The “Cordoba” Kerfuffle

A minor, but irritating part of this manufactured controversy over the Muslim cultural center in lower Manhattan (I don’t think anyone really being responsible about this can use the term “Ground Zero Mosque”), has to do with the original choice of name for the center – Cordoba House.

The Great Mosque of Cordoba

Just so everyone knows: I have a personal connection to Cordoba. I studied there for my semester abroad, it’s where I really learned Spanish, and it’s where I studied Spanish history.

When I first heard that the name of the organization behind the center was the Cordoba Initiative, I thought “Oh how lovely! What a nice attempt to incorporate a symbol of inter-ethnic coexistence,  in relative harmony!”

But not everyone sees it that way I guess. Here’s how Newt Gingrich warps the use of the term:

For example, most of [American elites] don’t understand that “Cordoba House” is a deliberately insulting term.  It refers to Cordoba, Spain – the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex.

Ok. Deep breath. Where to begin.

First, and most generally, I suppose that it could be studied as a symbol of conquest, but there’s no indication I’ve seen that that is the overriding connotation given to the city’s name. It’s not like it was the site of a famous battle or massacre, like, Hastings or Covadonga (where the Christian reconquest began in Spain), or Ghettysburg, or Wounded Knee. Newt might decide to read history selectively and interpret it that way in his own mind, but I challenge him to find evidence that overall, in general, across cultures, Cordoba carries a connotation of conquest and subjugation. And he won’t, because he can’t.

Cordoba is overwhelmingly remembered, and studied from a Western perspective, as the capitol of the Omayyad empire, a center of learning and culture when the rest of Europe was in the dark ages,  and a city where people of three religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) lived in relative (and I stress relative) harmony during a certain period. One should resist the temptation to idealize this harmony, as historians and the history-tourism industry in Cordoba itself is wont to do. It wasn’t perfect, and it also wasn’t consistent, different periods of Muslim rule in Spain were….well…different. Some more, some less tolerant.

Its no surprise therefore that the thoughts that come to mind may be different for people considering it from an Islam-centered perspective. In fact, in this BBC documentary (around 1:07:00) we hear that the connotation when mentioning Muslim Spain is not one of the “convivencia” or “living together” mentioned above, but of a battle lost, a territory lost. So, different from the happy “everyone living in harmony” description, but still not the symbol of conquest and repression of Christians that Newt is looking for.

Now, on to his last little phrase, about how these conquerers, “symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex”. Right.  And before that is was a sacred Roman temple to the god Janus. And after the Christian reconquista it had a (rather disappointingly ugly) Cathedral placed inside it. People take over other people’s sacred sites. So it goes.

How many churches in Christendom were once Roman or other pagan temples? A lot of them I’d say. Does that mean we should demean them as no more than symbols of bloodthirsty conquest? Hardly. Would it give us the right to declare that using the term “Rome” can only be seen as a “deliberate insult” against the pagans that had Christian temples plopped in their midst across Europe. Obviously ludicrous. And so it is with “Cordoba.”

And on to more intellectually dishonest representations of Cordoba, we have Martin Peretz at the New Republic:

Have you wondered, as I have, why this project is called the Cordoba Initiative? Well, the city was conquered in 1148 by a Muslim dynasty, the Almohades, who offered the Jews a rich choice: conversion to Islam, death or exile. The family of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides was born in Cordoba and Moses ben Maimon spent his childhood there. Until, that is, the Muslims arrived. When given their options, they left. Which is what most of the Jews did then. And there started the long journey of exile from Spain until 1492 when nobody was left.

Oh dear lord, who are this guy’s editors? Does no one check what he writes?

First  – he conflates one period of rule, under the more fanatical almohades with the entire period of Muslim influence. David Stein of Yes, But, However explains the error:

This is a grievous assault on the truth. When Maimonides was born, Cordoba had already long been under Muslim rule. Maimonides studied the Torah openly and freely with his father. When he was thirteen, the repressive fundamentalists took over, and he and his family fled. How Mr. Peretz could make such a grave error is unclear; one would think he’d have fact-checkers at the NR.

Second, is what I see as an even more egregiously misleading statement: “And there started the long journey of exile from Spain until 1492 when nobody was left.”

He’s blatantly pinning the disappearence of Jews from the Iberian peninsula on Muslims, when the famous expulsion of the Jews from the peninsula in 1492 was under the new, highly intolerant Christians – Ferdinand and Isabella, who also kicked out the last of the Mulsims just a few short years later. What a breathtakingly misleading statement on his part, particularly so as the final expulsion in 1492 was unequivocally Christian.

I agree with Mr. Stein that the completely feel good interpretation of the name Cordoba can is somewhat inaccurate and that it would have different meanings in the Islamic world. I disagree with him in characterizing Cordoba as nonetheless, a symbol of “occupation”. I think that misses the point. After all, how long do you have to be in a place to no longer be occupiers? Are we Americans still just an occupying force? Are we nothing more?

In sum, the city, and the region it was the capitol of, had a complex history, much of it to be admired, some of it to be admonished, as with any place. What was unique about this city was its brief flourishing in culture and science while managing a relatively peaceful coexistence among different religious groups. This is why people are fascinated by it, why they study it, why they still flock to it’s mosque. And why they name cultural organizations after it.

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