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The Barcelona Attack and the Future of Spain and Catalonia

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Unless you were a Catalan – or a Spaniard – you might have missed the signs of grave political division behind the Barcelona massacre. International reporting almost willfully dodged the tricky bits of the story. We were invited to gape at the horror, fear and sorrow created by Islamist murderers – without contemplating for a moment that some of the reactions to this act of barbarism were quite different from the stories of national and international “unity” that Europe and the world were supposed to share.

There was a guilty clue to all this when the first reports emphasised the “unity” of the Barcelonan and Spanish people, merely mentioning the 1st October referendum on Catalan independence which the Madrid government claims is illegal. Terrorism, ran the message, could heal such divisions. Indeed, the subliminal story was thus quite simple: some things – terror, murder and pain – could not be beaten by notions like regional independence and freedom from central government control.

I was struck by the way that one British television reporter constantly interrupted eyewitnesses who failed to express trauma, shock and mental torment in reaction to the massacre. They could not state the obvious: that these attacks are becoming “normal” – a word loathed by all journalists – and might, perhaps, have a context that was not being addressed.

So let’s mention that context now. The Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy arrived several hours late in Barcelona to express his condolences. And not once, during his sermon of grief for the people killed and wounded in this Catalan city, did he mention Catalonia. He spoke only of “the pain of the Spanish nation”. And in his own peroration, the Catalan president Carlos Puigdemant spoke of Catalonia as a “country”, which it is not. The Catalan interior minister differentiated between Spanish and Catalan victims of the Barcelona attack. At his press conference, he spoke in Catalan – not in Spanish.

It may be a jolly idea that the cultist murderers of Isis – however unwittingly – could create Spanish unity on the eve of Catalonia’s independence vote, but the idea that this potentially catastrophic moment in Spanish history played no part in the aftermath of the massacre is ridiculous.

Why was it, I wonder, that only a few journalists – in The Irish Times, for example, where Paddy Woodworth, an expert on Spain and the violent struggle for the Basque country, spoke of an Isis attack which exposed “Spain’s political faultline”, or on the front ofPolitico – chose to put the slaughter of the innocent in Barcelona into the context of Spanish politics?

Did the attackers realise this? Woodworth asked. He reported that Puigdemont’s loud insistence, only hours after the killings, that the attacks would not slow the momentum towards Catalan independence, was “almost indecent”.

For 20 hours after the massacre, Spaniards (of both varieties) witnessed the spectacle of Rajoy and Puigdemont presiding over separate “crisis committees” in the same city. They claimed they were “coordinating”, but did not sit in the same room. Only recently, it seems, have the Catalan security forces had access to European security agencies. The Madrid daily newspaper El Pais lectured its readers on how the outrages in Barcelona should bring “Catalan political forces” back to “reality”.

There were, in the world’s reaction to the attack, a few oblique references to the 15th and 16th century ethnic cleansing of Spain’s Muslim population by the married royal Christian duet of Ferdinand and Isabella. I have never bought into the idea that these epic historical crimes actually prompt today’s Isis murderers to drive trucks into innocent Europeans – let alone justify such wickedness. A wretched and small Armenian group briefly murdered Turkish diplomats in retaliation for the 1915 Turkish Holocaust of a million and a half Christian Armenian civilians. But other peoples do not take their revenge in this way.

Survivors of the Jewish Holocaust and their descendants and co-religionists do not violently assault the people of modern-day Germany. Nor does the world’s Jewish community wish revenge for their own dispossession and ethnic cleansing from Christian Spain along with the Muslims. Save for those who converted to Christianity or died at the stake – at least 1,000 Jews, perhaps as many as 10,000 – the entire Muslim and Jewish communities were thrown out of Spain and Portugal by the early 17th century.

In fact, Spain and Portugal decided to make amends by giving full citizenship – and full passports – to the descendants of Jewish families expelled from their countries. The original expulsions, Spain’s justice minister said in 2014, were a “historical error”, a “tragedy” according to his government.

Jewish descendants of the victims, many living in Israel, could thus have a “right of return” – a right which Israel does not grant to the former inhabitants of Palestine who were driven from their homes or fled after the creation of Israel. But nor were Muslims to have a “right of return” to Spain or Portugal after the two countries declared their act of generosity towards the descendants of Jewish victims. Passports there were, but Muslims need not apply.

There were voices which declared that the Christians of Andalusia had been forced to put down Muslim rebellions – and that the Muslim expulsions therefore took place “in a time of war”. In popular imagination, expulsion in a time of war – and this might apply to the Palestinian Arabs – somehow doesn’t quite equal the wholesale expulsion of peoples on purely racial grounds. The real reason, however, behind the final Spanish-Portuguese decision – and of course, they adopted a just, fair and moral attitude towards descendants of the Jewish victims – is that they did not want Muslims coming to live in their countries.

Well, after Barcelona, many would say how right they were. But then we have to recall that the Muslim murderers of Barcelona were of Moroccan origin – and that Morocco was, along with Algeria, the land to which the Muslims of Spain were expelled in the 15th century. Just as Algeria turns out to be the country of origin of some of those who have massacred the innocent in France, whose own terrible colonial history in Algeria is usually sidelined when reporting atrocities in Paris or Marseilles.

Nothing justifies the massacre of innocents. Besides, the mass murderers of Barcelona did not care who they killed – neither their citizenship nor their religion – but at such moments of terrifying emotion, we should surely reflect a little bit more on what we journos used to call “background”, putting the story “in context”, so to speak.

The Spanish and the Catalans know all this. They know their medieval history. And they spotted the pathetic anti-Spanish and anti-Catalan snubs of their little politicians last week. So why can’t we be told the same story?

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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