Spain, return and the other 1492

By Khaled Diab

Spain's recognition of the Jews it expelled ignores another historical crime: the Muslims forced out of .

Granada was the last Muslim stronghold to fall to the Reconquista. Image: Bernjan
Granada was the last Muslim stronghold to fall to the Reconquista. Image: Bernjan

Thursday 20 February 2014

Spain has further opened its doors to the descendants of Jews expelled from its land half a millennium ago – though the actual application process remains as mysterious as alchemy.

It is welcome that Spain is striving to right a historical wrong. However, what is overlooked in Spain's public atonement is that it was not only Jews who were expelled during the Reconquista and the subsequent Inquisition, but also an untold number of Muslims.

A decade or so after the fall of Granada and the expulsion of the Jews who refused to embrace , Muslims were given the option either to convert or leave. But even the converts, known as Moriscos, were forced out a century later.

This omission has caused some anger among North African Muslims. Jamal Bin Ammar al-Ahmar, an Algerian professor at the Ferhat Abbas University in Sétif, was outraged by “the injustice inflicted on the Muslim population of Andalusia who are still suffering in the in exile since 1492.”

There have actually been some low-level attempts in Spain to address this. For example, in 2006, the Andalusian parliament considered the issue of granting the Moriscos' descendants Spanish .

But even if Spain were to extend an equivalent right of return to the descendants of Moriscos as it is offering Sephardi Jews, it would involve enormous practical difficulties. It is already a major challenge determining, some 20 generations later, who exactly qualifies as a descendant of an Andalusian Jew. In fact, many Jews, including those not belonging to Sephardi Judaism, and even non-Jews, could have Sephardi ancestry.

Four centuries after the expulsion of the last Moriscos, ascertaining who their descendants are is even tougher, given that they blended into the general population far more than the traditionally more isolationist Jews did.

Intriguingly, however, all these centuries down the line, there are still pockets that proudly identify as Morisco and trace their families back to Andalusia. For instance, there are even Morisco towns in Tunisia, such as Sidi Bou Said, Testour and Sloughia which maintain their unique Andalusian identity.

“It was very rare for Andalusians to marry ‘outsiders', that is, Arabs not of the same origin,” explained Professor Abdeljelil Temimi, one of the foremost experts on Morisco influence and heritage in the Arab world, in an interview in the early 1990s. “This is one of the biggest reasons so much of their heritage still exists today.”

And many still feel nostalgia towards the old country. “Being Morisco to me is belonging to a historic time that comes from Valencia, a civilisation, culture, art, agriculture,” Moez Chtiba who is from Zaghouan but traces his family back to Andalusia was quoted as saying.

And I can understand the source of the nostalgia. In its heyday, multicultural Andalusia was the most advanced and cultured place in the of the time, where science, philosophy and art flourished. As I discovered when visiting Spain, this can still be detected in the region's architectural gems, from the Mesquita in Cordoba to the breath-taking Alhambra in Granada.

Andalusia also had a profound cultural impact on Europe, even defining the concept of Western “cool” and teaching Europeans how to “love” in a poetic, courtly and tormented fashion.

Yet Spain has failed to recognise Moriscos, while embracing Sephardi Jews. One Moroccan journalist called the oversight “flagrant segregation and unquestionable , as both communities suffered equally in Spain at that time.”

And this is partly true, given the centuries of bad blood between Muslims and Christians and the rampant Islamophobia on the European right, as reflected in a UK opinion piece arguing Spain has no reason to apologise for expelling its Muslim population and freeing itself from “Islamic Jihadist rule.”

But another reason is simple and straightforward demographics. While there is potentially a couple of million Jews who could theoretically qualify for Spanish citizenship, probably only a few thousand at most will actually bother to apply.

In contrast, there are unknown millions of Arabs and Muslims who may be able to trace themselves back to Andalusia, from Morocco in the Maghreb to as far afield as , where the gave refuge to Andalusian refugees.

If only a fraction of these were to apply, it could significantly and rapidly alter Spain's demographic make-up. And in a country that was devoid of Muslims for half a millennium but lies on the fault line separating the two “civilisations,” this could well spark civil strife or even conflict.

Then, there are those who would argue that the circumstances of Jews and Muslims were different: while Jews were an oppressed minority, Muslims represented the conqueror. In many ways, this would be like asking the Levant to grant the descendants of the Crusaders the right to return and live in their midst.

Though true, this misses a number of important nuances.

One is the fact that during its seven centuries of presence in the Iberian peninsula, became an indigenous faith, not just an elite one. There is plenty of historical evidence that Islam permeated all strata of society, and that Arabic was spoken widely, as reflected in its extensive fossilised remains in modern Spanish.

Moreover, the Moriscos, like other Conversos, were so attached to their homes that they preferred to, at least ostensibly, abandon their faith rather than be banished from their homes.

Regardless of whether or not the descendants of Moriscos will ever be granted the right to move to Spain and become Spanish citizens, Spain at the very least owes them an apology.

