Iberia's New Muslims by Marvine Howe

One balmy evening last summer, hundreds of ecstatic Muslim teenagers, many in headscarves, throbbed and swayed to the lyrics of Islamic pop singer Maher Zain at the sedate Garcia Lorca Theatre in Madrid’s working class suburb of Getafe. The Lebanese-born star sang mostly of peace and love in English and Arabic, and referred to ‘my brothers and sisters’ from Palestine, Morocco, Syria, but also Madrid and Barcelona. The evening reached its climax when a little boy presented a Syrian flag to Zain, who draped it around his shoulders and declared: ‘I’m not political, but babies are dying there; this song is for Syria: “Freedom”.’ The audience, which included a sprinkling of Spaniards, exploded with cries of ‘freedom, freedom’. Afterwards, the organisers carefully marshalled the wildly cheering crowd out of the theatre in small groups to avoid any clash with the crowds massed on the square for a traditional Spanish parade of fallas, or giant paper mache figures, and fireworks.

The two worlds mingled happily without incident. It was the first ever such concert in the Spanish capital, sponsored by the local Muslim Youth organisation and Muslim Relief, the Spanish branch of a British-based Islamic charity. There were no special security forces, no protest demonstrations, not even right-wing media charges of ‘Islamisation’. Yet as recently as 2010, one Muslim girl, who chose to wear a headscarf in a public school in Madrid, caused a national uproar, with angry right-wingers screaming against ‘a second Islamic invasion’, forcing the teenager to change schools. For Muslim and non-Muslim observers alike, the fact
that the Getafe concert happened without polemics, in fact went unnoticed by the general public, is a positive step towards the normalisation of Spanish Islam.

Given its turbulent history, the return of Islam to Iberia is of special significance. But who are Iberia’s new Muslims? How have they coped in this land, still haunted by the contradictory legacy of al-Andalus, as the peninsula was known under Islamic rule, with its dark phantoms of war and pillage and tangible reminders of the brilliant multicultural civilisation of Cordoba, Seville, Toledo, and Granada? How have the newcomers been received by a largely Roman Catholic population in the post-9/11 age?

It’s best to begin with the small community of ‘old Muslims’, people of Moroccan descent, who inhabit two Spanish enclaves in northern Morocco. Ceuta was occupied by Spain in the fifteenth century and Melilla by Portugal at the same time, but turned over to Spain in the seventeenth century. Through the years, the large Muslim minority in the military outposts was relegated to second class status, much like other colonised peoples. Few Muslim natives of Ceuta and Melilla enjoyed Spanish citizenship. Then under Spain’s 1967 law on religious freedom, Muslims in the enclaves were permitted to form associations and began to assert
their identity.

Initially, the associations were of a religious nature, but in the 1980s, they developed social and political characteristics and demanded access to Spanish citizenship and civil rights. Finally after strong protests against discrimination, many Ceutis and Melillans were granted Spanish nationality. The Muslims, who now consist of over half of the enclaves’ total population of 160,000, began to form their own local political parties.

They attracted national attention when two women, in their early thirties and wearing headscarves, were appointed to the regional parliaments. Salima Abdessalam, an economist and a parliamentarian for the Coalicion por Melilla, devotes much of her time to non-governmental organisations and is critical of the authorities for promoting community solidarity for ‘purely electoral purposes’. Fatima Hamed Hossain, a lawyer, social activist and member of the Ceuta Assembly since 2007, belongs to the Union Democratica Ceuti, a political group engaged in the fight against social inequalities in the enclaves. When asked about Spanish opinions of Islam, she responded: ‘Am I not as Spanish as any other citizen?’ She pointed out that even second and third generation Muslims have been brought up as foreigners, yet ‘they pay the same taxes and the same mortgages as any other citizen’.

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