1492 was a year of extreme religious intolerance among Christians.
1492 was also the year that launched Columbus’ first voyage — and its unintended consequences, the “discovery” of the Americas instead of a faster route to the spice-rich East Indies.
Years from now what will people say about 2016? Will it be a time of great discoveries, or will we stumble blindly into another painfully long war between Christians and Muslims? Will we find the wisdom and the courage to explore other, more sustainable solutions?
Can we learn the avoid the mistakes of the past — and not repeat the infamy of 1492?
Bigots Prevailed in 1492
In 1492 the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella defeated the Muslim kingdom of Granada and won the keys to the Alhambra Palace. This victory was the crowning moment of a 10-year war of religious intolerance waged by los Reyes Católicos against the Spanish Moors and other non-Christian believers. But la Reconquista did not end religious intolerance in Spain.
Instead, Emir Boabdil’s surrender marked the end of centuries’ worth of artistic creativity, of scientific and medical innovations that had flourished under the Spanish Moors. Originally from North Africa, the Moors lived in the southern regions of the Iberian peninsula and practiced Islam.
The Moors’ cultural and scientific innovations far surpassed the later contributions of the narrow-minded, poorly educated Catholic conquerers.
Having secured la Reconquista and then financed Columbus’ voyage of discovery, the Spanish monarchs recruited Conquistadores under the mission of conquering the native populations of the Americas. (And forcing them to convert to Christianity.)
These remote conquests fueled a massive transfer of wealth from the Americas to Spain over the next 200 years. This wholesale plundering of gold, silver and precious gems kept the Spanish government afloat (when not siphoned off by French or British pirates).
Believe or Else…
From California to the ends of South America, Indians were captured, enslaved or forced to convert to Christianity, often at the point of a sword or musket. This was the dark side of the power of religious conviction.
Meanwhile Los Reyes Católicos expanded the reach of the Spanish Inquisition, ramping up its punishing impacts on anyone who did not profess the Catholic faith in Spain. Under los Reyes Católicos, there was no separation of the powers of church and state. Violence was a routine means of forcing conversions.
Empowered to use torture to draw out confessions or force conversions, the Spanish Inquisition spawned a reign of terror. The Inquisition was hostile to innovation, scientific discovery, free thinking, candor or anything that deviated from the narrow belief systems of orthodox Catholicism.
The infamy of 1492 includes the expulsion of tens of thousands of Jews and other non-Catholic believers from Spain.
Jews, Muslims, Protestants, Gypsies — any non-Catholics who remained in Spain risked relentless persecution by the Inquisition and the monarchy. Protestants, despite being fellow Christians, were not immune to this persecution.
The Catholic Monarchs imprisoned, enslaved or sequestered many thousands of Gypsies and other nonbelievers, forcing them to live in unattractive areas called ghettos.
Nonbelievers who remained behind in Spain faced imprisonment, torture, persecution, a choice between conversion or death (auto-da-fé), extortion and crushing taxation.
The choice was stark: embrace Catholicism, or prepare to flee the country.
Who Will Prevail in 2016?
Bigotry and religious intolerance led to genocidal behaviors and inhumane policies in 1492 and after. In 2016 will our actions as citizens, voters and government officials show that we capable of learning from history?
Or have we forgotten the founding principles of this nation and our Constitution: including the freedom to practice the religion of our choice, the separation of church and state, the principle of free speech — even when we disagree or don’t share the same belief systems?
The proposal to ban all Muslims from entering America, simply because of their espoused beliefs, is a total contradiction to America’s founding principles.
Are we smart or brave enough to stop paying attention to the hatred and fear mongering promoted by bigots, demagogues and amoral politicians? Why are we allowing ourselves to become blinded by fear and hatred?
I pray that when we Americans cast our votes in 2016, we won’t fall prey to the fascist playbook — fear-driven religious intolerance, xenophobia and the other base motivations sold by Donald Trump and his rivals… If so, we’ll only be playing into the Muslim-alienating scenarios that ISIS recruiters sincerely hope we will adopt.
We Face More Serious Threats
Despite the fear mongering, the true threat of ISIS pales when compared to the biggest risks to people’s lives: gun violence, highway accidents, cancer, hunger — the things that can kill millions. Each year:
- >37,000 Americans die from traffic accidents, 2.35 million are injured or disabled — 1.3 million die worldwide;
- Almost 600,000 Americans die from cancer each year — many deaths that could have been prevented by healthier lifestyles or avoiding known risks like smoking and obesity;
- 33,000 Americans die from gun violence;
- 21,000 people die every day of starvation or hunger-related diseases around the world.
Terrorism is scary indeed, but its actual risk to most Americans (or even most Europeans) is low when measured in absolute numbers. Even when you factor in the deaths on 9/11 (caused by Al Quaeda rather than ISIS), Americans are 10 times more likely to die from domestic gun violence than from terrorism.
Politicians and media moguls are cynical realists: they know they’ll get far more attention by appealing to our fears, rather than informing us about the bigger picture. As a result Donald Trump will get far more airtime than he deserves. And we’ll get dumber and more bigoted by listening to him.
The world deserves more from Americans; it needs us to remain true to our founding principles, and not fall prey to fascism or the evangelists of fear and hatred.
What about Them?
My husband points out that this blog post could be misinterpreted by people who don’t read carefully. Just to be clear: I do not say that accountability for religious tolerance or open-mindedness rests solely on Americans or Europeans with Christian backgrounds. Au contraire!
Every society, every governing entity, indeed every religious institution should encourage and promote tolerance for other people’s religious belief systems. Especially among those who share a common cultural/historical heritage — the People of the Book: Jews, Christians, Muslims. Instead the opposite is true (a particularly appalling characteristic of tribal behavior that anthropologists have long documented.)
I’m appalled by the cruelty and suffering inflicted, in the name of religion, by one group of believers on others who believe or practice differently.
For more than a thousand years Christians, Jews and Muslims alike have had shameful track records when it comes to killing, antipathy and intolerance towards those they label non-believers, heretics or infidels. Let’s not forget the hundreds of years of warfare and executions across Europe over diverging definitions of heresy or apostasy. This prolonged violence inflicted by Christians on other Christians was one of the factors that drove the Pilgrims to seek religious freedom on the North American continent.)
I have no sympathy for ISIS, but grieve for their victims. ISIS is not a religion, it’s not a variant of the Muslim belief system; it’s a wanna-be government, a socio-political force that masquerades in the name of religion in order to inflict its medieval beliefs and cultural practices, like sharia, on those within its sphere of influence.
Just as Christians would be appalled at this faulty logic:
All Christians = right-wing extremists = potential mass-murderer with guns
So should we refrain from faulty reductionist thinking, like the notion Trump espouses:
All Muslims = ISIS members = potential terrorists —> therefore keep all of them out of the US
Very few Muslims, Christians or Jews are terrorists, or have the potential to become terrorists.
Muslims should be welcomed to American shores, just as we welcome Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and other non-Christian believers.
As long as we’re in a state of war, we should not welcome ISIS representatives until they are ready to take a seat at the negotiating table, to pursue serious conversations about peaceful coexistence and the future of our shared planet.
Going back to my opening premise, Islamic educators and societies need to find ways to learn acceptance, open-mindedness and tolerance. They need to educate their peoples and create opportunities for sustainable lives, so that violence towards others no longer seems an acceptable choice.