Thursday, March 18, 2004

Lee Smith on Andalus & the 12th-century Al Qaeda (Slate)

The story told by Lee Smith (below) has a range of interesting implications, both historical and contemporary. One of them concerns the great mediaeval Jewish philosopher Maimonides (Moshe ben Maimon).

As we all know, Maimonides grew up in mediaeval Spain during the period of coexistence between Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities. When he was in his late 20s he and his family fled Spain, spent some time in Morocco, and eventually settled in Egypt, where he stayed for the second half of his life. When I was young, I think I vaguely assumed that Maimonides must have fled from Christian persecution, like the bulk of the Sephardic diaspora. But I gradually realized that the dates were wrong, since he left Spain around 1160, which was long before the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 and even well before the big waves of pogroms and forced conversions in Christian Spain during the 1300s and 1400s. And, anyway, Maimonides lived in and fled from the Muslim part of Spain (Andalus), not the Christian part.

Specifically, as I discovered, he fled from the persecution of the Almohads ("al-Muwahhidun"), the Moroccan Salafist movement/dynasty that conquered and ruled Muslim Spain in the 12th century. Unlike the historically predominant pattern in the Islamic world—including Egypt at the time of Maimonides—in which Christians and Jews were tolerated as subordinate and "protected" second-class communities, the Almohads (like Wahhabis in modern Saudi Arabia) refused to tolerate non-Muslim religions and followed a policy of forced conversions to Islam.

But Lee Smith focuses mostly on the connections between that 12th-century history and current events, which are stronger and more illuminating than some might think.

—Jeff Weintraub

Posted Thursday, March 18, 2004
Jihad Without End
The Madrid bombings weren't about Iraq.
By Lee Smith

Last week was a mixed one for the international jihadist movement. Some sources are now reporting that the March 11 Madrid bombings were the work of a Moroccan group known as Salafia Jihadia, also responsible for the bombings that killed 33 in Casablanca last May. However, the day the jihadists enjoyed one of their greatest successes, they also suffered a major loss, when the Chad military, aided by U.S. armed forces, killed 43 members of Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. (Apparently, the battle began in Niger, which borders Algeria, and eventually spilled over into Chad.)

Salaf means "predecessor," and it's used to refer to Muslim fundamentalists who disdain any innovation after the prophet Mohammed, his companions, and a few generations immediately following them. Salafism is the polite word for Wahabbism. So, besides the fact that both groups seem to have pledged some sort of allegiance to Osama Bin Laden, there's probably no connection between them.
Indeed, Algeria and Morocco, while neighbors, seem to be worlds apart. Algeria still hasn't quite emerged from the civil war that cost more than 100,000 lives throughout the 1990s. Morocco's romantic allure still draws tourists hoping to capture some of the vestigial panache of Bogart and Bergman's complicated love affair, or at least some of the fumes from Paul Bowles' hash pipe.

One difference between the two countries is that while Algeria's military-backed regime is still in a pitched battle with its Islamist groups, Morocco's 40-year-old King Muhammad VI has allowed Islamists a certain amount of participation in the political process. Still, many believe the biggest difference is their recent pasts: Morocco was a French* and Spanish protectorate until 1956, a relatively mild form of European colonialism compared with France's brutal 130-year occupation of Algeria, which didn't end until 1962. True enough, but it's useful to recall that the Arabs were also colonialists. The Arabic name for Morocco is al-Maghreb, the place where the sun set on the westernmost limit of the 8th-century Arab empire.

The Arabs conquered the Berbers, a general term encompassing numerous tribes throughout western North Africa, whose warrior ethos they put to good use. It was a largely Berber army, led by a Berber general, that conquered Spain in 711. The Berbers were, by and large, enthusiastic converts to Islam, perhaps a little too fervent for some of the ruling Arab elite. Unlike the Arabs, who fought just for plunder, the Berbers believed that they waged war to glorify Islam.

