One wonders about the symbolism of the Cordoba Initiative. Was Cordoba selected because in a multicultural context it represents a blending of harmonious cultures? If so, I’m not sure history quite supports such a usage.
The city was founded by Romans and remained Western in some sense until conquered by Muslim invaders in 711, when it soon became a capital of what Muslims called al-Andalus, the Islamic foothold in southern Europe, the recurrence of which is so nostalgically evoked by bin Laden and Co. The president’s Cairo speech cited Cordoba as a beacon of tolerance during the Spanish Inquisition (“Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance: We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition”), but that was mostly therapeutic myth-making: Cordoba had been captured in the first wave of the Reconquisita in 1236, and most of its Muslim population had fled, been converted, or forced out more than two-and-a-half centuries before the Inquisition even began.
But even before then, the once-cosmopolitan Cordoba — as handed down from the overtly homosexual and enlightened Al-Hakam II — was already in decline due to serial assassinations, court coups, and increasing Islamic intolerance for freedom of thought and expression outside the boundaries of the Koran.
The evocation of Cordoba may refer to the cultural achievements of late tenth-century Islam, but the city’s full history also recalls Islam’s efforts to conquer southern Europe and reminds us that, so often in the past, innate Muslim genius was stifled by reactionary clerics worried about human claims of secular achievement.
If a Muslim city inside Europe is what the Initiative needs for symbolic purposes, why not the “Constantinople Initiative”? Perhaps the proponents of the new Islamic center could make the argument that 1453, with its symbolic minarets on Hagia Sophia, marks the sort of religious ecumenism that we should again strive for. To go further, why look for iconic Islamic cities in formerly European territory at all, when a “Dubai Initiative”or a “Baghdad Initiative” might serve as a better and more contemporary model of East-West cultural and commercial cross-fertilization, or our common efforts at promoting democracy?