A Spanish bridge to Islam

By Sara B. Miller
The Christian Science Monitor
October 02, 2002

Spain’s Muslim converts reach out to Moroccan immigrant women and children.

MADRID – As a teenager, Elena Rodriguez Arteaga visited the Alhambra, Granada’s great Moorish citadel, and became intrigued with Spain’s Muslim past. She studied its role in her overwhelmingly Catholic country, and the more she learned, the more she wanted to know.

Three years ago, she converted to Islam. Now Ms. Arteaga, a nurse at a public hospital in Madrid, uses her understanding of both the Western and Muslim worlds to help new immigrants – particularly women and children – adapt in Spain.

As in much of the rest of Europe, politicians here continue to link immigration with increasing delinquency, and efforts to tighten immigration laws are gaining ground as tensions between the native and new communities rise.

But Arteaga is reaching out to the new arrivals, who hail primarily from Morocco, by running health classes in Arabic schools for young Muslims throughout the city. She helps teach the children nutrition and emergency first-aid skills and asks her colleagues learn some basic Islamic principles before entering the classroom.

In working with immigrant women, Arteaga and others like her say they hope to chip away sexist interpretations of Islam that the women may have inherited in their native country – and which often cast Islam in a negative light. For example, when a leader in Spain’s Muslim community issued a book that included a chapter on how to beat wives without leaving visible marks, women throughout the country were outraged. Female Spanish converts vigorously protested its publication.

“Too often interpretations of Islam are cultural ones, and have nothing to do with the Koran,” Arteaga says. “Our role is to teach new immigrants, who learn [about] Islam from books or their husbands, how to adapt to the customs in our country while remaining true to the Koran.”

Islam has historically been a source of tension for Spain, whose monarchy expelled Muslims in 1492. Dictator Francisco Franco banned the practice of religions other than Catholicism, and the state officially recognized Islam only in 1989. Today, nearly 95 percent of Spaniards consider themselves Catholic. But more than half a million Muslims live in Spain – a number that continues to grow because of immigration and the birthrate among Moroccan immigrants, which is more than double that of Spanish women, according to UN figures.

In the pueblo of Rio de Almodóvar on Córdoba’s outskirts, Kamila Toby, an American convert who married a Spanish convert, works with the organization A-Nisa, which stands for “woman” in Arabic, and helps give Islamic women a voice. She organized a conference for these women last spring, which included such touchy subjects as birth control, and has organized trips for single women to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. She also helps run a magazine and website called Verde Islam, devoted to Islamic topics and to explaining cross-cultural misunderstandings.

Converts say they have more compassion for the prejudices faced by Muslims, as they themselves are often seen as traitors to Catholicism. “Vaya, Moro” [Get out of here, Moor] is commonly heard on the streets of Granada and Córdoba, converts say. Ms. Toby, who was once stoned by a group of teenage boys as she walked down the street pregnant and wearing a headscarf, says she has also received hate mail.

The rejection of Spain’s growing Muslim community is ironic, some here say, since the historic hybrid of Islam and Catholicism is one of the most celebrated aspects of Spanish culture. It is not uncommon to find a portrait of the Virgin Mary next to Arabic baths built during the 800 years of Muslim rule. “Islam is very much a part of Spanish history, but it is very close and yet very far,” says Abdel Bari, a history professor at the Ibn Rushd Islamic University, a private university founded in 1995 in Córdoba. “People love it and reject it vigorously at the same time.”

Spaniards began converting to Islam as part of a left-wing spiritual movement in Granada after Franco’s death in 1975. The first converts were mostly communists searching for spiritual understanding. The spiritual movement later branched off into a historical movement in Córdoba, and has gained momentum recently due to intermarriage. The number of converts is officially placed at 5,000, but converts put it closer to 15,000.

Special to The Christian Science Monitor.

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