Muslim Cartoon Rioting Affects Spanish Rituals

After Muslim rulers were expelled from Spain in the 13th century, many small communities in the southeast region started holding annual festivals to celebrate. Effigies of the Prophet Muhammed were burned at these events. The recent violent demonstrations over cartoons published in a Danish newspaper have led these villages to change their centuries-old traditions.

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The controversy over the cartoons has even affected some fiestas in Spain. For centuries, Spanish towns used to hold annual festivals celebrating the Christina re-conquest, when Islamic rulers were driven out during the Middle Ages. The festivals included the burning of effigies of Muslim and Jewish figures. Most of those events were toned down years ago, but in some places, the rituals survived, until now.

Jerome Socolovsky reports.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY reporting:

Bocairente is an ancient Valencian village that looks like something out of a fairy tale. It's quiet now that the annual Festival of the Moors and the Christians is over.

But at a bar near the beautifully preserved Moorish arch, several men are discussing this month's event. In previous years, they set fire to a towering turban's puppet that local people call Mohoma, the Spanish name for Muhammad. This year, the puppet survived intact.

Rufino Rodriguez(ph) doesn't mind that the festival didn't end the way it used to.

Mr. RUFINO RODRIGUEZ: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: It's not meant to offend anyone, he says, but if someone is offended, you just get rid of it, and that's it. No big deal.

In scores of towns and villages around here, people spend the entire year looking forward to the Festival of the Moors and the Christians. Celebrations go on for a week or more in one village after another. A promotional DVD of festivities in the nearby town of Vienna shows that this event rivals any Hollywood production.

Thousands of townspeople in elaborate costume divide into two groups. The Moors have silk turbans and gleaming sabers. The Christians wear velvet tunics and plumed helmets. At the Disney-like castle above the town, they reenact the battles that symbolized the Arab conquest of Spain in the eighth century, and the Christian re-conquest centuries later.

People in the town of Vienna used to fill Muhammad's head with gunpowder and detonate it with a cigar. More recently, the DVD says, the reenactment culminated with the Muhammad puppet being dragged through the streets, and Moorish leader converting to Christianity.

(Soundbite of reenactment)

SOCOLOVSKY: But now, that too may disappear.

The headquarters of the National Union of Festive Associations of Moors and Christians is in another town called Benesheima(ph). The sudden spotlight on their festivals, as a result of the controversy over the Danish cartoons, has alarmed members of the Executive Committee.

The President, Franciso Lopez Perez(ph), says the Muhammad puppet has become a beloved figure in the celebrations, and must continue to be part of them. However, he's asked participants to take out any rituals that might offend people of other faiths.

Mr. FRANCISCO LOPEZ PEREZ (President, Union of Festive Associations of Moors and Christians): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: If you have to omit something so that an extremist somewhere in the world doesn't have a pretext, all the better, he says, because the extremists are looking for pretexts. So, the rest of us, we should avoid providing them, even unintentionally, he adds.

The President of the Islamic community in Vienna has said Muslims understand perfectly that the Muhammad figure is a local tradition, which he says, does not refer to my faith.

But at a local café, Moroccan immigrant Hamid Yindul(ph) says he was shocked the first time he went to the Moors and Christian Festival.

Mr. HAMI YINDUL (Moroccan immigrant): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: I've seen this Muhammad, and I don't like the way he's treated, he says. But what can I tell you? They lack respect. They have to learn to show respect, like we Muslims respect Jesus and all the religions.

Still, Yindul believes that Muhammad was portrayed as a terrorist in the Danish cartoons. He accepts that the Spanish festivals are different, and that no offense was intended.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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