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The new Spanish civil wars

How the contested legacy of Islamic rule in Spain is fuelling the rise of the far right in the troubled kingdom. 

A few months ago I took a high-speed train from Madrid to Córdoba, and then travelled by bus through the mountains to Granada. My ultimate destination was the Alhambra, the exquisitely designed fort and palace that was the last bastion of Islamic rule in Spain. I wanted to find out what was left of Al-Andalus, the Islamic caliphate that ruled Spain for 800 years from 711 to 1492 and gave its name to Andalusia. The caliphate had once stretched as far north as Zaragoza. I was also intrigued by the rise of Vox, a new far-right party, which is violently opposed to Muslim immigration and has called for the forced deportation of extremist imams.

Islamist groups have compared the loss of Al-Andalus to the dispossession of the Palestinians in the modern era. One jihadi, who went from Spain to join Isis in Syria and called himself El Cordobés (“The Cordoban”), proclaimed in propaganda videos, in fluent Andalusian Spanish, that “the Muslims will take revenge for the Muslim blood spilled in the long war for Al-Andalus”.

El Cordobés is referring to what the Spanish call the Reconquista (the Reconquest). Alarmingly, Al-Andalus, which most Spanish historians throughout the ages have either denigrated or simply treated as a long-forgotten relic, has today become the focus of competing ideologies. I wanted to find out how and why this had happened.

I began in Madrid, where in 2014 Vox was launched by extreme right-wing dissidents from the centre-right Partido Popular. The party has been growing steadily in influence, particularly in white working-class barrios such as Vallecas, a residential suburb to the south of the city. According to the novelist Javier Marías, a patrician of the left, writing in El País, Vox is no more than a rabble of “Francoist nostalgics, nationalists, xenophobes, misogynists and traitors to the constitution” who thrive on controversy and have provoked a “hysterical” response. But Javier Cercas, writing in the same newspaper, sees the party as a serious danger, specifically in its reawakening of the distant and not-so-distant past in Spanish history. Cercas says that Vox proclaims itself to be against “progress, communists and Islamists”. According to the leader of Vox, Santiago Abascal, it is all very simple: what Vox says is “in step with what millions of Spaniards think”.

This applies especially to a younger generation of Spaniards who have never known fascism. On the streets of Madrid suburbs, young campaigners talk about their commitment to Vox as if it were comparable to supporting a football team. “It’s about the flag, unity and us as Spaniards. It is who we are,” said one young man.

I spoke to a variety of historians, who explained to me that the country’s contested Islamic history played into the hands of those on the far right, especially members of Vox, who believe that Spain could never be a proper modern European democracy. The consensus on the far right is that Spain is somehow exceptional and that the destiny of modern Spain is to act as a shield against the Muslim threat from Africa and the Middle East.

Most of the historians reacted badly when I quoted the famous saying “África empieza en los Pirineos” (Africa begins in the Pyrenees). Some said that this was no more than “Anglo-Saxon propaganda” (actually the phrase is usually credited to a Frenchman, Alexandre Dumas). This was all part of the leyenda negra Española (black legend of Spain) – the argument being that Muslim domination reduced Spain to ruin and condemned it to poverty.

Some Spanish thinkers, including the novelist Javier Marías, have argued that this kind of “hysteria” empowered those such as Vox who believe that Spain’s destiny is anti-democratic; that it could only be held together by a strong, centralist government.

One afternoon I set off from Atocha station in Madrid. It was there on 11 March 2004, at 7.37am, that the first of a series of 13 bombs packed into bags in commuter trains was detonated. In all, 193 people were killed in the attacks. This was the worst terrorist massacre in Europe since the Lockerbie disaster of 1988, when 270 people were killed. Most of the terrorists were Moroccans and many came from Tangier, where Spanish is the second language after Arabic, and which is only an hour by ferry from the Spanish coast.

During the days that followed the bombings, Spain seemed to some as tense as it had been before the Civil War of the 1930s, as the government at first refused to believe that this was an Islamist attack and the public sensed a cover-up. For their part, the bombers imagined that the loss of Al-Andalus was finally being avenged. Much of the rise of the new far right in Spain can be traced back to this period.

