The Restitution of the Dead

On the 7th of September 2017, Syrian national Mouaz Al-Nass, a singer and drummer, recorded and then uploaded a video of himself reciting the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, in the Alhambra palace in Grenada, Spain. In the video, Al-Nass concludes his declaration by saying that he believed the walls had missed the call to Allah. The video has subsequently ‘gone viral’, viewed at least 1.6 million times on Facebook, to widespread praise from those who reposted it.

What much of this misses, though, is the complicated politics of overlapping claims to memory and identity, which are embodied in much of architecture and history of what is now southern Spain. Alhambra is today a museum, but was for some several hundred years a palace for various Muslim dynasties. These dynasties ruled what was then called Al-Andalus, from 711 until 1492, when the last Islamic ruler Muhammad XII of the Nasrid dynasty was sent into exile by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella.

Voices From the Past

For many Muslims, the end of the Nasrid dynasty marked an ignoble end to what had been at times a glorious rule. Much of this rule was characterised by religious tolerance. With the fall of Granada began a period of rampant persecution that ultimately marked the end of any organised Islamic communities in the peninsula until the modern era. For the Catholic monarchs, however, it marked the final page in the Reconquista, the ‘reconquest’ of Spain by Christian rulers who had been routed in 711 by the Muslim occupation from North Africa. This heralded the beginning of a new age of colonialism that would see Spain occupy vast swathes of the Americas, Africa, and parts of Asia.

In many ways, this change is unremarkable. The religious and cultural centres of communities have long been appropriated by those who conquered, replaced, or subsumed them. Many of the churches of Spain – some of which became mosques – were themselves built on the ruins of Roman temples. Those temples were doubtless built on sites that had been of sacred importance to people for thousands of years before that. The appropriation of native sites of worship in much of the Americas is notorious, and an enduring legacy of European colonialism.

The use of formerly Islamic, now Christian, sites by contemporary Muslim populations remains touchy in Spain. In Cordoba, the building that is alternately referred to as the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, or the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba (sometimes ‘the Great Mosque of Cordoba’), sits at the heart of this dilemma. The site of the current building was almost certainly a Visigothic Church, later turned into a mosque. In turn, when the city of Cordoba fell to Ferdinand III of Castile in 1236, the centre of the building was converted into a cathedral. Significant further construction took place under the rule of Charles V (1500-1558), who oversaw the construction of its now unmistakable nave. The site has been controlled by the Catholic Church since.

By the early 2000s, a campaign developed advocating for a return to the performance of Muslim prayers on the site, something that both the Catholic Church in Spain, and the Vatican itself, have resolutely refused to consider. Today, Catholic mass takes place, but any attempts by Muslim tourists to offer prayers there has been met with strict refusal, resulting in at least once incidence of violence in 2010. The archbishop of Cordoba stated in 2010 that to give even a small place for Muslim prayer would be ultimately see the Islamic community reclaim the entire mosque.

The Politics of Memory

This conflict is in many ways a product of how the present shapes the politics of memory. In particular, how the present occupiers of sites understand the previous owners to offer a worldview that remains socially and culturally vital. In returning sacred items to indigenous peoples across the world, colonial powers and institutions have little to lose.

Colonial powers begin to right an historic wrong and, in doing so, they understand themselves to be participating in an effort to reignite the flame of societies and cultures who were so detrimentally impacted by colonialism. But they also do so from a position of a massive power imbalance.

In effect, reconciliation as we currently understand it is possible only from a position of the perceived supremacy of one group over another. A competition of ideals, beliefs, etc., is no longer really possible. The colonised are understood to no longer to be capable of mounting a meaningful alternative. Recognition does not diminish the occupier, nor does it mean restitution to the way that things once were.

Recognition is ghost-like, a handwringing rather than a change in the way things currently are. As such, returns can be couched in the language of rights and respect, in the safe knowledge on behalf of the settler that those same rights and respect are contingent always on the assent of the occupiers. This might seem like a harsh reading of efforts on the half of current settler states to make amends for past violence, but it is naïve to imagine that it is otherwise. In recognising indigenous claims to ownership of land for instance, no one in Melbourne or Sydney really expects to give up their current property to descendants of historical owners.

In places like Alhambra and Cordoba, though, and arguably in the politics of church restoration in places like Hagia Sophia or the Van cathedral in Turkey, the overlap represents something different, an itch in the conservative imagination, with claims that – if recognised – might somehow diminish the current owner. These sites then become not places for the recognition of mutual respect and rights by a dominant culture to one that was subsumed, but rather a staging ground for a conflict between absolutist claims to truth, both of which are reckoned to be very much alive.

To restitute the dead is to have to hand over something substantive, to accept that bones are not just bones but call out for real damages. This should not, however, be read as destiny. There is no reason why religious communities cannot share sites of worship. Among Christians and Muslims in the Middle East there is a long history of joint use of religious sites. But this will surely require a more earnest and honest reckoning of history, a willingness to be humble together, rather than to read past glories through the lens of present conflict, and to dispense with tales of ‘us’ and ‘them’, and to recognise shared paths into the future.

                                                                          [Image by Tuxyso / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0]

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