Islam’s Claim on Spain

By Tracy Wilkinson
Los Angeles Times
January 18, 2005

Across a valley of fragrant cedars and orange trees, worshipers at the pristine Great Mosque of Granada look out at the Alhambra, the 700-year-old citadel and monument to the heyday of Islamic glory.

Granada’s Muslims chose the hilltop location precisely with the view, and its unmistakable symbolism, in mind.

It took them more than 20 years to build the mosque, the first erected here in half a millennium, after they conquered the objections of city leaders and agreed, ultimately, to keep the minaret shorter than the steeple on the Catholic Iglesia de San Nicolas next door.

Cloistered nuns on the other side of the mosque added a few feet to the wall enclosing their convent, as if to say they wanted neither to be seen nor to see.

Many of Spain’s Muslims long for an Islamic revival to reclaim their legendary history, and inaugurating the Great Mosque last year was the most visible gesture. But horrific bombings by Muslim extremists that killed nearly 200 people in Madrid on March 11 have forced Spain’s Muslims and non-Muslims to reassess their relationship, and turned historical assumptions on their head.

“We are a people trying to return to our roots,” said Anwar Gonzalez, 34, a Granada native who converted to Islam 17 years ago. “But it’s a bad time to be a Muslim.”

Spain has a long, rich and complex history interwoven with the Muslim and Arab world, from its position as the center of Islamic Europe in the last millennium to today’s confrontation with a vast influx of Muslim immigrants.

For more than seven centuries of Moorish rule, “Al Andalus,” or Andalusia, was governed by Muslim caliphs who oversaw a splendid flourishing of art, architecture and learning that ended when Granada fell to Christian monarchs Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in 1492.

Muslims were expelled or exterminated in the Inquisition that followed, but the legacy of the Moors is seen throughout Andalusia, Spain’s southern tier, in its language, palaces like the Alhambra, and food.

Unfortunately for Spain’s Muslims, the militants who swear loyalty to Osama bin Laden are history buffs too. In claiming responsibility for the March bombings, they cited the loss of “Al Andalus” as motivation.

“We will continue our jihad until martyrdom in the land of Tarik Ben Ziyad,” they said in a communique issued after the massacre, alluding to the Moorish warrior and original Islamic conqueror of the Iberian peninsula.

Spain today, like most of Europe, is struggling with ways to accommodate its fast-growing Muslim community while keeping tabs on those who might turn to radical violence.

Converts like Gonzalez are a small percentage of the nearly 1 million Muslims believed to be living in Spain – a number that has probably doubled in the last decade. The vast majority of the Muslims are immigrants – mostly from Morocco, frequently on the margins of society and often at odds with native-born Muslims. Most of the suspects arrested in the March attacks that tore apart commuter trains in the morning rush hour were Moroccan.

A relatively homogenous society ever since the 15th century expulsions, Spain has far fewer Muslims than France or Germany. Yet only in Spain is the debate fraught with such mythology and deep-rooted cultural echoes.

Spaniards sometimes refer to Arabs, derogatorily, as Moors. And it doesn’t help that the late dictator Francisco Franco rose to power on the back of Moroccan troops whom he used to launch the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

In Granada, the old Moorish hamlet of Albaicin, now a gentrified neighborhood of red-tile roofs and white-washed villas, spills down the hill from the Great Mosque. It could almost pass for a town on the West Bank or in Morocco, if perhaps a little more picturesque.

The narrow, winding streets are full of teashops, butchers and bakeries selling baklava and kenafa, a fresh soft cheese. Locals greet each other with “As-Salaam Alaikum,” and, in October, signs in stores wished a “Feliz Ramadan” to passersby.

At the University of Granada, it is not uncommon to see a woman in a hijab, the Muslim head scarf. In the pharmacology school, about 40% of the 2,100-member student body is from Arab or Muslim countries, according to the student association.

Moroccan student Amal Benyaich, a 20-year-old sophomore, said she generally feels at home in Granada but has occasionally endured insults shouted in public, especially after the bombings.

“How can your people do this?” someone demanded of her.

“Am I a terrorist?” she responded.

“I want them to understand what Islam is,” said Benyaich, wearing a white hijab, long skirt and velvety red sweatshirt. “Terrorism is not a specific religion.”

Spain is confronting the fact that a growing number of Muslim immigrants, who once entered the country only to move on, or came to work and then returned to their home country, have now become a permanent fixture. Spain’s low birth rate has widened the need for immigrant labor, and an underground network has made it easier for foreign workers to stay.

