The Alhambra, populism and the dangers of an ignorant population

The Alhambra is famed for its stunning beauty and history. Not only is it the landmark of Spain’s most beautiful city, Granada, it the jewel in the crown of Spain’s cultural lexicon.

What’s curious about it, is how it hides in plain sight. Indeed, much of Southern Spanish history can be said to do that. Moors and Muslim history in Spain is an unavoidable component of the region’s past. It’s also an unfortunate reminder to those who would try and disparage the future contribution, or indeed past contribution, of Muslim immigrants to Europe as a whole.

Depending on one’s perspective, you can take the Crusades through to the 9/11 attacks on the US as a definitive narrative on Christian-Muslim interaction. A rhizomatic reading is more rewarding; there have and, likely always will be, fanatics who abuse history or sacred texts to their own end. It is not difficult to do so and the ease by which, even the more learned of souls, can decontextualize facts is alarming in the age of the 140 character tweet.

Visiting the Alhambra is a surprising, cathartic experience for those are fatigued by the constant bad news spin. Sitting in amongst a Spanish city, in amongst the Spanish people, is a reminder that the interaction of Muslims and Christian civilisation can yield intense innovation and lasting contributions to the world.

The Alhambra is a thousand years old and serves not just as a reminder of the past but of how the past can so easily be caught up in current events. Yesterday’s friend is today’s enemy; the prospects of peace and reconciliation are diminished because it is harder to look at a history which is complex, overlapping and inconsistent. Ignorance triumphs.

A population that doesn’t know it’s own history will be the first to succumb to populism. The election of Donald Trump, was, if nothing else, a supremely crafted campaign of expertise versus ignorance; exploiting the lack of education of his supporters to advance his own agenda.

Consider Trump’s accusations of election rigging throughout the presidential campaign. Previous elections in U.S history have indeed been rigged, like President Lyndon Johnson’s first senate race in 1948 as Robert Caro notes. This was, curiously, never mentioned despite the fact that it would have supported his case. Trump picked a fact and ‘proved it’ by saying how dichotomous he was to the system without ever backing it up.

Western civilisation is more connected than ever, yet the ability of populations to discern fact from fiction and to decide which is an outright lie has declined. In the case of Trump, what is curious, is the presumption that politicians and leaders will lie seems to have reached a satirical impasse. There’s the cliche that politicians or someone in public life will lie but surely they can’t lie that much. There is an implicit presumption and trust that they could never go that far and it has allowed, with the absence of historical knowledge, deception, and hyperbole to become commonplace.

Trump, like Scottish independence, represents an unequivocal threat to centralised power and the nation-state itself. The UK, the world’s fifth economy and a nuclear power, risked being carved up and the United States risks an unstable future contingent on the whims of a capricious and narcissistic commander-in-chief. Of course, there are forces assessing this and musing on what to do – how can power, apparent or hidden, hope to be challenged if populations are unfamiliar that these kinds of black-ops behaviours have been a foreign policy fixture of the US and the UK for the latter half of the 20th century?

Even if there was any truth to whatever Trump had to say, the implicit trust and lack of historical awareness make critical analysis harder. What, in all honesty, do you imagine the institutions of power would be considering? What have the security services of each country been trained to do and have sworn to protect? They are ridiculous questions in so far as they are regular tropes of fiction, but where is the consideration of whether they might be in real life?

Consider too the use of Winston Churchill and the Second World War in the Brexit campaign. Evocative, definitive images but some of the most decontextualized and historically banal forms of nationalism to ever exist. Churchill was a realist, a romantic and a historian. From a young age, his profound sense of personal destiny was with himself – full-stop. His natural bombast and polymathic talent guaranteed that, even if Churchill had been born a Frenchman or full American, he would have found a place in history as sure as history would have found a place for him.

And history has, only it is simplified, anecdotal and altogether a pastiche that has found its way into politics. There is not enough time in the day to challenge every lie, tweet or meme that says one thing but may have meant something else entirely when it was said over 60 years ago. And that’s the problem.

Casting aspersions and evaluations on history are correct and proper, but having to challenge every utilisation of historical fact because it is being deployed as a political tool requires more than a 24-hour press, but an informed, zealous and critical populace that will not allow itself to be wooed with images of the past that are incorrect.

More immediately, if Britain, or the EU, stands to be dismantled as some quest to restore it to some reformed, previous version of its past self then it is even more important than ever that, at this juncture of history, every citizen, every man, woman and child knows as much as they can about the past that we all share.

The Alhambra, brown and glistening in the Autumn sun, is a reminder why single odd pebbles in a sea of homogeneity make remembering the past so important.


After visiting the Alhambra, my friend and I enjoyed a drink and tapas beside a river in the literal shadow of the Alhambra (a familiar experience, not entirely dissimilar to sitting in a cafe close to Edinburgh Castle).  

After some discussion, I asked what the name of the river was beside us and my friend, with a spark as if just having remembered something marvellous, said: “‘Darro’, which is ancient Arabic for ‘gold’.”

The coincidence was unintended but altogether welcome.