Much closer in terms of space and time, as a first step towards reconciliation, Israel owes the Palestinian an unreserved apology. Likewise, the that were once home to significant Jewish minorities need to apologise unreservedly to their former citizens and would-be citizens.

One day perhaps we will even see Arab countries and Israel extending some kind of right of return, which would be a boon to a region that has seriously lost its diversity, would spell the end to exclusionary nationalisms and would prove that Arabs and Jews are “brothers” and “sisters,” not feuding “cousins”.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 18 February 2014.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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13 thoughts on “Spain, return and the other 1492

  • The Wikipedia article regarding the 17th century Expulsion of the Moriscos claims that Prof. Dwight Reynolds of UC Santa Barbara (my birth city) is quoted in the 2005 documentary ‘When the Moors Ruled in Europe’ as saying:

    “[P]erhaps the most shocking thing in the expulsion is they were not actually expelling Arabs nor were they expelling Berbers. The huge majority of the people that were being expelled, by blood, by DNA if you will, were as Iberian as their Christian cousins in the North who were kicking them out of Peninsula.”

    Interesting use here of the word “cousins”.

  • Jean-Luc

    I once met a (Jewish) girl who showed me a box containing the key of her ‘family’ house in Granada. Her family was expelled in 1492, but they kept the key and she knew the exact location of the ‘house’…

  • This is an interesting take. Packed full of information, a lot of which I didn’t know. Khaled Diab sure appeared to have done his homework.

  • Hey. just finally got the moment I needed to finish reading this. You anticipate my own initial response when you write,

    ‘Then, there are those who would argue that the circumstances of Jews and Muslims were different: while Jews were an oppressed minority, Muslims represented the conqueror. In many ways, this would be like asking the Levant to grant the descendants of the Crusaders the right to return and live in their midst.

    One is the fact that during its seven centuries of presence in the Iberian peninsula, Islam became an indigenous faith, not just an elite one. There is plenty of historical evidence that Islam permeated all strata of society, and that Arabic was spoken widely, as reflected in its extensive fossilized remains in modern Spanish.’

    The thing is though, I’m aware of the deep Muslim roots there and don’t consider Muslims there to have been “conquerors” certainly not ion the generations leading up to the re-conquest and expulsion. The difference between the expelled Jews and the expelled Muslims in this: between the end of the Jewish–Roman wars in 135 CE and the dawn of Zionism and Bundism at the end of the 19th century, Jews as individual communities or linked set of communities kept away from politics (with the exception of Jewish leaders who represented their communities and often became close to the sovereign). Jews certainly avoided armed politics, anything remotely stinking of the Hobbesian concept of sovereignty based on the monopoly of the legitimate use of force.
    What happened to the Muslims of Spain is akin to what happened to the Germans of East Prussia and elsewhere, and to Slavs who were forced out of their homes before them, to various communities in the former Yugoslavia, etc etc. The Christians and the Muslims were locked in an existential conflict in Spain which the Muslim lost. The Jews, close to and integrated within though many of them were in the Muslim society, where not and armed and sovereign community.

    On a bit of a different point, I think this whole thing is a bit silly (English understatement). I went to a synagogue as a kid, the oldest working synagogue in England (est. 1701), with people with names like Dias and Gomez de Masquita; never for a minute would I think that they belonged somehow in Spain. Just as I don’t belong half of me in Hungary, a quarter in Germany and another quarter in Ukraine. You write thoughtfully of the Mid Eastern Jews – there were once 100,000 in Bagdad and another 30,000 in Damascus. Apologies and acknowledgements are good, just as for the Palestinians inshallah, but…

    One more thing, I heard not so long ago that they think that a third of today’s Spanish are at least in part descended from Jews: we’re still there…

    …and while I’m blathering, to what extent do you think Palestinians are also descended from Jews?

  • Mohamed

    Within the framework of a historical compromise, I think it is fair to compensate Jews who were expelled from Egypt or Iraq or Yemen etc and so on. In Algeria, Jews were French citizens for instance and returned with les pieds noirs to France. There are exceptions of course.

  • Well, that is exactly what the Palestinians and the Arab Peace Plan mandate. Of course, the return of all the descendants of the original refugees would be the end of Israel as a Jewish state. I don’t think Khaled Diab is suggesting that in this article. Rather, there will be some symbolic return of a small number of refugees + compensation & resettlement for others. Like the Spanish move, it is more of a symbolic acknowledgement of an injustice they have experienced. To be fair, he also suggests that Arab governments reciprocate that gesture toward the Jews that suffered persecution and pogroms in Arab lands in the late 40’s, early 50’s.

  • should Israel apply the right of return to the ancestors of the Arabs that lived their before 1948? And no, my ancestors left voluntarily, you are correct.

