‘People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them’
The 11 September 2001 attacks were, as has been discussed widely in the past two decades, a truly historical moment. The twin traumas of both the terrorist acts themselves and the unwelcomed spotlight thrust upon the Muslim American community was a rude awakening for its members who had taken for granted their relatively ordinary condition in the United States. Confronted, perhaps for the first time in their lives, with hostility, hatred and harassment for merely being Muslim, many Muslim Americans began to ask why they were recipients of such sentiment. The shock and surprise they registered seemed in part due to a lack of awareness of historical processes that led to Al Qaeda taking the action it did on that fateful day. It also demonstrated the inability to appreciate the process of cause and effect that had wedded Muslims and the West in a strange relationship for several centuries. It was as if these Muslims had been living outside history itself.
The danger of Muslims feeling they exist outside history certainly does not affect Muslims alone. Western history, the dominant historical narrative for the past three to four centuries, would be incomplete without Muslim history being located in conversation with it. The advent of the so-called modern age, the starting point of what we today understand as the rise of the West, begins in large part at the expense of Muslim defeat. While schoolchildren from London to Los Angeles are inculcated with the familiar couplet, ‘In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,’ they would be less well informed about its causal and contingent realities. The Genoese explorer’s voyage occurred after the Spanish conquest of the Nasirids in Granada in January, 1492. The victorious dual monarchy of Ferdinand and Isabella then commissioned Columbus for his expedition, underwritten considerably by plundered Moorish and Jewish wealth.
For many Muslims, the fall of Spain looms largely over their identity consciousness. To this day, Muslim visitors to the Mezquita in Cordoba feel a sense of tremendous loss; the anthropologist Akbar Ahmed has coined this phenomenon the ‘Andalus Syndrome’. It constitutes a deep lament for what once was and is now gone. Walking through this magnificent structure, at one time the largest mosque outside the Middle East, tourists are struck by the splendour and the scale of this building. The stunning arches from the period of Caliph Abdul Rahman III evoke a sense of near infinitude for the traveller who walks through the building. In the centre of the Mezquita is a fully functioning chapel that holds regular prayer service. And yet along with the arches, the niche, Mehrab, that indicates the direction of Mecca for the observant, remains one of the highlights of any tour to the structure. On occasion, Muslim tourists will attempt to make a statement, perhaps out of defiance or even a sense of reclaiming lost territory by unfurling a prayer rug and trying to offer prayer in front of the Mehrab. Usually, the security detail of the premises will swoop down on the individual within mere minutes, if not sooner, and politely escort the person from the premises, informing all around that the Mezquita is no longer a mosque but in fact now the Cathedral of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Córdoba.