Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Cordoba’

The Spirit of Córdoba

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 7th November, 2018

5061EB38-2936-4119-B8B3-99CCCC4F7ADDHaving so often cited the Umayyad emirate (later caliphate) of Córdoba in my Humanities lectures at SOAS, as an historic example of religious tolerance and the promotion of an independent spirit of enquiry, it is perhaps surprising that I had never been to this Andalusian city myself until last night. Of course, I am 1200 years too late to see the place in its full glory, when it was a centre of civilisation and learning to rival Damascus, populated by Muslims, Christians and Jews, and was probably the biggest human settlement in Europe. But there are still many vestiges of that golden era, not least the pillars and arches of the city’s main mosque, now incorporated into the Roman Catholic cathedral’s precinct. Many of the courtyards in the old town are reminiscent of the casbahs of North Africa and I was intrigued by how many Moroccan visitors I noticed as I walked round the city today. There are remnants of an even older, Roman, town, not least the splendid (albeit heavily remodelled) bridge that spans the Guadalquivir river. But it was the civilisation established after the Moors took control in 711AD that still resonates in world history. Perhaps inevitably, after a couple of centuries, the rot set in. Books were burned, as Islamic religious puritans got the upper hand. Then in 1236 the city fell to a Christian king’s armies. Subsequently both the Muslims and the Jews were expelled and one of the most repressive, totalitarian forms of Christian orthodoxy was imposed through the Spanish Inquisition.

BABF9765-ABDC-42D4-956C-02EC92A4B394A degree of mutual respect between the three Abrahamic religions was found in various parts of the Ottoman Empore at different times, but nothing quite like the spirit of Córdoba. With hindsight we can maybe wonder whether it would not have been possible to create such a society in an independent Palestine after the First World War, but Britain (as the mandated power for the area) got no further than supporting the concept of Jerusalem as an international city, where Muslims, Christians and Jews would live as brothers, and even that notion was swept aside by the surge of Zionism and the creation of the modern state of Israel. However, we live in an interconnected, postmodern world in which boundaries are traversed and the Internet allows us to create transnational communities of interest. Interestingly. in 2005, as fears were expressed about polarisation between Islamic and Western civilisations, the then Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Spanish counterpart, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, launched the “Alliance of Civilizations”. The initiative was based on the idea that all societies are interdependent, regarding development, security, welfare and environment, and that therefore a common political will should be established in order to overcome prejudice, misperceptions and polarisation. This move was endorsed by the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, turning the Alliance into a UN programme, the UNAOC. Progress has not exactly been linear since then, but there are a number of significant efforts to revive the Spirit of Córdoba, and to help it thrive, at the national level, including an independent research and public relations organisation in the UK, the Cordoba Foundation: https://www.thecordobafoundation.com

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A Diamond in the Desert

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th April, 2012

By coincidence, an article in the Guardian appeared raising questions about Abu Dhabi’s ability to complete its Guggenheim Museum on time just as I was finishing reading Jo Tatchell’s book about the city, A Diamond in the Desert. Subtitled “behind the scenes in the world’s richest city”, the book does what it says on the cover, in other words provide an insider-outsider’s view of a rapidly changing city in which she grew up and to which she returned on a prolonged visit years later. It’s sobering to think that when I was born, Abu Dhabi was a very small settlement of predominantly palm-frond huts, clustered round the local sheikh’s modest dwelling, whereas now it is a densely populated city, criss-crossed by 8-lane highways and boasting several mind-blowingly luxurious hotels. But unlike Dubai, just a couple of hours’ drive away, Abu Dhabi has not gone down the route of ultimate flash, what one might call the Beckham lifestyle. Instead, as the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as well as the main city of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, it has chosen in recent years to reinvent itself as a great cultural centre, with an island of different museums which will house some of the creme de la creme of world Art. This could be seen as an idealistic attempt to recreate the spirit of Cordoba, an era of cultural flowering and tolerance that characterised that southern Spanish city under Islamic rule. But as Jo Tatchell makes clear, there is a difficult dynamic in modern Abu Dhabi’s development; while wanting to be seen as a global cultural centre, it nonetheless wishes to remain essentially Emirati, despite the fact that 80 per cent of the population are migrant workers, notably from the Indian sub-continent and the Philippines. Moreover, many of Abu Dhabi’s gilded youth live in a dream world of social privilege and conspicuous consumption that has little connection with such lofty aims. There are many things which disturb Ms Tatchell, including the recognition that tolerance is limited in the Emirates (criticising the Ruling family or indeed the country is a complete no-no) and that expats — especially the Indians — will never be living on an equal footing with the indigenous Arabs. Nonetheless, the author retains a fondness for the place, albeit nostalgic for aspects of the past that have disappeared — a view I whole-heartedly share.

(A Diamond in the Desert is available in paperback in England, published by Sceptre)

 

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Interculturalism: A Spanish Perspective

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 6th June, 2008

I was at the Spanish Embassy in Belgrave Square last night, for a seminar on Interculturalism — in other words, how Spain is dealing with community cohesion, or ‘convivencia‘, as they call it. As Ambassador Carlos Miranda said in his opening remarks, the Spanish model offers a third alternative to the more familiar models of British multiculturalism and French assimilation. ‘Convivencia implies more than a simple “parallel existence” (coexistence),’ he said. ‘It means living together. A togetherness which implies intermingling, an idea not present in the concept of mere coexistence.’ Moreover, when Spain takes over the presidency of the European Union on 1 January 2010, Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos intends to make achieving European convivencia  a top priority.

It has often been claimed that there was a kind of Golden Age in Spain, after the advent of Islam, in which Christians, Jews and Muslims lived happily together. The reality wasn’t quite as simple as that, as Maximo Cajal, the Spanish Prime Minister’s Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations pointed out, though Cordoba was a intercultural model in its way. However, Islam retreated to North Africa, and in 1492 the Jews were expelled. Spain became a religious one-party state — Roman Catholic.

Since the dictator General Franco’s death in 1975, Spain has gone through an extraordinary social revolution. The power of the Church has declined dramatically and there is now a greater openness to other faiths and ideas. As Ana Salomon, Ambassador at Large for relations with the Jewish Community and Organisations, told us last night, holocaust education is now part of the Spanish school curiculum. And in the wake of the Madrid bombings in March 2004, much more has been done to reach out to the Muslim community. That contemporary Muslim community is extremely new — almost all first generation immigrants, not least from Morocco. And it is partly because of Spain’s geographical proximity to the Maghreb, as well as because of its history, that the country now has an important tole to play in defining and promoting European convivencia.

  

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