Majid: Dangerous Purities

Anouar Majid writes in a guest op-ed for Informed Comment:

This year, a few scholars are commemorating the 400th anniversary of one of the darkest episodes in history, an event that should be widely known and discussed, but which, alas, has remained buried in the archives of memory. In April 1609, King Philip III of Spain and his royal council made the fateful decision to expel all Spaniards of Muslim descent (known, pejoratively, as Moriscos, or little Moors) from his domains. This royal decree, not proclaimed publicly until months later, was, in essence, a final declaration of war on Islam. Since Granada, the last Islamic kingdom in the Iberian peninsula, had surrendered in 1492, Muslims, or Moors, had been steadily subjected to harassment and pressure to convert. But conversion, which turned Moors into Moriscos, was not enough.

A purity-of-blood edict, eventually upheld by the Inquisition, turned Catholicism into a racial matter, thereby making it impossible for Muslims and Jews to claim full membership in the emerging nation. So, in 1609, when Spain was entering a period of decline and diminished glory, Catholic purists prevailed on their monarch to deport all the Moriscos—at least 300,000 people, or about five percent of the country’s population—and cleanse their nation of Muslim impurities. Spain’s entire military force, with help from other European nations, was marshaled for this gigantic undertaking. This forced exodus took five years and most of the Moriscos perished in the process. Even when the surviving deportees reached the safety of alien shores, including those of Muslim nations, they were subjected to unremitting degradation.

The culmination of what one prominent scholar has termed “the biggest ethnic cleansing to have been carried out in western history” before the 20th century was greeted with joy and prayers. It was, in the words of a Dominican friar, an “agreeable holocaust” that would ensure the unity of Spain and its purity of faith. The few liberals who had warned against such brutality had been drowned in the chorus of nationalist fervor. The great French statesman Cardinal Richelieu wrote in his memoirs that the expulsion of the Moriscos was “the boldest and most barbarous [act] recorded in human annals,” but such a measure was deemed justified for the benefit of the nation.

The French writer Voltaire, a champion of freedom, knew that Spain’s King Philip III used the Moriscos as scapegoats, just as Niccolò Machiavelli had known that Philip’s predecessor, King Ferdinand, when waging wars on Muslims more than a century earlier, was using a “policy of pious cruelty” to consolidate his power. Machiavelli knew that the war on the Moors was used to unify the nation, but even the shrewd Florentine realist found such opportunist behavior “despicable.”

The birth of modern nations around common ideologies, faiths, or races spelled disaster to those who didn’t fit the mold. Simultaneously condemned and needed, such hapless groups have remained in limbo, neither fully included nor fully discarded. The undesirables of the centuries that followed the expulsion of Moors and Moriscos from Spain—such as Jews, Africans, and immigrants—were indelibly associated with inferior traits. Spain’s medieval purity-of-blood statute would later turn into an iron scientific law justifying genocidal policies. The Holocaust of Nazi Germany would become the ultimate expression of this long, painful history of intolerance.

We need to remember this sordid legacy as we talk about immigrants and implying that by somehow keeping them out we will keep our nations safe. These vague yearnings for national wholeness are dangerous fantasies. Despite all the bloodshed, Spain fell from power and has never achieved national unity. Moreover, as the tornadoes of economic globalization have uprooted any pretense to cultural stability or permanence, myths of purity as the basis of national unity have become dangerously outdated.

The medieval clash of Christianity and Islam gave birth to a new world order founded on the fictions of unsullied national identities that depend on relentless crusades against strangers and immigrants. We can no longer afford to follow this treacherous path. We need to make peace with our strangers; we must heal ourselves.


Anouar Majid is the author of We Are All Moors: Ending Centuries of Crusades Against Muslims and Other Minorities (2009)

He is director of the Center for Global Humanities at the University of New England in Maine.

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