I've just finished Maria Rosa Menocal's Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (BackBay, 2002). This splendid scholarly but readable history of Spain from 700 to 1600 highlights the golden age of Moorish (Arab-influenced) culture in Spain. The time is a monument of cultural diversity and civilization when most of Europe was mired in the Dark Ages.
Menocal's thesis was that three seemingly disparate cultures thrived in Southern Spain during an awful time that included the Crusades, the Black Death and invasions of fundamentalist Berbers from Africa. What's left behind is a testament to how tolerance can work even if you're a stranger in a strange land without borders.
Prof. Menocal's book got me to thinking about the Kurds.
They are a tormented group, self-organized with their own culture and language, spreading out between four countries -- none of which want to recognize them or create a state called Kurdistan. Now, as the Turks consider invading Iraq to launch sorties against the PKK guerillas (they won't find them but will slaughter a lot of people along the way), they're in a bind. If they attack, they will set back their aspirations for joining the European Union for at least a decade. Since both the US and Turks have branded the PKK a terrorist group, they have that political cover, although it's not enough to justify adding even more chaos and destruction to Iraq. As if the situation wasn't complicated enough, the PKK or its affiliates are also attacking inside Iran, which the US doesn't discourage. Washington doesn't want the Turks in Northern Iraq because the rest of the country is locked in a civil war courtesy of Bush and Cheney.
So that brings me back to Spain. The Arabized Spanish, who were Muslims, Jews and Christians, managed to live with each other more or less for about 700 years. Various Christian princes were pushing a "reconquest" for that period of time, but only succeeded when Ferdinand and Isabella took Granada in 1492. Ruling initially from the magnificent Alhambra fortress, a series of palaces and citadels on a prominent hill in the town, they had promised religious freedoms to Muslims and Jews. In short order, though, they reneged on their covenants and expelled the Jews. Then they unleashed up what became the Spanish Inquisition. After conquering a large slice of southern North America and most of South America in the 16th century -- and bringing slavery, oppression, disease and their unsatisfied greed to the New World --the Spanish monarchy was nearly bankrupt by the time Cervantes published Don Quixote in 1605. Their intolerance did not foster a New World Order. By spreading too much gold and silver in the European economy, they fostered inflation and they paid the price. The country didn't really recover until well after the Franco regime fell in the late 20th century.
Sound familiar? As the Kurds, who have suffered mightily to live independently in hostile territories, try to preserve their people, they have engaged world powers in their struggle. Will we embrace diplomacy and bring all parties to the table to eventually establish an independent Kurdistan -- now is the time to talk -- or simply stoke the fires of hatred and cultural oppression?
We have to realize that so many national borders that the great powers have drawn have been arbitrary and have led to disenfranchisement of any number of other ethnic groups. Look at the partition of India and Pakistan or the fuzzy line that incorporates tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Or the fluid line of the Rio Grande that separates Mexico from the United States -- or doesn't. Keep in mind there were no defined borders in the nomadic Arabian peninsula prior to 1919. The British drew most of those imaginary lines ater the Ottoman empire fell. We also keep forgetting in this country that Texas was once a part of Mexico. Study the Mexican-American war and the expansionist policies of President Polk and you'll discover how utterly voracious Washington's lust for land was in the 19th century. Borders were redrawn after wars, just as they always are, although we still need diplomacy to understand that lines on a map do not guarantee tolerance and respect for the needs of our neighbors.