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Muslims in a Nervous Spain
Try to Burnish their Image

By Joshua Levitt
Financial Times
April 12 2004

A month after the bombing of four commuter trains arriving at
Madrid's Atocha station, Easter Mass was celebrated across Spain
yesterday with emotion, as the faithful remembered the dead.

The cathedral at Córdoba, however, was the focus of a different
discussion. Its patio of orange trees and fountains gives way to what
in the ninth century was the largest mosque in Europe and the symbol
of Moorish civilisation rivalled at the time only by Baghdad and
Damascus.

Before its construction 1,150 years ago, Christians and Muslims
shared the space with a dividing wall. Spanish Muslims are now asking
the Vatican to reopen part of the building for individual prayer.

"It is very sad for the thousands of Muslims who visit the Great
Mosque and simply have no place for their daily prayers," says Mansur
Escudero, a psychologist and one of 20,000 converted Muslims in
Spain, who led the contingent to the Holy See.

Their request is one of many from within the Muslim community in the
wake of the attacks, trying to counter the negative associations of
Islam - and the racism that follows.

It is an uphill battle. Spain is still unnerved by the bombings,
carried out by Muslim immigrants in the name of the al-Qaeda terror
network.

The Muslim community is being proactive. They are calling for support
from the Socialist government, even before it formally takes power
this week.

In a country whose schools have taught children about
the "reconquest" of the Moorish civilisation since the days of the
Inquisition, they are discussing the terminology newspapers use, the
need for wider religious education, and what supervisory role the
state should hold.

Mr Escudero is writing newspaper articles discussing the implications
of branding the attack as "Islamic terrorism". Distinguishing the
terms Islamic, Islamist, fundamentalist and extremist is important,
he says.

He also asks why Eta, the Basque separatist group, is not
branded "Catholic terrorism", in reference to the church's support
for the nationalist cause.

Mr Escudero's voice is that of moderate Islam, eager to integrate.
Muslim leaders are split between wanting greater integration and
wishing to hand more control to the state.

A Muslim will be on the Socialists' list for the European elections
in June. Mr Escudero declined the offer, content to lead a grassroots
campaign for Muslim rights from Almodóvar del Río, surrounded by
olive trees and in the shadow of a medieval castle, outside Córdoba.

Jadicha Candela, a Socialist and converted Muslim, is being put
forward to head a new arm of government to supervise Islamic affairs.

The Socialists have already promised to freeze a plan by the previous
Popular party government for Catholic education in schools.
Discussion now will centre on how to introduce Islam into the
curriculum and the possibility of offering specific classes to young
Muslims.

The most controversial call for reform comes from ATIME, an
association of immigrant workers. They want more supervision for the
mosques and the imams, or religious leaders.

Spain has more than 200 mosques, though many immigrants continue to
meet in converted garages or storefronts. "People are intimidated
when they come out of the small prayer meetings," says Kamal
Rahmouni, deputy chairman of ATIME. "The lack of understanding,
breeds fear. If we can help end that, we have done a great service
for the entire community."

Last week, ATIME proposed a system adopted by France last year.

It calls for an Islamic commission to be elected by local communities
and to be responsible for naming imams.

The French system has been criticised, however, for failing to
guarantee that moderate groups control radical members.

ATIME's call for debate also has financial undertones. An agreement
between the Islamic Commission and the Spanish government in 1992
established formal relations. But to ensure more freedom, no money
was to be granted by the state.

The possibility of public financing could minimise the role of
foreign support, which comes mainly from the wealthy Gulf states.
Their money is perceived to come hand-in-hand with Wahabism, a more
orthodox understanding of Islam taught in Saudi Arabia.

"With 90 per cent of Spain's 500,000 Muslims from Morocco, where
moderate Sunni Islam is taught, it doesn't make sense that the most
of the imams in Spain teach the Wahabi tradition," says Mr Rahmani.

The only working mosque in Córdoba is aone-room shrine in a nearby
park. It was built by General Franco for the Moroccan troops he
brought from the Rif to fight the civil war.

Ami, a 28-year-old Moroccan doctoral student of Muslim and Jewish
culture, was praying there on Good Friday. An agreement with the
Vatican would "certainly be a sign of good faith", he says.

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