These kinds of issues about authenticity and identity—who's a real Muslim, who's a real Arab or a real Berber—are often present in colonial and post-colonial societies. And the issues are a problem now in both countries, though they are much more severe in Algeria, where there are serious tensions between Arabs and Berbers. The question is: After 1,200 years, how can you tell exactly who's got what blood? Also: Why is a recent colonial incursion more harmful to a native population than an older one that has had that much more time to play havoc on a people's psyche?

That's not to say that the Moroccans don't have live issues with the Spanish. For instance, in July 2002 the two countries tussled over a small rocky island—Perejil in Spanish, Leila in Arabic—of no apparent strategic value. (See this "International Papers" for more on the dispute.) Now one source reports that because of the dispute, for 18 months the two countries suspended counterterrorism cooperation that might have prevented last week's attacks. In the future, further trouble might come from Ceuta and Melilla, two fishing towns on Morocco's Mediterranean coast, which Spain refuses to abandon.

If the Spanish electorate believed that committing 1,300 troops to Iraq had needlessly exposed it to the jihadists' ire, it ought to reconsider the 6,000 Spanish forces stationed in Ceuta and Melilla. The Spanish, whose new prime minister is fond of the word "occupation," say there's nothing unusual about having so many troops in Spanish cities. But these cities are not in Spain. Already some Islamist ideologues are beginning to group Ceuta and Melilla together with Palestine and Kashmir as Muslim lands to be liberated. Even if that seems far-fetched, both towns are notorious for narcotics smuggling, and where there are drugs in the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East, an Islamist group is usually not far behind to partake of the profits. Hezbollah, for instance, is a significant player in the drug trade, an enterprise Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat also has a hand in. May my Spanish grandmother forgive me for saying so, but her countrymen appear to be flourishing a big red cape at the Islamists, who will gladly remind them that "Olé" is a corruption of "Allah."

After all, when al-Qaida lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri referred to "the tragedy of al-Andalus," he wasn't pining for what the Spanish call the "convivencia," when Muslims, Christians, and Jews all lived together in relative harmony. That picture of Muslim Spain is undoubtedly a little over-gilded, but it's good that the myth of al-Andalus continues to fund the world's imagination. Without the legend of peaceful co-existence, a city like New York—where Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others get along handsomely—would've been much more difficult to conceive.

At any rate, there was trouble in al-Andalus long before Ferdinand and Isabella banished the Muslims and the Jews in 1492. Two of the more serious challenges came from Morocco in the late 11th and then 12th century, first the Almoravids and then the Almohads, both of them Berber dynasties and Muslim fundamentalists.

Almoravid is a Hispanicized version of the Arabic word "al-Murabitun," or "those of the military encampment." As Richard Fletcher writes in Moorish Spain, the Almoravids "saw their role as one of purifying religious observance by the re-imposition where necessary of the strictest canons of Islamic orthodoxy." They came to redeem a weakened Muslim state against the Christians. Once the Almoravids got soft, the Almohads, still more theologically austere, came north to replace them. Almohad is a corruption of "al-Muwahhidun," or "those who profess the oneness of God." It is an Arabic word still in usage; in fact it is the other polite way to say Wahabbi.

After the Madrid attacks, a number of journalists, academics, and other experts picked up on the idea, perhaps most fully expressed in Jason Burke's book Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, that al-Qaida may not be what many people think it is. It's not one vast organization with tentacles everywhere; it's a kind of franchise that helps with cash here, logistics there. Most important, it is the brand name of an umbrella ideology that all the jihadists subscribe to, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat and Salafia Jihadia, among others. Bin Laden is just the public face.

Looking at the Almohad and Almoravids, one might make the further point that jihadism is not just international, it's also a deeply ambitious ideological movement that feeds on its own thousand-plus-year history of extreme violence and revulsion for anything that is not itself.
Correction, March 19, 2004: This article originally called Morocco a former "Spanish protectorate." In fact, both France and Spain ruled parts of Morocco until 1956. Return to the corrected sentence.
Lee Smith, who lives in Brooklyn, is writing a book on Arab culture.