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Spanish Orientalism: Uses of the Past in Spain's Colonization in Africa
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Spanish Orientalism: Uses of the Past in Spain's Colonization in Africa

The arrival of Moorish troops on the Iberian Peninsula in 711 would change forever the perception that the inhabitants of that territory had of themselves and of others. For almost eight centuries, there was a continuous Muslim presence in the Iberian Peninsula, and that presence and the exchanges with Islam that it allowed shaped the way the territory developed through history; how it was created; how it presented itself and was perceived by others; how it spoke; and how it related to its neighbors, both European and African.

Before the Muslim arrival, there had been different religions on Iberian soil, mainly Judaism and Christianity of varying denominations. The majority of the population followed Arianism until the conversion to Catholicism of King Recaredo and the Council of Toledo in 587; from that moment until the arrival of Islam, the ruling classes would be orthodox Catholics. Muslim conquest was mainly a change in the ruling elites: the new rulers would be Moors, but that did not necessarily mean that all of a sudden the population of the Peninsula converted to Islam. In a very different approach from that of eight centuries later in 1492, Christians and Jews were allowed to continue with their faith, since they were both Peoples of the Book (dhimmi). Only pagans (mainly peoples in the North who had not been christianized) were persecuted. This situation, which has been labeled convivencia, the coexistence of three monotheistic religions, continued during the entire Muslim rule of Spain. While some historians see it as a golden age of cultural exchange and religious tolerance, others describe it as a period of turmoil and difficulty.2 It would probably be better to think of it as a sociological experiment: Christians would be under Muslim rule or, later on, have Muslim subjects; Muslims would have non-Muslim subjects (although they were prepared for that since the Prophet had already described how to treat them), and, in time, they would have to deal with a non-Muslim ruler (something that had never happened before and would be a site of theological and political controversy); and, finally, Jews would find a kinder ruler until they were expelled by the Catholic Kings.

The Spanish Middle Ages are, then, a very interesting period, and the difficulties and problems faced by the people would eventually have a literary reflection. As optimistic as one would like to be about convivencia, the fact is that literary portrayals often relied on stereotypes and caricatures:3 Jews were accused of the death of Christ and consequently criticized for that as well as for their wealth, real or imaginary, whereas Muslims were described either as barbaric infidels and invaders or as exotic sybarites. Castilian "romances" included all sorts of non-Christian characters, but they did not consider questions of race. Spanish Muslims were described by Castilian sources as evil, but as physically human, not as giants or as a monstrous race as would be the case with representations of sub-Saharan Africans.4

For Christians fighting to conquer territory from Muslims, the unity of the majority of the Iberian Peninsula under a single monarch in Visigoth times very soon became a sort of foundational myth: a Christian nation which had to be restored. This idea has been used to read Visigoth Spain as the natural origin of a unified Christian state, momentarily disrupted by a Muslim invasion, which struggled for survival during the Reconquista period, and was reborn with the Catholic Kings. Linguistic and cultural differences were conveniently erased and subordinated to religion, which stands out as the epitome of the Spanish people: one country, one monarch, and one faith. Not surprisingly, the conquest of Granada, the last Moorish kingdom, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spanish territory, go hand in hand. In 1492, Catholic and Spanish became synonyms and have remained so for the majority of Spaniards, despite some modern efforts to see the Moorish presence in the Peninsula not as a foreign invasion, but as part of the very fabric of the Spanish state.

Spain had been the site of a social experiment (Islam in Europe...