Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 October 2008
Issue No. 917
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A living legacy

In Spain, Serene Assir spends time with the country's Muslims, wondering how modern immigration and the legacy of Islam overlap

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Clockwise from top left: noon prayer at the Tetuàn mosque; even quintessentially Spanish architecture gives away the Arab-Islamic influence of the Al-Andalus era, like the Plaza de Toros (bullfighting rings) in Madrid, built under 100 years ago; Hussein Zaghloul and his wife at the grocer at the Tetuàn mosque to find the juiciest-looking dates; Mustafa, who sells traditional Arabic foodstuffs and crafts at the Souk Al-Maghrib shop in the heart of Madrid, is happy to help keep prices down in spite of the financial crisis

Situated in the heart of the Spanish capital, Tetuàn district has become over the past two decades the first port of call for thousands of migrants, particularly for those originating from the Arab world and Africa. On the outset, it appears indistinguishable from any other district, but for its name, which, as it happens, it takes from a city in northern Morocco. Even at the height of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, for instance, the main road cutting across the neighbourhood looked just as it might any other time of the year. That is, until a woman dressed appropriately for the prayer appeared, taking a graceful turn down into an alley, leading the way towards Madrid's oldest mosque.

Just in time for the dhuhr, or noon prayers, the woman rushed up the stairs, past a crowd gathering at the halal butcher and grocers at the base of the mosque, where traditional sweets from Morocco to Egypt and Syria were also on sale. Quiet though the streets were, the mosque at Tetuàn was energetic. The spiritual-cum-social duality in the role of mosques is clear here. "We come to pray here, but it is also a social space, where we can see our friends," Hussein Zaghloul, who works at the Madrid-based Egyptian Institute for Islamic Studies, told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that, "we are friends with people from all countries, Arab and otherwise, not just from Egypt."

According to President of the Union of Islamic Communities in Spain Riay Tatary Bakry, the unity of the spiritual and the social, a key attribute of Islam, takes on a particular significance for Muslims living in Spain. "Of course not all Muslims who come and pray here are Arab -- on the contrary," said Bakry, who is also the Tetuàn mosque's imam. "As well as non-Arab Muslim migrants, there is also a growing community of Spanish converts, and it is very important that they play a central role among us. Most of the time, they don't speak Arabic, but we tend to combine the two languages anyhow."

As such, for Muslims living in Spain religion takes on a formative social role, one which appears to go some way towards filling the gap created by the condition which many share, which is that of exile from their home countries. Hisham, from Cairo, described this gap very well. "I do miss my family so much," he grumbled.

Meanwhile in Bakry's view, Muslims in Spain by their very presence and celebration of Ramadan, Eid Al-Fitr and other Islamic feasts, are making important advances. "When I arrived in Spain I was 17 years old, and I had to explain to everyone around me what the basics of my religion were so they would understand why, for instance, I would fast," he said.

"Now, however, our presence and, by extension, that of our religion, is a routine matter. Everyone in Spain knows what Ramadan is, for example, and in some municipalities such as Alguazas in Murcia, the local authorities decorate the streets to welcome the Muslim holy month." Not least, the mosque at Tetuàn was expectantly waiting to be able to announce the end of Ramadan in order to let the local authorities know on what day Muslims would congregate for Eid prayers. "Last year we had to cut the street off in order to make way for the numbers," he smiled.

It is estimated that one million Muslims live in Spain today. At just under three per cent of the total population, and considering the community's discretion, Muslims in Spain have, for numerous reasons, been the focus of a disproportionate amount of attention over many years.

One of the reasons for this attention is political. Ever since the 11 March 2004 Madrid train bombings, efforts have been made by some media outlets, especially those associated with the extreme right, to vilify all things Arab and Muslim in Spain. However, according to senior analyst for the Arab world at Madrid-based think tank El Cano Royal Institute Haizam Amirah-Fernandez, such efforts thankfully haven't paid off. "Though Spanish society has absolutely no regard for political correctness, unlike other European societies, it also has a history of at least trying to understand," Amirah-Fernandez told the Weekly. Indeed, the analyst also suggested that it may well be because of Spain's recent history of suffering under the regime of General Francisco Franco that Spanish people on the whole still today shirk from racism, religious intolerance and other hatreds.

That is not to say, however, that Spain's Muslims hold a place at the centre of the society they live in -- because that is far from true. "There is a difference between the image Muslims have in Spain and actually enjoying visibility," said Amirah-Fernandez, for marginality continues to be the norm.

According to some, the roots of this lie in the fact that religion and immigration inevitably cross over in any debate concerning the fate of Spain's Muslims, given the fact that an estimated 90 to 95 per cent are in fact migrants, whether first generation or otherwise. Maria Moreno works with the municipal authorities in a town neighbouring Sevilla in Spain's largest province Andalucia. "I don't believe the problem of integration has to do with migrants' religion or race, but rather with their social condition," she said. "The problem of immigration nowadays is that many of the people who come to Spain don't have work, are illiterate and arrive here fleeing hunger and war. This renders their integration difficult by default."

If indeed the roots of marginality lie in poverty, then according to Bakry the Muslim community works extremely hard alongside Spanish civil society to overcome this problem. "When the number of Muslims in Spain was small -- say up until the 1990s -- zakat [alms] collected by the mosques were sufficient to ensure that no family was deprived of its basic necessities," Bakry told the Weekly. "Now, with the sudden surge in numbers, this has become much more difficult. However, we are working on it. We also have strong friendships with many associations including Catholic organisations, with whom we hope to continue working in order to ensure the community stays catered for."

