Seeds of Hate

Tracing tyranny back to medieval Spain.

Author of several influential works on prejudice and human rights, Erna Paris has republished her 1995 book, The End of Days: A Story of Tolerance, Tyranny and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, rightfully convinced that its focus on the fragility of pluralism in multi-ethnic societies remains a resonant theme. From Tolerance to Tyranny: A Cautionary Tale from Fifteenth Century Spain has two objectives. First, it seeks to chart the decline and ultimate collapse of convivencia (coexistence) among Muslims, Christians and Jews in medieval and early modern Spain. Second, it draws on that history to arrive at a more general understanding of why diverse societies are susceptible to “tyranny,” understood as the rejection of pluralism and the marginalization and, in some cases, destruction of minorities by majority groups. A new concluding chapter titled “Echoes and Mirrors” contrasts “twenty-first century events to the twentieth-century parallels that were included in the original edition.”

The book’s central claim is pessimistic. The collapse of convivencia in 15th-century Spain and the demise of pluralism at other times and in other places can be traced to an essential characteristic of human nature. “Distrust of the Other seems to slumber within us, ready to erupt under certain conditions of xenophobia and violence,” says Paris, citing unforeseen natural catastrophes and periods of economic hardship and political instability, which create opportunities for individuals and groups who stand to benefit from pluralism’s obliteration. Self-interested elites use ideology and propaganda to dehumanize minorities and mobilize popular support for their homogenizing projects. Dehumanization campaigns also dissolve the bonds of empathy that might have otherwise mobilized popular opposition to the persecution of victim groups. Bystanders’ passive complicity fills the space vacated by solidarity and fellow feeling. The speed at which such shifts in predispositions occur typically leaves victim groups in a state of incredulity, marvelling at how quickly they have been transformed into pariahs.

Tolerance, then, is unnatural and pluralism is always vulnerable, according to Paris—something as true of 15th-century Spain as it was of Nazi Germany or of Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Recognizing this is key to making sense of where we may be heading: “To glimpse the universality of human emotion, desire, and vice across the centuries is to link the past with the future … There is nothing like the study of history to help one understand that humankind is not perfectible.”

Paris maintains that the seeds of tyranny in Spain were planted long ago, with the Visigoths’ invasion of the Roman province of Hispania in 409, followed by the persecution of minorities, especially the Jews. The conversion of the Visigoth King Reccared to Catholicism in 587 compounded matters. “Once Catholicism and the political state merged,” she says, “the mere presence of unconverted Jews in the land became politically intolerable … The Jewish challenge to Christianity became a challenge to the government itself.”

Conditions improved with the arrival of the Muslim Moors. Paris describes as “astonishing” the world that the Moors crafted. “While Europe embraced ignorance and superstition, the Moors promoted scholarship,” she says, noting that the Moors encouraged general literacy and even allowed for the education of girls. “While Christianity denigrated the senses, the feel of Moorish Spain was nothing short of sensual.”

Perhaps most importantly, the Moors did not force Christians and Jews to convert to Islam, preferring convivencia to enforced uniformity. Paris likens convivencia under the Moors to contemporary forms of pluralism and multiculturalism. While this interpretive decision may help readers connect the world of the Moors to their own, it comes at a cost. The pluralism of the caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty was based on a fundamental distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims; while compulsory conversion was rejected, a strict political hierarchy privileged Muslims and placed restrictions on non-Muslims. The degree of voice and agency granted to religious minorities was limited and, as Paris notes, discrimination based on religion was built into the system (Christians and Jews were subject to special taxes and prohibitions). In the absence of a common citizenship, there was little to draw members of differing groups together. While non-Muslim subjects who demonstrated talent had some access to positions of influence, in the absence of conversion these men would always be regarded as inferior to their Muslim superiors. To liken such a system to contemporary multiculturalism, which is based on equal citizenship in a liberal-democratic state, is misleading.

In any case, pluralism was tenuous even in Muslim Spain. The invasion of the North African Almohads at the end of the twelfth century brought the era of tolerance to an end. Jews and Christians had to convert or emigrate. Those who refused conversion moved to Christian Spain, where, despite continuing intolerance, a pragmatic convivencia based on the satisfaction of mutual interests shaped social interactions: “Before long, educated Jews were co-opted as royal advisors, ambassadors, and physicians,” says Paris, “just as they had been under the Moors. Like the caliphs, the Christian kings of Castile and Aragon became protectors of ‘their Jews’.” This practical pluralism spread with the ideologically driven Reconquista of the lands previously won by the Moors. “Pacification was in everyone’s interest,” Paris notes. “The monarchs of Christian Spain had other things on their minds than abstract notions of religious orthodoxy; they had to settle border territories … and promote the local economy. For this they depended on the skills of their newly incorporated citizens, which meant accepting minority cultures and religions, just as the Moors had done.”

How did this pragmatic pluralism devolve into the terror of the Inquisition and the expulsion first of the Jews and then the Moriscos (Muslim converts to Christianity)? For readers interested in the broader ramifications of Paris’s story, this is one of the most illuminating points in her account. The details are significant, with Catholicism, in its intolerant backward-looking mode, figuring prominently. Ambitious religious leaders rejected the pragmatic pluralism favoured by their political counterparts. Outbreaks of plague and unpredictable climatic changes linked to the Little Ice Age prompted a search for scapegoats, which religious ideologues skillfully exploited using anti-Semitic myths spread from northern Europe as a useful means of framing Jews as the harbingers of woe. These forces came to a head in the late 14th century, instigating a series of pogroms that culminated in the massacre of Jews across Spain in 1391, a fit of violence accompanied by efforts to convert Jews to Christianity en masse by Catholic priests.