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When I first lived in Spain as a language student in the mid-1980s it took a whole day to travel by train from Madrid to Andalusia. Now the journey takes just over two hours. Arriving in Córdoba you find a city that is clean and modern; a long way from the chaos that I remember from my student days. Back then there could not have been a sharper contrast between Madrid and Córdoba, as well as the rest of Andalusia. This was not just because of distance but because Madrid was changing at dizzying speed, becoming a modern European city. The death of Franco in 1975 had heralded a “New Spain”, shaped by a countercultural revolution called La Movida (“the movement”), whose most famous son is the film director Pedro Almodóvar.

The Movida scene was the Spanish equivalent of the cultural upheavals of the late 1960s or the punk revolution in the 1970s: bands formed (and fell apart) on a daily basis; clubs opened at four in the morning – not just in the big cities like Barcelona and Bilbao but in small regional capitals such as Burgos and Zaragoza. Drugs and sex – straight and gay and in-between – were everywhere. There was an explosion of artistic activity in comics, graffiti, photography and pornography. It was as if every hedonistic and artistic transgression forbidden under Franco had been unleashed. None of this really happened in Andalusia, which was socialist territory but also poor and never cosmopolitan.

Decades later it was in Andalusia that Vox sent its first shockwaves through Spain by taking 12 seats in the regional elections of 2 December 2018. Most shocking of all was that an openly far-right party even existed in Spain. Since the death of Franco, the prevailing belief on the left and centre right was that the long years of dictatorship – dreary and murderous in turn – had somehow “vaccinated” the Spanish against the far right. Until 2018, and Vox’s victory in Andalusia, mainstream Spanish politicians were proud that Spain did not seem to be turning to the far right in the way that was happening in other European countries, from Hungary to Germany. The success of Vox turned that belief on its head.

Vox first made itself popular in Andalusia through its Euroscepticism. The great debate in Spain in the 1980s was whether Spain should join the European Union, which it did in 1986. This meant that Spain was irrevocably “in” Europe. For centuries, Spaniards had argued over whether Spain was part of the West or whether the Islamic occupation had left an anti-democratic legacy, condemning the country to violence and poverty.

This was certainly part of Franco’s propaganda – that Spain must always be kept apart from “Europe”, which would contaminate the purity of the Spanish character that must be held in check by religion and the military. This has contemporary resonance for those who fantasise about the “order” that prevailed under Franco. I have sometimes heard the same view from older Muslims in Tangier and Tetouan.

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For many Spaniards, however, especially in the parts of Andalusia that are wretchedly poor, the EU has been revealed as a disappointment, benefiting only the so-called Euro-elite who speak fluent English and travel easily from London to Paris or to Brussels, rather than the Spanish regions. These are the people identified by Vox as antiespañol, a word that dates back to the ultra-nationalist groups of the 1930s, hinting at “inner enemies” in Spain: in the 1930s these were Bolsheviks or Jews but today they are the sleek Eurocrats and cosmopolitans.

Antonio Manuel, an academic and author who writes mainly on the history of Andalusia, assured me that the impact of Vox would be short-lived. We talked on the left bank of the river Guadalquivir, the so-called rebel side of the river from where the resistance came to the Islamic caliphate. We talked about Federico García Lorca, the poet and avatar of Andalusian culture, and his belief that Al-Andalus represented an ideal of what Spain could be: two cultures living together. For all this wishful thinking about cultural harmony, I couldn’t help but think that Manuel was a romantic. I recalled that Lorca had been brutally murdered by Francoist troops for his beliefs, including his love of the Islamic world.

The appeal of Vox, I think, is that the party wants to turn the clock back on Spanish history. Its leaders oppose Catalan independence and the autonomy of the Spanish regions on the grounds that they threaten the unity of Spain and could trigger the “Balkanisation” of the kingdom. They propose building a wall around Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish enclaves in Morocco and the entry point to Europe for many immigrants. They want to take back Gibraltar. Their policies include repealing the 2004 law on gender violence because it discriminates against men.

This is a particularly contentious issue in Spain because of the controversies around the recent case in Pamplona when a young woman was gang-raped by a group of men, a so-called manada (wolf-pack), during a fiesta. They also filmed the crime and shared it on a WhatsApp group. The men were found guilty but, at first, had been charged with sexual abuse rather than sexual assault. They were not immigrants but Spaniards. The initial verdict brought thousands on to the streets in protest about Spain’s rape laws.

