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Spain sits on the fence

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Nearly two years after the Madrid attacks and six years after the racist riots in the Andalusian village of El Ejido, Spanish society is still fluctuating between rejection and acceptance of Muslims.

It is the first day of Ramadan 2005, the year 1426 on the Muslim calendar. The ‘M-30’ mosque in Madrid, so-called given its proximity to the city’s ring road, is not emptying out. With meditation and prayer, the devoted Muslims celebrate the revelation of the first verses of the Koran to Mohammed. Fasting and sexual abstinence are mandatory until nightfall. The Islamic Commission of Spain (CIE) has signed an accord with the government to allow Muslims to reconcile their faith with work. The CIE, as a representative institution of Muslims, comprised of both Sunnis and Shiites, works to integrate this community. Yet for all this, the lack of understanding is very real in a country united by an extremely strong Catholic tradition.

The problem Moors

Lavapies is an old quarter in the centre of Madrid with a population of 33,000 inhabitants, 88 noted nationalities and a very large Moroccan population which feels excluded and helpless. This is not only as they are foreign, but also because they are Muslim. Mohammed, 32, recalls distinctly the discrimination and prejudice to which he falls victim. “They see us as problem Moros (Moors), because the instigators of the March 11 attacks lived round here. We have been suspects since the attacks because we are like them,” he explains. Before their arrest, the instigators of the tragedy at Atocha station – Jamal Zougam, Mohammed Chaoui and Mohammed Bakkali - all lived and worked here.

On the balcony of an apartment, a notice posted in Arab and in Spanish reads Papeles para todos (legal status for all immigrants). Life seems peaceful, two years after the drama. But on a daily basis, many feel as though they are both under surveillance and excluded. Nearly everyone has an anecdote to tell about the zealousness of the police. Like Mounir, encountered on Caravaca street, right near the shop that was owned by Jamal Zougam: “After the attacks, it became unbearable. We were stopped; suddenly, constantly, right in the street. The policemen told us they were just doing their job. You’re telling me! Now, it’s a bit calmer. But it’s not the Ecuadorians who are getting stopped.” Everyone tends to underline that Islam is not just the acts of Al Qaeda, and that Muslims are citizens just like everyone else. For Elharif, a Moroccan immigrant, “Islam has nothing to do with any of that….Those that planted the bombs didn’t understand what Islam is. And we, the Moroccan, Algerian and Senegalese Muslims, we are just like the others.”

Half-hearted tolerance

For Ahmed Sefani, a TV presenter of Moroccan origins on the Andalusian channel Canal Sur, “Lavapies is a specific case, an area of marginalisation of all immigrants who gather together - and this tends to exacerbate racism.” A latent racism which reached its peak in February 2000 in anti-Moroccan riots in the small Andalusian town of El Ejido. But this kind of xenophobia is far from representing Spain as a whole. Ahmed proclaims loud and clear – his religion, like his origin, is by no means a handicap. His relationships with the Jewish or Christian communities are still going well and, in any case, “the most widespread community in Spain is Atheists!” This is an observation which contradicts a recent survey by the Spanish Centre for Sociological Research, according to which 79,4% of Spaniards claim to be Catholic, 47.7% of which are practicing.

The March 11 bombings left Ahmed in disbelief, because he had never considered Islam like that. According to him, “the reaction of Spanish society has been exemplary, especially that of the President of the Association of Victims of March 11… I did not feel excluded or rejected.” It is true that the calls for tolerance have multiplied following the Madrid tragedy. Yet Ahmed feels it straight away when he can detect anxieties in the passengers and personnel when he gets on a plane. “But it’s the same for the Basques!” he adds, laughing. Does his social success allow him to avoid certain disillusions? Perhaps. Like everywhere, “the poor are always in the wrong”, he admits.

On many of these points, the situation of Muslims in Spain is comparable to that of the French or Dutch Muslims. An example? The banning of headscarves in schools may have given rise to many a controversy in France, but it also rattled Spain. In 2002, the head of a private school in Madrid was opposed to the wearing of headscarves in class by a 13-year-old Moroccan girl, who was simply transferred to a public school. The then Minister of Education, Pilar del Castillo, considered that if the wearing of religious symbols in schools was not “appropriate”, it should not however be considered “forbidden”. Her position reflects that of a hesitant country, which feels betrayed after March 11 2004.

Translated from L'Espagne entre tolérance et crainte