Polarization and the Limits of Politicization: Cordoba’s Mosque-Cathedral and the Politics of Cultural Heritage


This article examines a recent controversy over the Catholic Church’s registration of Cordoba’s iconic Mosque-Cathedral as official Church property in 2006. In analyzing the controversy, we take up broader theoretical questions regarding the politicization and contestation of national cultural heritage, and the sociology of public controversy more generally. Drawing upon Alexander’s work on civil discourse and practice, we focus on the importance of performative aspects of civic debate. We argue that effective performances of “publicness” involving the conscientious suppression of visible signs of particularity, especially those related to Islam, have been critical to the successful politicization of the Mosque-Cathedral’s ownership and management. Politicization, however, has not produced any significant movement toward consensual resolution. In explaining this failure, we offer a more nuanced account of the conditions that limit the potential for consensus and “civil repair” as an outcome of public controversy in deeply divided societies. Our findings also have implications for understanding the growing role of international institutions and declarations in shaping the contours of localized controversies surrounding national cultural heritage.

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  1. 1.

    For an extensive review of the literature on contestations over cultural heritage, see Silverman (2011). For a discussion of conflicts surrounding “heritage tourism,” see the 2005 special issue of the International Journal of Heritage Studies (Vol. 11, No. 5).

  2. 2.

    Boltanski and Thévenot (2006) advance a similar argument in On justification. For a useful comparison of the work of Alexander and Boltanski, see Eulriet (2014).

  3. 3.

    Stones (2014) criticizes Boltanski along similar lines, arguing that he fails to adequately theorize the role of structural positioning and network embeddedness in shaping the capacity of the dominated and dominant alike to challenge or defend existing institutional arrangements on their preferred terms.

  4. 4.

    For a useful discussion of emotion and partisanship, see MacKuen et al. (2010).

  5. 5.

    The beams were eventually auctioned off by Christie’s 2 yrs later for a price of 1.5 million Euros after it was determined that the British courts were unlikely to support the application of Spanish law to prohibit the auction (García Higueras 2008).

  6. 6.

    An alternative explanation is that the Franco regime established the prohibition to limit the Church’s power by restricting its control over key sites of social gathering.

  7. 7.

    Backlash against the Church stemming from the strong presence of Opus Dei in Navarra may explain why the anti-immatriculation movement started in the region. The coalition’s website can be found at: http://plataforma-ekimena.org. Accessed 1 September 2018.

  8. 8.

    The announcement for the talk may be found at the following link: http://tresculturas.org/actividad/catedra-al-andalus-conferencia-mezquita-catedral-cordoba-paradigma-peligro/. Accessed 20 September 2018.

  9. 9.

    The phrase “Monumental Ensemble” is included in small letters prior to “Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba.”

  10. 10.

    Personal interview, September 8, 2016.

  11. 11.

    Personal interview, May 13, 2017.

  12. 12.

    The MC’s official website address is: https://mezquita-catedraldecordoba.es. Accessed 12 November 2017.

  13. 13.

    Spain has never had a controversy over sexual abuse that has reached “Spotlight” proportions, but there have been instances where reports of abuse have generated condemnation of Catholic actors and institutions across the political spectrum. The outcry that resulted from reports of abuse at the Maristas Catholic elementary school in Barcelona is a particularly salient example (EFE 2016).


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We thank Abigail Balbale for her thoughtful reflections on a previous draft of this article. We are also grateful for the insightful comments provided by the anonymous reviewers and editors of Qualitative Sociology.

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Astor, A., Burchardt, M. & Griera, M. Polarization and the Limits of Politicization: Cordoba’s Mosque-Cathedral and the Politics of Cultural Heritage. Qual Sociol 42, 337–360 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-019-09419-x

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  • Cultural heritage
  • Patrimony
  • Public controversy
  • Cordoba
  • Catholic Church
  • Mosque
  • Islam
  • Spain