention to the emotional and identity needs of the populations. What was missing has become more and more apparent since the collapse of the Oslo process, which was really an engagement intellectually of the 'publics.' How to appeal to the imagination and develop some sense of working trust and a future vision, when you don't have the luxury of having meals together, is a real challenge for reconciliation processes and 'Track Two' process. And that's basically the context within which the 'Reviving the Memory of Muslim Spain' project evolved."

The director of the Center's Preventive Diplomacy program says it's critical to take into account the psychological needs of those involved in conflict, especially those who feel themselves to be victimized. And that's why Joseph Montville says his project to chronicle the experience of Muslim Spain offers much for today's diplomats.

"The idea in political-psychological terms is to cognitively restore the memory that Jews and Muslims can take enormous pride in," Mr. Montville continued. "This project will contract the creative co-existence of Jews and Muslims under Muslim rule and suggest a vision of the future. Saying to Israelis and Arabs, not only can you dare to envision a future of creative coexistence and mutual respect, you already had it in the past and you were brilliant at it. I have to confess that, since the beginning of the Al-Aqsa intifada in September-October 2000, it has been harder and harder to sell this project to people who are trying to survive suicide bombings and the murder of civilians - or IDF invasions and bulldozers and repression in the West Bank and Gaza."

Joseph Montville of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says his project, called "Restoring the Memory of Muslim Spain" also involves funding Jewish-Palestinian textbook revision and "legacy tourism" for future leaders in the Spanish cities of Cordoba, Grenada, and Toledo.

Abdulaziz Sachedina, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Virginia, said Muslim Spain stands as a model of what he believes is still possible. Professor Sachedina said, "They created a civilization that was very close to what we would call a 'pluralistic' civilization in which people of different faiths lived together. I think Muslim Spain reflects a lot of what we would now call almost idealistic in Islamic history, and this needs to be emulated even today. What we lack today is a recognition of mutual respect and the common ground that we share in the ethical teachings of the Qur'an and of the Torah."

Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina is the author of the book The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism. He spoke from Macha, Iran, where he is working on a new book on biomedical ethics from an Islamic viewpoint.

But other scholars have a less idealistic view of Muslim Spain. Mark Cohen, Professor at Princeton University in New Jersey, is a specialist in the history of the Jews in the Middle Ages. He said the medieval period in Spain is often referred to as a "golden age," but the term may in fact be a misnomer.

"This concept of a golden age is an old one," he said. "In fact, it was invented by Jewish historians of the 19th century in Germany who were very unhappy with the slow rate of progress of their own civil emancipation and acceptance in Christian society. And writing a history of the Jews, they looked back nostalgically to Spain and noticed that the Jews had been treated rather well at that time and had been culturally imbedded in Muslim society, and they called it the 'golden age.' That's the origin of this conception, which was an exaggeration because it was never a utopia for Jews living under Muslim rule or for Christians for that matter. Nonetheless, it certainly was a lot more pleasant than the experience of Jews living in Christian lands. It has been taken over in more recent times by Arab intellectuals and even by Arab politicians arguing that Jews and Muslims lived together in an inter-faith utopia in the past. So, if there are difficulties today between Muslims and Jews, between Israelis and Arabs, it is the fault of Zionism. In response to that, Jewish writers have revised the history that Jews themselves invented in the nineteenth century. So, you have this polarization today of views. The golden age theory on the old hand and the theory of clash of cultures and civilizations on the other. Neither of them is really an accurate representation of the past. But these two views have become quite salient in the modern conflict between Israel and Palestine because each of them serves the political purposes of opposing foes in the struggle."

Professor Cohen said he does not believe "for a moment" that political leaders base their actual policies on history. But they often find it "convenient to refer to history" if it supports their own political position. "As a historian of the Middle Ages," he said, "I don't believe that history gives us tremendous guidance for the present, let alone the future. On the other hand, I hope that a true peace will be achieved between Israel and her Arab neighbors, particularly Palestine, once there is a state in which Palestinians have a sense of self-esteem and can live peaceably with Israelis across their borders. Then it will be possible for individuals to cast their glance back at the past as a symbol of an era of co-existence."

Professor Mark Cohen of Princeton University is the author of Under Crescent and Cross, which has been translated into Hebrew and Turkish. He is also a member of the Washington-based project, "Restoring the Memory of Muslim Spain."

Whether or not Spain under the Muslims was truly a golden age is a matter for scholars. But if past is prologue, it would be remarkable that a solution to the problems vexing the Middle East of the 21st century, could be based on a society forged in the eighth century and which lasted until the year Columbus landed in the New World.