Sunday 18 October 2009

Ethnic Cleansing-the End of Moorish Spain

The fate of the Spanish Muslims in the late Medieval and early modern period uncovers what might be considered as the first serious act of 'ethnic cleansing' in all of European history. They were to be the victims of a state policy that had as many racist as religious overtones.

The surrender of Granada in 1492 was accompanied by a treaty, allowing the Spanish crown's new Muslim subjects a large measure of religious toleration. They were also allowed the continuing use of their own language, schools, laws and customs. But the interpretation of the royal edict was largely left to the local Christian authorities. Hernando de Talavera, the first archbishop of Granada after its fall, took a fairly tolerant view.

This changed when he was replaced by Cardinal Cisneros, who immediately organised a drive for mass conversions and burned all texts in Arabic. Outraged by this breach of faith, in 1499 the Mudejar rose in the First Rebellion of Alpujarras, which only had the effect of giving Ferdinand and Isabella the excuse to revoke the promise of toleration. That same year the Muslim leaders of Granada were ordered to hand over almost all of the remaining books in Arabic, most of which were burned. Beginning in Valencia in 1502 Muslims were offered the choice of baptism or exile. The majority decided to accept this, becoming 'New Christians', of very great interest to the newly-established Spanish Inquisition, authorised by Pope Sixtus IV in 1478.

It is important to understand that the Converts, though outwardly Christian, continued to adhere to their old beliefs in private, a conduct allowed for by some Islamic authorities when the faithful are under duress or threat of life, a practice known as taqiyyah or precaution. Responding to a plea from his co-religionists in Spain, in 1504 the Grand Mufti of Oran issued a decree saying that Muslims may drink wine, eat pork and other forbidden things, if they were under compulsion. There were good reasons for this; for abstinence from wine or pork could, and did, cause people to be denounced to the Inquisition. But no matter how closely they observed all of the correct forms, the 'Morisco' or Little Moors, a term of disparagement, were little better than second-class citizens, tainted, it might be said, by blood rather than by actions.

Despite all of these pressures some people continued to observe Moorish forms, and practice as Muslims, well into the sixteenth century. In 1567 Philip II finally made the use of Arabic illegal, forbidding the Islamic religion, dress and customs, a step which led to the Second Rebellion of Alpujarras. This was suppressed with considerable brutality. In one incident troops commanded by Don John of Austria destroyed the town of Galera east of Granada, after slaughtering the entire population. The Moriscos of Granada were rounded up and dispersed across Spain. Edicts of expulsion were finally issued by Philip III in 1609, against people who were now perceived to be a threat to the 'purity' of the Spanish race.


  1. Sounds rather drastic, Ana. What might have provoked it?

  2. Superb and just what I need to refer people to if I may Impish? Get a lot of 'Christians have never been horrid to Muslims' tosh and that should do the trick nicely.

  3. Simple intolerance, Jamie, new forms of crusading zeal. The original Crusade was accompanied by pogroms across central Europe.

    You may, Duckham. :-)

  4. Completely unprovoked? I see. Now, when did the Moors invade, conquer and suppress Iberia? ;-)

  5. 711 AD, Jamie. :-)

    Before that the country had been under the control of the Visigoths, who held to the Arian heresy, and were busy persecuting both Catholics and Jews! In al-Andalusia the Moors established perhaps the greatest of all the Muslim civilizations, generally progressive and tolerant. Although the Christian kingdoms of the north, beginning with Asturias, were to refer to their progress south over the centuries as the ‘Re-conquest’ it was, better said, a ‘New-conquest’ inasmuch as they were not the inheritors of the old Visigoth kingdom.

  6. Aha! So now the story is fleshing out, Ana. My forensic, Hobbesian mind is always suspicious of 'simple' explanations, especially of wars and other disturbances of the peace.

    One would have thought that, after seven hundred years of occupation, dispossession, obligatory conversion, punitive taxation and so forth, the intolerance of the Moors manifested itself rather late in the day.

    My first question about a reported event is "Why now?" Why not before? Why not later? Why 1492 - or whenever? The reasons are never simple.

    So, the Christians decided that they were in a position to reclaim another little bit of Christendom for themselves. I wonder how that can inform us for future guidance? Is there a sort of general historical process that makes history a practical subject, rather than merely a chronology?

  7. You are right, Jamie; these things are never simple. Why then; why at that point? One struggle was over, I suppose, and another beginning: the struggle for the ‘purity’ of Catholic Spain. No sooner had Granada been conquered than the Jews were expelled. Historical, cultural and religious dynamics made it likely that the Moors would follow soon after, no matter what promises of tolerance had been made. There was simply too much zeal, in Torquemada and in all the others.

    Never attempt to learn 'lessons' from history. It has a unique way of side-stepping patterns and rules. :-)