Clippings: Looking at 9/11 from atop the Alhambra

When our oldest daughter was just a baby, we lived for a time in Sevilla, Spain.
At the south end of our postage stamp-size apartment was a single window. And just outside that window and across the street were the walls of the Alcazar, a Moorish palace whose oldest walls date to the 9th century.
When we opened that window, we could hear the world passing by. Literally, the world, as crowds of tourists who had come to visit the Alcazar strolled by. Fast-talking tour guides and chattering tour groups speaking French, German, Japanese (our baby daughter’s favorite) would pass by that window in wave after wave of sound, often punctuated by the percussive strumming of a Flamenco-style guitarist, busking for a few euros.
Built and rebuilt in successive centuries, the Alcazar is one of a series of monuments in Andalusia that remind us of Spain’s Moorish past. And the Alcazar itself isn’t just Moorish but mudejar, a kind of architecture that looks Islamic but was built by Christian rulers who imitated the intricate and graceful art and architecture of Spain’s Islamic civilization as they made the Iberian peninsula safe for theOne True Faith of Catholicism.
During our time in Spain we visited the Alcazar more than once. And we went further afield to other Moorish sites, most notably the magnificent Alhambra in Granada, an expansive complex of buildings, built atop a hill, where you can still wander through the extensive palaces, pleasure grounds and gardens, past the fountains and look up at the intricately decorated interiors of this fabulous palace city built in the 1300s.
Having grown up fundamentalist in Oklahoma, I felt that I really got Spain: Just like my red dirt Okie ancestral stomping grounds, Spain has a lot of Jesus, a lot of blood (of the Lamb, that is), and a lot of pork. I loved the orange trees everywhere. I loved the sound of flamenco. I loved the Holy Week processions 24/7. I loved that we could go downtown to the Corte Inglés department store and buy real American Sugar Smacks cereal, which I ate by the boxful and which still, oddly, remind me of that time.
But among the many things that fascinated me most was uncovering a cul-de-sac of history I had never before known. From the middle of the eighth century until 1492, much of Spain was under Islamic rule.
And in that place, in that time, the Islamic kingdom of Al-Andalus was a place of tolerance — unlike anywhere else in Europe — where Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived side by side, Christians and Jews protected as People of the Book by Al-Andalus’s Islamic rulers. And out of this culture of tolerance grew a dynamic Golden Age in which art, literature and science flourished.
So when my husband, two teenage daughters and I took a long-planned-for trip to Europe this summer, we decided to take our daughters to see the greatest of all monuments from Al-Andalus, the Alhambra. But we didn’t go just because it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site or because it’s one of the most visited places in Spain or even just because it’s beautiful.
My 17-year-old doesn’t remember a time when we were not at war (declared or undeclared, call it what you will). And our extended conflict in the Middle East has spanned my younger daughter’s entire lifetime.
At a time in our country’s history in which the word “Muslim” immediately conjures up for all too many of us the word “terrorist,” we wanted to teach our children something different. We wanted to show them something from the time when Muslim-ruled Spain was, as New York University professor Maria Rosa Menocal calls it in her book of the same name, “The Ornament of the World,” an all-too-rare example of different peoples living together, fruitfully, in peace.
We took our daughters to the Alhambra so that they could see the beauty and vitality that came out of the best of Islam’s 800 or so years of rule in Spain — in the same way that we took them to the Holocaust Memorial museum in Paris to contemplate what can happen when seemingly good people and seemingly advanced civilizations commit the unthinkable.
This past Sunday being 9/11, let me now say the obvious that must be said.
Those attacks and subsequent attacks elsewhere in recent years are the barbaric acts of violent extremists and should be condemned. Period.
But — and from here on out I will likely offend at least someone with every word I write — having grieved the tragedy of 9/11, having expressed outrage at barbaric acts of terrorism, can we also now reflect on how to best move forward at home and in the world? Can we ask difficult questions about our own motivations and actions?
In reading Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography about growing up in Pakistan and speaking out for girls’ education before being shot by the Taliban, she wondered from her then-teenage perspective why America sent drones and bombs instead of books and schools. For anyone reading “I Am Malala” it is chilling to observe how the Pakistani Taliban gathered force and followers as the drones and bombs escalated in nearby Afghanistan and in the Pakistani border area.
In her sweeping and masterful examination of religion and violence, “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence,” theologian and historian Karen Armstrong reminds the reader that Osama bin Laden was among the “freedom fighters” that Reagan backed to combat the Evil Empire that was the former USSR. A Cold War conflict, played out in a faraway land contributed its own small part to the toppling of the Twin Towers.