For now, however, the current global financial crisis, synonymous with a rise in food prices, has had its effect too on Spain's Muslims. Egyptian Zaghloul refuses, however, to let the crisis ruin his family's appetite. "When you are abroad, and with prices so high, you find creative ways to cater for your desires without spending as much as you might when you're home," he said with a smile. "So for instance, if we feel we can't afford ground sugar, we buy cheaper white sugar and grind it ourselves. To us, it is important to maintain hope and solidarity."

Other fundamental values, including respect for self and other cultures, and a rejection of racial or even national boundaries, as such take on a central role amongst the Muslim community in Spain, and they become the key to their happiness as a social group. Elena Arigita, expert on Islam in Spain and research coordinator for the International Institute of Arab and Muslim World Studies, believes that it is in walking the smaller, some might say token steps that Muslims in Spain will find home. Among them is the celebration of Eid, of which a central element is that of gathering together and sharing traditional foods -- which the local population are also learning to enjoy more and more over recent years. "Specialised shops which cater for the Muslim population no doubt enrich Spanish society on the whole. Couscous, falafel or shawarma are growing less and less exotic," Arigita told the Weekly.

Meanwhile, setting Spain altogether apart from several other European countries is the fact that its history is deeply intertwined with Islam. Regardless of the fact that for centuries Spain's leaders have fought viciously and consistently to eliminate all trace of this legacy, memory of Al-Andalus and Muslim rule in Spain continues to constitute an extremely important part of both the Spanish and the Arab-Islamic identity. One indication of how deeply enmeshed the Arab legacy is into Spanish consciousness is an old popular joke: "The Arabs occupied Spain for 800 years, and they still haven't left."

According to Arigita, the symbolism of Al-Andalus is perhaps most pronounced amongst Spanish converts to Islam, of whom there are an estimated 50,000 to 100,000. "However the Muslims who migrate to Spain today do not do so for sentimental reasons which refer to a Muslim past on the Iberian peninsula, but rather because of economic, professional or academic reasons, among others," she added. For many others, Spain is also the gateway to Europe, by default of its geographic location.

And while this analysis accurately reflects the thoughts of Spain's most tolerant, there is still something to be said about the living legacy of Al-Andalus, one which certainly exists. To one Spanish cellist from Cordoba, Andalucia speaking to the Weekly, "I consider myself part-Arab. How could I not? Look at the colour of my eyes and my hair -- and listen to the music I play. You are my cousin, more than any European."

On the other hand, debates on the current presence of Muslims in Spain bring up heated arguments on citizenship. To Walid Saleh Alkhalifa, Iraqi professor of Arabic literature at the Autonoma University of Madrid, "we need to stop speaking about integration and Muslim migrants once and for all as though they'd just arrived -- the majority of these migrants are now Spanish citizens, and need to be respected as such."

It is in part the novelty of the phenomenon of immigration to Spain that brings to light the majority's confessional perception of demography, however tolerant the majority might be. Unlike other European states which, at times of crises, underwent upheavals falsely attributed to a multi-ethnic presence on their soil, Spain's history is tainted with overt religious discrimination. In other words, deep within Spain's historical memory is an idea that only recently has started to be challenged, which is that in order to be fully Spanish, one may not need to be white, though to the extreme right it may help -- but one certainly needs to have Catholic values, whether one is practising or not. This concept of citizenship is at the very least antiquated, and at most exclusionary. "The Muslims in Spain are not guests, and we need to stop speaking about integration as though they were. They are here to stay," Alkhalifa added, speaking at a conference on the representation of Islam in school textbooks.

Meanwhile, if heightened devotion to society, and if the principles of coexistence and cultural, social and spiritual wealth above all characterised Al-Andalus, then this may well be a good time to make renewed efforts towards understanding the uncontested relevance of those values in Spanish society today. "Debates on the so-called clash of civilisations miss the point entirely in Spain," said Amirah-Fernandez. "What we do often have though is a clash of perceptions."

To Layla Blanco, one Lebanese who has lived in Spain more than half her life, "while it is true that the legacy of exclusion and oppression, spanning from the Inquisition leading up to Franco's regime, is extremely strong in Spain, the voice of the people is stronger. We see proof of this time and again." One example of this emerged when the Spanish electorate turned out en masse to vote for the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers' Party) in the aftermath of the 2004 bombings, in order to ensure immediate withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq. From the outset, Spanish opposition to the US and UK-led invasion of Iraq was among the most vocal in the world. This opposition has generally been understood as key to the change of government in 2004. "Though at the level of the mundane there are many problems concerning integration -- of Muslims and otherwise -- when crisis struck, the truth of what lies at the core of Spain's political consciousness emerged loud and clear," Blanco added. She further explained that no matter what conflicts Spain has with the Arabs, the relation between the two has repeatedly returned to some sort of balance. "You cannot simply erase 800 years of Islamic rule in Spain just like that now, can you?" she said.

So complex is honest discussion on the historical and cultural influence of that 800-year period, that it becomes difficult to stay away from the perception- based arguments that Amirah-Fernandez referred to, and the romantic ideal of a lost glory that Arigita discussed. Instead, we may be closest to the truth when we start to consider the legacy of Al-Andalus as a source of coexistence and enlightenment, not exclusion. Seen from that perspective, the relevance of the values that historical era represents is greater, and indeed more unifying today than ever before. Surely that is what the great poets and philosophers of Murcia and Cordoba would have dreamt of.

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