“Before, Muslims were guests who would leave. Today Islam is among us,” said Riay Tatari Bakri, the Syrian-born imam at Madrid’s Abu Bakr mosque, one of the places of worship attended by the bombing suspects.

For the Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the challenge is how to integrate these residents.

Elected three days after the bombings, the government has cast itself in the role of reconciling the West with Islam, and Zapatero, in a major speech to the United Nations, advocated an “alliance of civilizations” to prevent escalating conflict.

The prime minister’s government is negotiating with two major Spanish Islamic organizations in an attempt to integrate Muslims into mainstream society as a way to prevent radicalization and reduce the alienation that feeds extremism and violence.

“Marginalization is a very dangerous thing,” Luis Lopez Guerra, the senior Justice Ministry official in charge of religious affairs, said in an interview in Madrid.

“If you have people poor and without work, you run the risk of them feeling alone and discriminated against, alienated from the values of the rest of society,” Lopez Guerra said. “Police measures alone can’t solve this.”

And so, in a country where the Roman Catholic Church wields enormous power, the government has established a $4-million fund for three “minority” religions – Islam, Judaism and Protestantism – and scrapped a previous administration’s plans to make the Catholic curriculum mandatory in public schools.

Among other, controversial recommendations, the government wants to require all mosques to register with the state. Also under discussion is a plan to license imams, supported by several Muslim groups who complain that too many clerics are foreigners who are unable to speak Spanish, and that Saudi Arabia wields excessive influence over Spain’s mosques.

The tension between Spain’s non-Muslims and Muslims, both immigrant and native-born, remains raw. Although incidents of overt retaliation against Muslims are rare, many Muslims feel they are, in the words of Gonzalez, the convert, in the eye of the hurricane.

Like the society around them, Muslims in Spain are torn over questions of assimilation versus cultural identity. The community is, moreover, fractured along generational and ideological lines. Then there are the differences between immigrants and native-born Muslims, most of whom are converts.

In Granada, the onetime seat of Moorish rule, where many Muslims identify themselves as Andalusians first, then as Spaniards, a number of native-born Muslims say they feel a duty to present what they describe as the moderate face of their religion and to promote a form of “European Islam” that is tolerant and democratic.

“That’s our struggle: to achieve a moderate balance against those extremists who are incapable of living in this society as Muslims,” said Abdelkarim Carrasco, a real estate broker and president of the Federation of Spanish Islamic Entities, one of two major Spanish Islamic organizations negotiating with the Zapatero government.

Carrasco, 56, converted to Islam when he was 30 and moved to Granada from Seville two years later.

The Andalusian cities of Granada, Seville and Cordoba saw a wave of Islamic conversions in the 1960s and ’70s spearheaded by the Sufi Murabitun sect led by Ian Dallas, a controversial Scotsman, and joined by hippies in search of spiritual meaning. A later conversion movement evolved, independent of the influence of the Murabitun, which has been attacked as anti-Semitic.

Carrasco, whose passport retains his given name of Antonio, not Abdelkarim, said Spain’s Islamic past has made it more difficult, not easier, for contemporary Spain to accept Muslim citizens.

“It is easier to be a Muslim in Munich than in Granada,” he said. “In Germany it’s still something colder, new and distant. Here it is too close. You scratch the surface of a Spaniard, and the other [identity] comes out.”

At the Great Mosque, built with money from the governments of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, exquisite cobalt blue and teal green tiles, patterned after those found in the Alhambra, frame the ablution fountains. Silk carpets and teak doors decorate the compact house of worship, which is already attracting tourists.

Mosque member Mohammed Jairudin, 64, a silver-haired actor who converted to Islam 21 years ago, told of the legal hurdles and neighborhood resistance overcome to finally erect the mosque. Muslims, he said, have to live within the existing order because it is God’s will.

“You are part of the system, or you leave,” he said, seated in the mosque’s garden of rosebushes and jasmine, overlooking that breathtaking view that sweeps northward to the Sierra Nevada. “I pay my taxes. I go to the mosque. No one bothers me. I do things my way, but respecting where I am.”

It is not clear, however, that the group behind the mosque, followers of the Murabitun movement, shares that moderate sentiment. The president of the mosque foundation, Malik Ruiz, calls himself the Emir of Spain and has said Granada will return to its “natural origin” – Islam – after a 500-year interruption.

Mosque supporters say they are not attempting to launch the reconquest of Al Andalus but want to show that Islam is not an alien faith.

“This country,” Jairudin said, “has a debt to its Muslims: to recognize history.”

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