By Jessica Proett
During Easter Week in Spain, amid processions of Jesus swaying through cobblestone streets, a group of Muslim tourists knelt down on the marble floors of Cordoba's Mezquita. They began reciting verses from the Qur'an, their voices echoing off the multitude of red and white arches, until a security guard attempted to enforce the ban on Muslim prayer and was met with a punch in the face and a knife wound in his hand. The incident resulted in two arrests, two starkly different stories from the opposing sides in the scuffle, and a rapid-fire media frenzy and equally prolific blog-dialogue that is still snowballing.
This incident occurred a month after a Saudi Arabian sheikh gave money to produce a Spanish Muslim TV channel based in Cordoba, and six months after one of Spain's most widely viewed TV channels (Antenna 3) aired the movie Un burka por amor (A Burka For Love) in a three-part series, which received an exceptional and unexpected following. Islam is a hot topic in Spain, and the prayer incident in the Mezquita on March 31, 2010 has now put Cordoba in the spotlight.
A Bit of the History
Cordoba's cathedral is incongruously referred to as La Mezquita (meaning "The Mosque) by locals, newspapers, tourist books, and schools. Actually, the cathedral was originally a mosque that was constructed during the 10th century in a time when Córdoba (Qurṭuba قرطبة) flourished as one of the most prosperous cities of Europe; a time when science, culture and the arts in Cordoba rivaled and even surpassed its legendary contemporaries of Constantinople and Baghdad.
This recent scuffle in the Mezquita is a remnant of the 800 year-long struggle between Christians and Muslims. In fact, one of the most told stories about the Crusades in Spain centers around this exact site.
At the end of the 10th century, the Muslim leader Al-Mansur raided as far north in Spain as Santiago de Compostela (the Christian world's third most important pilgrimage site next to Rome and Jerusalem), and upon raiding the cathedral there, ordered the colossal church bells to be carried 500 miles south on the backs of Christian slaves to Cordoba, where they would be melted down and made into lamps for the mosque. Two hundred and fifty years later, upon reconquesting Cordoba, Ferdinand III's first act as the Christian king was to have the lamps carried all the way back to Santiago by Muslim slaves, where they were melted again and made back into bells. This is a perfect example of the same religious rivalry and contention seen this Easter.
On Wednesday, March 31, 2010, a group of 118 racially diverse tourists, travelling on an organized tour for young Austrian Muslims, began to pray in the Mezquita. Initially, diatribes from the Catholic side asserted they had intentionally offended Cordoba, Spain, and Christians with a "provocation [that] was organized in a reprehensible act of violence," claimed Cordoba's Bishop. The local newspaper was not lenient with the tourists either, as the title to the initial article on the incident claims, "Grave Incident in La Mezquita results from an Organized Prayer by Muslims."
In contrast, the Association of Young Muslims of Austria responded to the accusations of the Bishop by insisting that there were no acts of violence committed by these young tourists and that they in no way intended to offend the Catholic Church. Furthermore, they slyly criticized Spain by emphasizing their own progressive attitude towards unity, saying that "in Austria it's habitual to organize interreligious events where Christians pray alongside Muslims." They emphatically reiterated that nobody did anything violent and regretted the "misunderstanding" that took place between the security guards and police in the Mosque of Cordoba. After this statement, Spanish newspapers began deliberately referring to the Mezquita as La Catedral.
The two sides were drawn, and it was initially unclear where the truth resided, until a week after the fact when, according to an article in the Diario de Navarra, the judge in the case involving the two arrested, used footage from the security camera to determine that the group of tourists did indeed enter The Mezquita with the "intention of praying while knowing it was forbidden."
According to the article, the footage showed the tourists communicating by walkie-talkies. They positioned themselves in small groups around different parts of the building, while one group remained impenetrably standing around the six leaders who prostrated themselves and began to pray. After the security guard approached twice, "a struggle broke out and the security guard was punched in the face." The security guard was first to grab someone, and "after letting go of the person he had grabbed, went in pursuit of the aggressor who had punched him, and found himself unable to move, facing a knife of 10 cm wide and 4 cm thick, held by detainee M.S." M.S. thrust at the guard's chest, and due to the guard's quick reaction, met only blade to hand. Meanwhile two others tried to take the guard's gun. M.S. was released only on a 3,000 Euro bail.
As a principal city in Andalusia, Cordoba is a destination for Catholic pilgrims at Easter, so the choice for these young Muslims to make a statement could not have come at a worse time. If Rome is the Catholic capital of the world, then Andalusia is its' heart. During Easter week, half of most city's roads are cut off due to processions of masked penitents carrying crosses and walking barefoot, transporting the Virgin or Jesus on their shoulders, creating winding snakes of people that only stop occasionally on their ten hour routes, to be serenaded by the wailing mourn of the flamenco saeta. Andalusian Catholics take Easter week very seriously, and sadly, the incident has sparked a new wave of anger and Islamaphobia.
