Spain's Dream of the Alhambra: A Multicultural Model for Europe

By in Granada, Spain

After centuries of denying a common history with Islam, Spaniards are once again trying to live together with Muslims. In Granada, home of the Alhambra and former center of Moorish Spain, a multicultural revival is taking shape that sees Christians and Muslims coexisting in mutual respect.

The panoramic terrace of the Plaza San Nicolas becomes a magical setting at sunset. Gypsy boys play deeply melancholic melodies on the guitar while their girls dance to the music and whirl brightly colored ribbons. Bohemians pass around liter bottles of beer and cheap red wine, Japanese tourists set up their cameras, and Latin Americans sing cheerfully.

From the head of this square on the Albaicin hill sounds the lingering call of "Allahu akbar." The muezzin has climbed the 59 steps of the tower. He stands between the open Moorish arches and cups a hand to his mouth so everyone who is listening for his call can hear "God is great." In the day's last rays of light, the gilded outlines of Arabic ornate lettering glitter mysteriously under the pointed roof.

Across from the brand new, whitewashed mosque, the floodlights are lit, bathing the Alhambra palace and its ramparts, located on the other side of the river, in a rosy sheen that transforms the architectural ensemble into a veritable "red fortress." Off in the distance, the snows of the Sierra Nevada gleam in the setting sun. As men -- and the occasional woman dressed in a long coat -- hasten from the windy, narrow cobbled streets of the Albaicin district to pray in the mosque, the evening bells of the cathedral ring out over the city.

Today's Granada is a cultural melting pot. Five centuries after the Christian royalty known as the Catholic Monarchs drove the last Muslim ruler from what is now Spain and raised their cross in the throne room of the Alhambra, Muslims and Christians in the city of Granada are once again living side by side in peace. For nearly 800 years, the inhabitants of al-Andalus, as the Arab dynasties called their empire on the Iberian Peninsula, allowed Jews, Christians and Muslims to coexist in a spirit of mutual respect -- a situation that benefited all. The red fortress symbolizes this period. Originally, a rich Jewish merchant had the walls of red clay built on the ruins of an old castle. Later, the Muslim Nasrid Dynasty expanded the complex of palaces up until the late 14th century, creating shady gardens and fountains and building a splendid mosque. The house of worship was consecrated as a church by the Christian conquerors 150 years later.

It is here, in this last bastion of the old multicultural society of Moorish Spain, that an extremely vibrant Islamic community is taking shape today. Thanks to its rich history, many even see Granada as the future Islamic capital of Europe. Others fear that Andalusia could once again become the gateway for a "reconquista" -- this time under the green banner of the Prophet.

After the death of the Prophet Mohammed, and once the rule of Islam had been firmly established on the Arabian Peninsula, the first wave of conquest began. The Berber tribes of North Africa were converted to the new faith. As early as 710, the first Berber leader, Tarif Abu Sura, crossed the Straight of Gibraltar. To this day, the place where he made landfall is called Tarifa. One year later, some 7,000 Muslim warriors defeated the army of the Visigoth king Rodrigo. Afterwards, the Hispanic-Latin inhabitants offered little resistance, and a quarter of them became Muslims within the first generation. The Visigoth nobles even fled Toledo, leaving the field open for the conquerors to advance to the Cantabrian Mountains of northern Spain in just three years. At his point, the invaders were halted by the Asturian resistance.

Starting in 1055, a number of Christian kingdoms began to expand south of their northern mountain refuges as part of the "Reconquista" -- the so-called reconquest of al-Andalus under the banner of the Crusades. The successors to the Castilian throne, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon -- the Catholic Monarchs -- united the Christian military forces through their marriage and, following the fall of Granada in 1492, formed a purely Catholic kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula. They immediately banished the Jews. The Muslims, who represented the vast majority of the population of al-Andalus, were forcibly baptized, and the last group was permanently expelled in 1614. The Spanish Inquisition guarded over the "purity of the blood," under threat of torture and execution by being burned alive at the stake.

Spain's Muslim Renaissance

Today, some 1.5 million Muslims live in Spain, including roughly 650,000 Moroccans with residence permits. In 2004, the left-wing, Socialist government launched the largest legalization initiative to date for foreign workers in the country. The move prompted half a million Muslim women to come to Spain to join their spouses. This has also meant, though, that many women are often confined to their homes by their husbands and have to live according to a stricter interpretation of the religion than in their home countries.

All across Spain the faithful throng to the country's 427 registered mosques and countless unofficial smaller houses of worship to attend Friday prayers. The vast majority adhere to the relatively liberal Maliki-Sunni branch of Islam. But with the large sums of money that Saudi oil barons have been generously distributing, the fundamentalist Wahhabi creed of Islam is gaining influence among Spanish Muslims.

Over the past 30 years, since the death of the Catholic dictator Francisco Franco and the creation in 1978 of a democratic constitution that guarantees religious freedom, a number of Spaniards have also converted to Islam. Most of the roughly 50,000 new faithful live in Granada.

One of the newcomers to the religion is Maria Trinidad Lopez, 52, who exchanged her good Catholic name for Kuraiba, which means "close" (to Allah). In the mid-1970s, during the transitional period that followed the dictatorship, she experienced as a university student a belated "atmosphere like the one in Paris in 1968 with a group of revolutionary young people." At the time, Granada was a stuffy, dirty-gray, depressing city, recalls the neo-Muslim, who is fashionably dressed in an embroidered linen shirt and has a sequin-studded ribbon in her loose hair. In this "mediocre" city, which was still governed by conservatives, "we searched for a better world." Some members of her group ended up in politics, she says, but "I've always felt more at home with spiritual quests."

The student of philology talked at length with her friends about literature and delved into the works of philosophers who had been banned by the regime. Kuraiba discovered a part of her country's history that the church and her parents had always denied existed. She had always heard that "Moors smell bad," and for a long time she had even believed it herself. But in 1982, she turned her back on her strictly Catholic family and was one of the first to convert to Islam. Shortly thereafter, Kuraiba helped her friend, Antonia Maria Munoz, to open a tearoom in the old Moorish quarter, the Albaicin.

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