  • But were your ancestors forcibly expelled from Czechoslovakia or did they emigrate voluntarily? More than nostalgia, it is the forcible expulsion that is the key here.·

  • well, I feel nostalgic about Czech Republic, where my ancestry is from, but still I’m not entitled to buy property there… Let bygones be bygones I’d say

  • That’s a really good article

  • Kapil, you raise some pertinent points, a response to which would require an essay in its own right. As I value both your views and intelligence, I will attempt to dissect your argumentation, if you will allow.

    If you think I was romanticising the past, then I fear you may have misread my article. I don’t feel I was romanticising Muslim Spain. After all, I do clearly draw a parallel between the Crusaders and the Muslim counqerors of Spain. What I call for is an apology to the Moriscoes, who were actually Christians and by the time they were expelled had been so for over a century, but the Talibanesque fanaticism of the time did not trust them.

    To bring it a bit closer to home, what you’re suggesting would be the equivalent of saying that if India and Pakistan ever sought reconcilation, then only Pakistan should apologise for its ethnic cleansing of Hindus and Sikhs because Islam was the faith of the conquerors in South Asia.

    Now I’ll turn to your more general points, which raise complex and fascinating questions to which there are no correct answers.

    You talk about “autochtonous evolution” – and, I fear in that, it is you who may be romanticising the past. This raises the question of what exactly counts as “autochtonous” and “indigenous”. Prior to the arrival of Tariq Ibn Ziyad, Iberia was ruled over by the brutal, bloody and tyrannical Visigoths, who were certainly not indigenous to the region. The Normans invaded Britain after the Muslims invaded Spain, and the aristocracy they established is still partially in place. The fact that they still enjoy the privileges of that conquest does that make them conquerors or indigenous?

    One reason why the Muslim armies were able to conquer Iberia so easily was because locals collaborated with them. And, after seven centuries of presence in the Iberian peninsula, it can be argued that Islam had become as “indigenous” a religion in Spain as Christianity was. Muslims were not just the ruling elite, they were farmers, labourers, artisans, who spoke a variety of languages and came from a range of ethnicities. That is one reason why the Inquisition devastated Spain’s economy, because it forced significant percentages of the productive population, especially in Valencia and Aragon but also Castille into exile.

    Yes, Muslim rule could be brutal and insane, not just enlightened, as attested to by the Almohads – I am no apologist for it. But was it any worst than Christian rule? Prior to the arrival of Islam in Iberia, Christianity had managed to almot exterminate the local polytheistic belief systems because they were “pagan”. Following the Reconquista, Christian kings who were not related to the Christians who had been pushed out (re)conquered the peninisula in the name of their faith, but in reality, as is almost always the case in “religious” warfare, in the service of their own lust for power and wealth. If, after so many centuries of Islam in Europe, medieval Christians were to view Islam as “foreign”, they should also have viewed their own faith as so. As one example, the Christianisation of Scandinavia actually began after the Islamisation of Iberia, in the 8th century and proceeded extremely slowly. See

    Finally, as I should be winding this up and doing some work, I’ll turn to Naipaul. Much as I love his literature and believe he is one of the greatest novelists alive, as a historian and political analyst he is, quite honestly, full of shit. Iberians were “damaged” long before the arrival of Islam, and the Reconquista inflicted its own damage by promoting a sense of blind religious fanaticism. If Spain’s monarchs could ethnically cleanse Iberia, why not the Americas, where people and beliefs were far more alien than the familiar Muslims?

    Then there is the not-insigificant matter of the fact that, though the Spanish were murderous in the New World, they were also pretty tolerant, as attested to in how they intermarried with locals and how indigenous tribes still survived. Compare that to the “Manifest Destiny” of the Protestant conquerors of North America, who almost completely wiped out the indigenous cultures, even though they had never been ruled over by a single Muslim, and Naipaul’s theory falls to pieces. In fact, if we use his logic, we would have to argue that the Islamic influence provided a brake on the fervour of the Spanish Christian conquerors, as Islam has ideological pluaralism more built into it than Christianity. But I am not so naive as to make such a silly argument.

  • I read your article with great interest. The ease with which you segue between history and contemporary affairs is, as ever, impressive. However, I fear you’re romancing the idea of Muslim Spain. No matter how deep the beliefs of the conquerors had percolated, the place and its culture was a product of imperialism. It was certainly better in some very limited ways than the despotisms that prevailed around it, but I’m not certain that local failures ever justify foreign conquest.

    Autochthonous evolution was abruptly terminated in Spain: anyone who was exposed to Almanzor’s savagery would be baffled by the idea of an apology of the kind you suggest. The people of the region were fortunate enough to reclaim over long years their suppressed history – although you could argue, as Naipaul does, that the ferocity of their own eventual conquests of the Americas demonstrated the depth of their personal damage.

    Spain should atone for its sins against its Jews, and I’m not convinced that we can club them with others without diminishing the nature of Jewish loss. Modern Europe’s suspicions about Muslims are appalling. In my opinion, there’s a widespread soft bigotry against Muslims. But I think we ought to be able to contest this vile turn without exalting ghastly imperialisms of the past.


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