Spain’s New Muslims
Converts have become the agreeable face of Spanish Islam
With his wire-rimmed glasses and neatly trimmed beard, Abdulhasib Castiñeira would look like a scholar if he weren’t so elegantly dressed. Born in a tiny village in Galicia, which is among Spain’s poorest, most rural regions, the fifty-one-year-old spent the first ten years of his life among sturdy, simple folk devoted to fishing, harvesting small plots of bitter greens, and practising the Catholic faith. It is somewhat surprising, then, that Castiñeira, educated as he was in a place where crosses top even the granaries, today directs the new mosque in Granada.
A trip to Castiñeira’s office is an exercise in symbolic geography. After climbing the steep cobblestone streets of the Albaicín, the city’s old Moorish quarter, where Granada’s Muslims retreated after Ferdinand and Isabel’s armies vanquished King Boabdil in 1492, you pass the sixteenth-century San Nicolas church. From there, it is only a few steps to the mosque’s lush garden of bougainvillea and jasmine, with its stunning view of the Alhambra, perched on a neighbouring hill. Tucked between this Renaissance church and the architectural icon of seven centuries of Hispano-Muslim rule, Granada’s mosque — built and staffed largely by converts — stands at the intersection of Islam and the West.
Now, when Spain is home to hundreds of thousands of North African immigrants, converts like Castiñeira are crucial mediators of a profoundly multicultural nation. Their tolerant, Sufi-inflected religion has become the palatable — the agreeable — face of Spanish Islam. And although these New Muslims, as many wish to be called, are but a fraction of Spain’s Muslim population, their influence is great. It is the discourse of the convert community, with its emphasis on Andalusian Islam and an “alliance of civilizations,” its promotion of women’s rights, and its rejection of violence, that non-Muslim liberal Spaniards, including Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, have embraced. While al Qaeda calls for the violent “reconquest of al-Andalus,” Spain’s Muslim converts hark back to that golden age, forging a conciliatory version of the faith.
The converts are not a large group — between 20,000 and 50,000 of the estimated 1.5 million Muslims in Spain — and they no longer form a single community. In the 1970s, as Franco was dying, Scottish convert Ian Dallas — renaming himself Sheikh Dr. Abdalqadir as-Sufi — introduced Islam to contemporary Spain. Crossing the peninsula’s southern region from his base in Granada, he taught a faith both Sufi and Andalusian in its inspiration, which many eagerly embraced. The Murabitun critique of an exhausted West and a corrupted capitalism spoke to these self-identified progressives. But disagreements split the original Murabituns into groups holding different opinions about, among other things, Dallas’s legitimacy and the New Muslims’ political role.
The importance of the medieval Hispano-Muslim kingdom of al-Andalus — not as a land to be reconquered but as an example to be emulated — is not something about which converts disagree, however. While New Muslims, like current Islamists, yearn for an untainted Islam, they look for inspiration in al-Andalus, which for seven centuries beginning in 711 AD boasted architectural splendours, scientific achievements, beautiful literature, and advanced medicine. But al-Andalus’s greatest accomplishment for today’s New Muslims was the social harmony it achieved among Jews, Muslims, and Christians — its convivencia. “We recognize ourselves as members of a community that managed to give to the world one of the most beautiful civilizations that man has known,” says one convert, “a civilization that, with its light and shadows, was able to reach levels of humanity that still serve today as an example in our quest for models of how to live and live together.”
There are countless reasons for conversion, but among Spain’s New Muslims certain themes recur. Castiñeira was first drawn to the communal support that reflected his earlier village life but, like many other converts, he quickly came to appreciate the holistic nature of the faith. “It makes sense of every aspect of life. It covers everything,” he says. Particular political concerns also made a difference for many New Muslims. After forty years of dictatorship and National Catholicism, Spain’s transition to democracy was by no means assured, and in the 1970s and ’80s Islam both signalled resistance to Franco’s enforced conformity and confirmed a degree of democratic pluralism and religious freedom — ideals for which al-Andalus’s peaceful social experiment provided a valuable, if perhaps romanticized, example.
And throughout Spain lie rich and abundant remnants of al-Andalus itself, traces of a medieval past that kindle the imagination of most New Muslims. Mansur Escudero, the most prominent of convert leaders, describes the attraction. “Al-Andalus will continue being al-Andalus for Muslims of all ages. It is there; we have created it. Here we have our dead, who remain alive, awaiting Resurrection Day.” We, our — converts like Escudero feel bound to those early Hispano-Muslims, by affinity if not by blood.
Not far outside Cordoba, once the seat of the caliphate, sits a community equally inspired by history. Almodóvar del Rio is a tiny town, best known for its well-preserved castle. It is also the home of the Junta Islámica, a non-profit organization founded by a small group of converts, which now wields disproportionate power. From its crowded office just below the castle, staff members take calls from Libya about an upcoming conference, maintain the group’s influential website, webislam.com, and offer visitors a slice of “halal ham” (made from beef ). The Junta hosts Spain’s only halal institute, which ensures that products across Spain, from meat to cosmetics, meet Islamic standards. For Isabel Romero, the halal institute’s director and a recent convert, the Junta’s public role is clear: “Spaniards have a habit of thinking of Muslims as foreign, but I’m not foreign, I’m Spanish,” she says. “We are Spanish Muslims, as much members of our societies as anybody else, and this puts us in a privileged position to talk about all the supposed incompatibilities between Islam and the West.”
Headed by Escudero, the Junta was founded to protect Muslim rights and promote the study of Islam. By the time the socialist Zapatero was elected prime minister, just three days after Islamist terrorists killed 191 people on commuter trains in Madrid in March 2004, Escudero was also serving as co-secretary general of the Islamic Commission, the government’s liaison with the Muslim community, and the Junta Islámica was well positioned to reassure Spaniards that not all Muslims were a threat. They were not alone in this endeavour. Egyptian-born Sheikh Moneir Mahmoud, imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of Madrid, preached peace and convivencia to followers and the media alike, as did Riay Tatary, Escudero’s co-secretary general. But the Junta’s members, with their native Spanish and greater familiarity with Western media and politics, emerged as the most representative voice for Spanish Muslims.
More than practical advantages led to the Junta’s dominance in Muslim relations, however; its reassuring position on several thorny issues also helped. When an imam in Fuengirola publicly justified wife-beating, for example, the Junta denounced him, establishing itself as a defender of Muslim women’s rights. After the Madrid bombings, the government sought to crack down on radicalism even as it extended a hand to Muslims — the vast majority of whom, as Zapatero himself emphasized, were appalled by the killings at Atocha station. The Junta, which condemned violence while adopting progressive attitudes toward integration and women’s rights, was an especially welcome ally. It wasn’t wholly submissive — when the then minister of the interior, José Antonio Alonso, proposed in 2004 that mosques and imams be monitored, Escudero led opposition to the measure — but it demonstrated that its goals were complementary to Zapatero’s aims.
As secretary general, Escudero took pains to ensure that instructors teaching the new Islam classes to Muslim public-school students (Catholic students had long enjoyed this privilege; only in 2005 did Muslim students in a few regions begin receiving it as well) were, if not native Spaniards, then at least fluent speakers of Spanish who shared the Islamic Commission’s interpretation of the faith. And on the first anniversary of the Madrid bombings, the commission, as if to prove its distance from “Arab” Islam, issued a fatwa against Osama bin Laden and members of al Qaeda. “We see this as our contribution,” Escudero said at the time. “A declaration from the Muslim community that bin Laden and al Qaeda are not Muslims, that they are outside of Islam.”
In support of this “Spanish” version of Islam, the Junta received some public funding for its postgraduate course in Islamic civilization and culture at Spain’s National Distance Learning University, as well as for the international conference it sponsors on Islamic feminism. The influence was mutual: Zapatero’s proposal to the United Nations in September 2004 for an “Alliance of Civilizations” bore clear traces of New Muslim rhetoric. Urging international efforts to foster understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim countries as a defence against international terrorism, Zapatero began his address by calling himself the leader of an “ancient and diverse country, with different languages, different traditions, different cultures.”
However, not all of the Junta’s activities have been well-received by Spanish non-Muslims. The group’s attempts to publicly redefine Cordoba’s famous Mezquita, one of al-Andalus’s most revered sites, for example, have so far failed. Begun under the Emir Abd ar-Rahman I in 784, the Mezquita was one of the wonders of the Muslim world, an architectural triumph that epitomized the cultural, religious, and educational achievements of the caliphate. In the sixteenth century, Charles V ripped out the Mezquita’s centre arches and replaced them with a Catholic nave appropriate to the building’s new status as Cordoba’s cathedral — a status it retains to this day. Critics have since lamented the loss of the mosque’s aesthetic unity, but not even the ornately carved choir stall or florid paintings of saints lining the chapel walls have eradicated the edifice’s essential Islamic style. And yet Muslims are not allowed to worship there. Private security guards, hired by Cordoba’s bishopric, which owns the Mezquita, follow orders to forcibly eject from the building any Muslim who bends to pray.
To be excluded from a religiously and historically sacred building over which they feel a certain degree of spiritual ownership is a genuine offence for the Junta Islámica. Its representatives travelled to Rome in 2004 to petition the Vatican to open the Mezquita for ecumenical — including Muslim — worship. “In these difficult times, it could be an important symbol for both Catholics and Muslims, an expression of willingness to enter in dialogue,” Escudero said, adding, “We’re not trying to take the Mezquita away from anyone. Just open it up.”
Many ecumenical groups supported the effort, but not the Catholic Church. Although Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, then the president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, declared that the matter had to be decided by the local bishop, he also pointedly suggested that “Muslims must accept history.” In December 2006, with a new pope in Rome, the Junta again appealed to the Vatican, only to be told brusquely by Cordoba’s bishop, Juan José Asenjo, that the diocese would not consent to Muslim worship in its cathedral. The temple had been Christian since its reconquest in the thirteenth century, he said, and opening it to Muslim prayer would “only generate confusion among the faithful.” Escudero staged a sit-in of sorts, unrolling his prayer mat in the gardens of the Mezquita and, as cameras flashed, beginning to pray. His gesture was not well-received.
For many in Spain, the New Muslims’ pleasing discourse about al-Andalus has begun to seem insufficient to justify their privileged position. The group’s liberal efforts have failed, for example, to persuade some critics that converts are not involved in broader attempts to radicalize Islam in Europe, especially since three British converts were found among those charged in the London airline bombing plot in 2006. Indeed, two prominent members of Spanish society have published books warning of the dangers converts pose. Gustavo de Arístegui, a congressman with the conservative Popular Party and the author of La Yíhad en España (Jihad in Spain), argues that converts represent an effective means of spreading extremist ideas. “Jihadist groups were once suspicious of converts because they feared that they were intelligence agents trying to infiltrate their cells,” he writes. “But someone with European looks and a Western last name raises fewer suspicions, so the jihadists are realizing that they can be effective cannon fodder for suicide missions. They are almost impossible to detect, especially if they have not revealed their conversion to their family.” Arístegui admits the number of converts who are active jihadists is small (Yusuf Galán is the only convert among the 200 Muslims arrested in Spain in conjunction with 9/11 and 3/11; he was later released). “But,” he notes, “the number who support the ideals that feed terrorism is much greater.”
Rosa María Rodríguez Magda, a member of the Valencia Council for Culture, worries less about terrorism than about the converts’ position in the debate about democratic values in Spain. She blames converts for seeking rights that contradict democratic values. She is also concerned that converts may be an unwitting Trojan Horse through which a more conservative Islam will take hold in Spain. And she calls special attention to what she views as a slippery slope between converts’ claims of descent from al-Andalus and Islamist demands to reclaim the historic kingdom.
