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Spain's History Lesson for Trump

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Donald Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric is no accident: Many people in the U.S. and in Europe -- in some countries even majorities -- have unfavorable views of Muslims and Islam. Some would probably approve of what Spain did to its Muslims in the early 17th century, when it put them on boats and sent them away. History, however, has made a mockery of that "solution."

Between 711, when the first Muslims arrived in Iberia, and 1492, when Granada, the last Moorish kingdom in Spain was defeated by Christian troops, the balance of power had shifted toward Christians. For a while, the new rulers allowed the "mudejar" -- Muslim subjects who accepted Christian rule -- to practice their religion. Many still left Spain, however, and by the end of the 15th century, only a minority of about 300,000 remained, comprising about 3.5 percent of Spain's total population. 

Still, the Muslims bothered the pious Spanish kings, their priests and strategists, who feared a potential fifth column if Spain were to clash with the Ottomans. Discussions of the mudejars' perceived disloyalty resembled today's suspicions that any Muslim might sympathize with terrorists or even join them. 

Their Christian neighbors looked at them askance, too: It was believed that Muslims bred too fast and thus threatened to take over the communities in which they lived. We are now hearing that again.

There was much bellyaching about what to do with them. The two most popular options were integration -- which in those days meant Christianization -- and expulsion. 

The Muslims didn't like the idea of apostasy. Catholic bishops tried using bribes and coercion to win them over, with limited success. Influential churchmen such as Francisco Jimenes de Cisneros, the cardinal who pretty much ran Spain at the end of the 15th century, favored forced conversion by decree. When rumors that this was about to happen spread through the Muslim villages in 1499, their residents rebelled, giving Cisneros a pretext to go through with his plan once the resistance was quashed. Soon, there were officially no Muslims in Spain, only Moriscos -- Moorish converts. 

When he talks about keeping Muslim immigrants out of the U.S., Trump suggests asking people about their religion at the border and allowing or prohibiting entry on the basis of the answer. He should know that the Moriscos decided it was acceptable to lie about their true religion. The forced conversion gave rise to what historians call "crypto-Islam" -- the practice of clandestine worship that changed little for the Catholic rulers of Spain. "Integration," as it was understood at the time, failed because people didn't want to give up their ways. 

"It will be impossible for us to convert the Moriscos unless we first of all tame them and take away the fear, the hatred and the enmity that they feel for the name Christian," lamented the unknown author of a late 15th century treatise titled "Discurso antiguo en materia de moriscos."

Once it became clear the Muslims could not be "tamed," calls for expulsion became louder. One proposal was to put them on ships and cast them adrift -- that would remove the possibility that they might come back with a North African invading force. Another suggestion was to castrate the men and take them to North America. These ideas, however, met with resistance from rich landowners who suspected the loss of workers would undermine their incomes.

Finally, in 1609, King Philip III signed a decree ordering all Moriscos to be transported from Spain within three days. There were too many of them, however, so the process took five years. Most were taken to North Africa, and millions of their descendants now live in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

This ancient history is still relevant today. The introduction to University of London professor L.P. Harvey's 2005 book "Muslims in Spain" is worth quoting at length:

If I had allowed myself to be distracted from making the first draft of this introduction, one morning in 1995, to steal a glance at the front page of that day's newspaper, I would have found there accounts of a violent conflict in which what was at stake was whether Muslims should continue to live in a particular European city. The Christians who wished to drive these European Muslims out had never lived in the areas from which they were seeking to expel the present inhabitants, but they were entirely convinced they had the right to determine who was "at home" there and so could stay, and who, being an intruder, deserved to be "cleansed" away. I could not have failed to note that morning that when it came to the presence of a Muslim minority on European soil, the emotions that governed men's actions were as intense and as bitter as they had been among Christians and Muslims in Granada five hundred years before. As I complete the revision of these pages, well into another millennium, the newspaper headlines look much as they did in 1995, although the places where there are bloody disputes have changed.

And that was before Marine Le Pen started doing well in French elections, a hard-right, anti-Muslim party came to power in Poland and Trump called for barring Muslims from the U.S.

Despite all that history, Spain now has a larger Muslim population than when the Moriscos were expelled. They weren't invited back, unlike the descendants of Spain's Jews, who had been forced to leave even earlier. Nevertheless, following the immigration boom of the 2000s, Spain now has the seventh biggest Muslim population in the European Union, at 1 million people, or 2.1 percent of the population. 

In the (highly unlikely) event that a far-right party came to power in Spain and shipped the nation's Muslim minority back to North Africa as Philip III did, they would certainly return again. Only this time it wouldn't take several hundreds of years to happen, just an economic upturn and an electoral swing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net