Spain and the Arab world



Spain has had a long relationship with the Arab World. Conquered by moslem Berbers in 709 AD, much of Spain was under Islamic/Arab rule until the 13th century and the last of the moslem rulers was finally defeated in the historic year 1492 by the armies of the 'Catholic Kings', Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel of Castille.

Relationships were cool for the following centuries, with war or at least skirmishing a constant threat. At the great sea battle of Lepanto, Spain's greatest writer, Cervantes, was among the soldiers. The victory over the Turks virtually secured the western Mediterranean of the threat from Turkey, but Berber pirates remained a menace until the early nineteenth century.

Recent history

In the late 19th century and start of the 20th, with the loss of its overseas colonies, Spain undertook a colonial adventure in what is now Marocco. One of the key generals in this was Francisco Franco, later dictator for 40 years. Until Franco's death, in 1975, Spain continued to hold a smallish colony in Spanish Sahara, between Marocco and Mauritania. This piece of land, mostly occupied now by Marocco, after the so called theoretically peaceful citizen-led 'green march', is still under dispute in the UN.

Current Affairs

With the arrival of democracy, Spain took on a new role, attempting to distance itself from the last combative five hundred years and return to view with some romanticism the medieval era of religious and cultural coexistence and tolerance. If Spain was known as the land of the three religions, it should now open its arms to the moslem-Arab world and become a bridge of understanding between the cultures.

In politics, this has meant that Spain has taken the lead in establishing relationships with the moslem world and has initiated moves to bring peace and understanding between the post-christian west and the Arab world. Thus Spain was at the centre of the Madrid-Oslo-Camp David peace process which brought a few years of respite in the Israel situation, now sadly broken. For years, the EU's ambassador to the Near East was a Spaniard, Miguel Angel Moratinos, now Socialist Foreign Minister. During the Aznar regime, this position was weakened, as the government was very attracted to the Bush-Blair view on terrorism, clearly a local issue in Spanish politics. Thus Aznar gave wholehearted support to the second Iraq war (2003) and sent in troops afterwards to attempt to support rebuilding. And now, after the surprise turnaround in political fortunes, after the 3/11 train bombings in Madrid, the new socialist government of José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero is again attempting to take a 'moderate' position on Middle East politics, which means, in effect, reversing the Aznar position on Iraq.

At the same time, regional issues have made it difficult to establish the desired good relationships with Marocco. Differences of opinion cover fishing rights, agricultural produce, the Western Sahara and, perhaps most irritating in the past few years, the flood of illegal immigrants. Only in the past year have relations begun to get easier, this being the case already with the Aznar regime.

The churches

The evangelicals see the neighbouring moslem world as both a challenge and a threat. Perhaps the most pressing threat is that to the evangelical claim as Spain's number 2 religious group, now clearly challenged. (In order to retain the position, it is necessary to count most of the northern European pensioners living in Spain as Protestants.) Perhaps because of their strong beliefs, Spanish evangelicals probably feel more than others the threat of Islam to their way of life. At the same time, evidently, Spanish evangelicals are aware of the opportunities to reach out to new neighbours at home and across the Straits into North Africa. North African perception of Spaniards is not that of northern Europeans, for example, so there are more possibilities to become accepted in those countries. Some groups are now working to reach out to these people with the message of God's love and salvation.