Conversion offered Spain’s Jews a way around the strict prohibitions that limited social mobility. Many took this route, leading to the emergence of a large class of “new Christian” converts (conversos). While conversion granted new Christians access to occupations that had hitherto been off limits, their efforts to assimilate into the dominant society was doubly limited. The idea that one could simply leave one’s old life behind was, in many cases, unrealistic. Paris notes that many conversos continued to effectively live as Jews, as reflected in their maintenance of Jewish dietary restrictions and other practices. Meanwhile, old Christians typically did not embrace their new co-religionists. Even those conversos who did accept their new religion and made the difficult decision to leave behind their old life were not accepted as true Christians. The idea that Jewishness was immutable was fed by discomfort at the rapid success of many new Christians.

The fate of the conversos was sealed by the union of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon under the dual monarchy of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. Despite his mother’s converso origins, Ferdinand spearheaded an inquisition against new Christians suspected of heresy, then expelled Jews unwilling to join the ranks of the converted. His reasons for doing so, says Paris, were driven less by religious hatred than by a coldly calculating consideration of political interests: “Ferdinand divorced politics from ethics and married government to national interests, making him the first of a modern breed.”

The Inquisition served several purposes, consolidating and advancing the interests of the crown while satisfying popular anti-Jewish (and later anti-Muslim) sentiment and the Catholic church’s long-standing interest in rooting out heresy among the new Christians.

Conversos suspected of heresy were rounded up and detained. Their possessions were confiscated and they were compelled (oftentimes after being subjected to torture) to admit their transgressions during a public “act of faith” (auto de fe). Absolution required a range of punishments, including lengthy prison terms, public floggings and forced labour. Those sentenced to death were released to the secular arm of the state and burned at the stake. The first Inquisitor General, Tomàs de Torquemada, ordered some 8,800 such executions.

The decision to expel Spain’s Jews came soon after the end of the Reconquista in 1491. Paris notes that the decision was based on a hard-nosed consideration of interests on the part of the Catholic monarchs. Thanks to the Inquisition, it was already possible to appropriate the possessions of convicted conversos, but other Jewish fortunes could be acquired solely through taxation. “A general expulsion would appropriate entire fortunes in an instant,” and “also cancel all outstanding debts, including those of the beleaguered and dangerously volatile lower classes.” The edict was signed in the Alhambra palace in Granada in July 1492. Spain’s Jews were forced to leave en masse. By 1502, the remaining Moors were compelled to convert to Catholicism. Most did but, as with the conversos before them, their Christian status was questioned and they soon “became suspect heretics, new fodder for the Inquisition.” Their own expulsion ultimately came in 1609.

Paris sees the end of convivencia in Spain as a harbinger of later tyranny. Like the victims of the Holocaust, for example, the Jews of Spain were subject to racial exclusion, attempted assimilation, pogroms and then “a final solution.” And in both cases, the destruction of long-standing Jewish communities was pursued through a program of dehumanization that took advantage of our basic distrust of others. Given this fundamental aspect of human nature, says Paris, spurring racial hatred in diverse societies is “as easy as paint-by-numbers.”

Or is it? Paris maintains that our tendency to reject pluralism persists and has become even sharper of late, a consequence of the end of the Cold War and the anti-Muslim reaction catalyzed by the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. She cites the bloody disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide of 1994, recent bans on the niqab in France and anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States in support of her claim. Canada stands as a more positive case, with its policy of official multiculturalism, but even here recent events in Quebec raise concerns. Paris’s conclusion regarding the durability of pluralism thus remains bleak: coexistence is always tenuous, subject to political elites’ manipulation of our very human nature. Paris warns that we must temper our optimism about future progress by reflecting on history and carefully guarding against its repetition.

One need not be a wide-eyed optimist to take issue with her conclusion. Contemporary multicultural societies differ from 15th-century Spain in fundamental ways. Social life in contemporary liberal-democratic states is structured by institutions that developed over time in response to the absolutism of early modern monarchs and the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Modern constitutions bestow rights on all citizens, granting ethnic and religious minorities means through which they can confront and attempt to counter tyranny often through the auspices of courts. While the processes through which rights are validated has been uneven, recent history points to important (if only partial) successes on the part of women, aboriginal peoples, racialized groups, religious minorities and members of the LGBTQ community.

Distrust of the other certainly persists but today’s victims are typically not dispossessed subjects forcibly expelled from states’ territories through acts of ethno-religious homogenization. Rather, today’s principal victims are non-citizens denied sanctuary by states’ jealously guarding their sovereignty. The record of liberal-democratic states in this regard is especially damning, pointing to the limits of the post–World War Two rights revolution. That today’s refugee flows have, in many instances, been provoked by foreign policies hatched in leading liberal-democratic states underscores this point.

The world of the 21st century thus differs in important ways from Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella or Germany under the Nazis. While coexistence within liberal-democratic states has been reinforced by the extension of constitutionally enshrined citizenship rights to hitherto exclude minority groups, non-citizen outsiders—even those desperate for sanctuary—are subject to often-brutal barriers. Our relation to diversity may be different, but it is marked by its own unique elements of tyranny.