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America as Nueva Andalusia

Can the United States learn a valuable lesson for its future from the Muslim world’s past?

May 13, 2005

Can the United States learn a valuable lesson for its future from the Muslim world's past?

Historically, the United States owes much of its economic and political leadership to its ability to integrate men and women of many different backgrounds into one nation. Many Americans seem to be forgetting that — and increasingly turning their back on the rest of the world.

History suggests that it may be a mistake. Well before the United States came into being, there was the Muslim Caliphate of Cordoba, located in Southern Spain. For many centuries, Andalusia was the most enlightened — and most tolerant — nation in Europe.

Founded by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Rahman in the middle of the 8th century, Andalusia offered remarkable religious tolerance — very similar to what the United States has traditionally offered.
Andalusia gave religious freedom to the Jews, who had been decimated in Europe by Christian persecution before the Islamic conquest.

Even more striking, al-Andalus also allowed Christians to live side by side with Muslims and to practice their religion openly — despite the enmity that endured with most Christian nations of the day.

The result was cultural efflorescence and economic prosperity that lasted for more than seven centuries.

Local scholars translated into Arabic and preserved for posterity much of the Roman, Greek and Hebrew scientific knowledge, literary texts and religious lore.

At a time when the great capitals of Europe, including Paris and Rome, were essentially dark, disease-ridden rat-holes, Córdoba, Grenada, Sevilla and other cities in Muslim Spain amazed their contemporaries with their luxury and splendor.

At the end of the first millennium, the population of Rome, for example, had dwindled to just 50,000 — even though it numbered in the millions at the height of the Roman Empire.

Córdoba, on the other hand, had thousands of mosques, churches and other houses of worship, spectacular gardens and paved, lit streets. It had 70 libraries, while the Caliph owned over 400,000 manuscripts.

A 10th century Christian scholar, Gerbert of Aurillac, was so impressed with what he saw and learned in Spain that, after becoming Pope Sylvester II in 999, he borrowed much of that Muslim learning.

Although his contemporaries believed that he had made a pact with the Devil — largely because of his admiration for Islamic culture — Pope Sylvester is credited with replacing clumsy Roman numerals with Arabic numbers.

He also introduced modern mathematics and astronomy into Christian Europe. Notably, he was Pope in 1000 AD, during Y1K — and his reforms ushered in a millennium of Christian ascendancy on the global arena.

Yet, the enlightened Muslim al-Andalus did not endure. Its tolerance came under persistent attack throughout the Middle Ages — both from fanatical Muslims in North Africa and dogmatic Christians in France and Northern Spain.

They saw the peaceful coexistence of different religions as something impure — and yearned to put an end to it.

The Umayyad dynasty came to an end in 1013. It was destroyed by Islamic invaders from North Africa, who greatly weakened the Muslim rule in Spain, splitting Andalusia into a number of statelets.

But even splintered, Muslim Spain remained tolerant, enlightened and prosperous. The crushing blow came much later, when Christian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Grenada, the last Muslim outpost on the Iberian peninsula.

Acting under pressure from the Catholic Church, they expelled all Jews and Muslims who refused to convert to Christianity in 1492 — the year Christopher Columbus sailed to discover the New World.

The achievements of Muslim al-Andalus were so great that the United States should be rightly proud to be seen as its heir.

Especially since following the imposition of uniform Christianity in Spain, the country experienced only a relatively brief period of ascendancy in the 16th and early 17th centuries. In large measure, this progress was built on the cultural heritage of its former Arab invaders. Thereafter, Spain began terminal decline, which lasted for some 300 years.

Yet, in recent years the United States has been edging away from tolerance and inclusiveness. In fact, the country's other founding principle — purity and exclusiveness — has reasserted itself.

That vision was brought to the New England colonies by the Pilgrim fathers sailing from Great Britain.

John Winthrop, one of the Puritan founders, famously declared in 1630 off the coast of Massachusetts: "We will be as a city upon a hill."

He thus proclaimed the purity of the new nation that he and his co-religionists were about to found. They wanted it to stand apart from the dirty, sinful and unprincipled Old World they had left behind.

Yet, a century and a half later, when the United States of America actually came into being as a new nation, it was founded on the principles of tolerance and inclusiveness.

"E pluribus unum," a Latin phrase meaning "from many, one," is the motto on the Great Seal of the United States. The New World, as exemplified by the United States, became the last resort for the persecuted, the oppressed and the disadvantaged everywhere.

Even Mr. Winthrop's famous words were imbued with different meaning — not as a symbol of purity and exclusivity, but as an intention to pursue high standards — and hence, as a beacon of liberty for the rest of the world.

It was that inclusiveness that ultimately allowed the United States to achieve greatness. It is no secret that immigrants of different ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds continue to build America with their creativity and energy.

Its diversity is one of the key resources allowing the United States to compete in an increasingly globalized world — just as the talents of Christians and Jews once contributed to the prosperity of al-Andalus.

Yet, alarmingly, in the post-September 11 environment, the United States seems ready to abandon the principles that have served the country so well.

In domestic and international policy, U.S. leaders see their actions in a uniquely righteous light and are determined to do what they believe to be right — regardless whatever the rest of the world thinks of it.

No longer an enlightened, tolerant Andalusia, the United States sees itself more and more as an isolated city upon a hill.