Many Spaniards have voiced their concern in blogs and op-eds that the Crusades haven't ended. They fear that Arabs (in many cases falsely synonymous for Muslims) want to reconquest the world, starting with Europe and initially Andalusia (Al-Andalus). During a phone interview, Enrique Moreno Perez, a lecturer on Spanish History and Culture at Pablo de Olavide University in Seville, told me his view was that, "This incident was calculated to offend Christians during their celebration and processions of Holy Wednesday during Holy Week. The desire for Muslims to be able to pray in La Mezquita isn't a new issue, and the goal of several radical groups is to reconquest Spain and regain Al-Andalus." His words were parallel to an op-ed printed in Spain's most widely-read newspaper, El Mundo, which adopted the following position: "Muslims can pray in La Mezquita when Christians are allowed to pray in mosques in Muslim countries." The editorial also called attention to the existence of one hundred mosques in Spain where "radical Islam is being indoctrinated." However, it didn't acknowledge the fact that there aren't any mosques called "The Cathedral" in Muslim countries.
Perez is right about one thing though. Allowing Muslim prayer inside The Mezquita isn't a new issue. The Muslim community has requested several times that the site become a joint Mosque/Cathedral, which is a fascinating concept that would be both a groundbreaking union and a progressive remnant of the convivencia (a Spanish term meaning "living together without problems") present during the most peaceful era of religious coexistence in Spain's history: the 800 years of Muslim rule. However, the cathedral's managing clerics have repeatedly rejected this proposal of a dual religious monument, collaterally denying Muslim prayer within the building.
Yet as a result of this recent incident, the debate has been reopened, and the Foundation of Islam in Spain has once again suggested a managerial partnership of the "historical site." "If it is not a mosque, they should not call it a mosque," says Mansur Escudero, a Spanish Muslim leader. The Foundation argues that if the Mezquita were shared by Muslims and Christians alike, it would put Cordoba on the map as a progressive European city and would reinforce Cordoba's image as a cultural capital. They claim that incidents such as this would be avoided if everybody were able to worship in this mutually important place.
Not all Spaniards feel antipathy or unease towards Arabs or Muslims. In many cases it is the opposite, where they proudly boast of their Arab or Jewish roots, wistfully regretting the loss of those populations resulting from the expulsion of 1492. The positive influence of Moorish Spain is still very much alive in artistic style, music, dance and even the culinary traditions of the region—and in the common use of the word ojalá, which was derived from the Arabic "Insh'Allah," meaning "let's hope so" or "God willing." Ojalá is used liberally throughout the Spanish-speaking world, often without awareness that the word derives from Arabic.
Although an unfortunate event, room for dialogue has been left in its wake. The subject of Islam and the West is a crucial conversation that must be ongoing in order to lead to understanding. Positively, following the initial upheaval of the incident, acknowledgement of the Muslim community in Cordoba was given by the Catholic Church. The Dioceses made an official statement following the Bishop's harangue, insisting that what occurred in Cordoba "did not represent the genuine Muslim identity and that many Muslims in Spain maintain attitudes of respect and dialogue with the Catholic Church."
Also optimistic, Manuel Nieto Uncles, a native of Cordoba and Madrid-based engineer, has used the incident as an opportunity to counteract "the image Spain has of Muslims as intransigent." In a phone interview I had with him, he explained, "Spain's view of Muslim countries comes from media issues like censorship of writers, terrorism, burkas, and the general situation of women in Muslim countries. Because of this, people don't have much desire to see them praying in the same place as us. But as someone who grew up in Cordoba and has some friends in the Muslim community there, I can say that Cordoba's Muslim community is not radical or inciting at all. As often happens, the innocent unjustly pay the price for a few sinners, and unfortunately I fear the reputation of the Muslim community there has been unduly tarnished." Being a Cordobese native, he has been involved in a deluge of discussions in Madrid since the incident, and has used them as opportunities to promote a positive view of Cordobese Muslims.
The Force of Religion
As microcosmic events always do, this event has been a reminder of the greater issues our world faces. Speaking to me by phone, Andalusian teacher Enrique Moreno Perez honed in on the rift religion has created in our world when he said, "Shared places of worship have never worked nicely, and unfortunately, Muslims have greater issues to worry about than Cordoba's Mezquita. There are far more polemic places to argue about. Think of Jerusalem." Of course. Cordoba pales in comparison.
At the end of the day, the end of the century, the end of an empire, and the end of our lives, religion remains the most inciting subject out there. Take away religion and you take away conflict, but you also take away the vast majority of the world's reason for living. Religion plays an integral role in everyone's lives in Cordoba and Andalusia. From members of the Catholic sect of Opus Dei to staunch atheists, religion drives people's actions far more than is customary in America. It is a place where average Catholics who enter churches daily are the middle ground and even the atheists are passionate. They are vocal and adamant, driven by memories of a collective past in which atrocities were committed in the name of religion time and time again. And Spain's zealots are fanatical, evoking images from Dan Brown novels. There are also the Jews and Muslims that have found themselves back in a country where they were arrested, tortured, killed or expelled a few centuries back, yet have a history as rich as any Christian's.
In a progressive world that is becoming less fundamentally and emotionally religious and more intellectually and globally connected, an intoxicating current of religious passion is still very much at the center of things. However inciting for today's media and catalytic for discussion, the prayer incident in Cordoba is only a passing comment in the long religious conversation of Spain, and only a side-dialogue in the corner of a theater where Islam and The West plays out with drawn back curtains and a variety of spectators.
Jessica Proett is a writer in Santa Barbara and works at Levantine Cultural Center as a program associate.