Miradouro das Portas do Sol - A view of Alfama, one of Lisbon's iconic Islamic quarters

Lisbon’s anti-Islamic protest shows “great ignorance of history”, say experts

Capital “filled with signs of Islamic heritage” 

With far right group 1143 believed to be intent on carrying through a protest to the banning of its Anti-Islamic march in Lisbon on Saturday, experts have explained how essentially flawed the approach is. 

At best, it shows a “great ignorance of history”. At worst, it shows the kind of cultural intolerance that city hall refuses to countenance.

Lusa news agency has been in touch with historian Paulo Almeida Fernandes, and cultural mediator Joana Olivença to hear the academic side of this argument: Lisbon is heir to Islamic civilisation – almost everywhere one goes in the historic quarters cited by angry protestors, Islamic influences can be found. They go well beyond architectural/ linguistic traces, they are “in the olive oil we put on the table, the hello we say every day.

We are Muslims too”, stresses Joana Olivença. “It is just that there is no knowledge or desire to recognise this heritage”. 

Street names, place names, surnames… they all hark back to the times the Islamic world inhabited Portugal. 

Alfama – which comes from the Arabic al-hama, or hot baths, referring to the hot springs that used to be located there – is proof of this, with its layout of narrow, maze-like streets, houses that overlook the street on the upper floors and open windows protected by boards.

“We walk along these roads and lanes every day and we could be walking in a medina (Medina is a girl’s name of Arabic origin, and the surname of our current minister of finance. This habitational name translates to “city,” more specifically “city of the Prophet”). 

But this kind of knowledge has been largely lost/ ignored/ belittled over the centuries.

We would gain more from knowing history, especially the history of Lisbon,” advises Paulo Almeida Fernandes, recalling that when the ‘conquest took place in 1147’ (when the Portuguese successfully conquered the Arabs), Afonso Henriques and the Christians wanted Muslims to “stay in the city” because they needed them for the settlement.

“Not by chance, the first charter given to the city was precisely for the Moorish community,” he explains, emphasising that Muslims remained in Lisbon until the edict of forced conversion or expulsion in 1496 – the same edict that expelled Sephardic Jews (who have since been welcomed back with special legislation).

Notwithstanding all this, the social issues in these historic quarters of the capital are ‘real’: there are too many people living in appalling conditions, because their own existence in this country is precarious – and because of the housing crisis.

In another text today, Lusa admits that a year since the awful fire in Mouraria that claimed the lives of two immigrants, living in miserable ‘hot bed’ conditions, very little has changed. The area still has a “structural problem”, says Miguel Coelho, president of the parish of Santa Maria Maior, which is housing. The solutions promised by authorities have not materialised. 

Mouraria is one of the neighbourhoods through which the ‘Anti-Islamic’ march was planned. Today it “concentrates a significant South Asian community”, says Lusa. Some would say it has been indelibly transformed, but Miguel Coelho insists that the immigrants are “very peaceful”.

Lisbon is a safe city, he added, but there are “microcosms where there is a high concentration of illegal activities”, carried out by people with various skin tones.

“Delinquency doesn’t have a race, drug dealers are of all races, people from here, people not from here, immigrants, etc,” he explains, suggesting what is lacking is “effective policing”.

This remark has been borne out by traders of all nationalities, and Portuguese residents who talk about the area being “scary after dark”.

As of today, it is unclear what will happen on Saturday. Organisers of the ‘thwarted march’ have vowed to protest anyway, without giving a specific location – and the country’s police forces are focused on their own issues with the government. ND

Source material: LUSA