Subtitled The Purging of Muslim Spain, journalist Matthew Carr tackles a grim subject with sympathy and subtlety. Spain under Muslim rule is legendary for its toleration of Jews and Christians – La Convivencia. Toleration may not be the whole story (particularly in later centuries under the Almohads and Almoravids), but after the fall of Granada in 1492 things would get a whole lot worse. While after previous reconquests an uneasy continuation had occurred, this time the Most Catholic monarchs of Spain had something to prove. How could Spain be a leading Christian country if so much of its population wasn’t?
First the Jews were expelled or converted, then province by province it was the turn of the moors. Over a few decades, first Granada, then Castile, Navarre, and finally Aragon ordered the forced conversion of the population. What then? Can you trust a forced conversion? The Spanish aristocracy did not, and the Moriscos (as they were known) were constantly under suspicion of being fake Christians. Some argued for education, for integration (and Carr describes successful cases), and patience; some even argued for allowing religion tolerance; but ultimately the hard line approach won out, fuelled by revolt and a fear of collusion with Barbary pirates.
In the early 17th century the moriscos, rich or poor, fake or real Christian, were ordered out of the country. Three hundred thousand of them, 4% of the Spanish population, were expelled. Some found their way back eventually (having no real connection to Islamic North Africa). Others did settle in Africa, but it was not an easy journey – with food and money quickly running out and bandits waiting at both ends to take what they could get. The book is often quite dry, I find Spanish history to sometimes be written in a very top heavy way – with only great aristocrats, generals and priests making it – but the descriptions of Morisco life are vibrant enough to make the reaction against it seem as extreme as it was.
As Carr tells it, at one extreme it brings to mind more recent atrocities – the treatment of the Jews in the 30’s, the Armenians. But in some ways it’s hard to see how our treatment of so called “stateless” people improved over the coming centuries. In a chapter called “A Warning From History” Carr ends by describing how many people (even in the mainstream – Melanie Philips is picked up on) argue that Muslims cannot integrate into western society, will never belong to the countries they live in, and even describe such an “agreeable” deportation. The book is from 2010, but it’s difficult to see how it has become less relevant in that time.