Palestinians and Spaniards: The historical right of return

The Palestinians who lost their homes in 1948, and those thereafter, were the victims of a crime committed somewhere else

Haroon Moghul
Haroon Moghul
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Political ideology which cannot stand reciprocity is fatally flawed. To establish my home, you must lose yours is an argument made by necessity. It is a moral travesty and a guarantor of human tragedy.

The Palestinians who lost their homes in 1948, and those thereafter, were the victims of a crime committed somewhere else. They were made to pay for someone else’s sins. To deny the Holocaust is vile. To expect that Jews would not want sovereignty for themselves and tolerate second-class status is absurd.

But what happens if you make the logical conclusions that follow therefrom?

The head of the Palestinian Authority, the governmental body that ostensibly represents Palestinians—at least in the West Bank, where it still has some remit—is Mahmoud Abbas. Amazingly he stresses that he does not want Palestinians to have the right of return in significant number.

In other words, the Palestinians who were expelled from what became Israel should not be allowed to come back to their homes in numbers equal to, well, their actual numbers.

I am pretty sure Abbas only wants to drastically reduce the number of Palestinians who take him seriously—a vanishing margin even now—and make the likelihood of a peace by Palestinian authority even slimmer.

Though I see the reasoning behind the admission, the confession, thee retreat, a two-state solution has receded beyond comprehensibility or sustainability.

Therefore, trying to appeal to the logic of ethno-religious homogeneity within borders Palestinians never got to vote on is as unlikely as it is unfair.

If Spanish Muslims wanted to go back home, could they? And if they dispossessed the Spanish Catholics in the process, on what basis would we declare this wrong?

Haroon Moghul

We hear much talk of how the United Nations decided this state of affairs. Why did the United Nations, a body composed at the time largely of Western and colonizing powers, get to decide what an indigenous population got and did not get? How does this make any sense? (Note, for example, that India and Pakistan, which had very little reason to agree with each other on anything, both voted against the U.N.'s partition.)

Let us see this in context.

A history lesson

Recently, the Spanish government announced that Jews of Sephardic origin will be allowed to apply for citizenship, which will naturally also mean potential access to the EU as a whole. The proposal has been vetoed before, but it seems to be gaining momentum.

'Sephardic' comes from the Hebrew ‘Sefarad,’ for Spain. Jews were indigenous to Iberia for a very long period of time. Shortly before the Muslim conquest of Spain in 711 AD -- apparently to intervene on the side of Arian Christian and Jewish Spaniards, against a Catholic dynasty—the situation of these Semites became dire. Many were forcibly converted to Catholicism dire. (A mandate imposed on Arian Christians as well.)

Of course, no such privilege has been extended to descendants of Spain’s Muslims, who, it must be noted, were not “Moors” or “Africans” or “Arabs.”

By the late 10th century, the majority of Spain’s indigenous inhabitants had converted to Islam, had chosen to speak Arabic, and concentrated in the rapidly growing urban centers of the south, the eastern coastline, and the northeastern river valleys near Zaragoza.

In 1492, when Muslim sovereignty collapsed, the depth of that alliance became clear. Jews were immediately forced out. Muslims were given a little bit more leeway, firstly because there were a lot more of them, and secondly because there were Muslim-majority states nearby.

But by 1501, the generosity expired. The next century saw repeated waves of forcible conversions, violent uprisings, and a final spasm of expulsion, enslavement and annihilation, beginning in 1609 and ending in 1614. Allegedly, the last secret Muslim was prosecuted by the Inquisition in 1728, though I’m not convinced anyone could have sustained Islam incognito for that long, under so much pressure.

What Catholic Spain accomplished in this period was the realization of modern racism. Although Jews and Muslims converted to Catholicism, they were never good enough. Their blood was never pure enough.

They were insufficiently Catholic, and incapable of becoming Catholic ‘enough’. On this measure, their expulsion was a foregone conclusion. Spanish identity was built on the deliberate indulgence of and simultaneous denial of ethno-religious cleansing.

The Spaniards of Semitic persuasion were monumentally ostracized. So, when you walk into Cordoba’s Great Mosque today, actively a cathedral, you’ll find brochures that describe a barbarian invasion and occupation of Spain which resulted in a seven-hundred year Catholic hiatus. The claims are laughably false and demonstrably ridiculous. It is a kind of schizophrenia: Spain profits off the tourism, but denies the origin.

Spain’s “Moors” were as Spanish as they were Muslim.

Right of return

There is no proposal that they might ever receive citizenship. I wonder why. The wrong they suffered, so long ago, might never be addressed.

Many states, you see, are built on denial; it almost seems a prerequisite of politics (and suggests why the fusion of the latter with religion is so dangerous).

Of course, we might also ask, to return to our original frame—if Spanish Muslims wanted to go back home, could they? And why should they not? Could they organize companies to purchase land and work towards building sovereignty? And if they dispossessed the Spanish Catholics in the process, on what basis would we declare this wrong? (The obviousness of the wrong is, to be clear, obvious, unless of course it's not--to you.) Could they ask for half the country?

It is not just that Palestinians are made to pay for the sins of European anti-Semitism—while equally I do not deny the realities of contemporary Arab and Muslim anti-Semitisms—it is that Palestinians are not the descendants of the people who removed the original Jewish population of the region. Two degrees of separation, but still the same conclusion.

Haroon Moghul is the Fellow in Muslim Politics and Societies at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. He's a graduate student at Columbia University, a widely-recognized speaker on Islamic thought and Muslim history, and the author of The Order of Light (Penguin 2006). Haroon's writings have been featured on Foreign Policy, Boston Review, Salon, Tikkun, Religion Dispatches, Al-Jazeera and Dawn. He is a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and Senior Editor at The Islamic Monthly. His essay, "Prom InshAllah," is featured in Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy (Beacon 2014). Follow him on Twitter @hsmoghul.

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