Article published on March 9, 2007
Article published on March 9, 2007
As 29 people of mainly Moroccan origin go on trial in Madrid for the March 11 bombings of 2004, life for Barcelona's Muslim community ticks on

In the narrow and labyrinth-like streets of the Raval - a neigbourhood with the highest percentage of foreigners in the Catalan capital (45%) - designer bars, Tagalog (Philippine) restaurants and eye-catching Arab signs co-exist somewhat anarchically. As I step deeper into the neighbourhood, its telephone booths, halal meat markets, little Pakistani supermarkets, Bengali fruit and kebab stands seem to multiply.

In one bar, a dozen South-East Asian working class pensioners are finishing off a charged 'carajillo' (cafe with a shot of brandy) whilst scanning the sports supplements of the local papers for the latest updates on Barça FC. What could at first sight look like a Catalan ghetto, is in fact owned by one Pakistani man who has lived in Spain for more than 25 years. When I try to delve further into a conversation with him, he excuses himself immediately. He prefers not to speak with the press.

Did 11-M cause Islamophobia?

Where is this distrust rooted from? 'Muslims can fear discrimination and rejection by other citizens,' explains Ricard Zapata, one of Spain's leading immigration experts and professor at the University Pompeu Fabra. Zapata emphasises that it was after 9/11 and not 11-M when 'certain parts of the media constructed a symbolic association between Islam and violence.'

Zapata's theory coincides in some way with the conclusions of the last report published by the European Observatory against Racism and Xenophobia about Muslims in the European Union. With their devastating list of acts documenting Islamophobia in the country, the organisation warn that this phenomenon of marginalisation is evident in the workplace and in housing access. Negative stereotypes have cropped up towards all of Europe's Muslims. But it's not only this; other European countries apart from Spain have also reported numerous assaults on mosques by groups such as Neonazis.

A Muslim in Catalonian parliament

Away from the bustling Raval, Mohamed Chaib, a Socialist and the first Muslim Catalan MP, greets us in Catalonia's huge parliament building. He is from Tangers in Morocco, and knows what community work is like in the Raval. His 1994 iniative created Ibn Battuta, an association for immigrants and cultural intervention. Their programmes of action are being reproduced in similar centres in other Spanish cities.

Sitting comfortably in his armchair in a room adjoining parliamentary session, Chaib clarifies that Catalonia has 'vast experience in issues of integration.' Still, he admits certain problems remain. For example, the rejection of constructing prayer rooms in neighbouring city Badalona. He accuses the centre-right People's Party (Partido Popular) of being almost xenophobic and using 'biased arguments' in the polemic.

Against this kind of attitude, Chaib wants to, 'establish major bridges of contact between both communtities' with the final aim of creating a society with 'shared values'. At the same time, he emphasises the urgency with which Spain should 'grant a clear acknowledgement of its Muslim community.' It needs the necessary strength to be able to react to the recent phenomenon of 'certain radical Islamist movements whipping up the hate between the local population'. The Muslim community counts for up to 250, 000 - 300,000 people in Catalonia alone.

Growing community asks for respect

In contrast to the ostentatious luxury of the Catalan parliament, the centrally situated Islamic Cultural Centre of Catalonia gives off a more sober simplicity. A few beautiful Arab calligraphic writings adorn the walls and the tables of the meeting room. Spokesman Mohamed Halhoul clarifies the details of an organisation which, in representing 65 of the 170 Islamic Catalan chapels, has become the principal religious Muslim speaker of Catalan government - a collaborative agreement was signed in 2005.

'Catalonia has passed 'numerous tests' since the Madrid attacks. Levels of Islamophobia are low, in comparison to other parts of the country or to Europe,' explains Halhoul. He's especially grateful for the 'support offered by the Archbishop of Barcelona' when he intervened in the Danish cartoons controversy. The latter emphasised that religions 'should be united before all acts of aggressive secularism.' 'The only thing that Muslims can ask for is to be treated with respect, equality and how the actual Spanish constitution is cited,' concludes the spokesman.

In the Plaza of Àngels by the Raval, dozens of young boys are performing skateboard tricks whilst the blue sky above them gradually assumes tones of violet. From nowhere, a Pakistani man appears with a plastic bag, inside which you can distinguish the shape of a six-pack of beer. A couple of boys sidle up, and the characters chat between themselves. 'One beer, one Euro,' are the words which leak through before they change route. If public recognition of the Muslim community is a reality, efforts have to be made to reach a coexistence based on the construction of common values - and no longer on simple co-existence.

(Photo homepage: Dani Garcia Benavides/ Flickr)