AS A TEENAGER, I loved Spain. In fact, the quiet kingdom was one of my favorite places in the world. With my friend Maria* and her family including me in their summer holidays, Spain became a conglomeration of sunny beaches, cool mountain retreats, lessons in art history, long family lunches, sets of tennis and easy access to the rest of Europe.

When Maria came to visit me in the U.S., however, our differences became apparent. As I continued to exchange letters with Carmen, Javier, Juan and Mathilde, all of whom I met in Spain, Maria rebuffed my attempts to introduce her to American teenagers. Obsessed with not gaining weight while in the U.S., Maria spent her days excessively swimming. Even though she lost more than 15 pounds, her adopted diet of steamed cauliflower and tomatoes made her moody. Outings to the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museums were miserable. Stays at the beach were punctuated with insecurity and moping.

My parents explained that Maria was simply out of her comfort zone – she had never been without her family or friends. They reasoned that she just had not been ready to leave the very powerful and sealed entity of her familial and societal units. As a teenager, I did not realize how sealed and traditional these units were until, one day, Maria lashed out.

As we watched a movie in which some of the characters were Cuban, my mom turned and asked Maria what had been said and not captured in the subtitles. Snapping her head, Maria growled, “How should I know? They’re not speaking Spanish. I’m Spanish and they’re not.” There we sat, my mother and I, in shock.

Rule One: Do not build a fortress to protect yourself. In doing so, you will isolate yourself and develop weaknesses.

Aristotle once said, “Life is defined by movement.” Regardless of whether the discussion revolves around economics, politics, religion or technology, any transition from potential to actual requires substantive steps of movement. Although Spain has obviously advanced in these aforementioned areas, I wondered about the extent to which it has socially evolved. I decided to visit my law school friends, Sela and Mina, who were completing a dual degree program in Madrid.

Despite living in Spain for two years, Sela and Mina remained outsiders. Both nearly fluent Spanish speakers, I could not comprehend how my extroverted friends did not develop a new network in their adopted country. Wherever they went in the world over the years, the girls developed and maintained contacts with ease. Although they attended a large law school – an ideal environment for social networking – neither had made a significant friendship. After living and studying in Madrid for two years, they counted a young professor, who qualifies as a peripheral associate, as their closest Spanish friend. SeIa and Mina sought the dual degree as a means to working in Spain, but their social isolation was forcing them to return to the U.S. Spain was losing two needed bilingual lawyers.

Rule Two: Do not fight the last (religious) war. In fact, erase the memory of the last war as a testament to movement and development.

Interestingly, immigrants as well as first-generation Spaniards of Arab or Muslim descent consider Madrid the most tolerant and accessible Spanish city. Given SeIa and Mina’s experiences, however, I decided to seek out how immigrants felt elsewhere in Spain. To do so, no city seemed as important as Granada.
Spain sits in the conflux between its position as the center of Islamic Europe in the last millennium and as home to an increasing number of Muslim converts and immigrants. For more than seven centuries of Moorish rule, the caliphs who governed Andalusia (or Al Andalus) also oversaw a splendid flourishing of art, architecture and learning that ended when Granada fell to Christian monarchs Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in 1492. Under Isabellian rule, Spain expelled or exterminated its Muslims in the Inquisition that followed. Similarly, Spain expelled the Jews who had peaceably lived under Muslim rule. By 1 6 14, Isabellian Spain had spent more than a century persecuting and converting non-Christians during its Reconquista. Yet, the legacy of the Moors can still be seen throughout Andalusia in its language, historical centers, shopping districts and food. Unfortunately, the attitudes of Reconquista and Isabellian Spain also remain.

“Sometimes, when they’re drunk, they throw beer bottles at us and call us Moors and dirty Arabs. I know it’s because they’re drunk, but it makes the other guys really mad.” Giving a slight nod to the men over his shoulder, Rasheed says, “Then it is not easy to keep them from fighting.”

He spoke in a low voice as he stood hovering over SeIa, Mina and me in the restaurant where he worked, and thus my friends and I were finally able to engage Rasheed in a conversation about being an Arab-Muslim immigrant to Granada. Getting him to open up had not been easy. Of the men working in that kabob house, Rasheed appeared to be the most reclusive. He was professional but shy. Naturally, I wanted to talk to him first.

Rasheed initially skirted away from questions. Elusive but remaining professional, he proceeded to serve us. Understanding his unease, we started again. This time we broke the ice speaking some poor Arabic. Unlike the Spaniards who pretended not to understand me because of my American-laced accent, Rasheed good naturedly praised Sela’s attempt at Arabic. Switching back to Spanish, however, we explained ourselves, our backgrounds and the importance of talking to an average immigrant like him.

Sitting in the kabob house, sipping our tea and awaiting what would turn out to be an excellent meal, the girls and I continued talking to Rasheed. Like most Muslims in Andalusia who came as either foreign students or economic immigrants, Rasheed arrived from Morocco three years ago in search of a better life.

Coming from a poor family, Rasheed did not receive a formal education but still learned to read and write. Respectful of self-learners, I asked Rasheed who taught him. “Life taught me,” he answered. “The necessities of life taught me to become literate . . . And from life I learned to read.”

Interestingly, Spain now needs immigrants. With fertility rates dropping to 1.12 births per female (the lowest in the world), every Spanish worker would be supporting one pensioner by 2050, which means the system will be bankrupt. An additional 5 million immigrants are needed to help save the system.

As Rasheed moved about the quaint restaurant, switching from Arabic with his colleagues to Spanish with his customers, I talked to SeIa and Mina about the different Muslim communities in Spain. Although immigrant Muslims appear to be the most numerous, Spain has been an amalgam of not only North African Muslims, but also of an elitist class of Muslims. From the mid to late 1 970s, a trickle of converts from socialist, communist and Catholic backgrounds became attracted to Islam’s perceived neutral meeting point – Sufism, a natural post-1960s sanctuary from sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. As a result, the renewal of Islam in southern Spain appears to be a mixture of these Sufi groups with students and traders and their connections to North Africa and Turkey While strong traditional ties are to Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Syria, segments of Senegal, Pakistan, India and the former Soviet states have begun to forge ties. Similarly, as the nascent Muslim community evolves and intermingles with other members of its community, the Sufi tariqas (particularly of Morocco, Algeria and Turkey) that initially remained insular from other Muslim groups and the surrounding Spanish society, seem more engaged in trade and even intermarriage.
Seeing a ring on Rasheed’s left index finger, I asked if he was married. Somewhere between surprise and wonder, he responded “no.” Although I’ve worn a ring on the same finger on occasion, I decided not to ask why he wore the ring or if doing so carried the same significance. Rasheed went on to explain that at the moment, he wasn’t ready to marry but looked forward to marriage. When I asked him about the national origin of a potential partner, he waved it off. Moroccan would be nice, not necessary.
I knew more lay underneath the answer, but decided not to continue. I was half happy and half disappointed with Rasheed’s answers; he did not seem to fit the characteristics of the Murabituns about whom I had heard so much. The Murabitun Movement – founded by a Scottish actor named Ian Dallas who converted to Islam in the mid 1960.S initially garnered European and American converts. Unlike other post-hippie spiritual movements, the group now consists of members from almost every ethnic background and has communities not only in Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and England, but also in South Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey and, notably, Mexico.

The Murabitun Movement – a part of the Darqawi order, which arose from the Shadhili tariqa and was founded in Morocco at the end of the 18th century – also set itself apart from other groups by working for the abolishment of paper currency since the 1980s. Claiming ro have studied ancient Islamic texts, Dallas (now known as Shaykh Abdalqadir) and his follower Umar Vadillo found that not only does the Bible condemn usury, but so does Islam and more firmly. While many Muslims find maintaining money in banks difficult, the Murabituns go beyond the traditional orthodoxy by arguing that paper money is merely a symbol underpinned not by reality but by man-made law. Rather than attempt to exist in the system, the Murabituns seek to destroy the “imperialistic and capitalistic monetary system” in favor of a return to commodity-based transactions with gold, silver or the edinar (digital gold currency) method.

Although a number of converts in the Muslim community consider other groups like the Herrahis and the Alawis slightly eccentric, they are nonetheless considered relatively open, accessible and tolerate other Muslims and communities. Many, however, view the Murabituns as cultish, insulated and intolerant. Interestingly enough, such a description seems to fit the Spaniards as well.

Rule Three: In order to move and develop, re-create and prove yourself.

Today, Spain must accept its past and move forward. The government must take pro-active steps to counter more than 500 years of Isabellian rule that perceives Spain as a bulwark against barbarism – namely Islam. Such a vision remains cherished by right-wing groups and the Catholic Church.

While the strength ofthe Church has been foundering in recent years, its aura remains steeped in Spanish culture. For instance, every Jan. 2, controversy arises regarding the commemoration of the Reconquista of Granada by Isabella and Ferdinand. Although it is a public holiday in the city, a number of reconciliation activists have urged that the day be used to celebrate the cultures that have lived in the city. In celebrating the Christian, Muslim and Jewish populations, activists seek to revivify the deeply rooted tradition of convivencia (cross-cultural coexistence).
However, the Catholic Church and rightist parties fiercely oppose the suggestion with protests, demonstrations, and even have gone as far as to lobby for the canonization of Queen Isabella. With Isabella responsible for the expulsion of Jews and the persecution of Muslims, organizations of both religions oppose any such attempt. Similarly, during the 22 years that plagued the building ofthe Great Mosque of Granada, which was finally completed in 2003, the Catholic Association campaigned against its construction as unnecessary in a “Christian City” that would only serve to fill the area “with Arabs (going) to pray.” As such, invoking diverse histories does not benefit the groups because rather than encouraging a meaningful dialogue, it is a means of striking one another.

Unfortunately, the right-wing view is bolstered by al-Qaeda’s call for a holy war to “liberate al-Andalus.” Despite, or maybe because ofthe 2004 Madrid train bombings, a walk through Granada’s Arab quarter reveals that Osama bin Laden’s call is not as fruitful as he would like. I met immigrant shopkeepers from North Africa or first-generation Spaniards of Arab descent. Rather than being cool and abrupt with three women, these men were helpful traders. Unfortunately for me, as a poor bluffer, I generally lost in the Middle Eastern game of bargaining, but I enjoyed trying. Moreover, rather than ignoring us as some Spanish shopkeepers did, most engaged us. In fact, some had a look that beseeched us to speak with them, and we did – in Spanish, Arabic and English.

In the same manner that we used a variety of languages to communicate, so too must the Spanish government. Almost immediately after the Madrid bombings, the then new Socialist government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero initiated the “alliance of civilizations” to prevent the escalation of conflict not only in Spain, but also between the West and Islam. Now adopted as a program by the United Nations, the initiative includes 18 reformers and progressive intellectuals such as former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who seek to overcome what the body calls mutual suspicion, fear and misunderstanding between Muslim and Western societies that have been exploited by extremists. Although dialogue remains a vital first step, substantively more needs to be done within Spain.

Wisely, Zapatero’s administration discarded former Prime Minister José María Alfredo Aznar Lopez’s plans to make the Catholic curriculum mandatory in public schools. However, new controversial recommendations include requiring all mosques to register with the state. Another hotly contested suggestion includes a plan to license imams, which is supported by a number of moderate Muslim groups, such as the Moroccan Immigrant Worker’s Association, which argue that too many foreign clerics are unable to speak Spanish and that Saudi Arabia (through its enormous financial support) has excessive influence over Spain’s mosques.

In response to existing and new concerns, Zapatero’s government established a $4 million fund for three “minority” religions – Islam, Judaism and Protestantism. The government has also engaged the two major Spanish Islamic organizations – the Murabituns and the Muslim Organization of Spain (Fereracion Espalola de Diocesis Islamicas) – as a means to prevent radicalization and reduce the potential for alienation that feeds extremism and violence. The latter is considered a pragmatic group that can work with the government to close the gap regarding Muslim rights – an area in which Spain is believed to lag far behind other European countries.

Take a walk around Spain and the lack of such rights should come as no surprise. Unlike in France, where Lebanese, Moroccan and other ethnic groups work in a variety of vocations from highend retail shops like Louis Vuitton to museums like the Louvre, I did not see a single, non-Spaniard working outside the traditional Arab quarters or kabob houses. Apparently, this invisible class, which receives no financial assistance from the government it now supports, also works in construction and cleans houses.

Yet, the Zapatero government does not just give Hp service to achieving integration and assimilation; it had granted amnesty to 700,000 illegal immigrants. The government also established a timetable to halve state funding of the Roman Catholic Church and end the arrangement in which Spaniards can offer a percentage of their taxes to the Church, about U.S. $106 million (£54 million) a year.

At yet another kabob house, this time in Madrid, I asked an Algerian waiter named Hassan about the changes Spain has been undergoing. As we switched between French and Spanish, Hassan admitted that problems exist in Madrid. Like his Iranian boss, Massoud, Hassan did not see North Africans as being a large problem. Yet, while Massoud, who is physically nearly indistinguishable from his Spanish counterparts, views the new wave of Colombians as responsible for a recent crime wave, Hassan insisted the wave would subside. Repeating statements from people like Massoud and Spanish judges presiding over criminal courts, Hassan countered, “Those people don’t know what it’s like to be physically identifiable and economically isolated. With help, it’ll work out.” Specifically having chosen to speak with Hassan because he stood out at a dark and broad 6 foot 3 inches, I knew he was no stranger to discrimination. Returning to my earlier questions, Hassan admitted to only having contact with two Spaniards. Then, he poignantly stated, “Look here, I generally have the life I want. It’s not too bad and it’s getting better.”

With our discussion of how the situation is getting better, I thought of Rasheed in Granada. When I’d asked him whether he had any non-Arab or non-Muslim friends, he said he had one – a customer with whom he bonded. I asked whether Rasheed and the customer actually interacted outside the kabob house, he replied that the two went out, hung out at each other’s places on occasion and generally talked about life. Like him, the customer only engaged with foreigners. “Why?” I asked. Rasheed responded, “Oh, he’s Israeli.”

Let us hope that while Isabellian Spain fosters friendship between its marginalized Muslims and Jewish populace, that peace will not be splintered by the convivencia Zapatero seeks to create.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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