Spain's Muslims: Living on Society's Edge
By Bettina Ambach
Though Islam is woven into the fabric of the country's history, Moroccans and other Arabs living there today are struggling to find their place in society as well as their role in the Muslim world.
Mustafa Bougrine is a Moroccan who has lived in Spain for 19 years. He's married to a Spanish woman and runs a restaurant. He fears that a new feeling of Islamophobia may be growing in the Spanish population.
"When people hear the word 'Islam', they think about Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi, but that's not Islam," he says. "I'm against every form of fanaticism, suicide bombers and everything that is referred to as 'jihad'. Muslims here in Spain believe in democracy and peaceful coexistence between Christians, Jews and Muslims."
Change is definitely brewing among Madrid's Muslims.
The city's Lavapies neighborhood (see related link below), where many immigrants live and the suspected culprits of the March 11 terrorist attacks ran a telephone shop, has practically come to a standstill. The mosque on the M30 highway beltway is the largest in Madrid. But these days it's conspicuously empty. Before last Thursday's terrorist attacks on the city, as many as 1,000 would come at a single time to pray here. Now it's difficult to find more than 50 people who have come here to pray in the direction of Mecca.
Many Muslims are staying home and out of the public eye as Spanish investigators shift their focus from Basque separatists toward the attack's suspected Moroccan culprits. Spanish newspapers are reporting sources alleging links between Thursday's terrorist attacks and bombings in Casablanca last May that also killed dozens of Spaniards. The developments have sent shockwaves through Spain's Muslim community, which is struggling to establish its own identity in a staunchly Catholic country.
An influx of economic refugees
Close to 600,000 Muslims live in Spain, with the majority originating from northern Africa's Maghreb countries, mostly Morocco which is located just kilometers across the Straight of Gibraltar. Islam is not a new religion in Spain. No other European country has as many traces of the religion in its history. For several hundred years, right up till the end of the 15th century, Islam was a dominant presence on the Iberian Peninsula.
Most of those living here today came during the 1980s. Their numbers grew in the 1990s as they took jobs in Spain's growing agricultural, construction, hospitality and service industry. They are the silent majority of Spain's Muslims. Many of the dominant voices heard in Spain are those of Spanish Islam converts or leaders of Islamic cultural centers financed by the Saudi Arabian government -- groups that play a prominent role in negotiating the rights and duties of Muslims within the Spanish state.
Finding their place
But for most Moroccans, eking out a living is the most important aspect of daily life. Through countless grassroots associations, Moroccans in Spain are fighting for their economic survival as well as the construction of mosques in their neighborhoods. Muhammad Chouirdi works for the Association of Moroccan Workers and Immigrants. He finds alarming the miserable circumstances under which his fellow countrymen are forced to fulfill their religious obligations. Strapped for cash, the temptation to take money from other Arab groups is tempting, but the political dangers are considerable. Moroccan Muslim leaders like Chouidiri are also wary of other branches of Islam, which they fear are being accepted uncritically by Moroccan immigrants.
"We suspect that small Moroccan living-room mosques on the outskirts of Madrid are already receiving Saudi Arabian money," Chouirdi explains. "By doing so, Saudi Arabia is trying to spread its form of Islam and practices -- primarily Wahhabi Muslim. The probelm is that Moroccan immigrants have a low level of education and there's a danger that they will not recognize the danger of these religious practices. For them, practicing Islam means praying give times a day and following many rules. What we get from the outside world -- in this case from Saudi Arabia -- is accepted with out critical discussion."
Islam from Saudi Arabia, with its fundamentalist characteristics, has spread in Spain in recent years. All the big representative mosques in Spain were built with Saudi money. And frequently the Saudis have also sent imams who interpret the Quran according to the Wahhabis. Wahhabism rejects all modernity, any dialogue between religions, any opening up to other cultures.
The breeding ground for last week's attacks could have been here. For both the culprits in the Casablanca bombing in 2003 and the alleged perpetrators of the Madrid attacks belong to terrorist groups that have been influenced by Wahhabi ideologists.
A religious border
Now people are asking themselves how a minority in the Muslim community could have become susceptible to Islamist propaganda. The disparities between Spain's Catholic and Muslim societies could provide some clues. A look at Ceuta, one of the two Spanish cities on the Moroccan Mediterranean coast, is revealing. Ceuta is the gateway to Europe. The border between Africa and Europe, between Islamic Morocco and Catholic Spain, is here. Half of Ceuta's 72,000 residents are Christian, while the other half are Muslim, mainly of Moroccan origin.
The chairman of Islamic Community of Ceuta, Abselam Hamadi, says that many Muslims still feel like second-class citizens, that they don't have the same opportunities Christians have.
"Only few Muslims get jobs in Ceuta's state administration. The response is always the same: professional qualifications lacking. That's not the truth, of course. But if more Muslims were accepted, there would be more Muslims than Christians in the administration one day, and that scares the Christians."
The fact is, Ceuta's Muslim residents have dramatically lower standards of living and levels of education than Christian residents. They mainly live in the El Principe district, a poor, entirely Muslim neighborhood right on the border to Morocco, where integration doesn't exist. Young Muslims born in Spain to Moroccan parents live here. They don't feel Moroccan, but they aren't fully accepted by Spanish society either.
Many fear the promises of the "real Islamic message" may be received with open arms in communities like Ceuta, creating the kind of dangerous backdrop that could breed future terrorism.