Vox’s most controversial policy is to bring a halt to the exhumation of mass graves from the period of the Spanish Civil War. It is reckoned that there are as many as 3,000 mass graves in Spain, of which 740 have been excavated since 2000. Vox opposes the removal of the body of Franco from the Valle de los Caídos, the ugly monument to the dead of the Civil War that was reportedly built by forced labour, some 30 miles or so to the north-west of Madrid. There are no deeper wounds in Spanish society than these issues.

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Alonso de Mendoza is a spokesperson for Vox. He does not believe that his party is neo-fascist: “We are simply Spanish patriots.” He explained why the Reconquista was important. “We are very proud of the Reconquista. It is what makes us Spanish. We are a people who always fight to the end and never give in. That is what Vox is all about – taking back control of our country.”

Vox’s Trumpist slogan is Hacer España grande otra vez (“Make Spain great again”). Yet for all the parallels with the ideology of Steve Bannon and Trump, theirs is a specifically Spanish form of populism and is bound up with the history of Islam in Spain. All far-right groups in Europe look back to the past to explain the present (this is why the statue of Joan of Arc in Paris is an annual rallying point for the far right every 1 May).

But the anti-Islamic discourse of Vox awakes strong emotions in Spain: the Muslim or Moor has always been the traditional enemy. When I first lived in Spain I was shocked by how this sentiment even permeated children’s songs. I shared a flat with a black jazz musician from Chicago; neither of us could believe it when a waiter referred to him as a “Moro”. Hay Moros en la costa! (“There are Moors on the coast”) is a common saying to indicate imminent danger. This innate Islamophobia was exploited by Franco when he used Moroccan troops from the Rif as his death squads during the Civil War.

In Granada I visited a small, newly built mosque in Albaicín, once a gypsy district adored by Lorca. The mosque’s beautiful gardens look out directly on to the Alhambra. I spoke to Hadija Martinez, who was born and brought up as a Spanish Catholic but converted to Islam in her twenties. She told me that the mosque had been there since 2003 but that it had been opposed by the authorities, which at best wanted it to be built in an obscure location near the airport. “What they don’t understand is that Islam is part of being Spanish,” she said. “I have not left my Spanish identity behind because I am a Muslim. There is no separation between my religion and my nationality.”

This is not the view of the local authority, however, which celebrates the Fiesta de la Toma de Granada (the Fiesta of the Fall of Granada). This is the day that Granada officially fell to the Catholic monarchs in 1492 and is hailed as the birth of the new, white, Catholic Spain. It is promoted as a tourist event but to Vox, and its supporters, it is the symbol of what it means to be Spanish.

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The Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo has used the term memoricidio to describe how European identity, and in particular the notion of La Hispanidad (Spanishness), has been constructed out of the eradication of Muslim influence. Goytisolo described contemporary Spanish civilisation as “La afeitada civilización hispana” – a clean-shaven Hispanic civilisation, free of Islamic influence. And yet, the memory of an “intrusive” Islamic presence lies deep in the collective imagination of Spain. At critical moments in Spanish history, including the aftermath of the Islamist attacks of 2004 in Madrid and of 2017 in Barcelona, this theme has re-emerged.

In 2019, Spain has changed again. These days La Movida is no more than a fading memory; its main players, if they aren’t dead, tell their stories like old punk veterans. Spain has recently known some difficult times: mass unemployment among the young, businesses collapsed into bankruptcy, house price increases, and debt among ordinary people. Although there are strong signs of recovery, the economic crisis has left the country largely demoralised. People are angry at the widespread corruption in politics and business, much of it uncovered during the crisis.

And then there is the influence of Islam. Spain now has two radically different versions of its Islamic past, and accordingly its present and future relations with the Muslim world. On the one hand, there are those such as the supporters of Vox who argue that Spain’s Islamic past was an aberration and that its geographical proximity to the Maghreb is all the more reason to build the walls higher and patrol the borders with armed soldiers. And it is true that the suspicions and tensions that still separate Spain and the Islamic world are deep.

On the other hand, it is also impossible to deny, as Hadija Martinez argued, that the two civilisations, Spanish and Islamic, are still locked in a mutual embrace. This is why it may well be that the new Spanish civil wars, in culture and politics, will be in fact as old as Spain itself. 

“Al-Andalus: The Legacy” by Andrew Hussey, produced by Neil McCarthy for BBC Radio 3, is available on BBC Sounds

This article appears in the 09 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain