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Spanish Muslims at crossroads – integration or exclusion?

Madrid, Feb 14 (DPA) Will Spain have a liberal or conservative type of Islam? Could fundamentalism soar? Will Muslims blend in, or will there be youth riots like in Paris in 2005? Can Spain find a third way between French-style assimilation of immigrants and British multiculturalism?

As the first modern generation of Spanish-born Muslims is coming of age, the country’s Islamic communities stand at a crossroads.

The question of the integration of Muslims has come under a heated debate after the opposition conservatives announced they would ban Muslim headscarves in most schools if they win the March 9 elections.

The proposal sparked criticism from the governing Socialists and the far left, which slammed the conservatives as xenophobic racists.

“Immigrants should never become a cheap electoral merchandise,” Kamal Rahmouni, president of the Moroccan immigrants’ association Atime, said in an interview with DPA.

Spain needs to develop “solid elements” to deal with problems related to immigration when they arise, Rahmouni stressed, calling for a “state pact” between the two main parties.

Spain is estimated to have more than a million Muslims, making Islam the country’s second biggest religion after Roman Catholicism.

The Muslims are usually spoken of as a group, but in reality, they include a wide variety of nationalities ranging from up to 800,000 Moroccans – the largest group – to Pakistanis, people from the Middle East and West Africa.

The Muslims also include about 80,000 people living in the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the Moroccan coast, and up to 25,000 converts.

The currents of Islam present in Spain range from traditional Moroccan Malekite Islam to orthodox Saudi Wahabism and even some marginal fundamentalist movements. A part of the Muslims, of course, practise their religion only occasionally or not at all.

In relations with the government, Muslims are represented by two federations.

The Spanish Federation of Islamic Religious Entities (Feeri) represents a liberal home-grown Islam embraced by many converts, while the bigger Union of Spanish Islamic Communities (Ucide) stands for a more conservative, social brand.

“Many Muslims do not feel represented by these organs, which were created in the late 1980s and early 1990s,” Rahmouni says.

Internal divisions and rivalries have prevented Muslims from having a visible leader and a single voice, he observes.

That contributed to governments ignoring a pioneering 1992 agreement, which theoretically gives Muslims the same rights as Catholics, according to observers.

Critics of the 1996-2004 conservative governments say they had little enthusiasm for promoting Muslim rights because of their closeness to the Catholic Church.

As the number of Muslims has grown, the current Socialist government has timidly started reactivating cooperation with Islamic associations in the framework of a new foundation.

Madrid boasts what is billed as Europe’s biggest mosque, the construction of which was financed by Saudi Arabia. Yet the vast majority of Spain’s 700 mosques continue operating in garages, basements, former factories or warehouses.

With no national rules on the training of imams and hardly any state subsidies to mosques, they are often left dependent on money coming in from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Libya or Egypt.

That increases the danger of outside interference and of fundamentalism, according to Muslim analysts.

Spain currently has only about 30 teachers of Islam for more than 70,000 potential pupils at state schools.

Questions such as that of the headscarf are sorted out on the regional level, the tendency being to regard a girl’s right to education as more important than criticism of a symbol which some see as denigrating women.

The Islamic communities and the government need to arrange for Muslims to have democratically-elected representatives in order to regulate the practice of Islam, Rahmouni says.

“Spain needs to find its own model of integration,” based on the existence of 17 semi-autonomous regions some of which have their own languages alongside Spanish, he said.

“Spain’s cultural diversity will facilitate the integration of immigrants,” Rahmouni believes.

Spain is unique in Western Europe in that it was partly under Muslim rule for eight centuries until 1492. Spanish culture has numerous Arab-Berber influences including more than 4,000 Spanish words that are derivative from Arabic.

Few Spaniards, however, spare a thought for such links, and there have been dozens of cases of local people opposing the construction of mosques in regions such as northeastern Catalonia.

The 2004 Islamist train bombings, which killed 191 people in Madrid, were followed by a slight increase in neo-Nazi attacks and threats against mosques, but on the whole, Rahmouni describes the reaction of Spanish society as “very mature” – at least so far.