Her anxiety is shared by many. In December 2006, the conservative newspaper abc reported, with notable distress, on plans for large mosques in Seville and at Medina Azahara, the site of a caliphal palace once located outside Cordoba, and tied the proposed construction to Muslim efforts “to reclaim al-Andalus,” observing that the groups backing the construction “are comprised mainly of converts.”
Despite these fears, many New Muslims find themselves increasingly at odds with foreign-born Muslims. Part of this tension is likely due to the natural sense of displacement felt by converts as more immigrant Muslims arrive and become comfortable in their adopted country. But the friction also confirms the tension between the version of Islam preached by the Junta and other convert groups and the version propagated by “old” Muslims. Says Castiñeira of those he calls “Arab” fundamentalists, “They don’t have a problem with our vision of Islam. They have a problem with how we implement our vision of Islam.”
Many old Muslims are reluctant to air their differences with converts. Mohamed El Afifi, spokesperson for Madrid’s Islamic cultural centre, for example, goes no further than to diplomatically acknowledge certain distinctions. “Those of us who are born Muslim have one kind of defined life,” he says. “Those who convert to Islam have another. The faith is enriched by both.” As to the disagreements between the Junta Islámica and other Muslim organizations, he demurs. “We don’t like to get involved in that kind of muddle.”
Kamal Mekhelef, secretary of the Cordoba Muslim Association and former director of a small mosque that Franco built there for his Muslim Moroccan soldiers, is more direct. “Some converts do play the role of mediator. They were born here, and they know the country and its culture,” he says. “But they’re not all the same. Some know Islam well; they’ve studied it for years . . . others are still learning.” And Mekhelef plainly disagrees with some of the Junta’s actions. “I don’t defend the fatwa [against bin Laden], not at all,” he says. “To condemn an act of terrorism — as we all should — is one thing. But a fatwa is a much more serious thing, issued only by those with a great deal of education and preparation. I don’t think that those who declared it against bin Laden had that kind of education. I would never do such a thing.”
The clearest sign of this conflict came early in 2006, when Escudero was ousted from the leadership position he had held in the Islamic Commission since the organization’s founding. The move surprised Escudero and provoked concern among many New Muslims about the direction Islam might take in Spain. Abdennur Prado, head of the Catalan Junta Islámica, notes that “Arab culture cannot offer the model for Islam’s integration into lay society. We are the ones who have broken the monopoly that certain foreign groups have in western Europe.” Many saw in Escudero’s expulsion a disapproval of the Junta’s actions, especially the bin Laden fatwa. Others considered it a referendum on the Junta’s more liberal interpretations of the faith. Although the Islamic Commission’s new secretary general, Félix Herrero, is a convert himself, many liberal Muslims and non-Muslims accuse him of being controlled by powerful Saudi interests, and police have conducted an investigation related to terrorism at his mosque in Malaga.
At Granada’s mosque, Abdulhasib Castiñeira speaks about some recent visitors, Norwegian theologians. “They were Protestants, and we had a very good, very probing conversation about our religions,” he recounts. “At the end, one of them turned to me and asked, ‘But given immigration and the birth rates, aren’t Muslims going to take over Europe one of these days?’ I answered, ‘If you have two groups, and one of them scorns marriage and has a high rate of divorce and doesn’t want to bring children into the world, and the other one has strong families with lots of children, well, what’s wrong with that?’”
Castiñeira’s story may not comfort many Westerners, but no one can deny his conviction that his faith, his Islam, supports the things that matter — or should matter — to Europeans, whether they be Enlightenment values or strong families. At a time when European society grapples with the outrage provoked by cartoons of Muhammad, debates the propriety of head scarves in public, and feels threatened both by Islamist terrorism and, too often, by government responses to it as well, Castiñeira promises a way out of a clash of civilizations. “Just look at this mosque,” he says. “When it was being built, some extremist residents protested, saying that we were trying to reclaim al-Andalus. But then the mosque opened, and there hasn’t been a single problem. They’ve realized that we’re an important part of the city.”