Armstrong also notes that earlier still in the 20th century, the United States and other Western powers were all-too-happy to support the brutal regime of the Shah of Iran because it helped them extend their hegemony in the region, even going so far as to topple genuine democratic leadership at critical moments.
Armstrong also makes the convincing case that not only do Muslims worldwide reject the extremist violence of IS, al-Qaida and the like, they want no more to be identified with it than most white, North American Christians want to be identified with the KKK.
Indeed Armstrong points to numerous in-depth analyses showing that many of the most violent and barbaric acts of terrorism aren’t truly rooted in Islam at all, but in a twisted ignorance or a perverted version of the religion. Writes Armstrong, “Many of the Muslims convicted for terrorist activities since 2001 have a woefully inadequate knowledge of Islam … two wannabe jihadis who left the UK for Syria in May 2014 ordered ‘Islam for Dummies’ from Amazon.”
Of the Charlie Hebdo attackers, Armstrong notes that none were “traditionally devout: all had criminal records, and until he was radicalized by the Abu Ghraib photographs, [one of the Charlie Hebdo attackers] could not distinguish Islam from Catholicism.”
In Malala’s story, many of the young boys orphaned by war were welcomed into religious schools run by hardliners, who deliberately raised a generation of young men to hate the West and oppress their own people with a twisted version of Islam.
Where Armstrong’s analysis gets a little tougher to face up to is in her lengthy analysis of how much of the current violence coming out of extremist groups is about history and politics and economics, out of the West’s own past and current exploitations of once-colonial lands.
None of this is particularly comforting. It’s certainly not an easy sound bite. Who wants to hear that “our policies have helped to create widespread rage and frustration, and in the West we bear some responsibility for the suffering in the Muslim world that Bin Laden was able to exploit”?
It’s tough to think about history and politics and economics in far-off lands. It’s prickly and unpleasant to unpack how our current or past actions might in any way, small or large, have or might be contributing to actions we find rightly repugnant. And it’s easier to label entire groups as The Enemy, and make an uneasily gray world look black and white.
But we remain ignorant at our own peril.
Being a former nun and world class explainer of religion, Armstrong brings her discussion back to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel and Cain’s question after he killed his brother:  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
She gives the example of Mamana Bibi, a 65-year-old midwife, married to a retired schoolteacher, who was blown apart by a U.S. drone while picking vegetables alongside her nine grandchildren.
“We are now living in such an interconnected world that we are all implicated in one another’s history and one another’s tragedies,” says Armstrong. “As we — quite rightly — condemn those terrorists who kill innocent people, we also have to find a way to acknowledge our relationship with and responsibility for … the hundreds of thousands of civilians who have died or been mutilated in our modern wars simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
So on a 104-degree day in late July this summer, we snagged four tickets to the Alhambra. We walked through its gardens and palaces, fanning ourselves with our Alhambra maps. We walked through its gracefully curving doorways. We gawked at its thousands — who can even count — of intricately decorated tiles in geometrical patterns, and at the name of Allah, written thousands of times in flowing script. We tried to imagine how life might have been lived here over 500 and more years ago.
Then we snagged four more tickets and came back for the night tour and watched the moon glimmer and flicker in the long reflecting pool of the Nasrid Palace. Watching the moon float on the dark water, I thought back to the end of kingdom of Granada, Islam’s last stronghold in Spain.
Granada fell in January of 1492. That same year, on Aug. 3, Columbus set off for the Orient and instead discovered a New World. But on Aug. 2, 1492, another group fled Spain with heavy hearts.
Within months of toppling the last Muslim kingdom in Spain, the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews — who were forced to convert or leave. Not too long after, Spain’s Muslims were given the same impossible choice: conversion or exile. Persecution of those who remained soon followed.
Spain struck it rich in the New World. It gained new lands, enslaved many people, and brought back untold gold and riches. But at home it developed a kind of a siege mentality. As the Inquisition pursued its never-ceasing work of rooting out crypto-Jews, crypto-Muslims and heretics of all stripes, the vibrancy, tolerance and accompanying advances in arts, technology and science of Al-Andalus became things of the past.
So what about us, on Sep. 15, 2016? What about us, four days after 9/11 rolls around?
No one country or faith or people or civilization has the market on good or evil. We have our history of democracy and decency … and we have our Abu Ghraib. But history teaches us that societies that adopt a siege mentality, that mark all one group as good or bad, that label entire faiths as enemies, that turn their back on the “better angels” as Lincoln put it, of their natures pay dearly and lose the best of who they are.

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