Al-Andalus in Andalusia: Negotiating Moorish History and Regional Identity in Southern Spain
Rogozen-Soltar, Mikaela, Anthropological Quarterly
Introduction: Formatting a Festival
Until 2006, the culminating moment of the annual "Festival of Moors and Christians" in parts of Valencia, Spain was the sight of Muslim and Jewish figures burning in effigy. In recent history, a giant, turban-clad puppet known as Mahoma (Mohammed) was exploded each year at the festival, his gunpowder-filled head set ablaze with a cigar. This year, however, due to fears of retaliation from Muslim extremists, brought about in part by media coverage of violent protests following several Danish cartoons' depictions of the Prophet, Valencia's festivals were toned down. At one, in lieu of the usual head-explosion or effigy burning, after the costumed reenactments of battles between the Christians and the Moors, participants simply dragged the puppet Mahoma through the streets. Afterward, a Spaniard dressed up as a Moorish leader performed a theatrical conversion to Christianity and was publicly baptized.
While one might be tempted to suggest that dragging a larger-than life doll meant to represent Muslims through the streets, followed by a public conversion to Christianity is far from a religiously neutral display, this revised version of the festival's usual format actually comes after much debate, fomented recently by concerns about Muslim immigration and Islamic terrorism.1 Moros y Cristianos, (the Festival of Moors and Christians) has long been celebrated in cities and towns across Spain's southern and eastern coasts and the number of festivals and participants has grown along with (and attached to) the tourist industry. A similar festival known as the Dia de la Toma (Day of the Taking) in the city of Granada commemorates the end of the Catholic Reconquest of Spain, marked by the January 2, 1492 expulsion of the Moors from their last stronghold in Granada. While some (including Muslim immigrants and Christian and non-religious Spaniards) maintain that these festivals are offensive and should be either cancelled or replaced by festivals honoring tolerance and multiculturalism, others argue that the festivals are central to southern Spain's history and identity, and that to change or eliminate them is to do violence to Spanish traditions and local, Andalusian pride.2 In a radio interview with National Public Radio's Jerome Socolovsky, the president of Spain's National Union of Festive Associations of Moors and Christians (UNDEF), the official organization for the festivals, insists that the festivals must continue, the Mohammed puppet must be retained, but that local festival planners should avoid any rituals that would antagonize Muslim extremists. The overall goal of reforms to the festival's format, he says, is to "avoid providing a pretext for extremists." He makes no mention of the risks of offending local Muslims, despite the fact that Muslim immigrants have complained about the disrespectful treatment of the Mohammed puppet (Socolovsky 2006).
In explaining his decision to revise certain aspects of the Festival of the Moors and Christians, why did the president of UNDEF invoke the threat of Islamic extremists rather than the possibility of offending Muslim members of the local communities where these festivals are held? What might this tell us about the symbolic role of the festivals in the formatting of regional identity in Spain, in the codifying of certain historical narratives of identity, and the ways that Muslim immigrants are viewed and treated in the context of Southern Spain's dominant regional identity narratives? I believe that the struggle over the format of this festival highlights a larger discourse in which residents of Andalusia, Spain's southernmost autonomous community, struggle to format their society as secular, western, modern and European. Due to the naturalization of certain historical notions of what it means to embody a liberal, secular subject position, Muslim immigrants are discursively constructed as outsiders, as incapable of living up to a secular, human ideal which the region would like to project for itself on European and global stages. …