Spain's Muslim community struggles to find space to worship
Like many mosques in Spain, Tuba Mosque in Santa Coloma de Gramenet does not look like the holy temple it is supposed to be. A few shacks make up the worship space that Omar Majdi, the secretary, is embarrassed to call a mosque: “This is not a mosque”.
The Muslim community of Santa Coloma de Gramenet ended up in this situation after they tried to open a small mosque in the city centre back in 2004.
Although complying with all the rules and regulations the city council established for the installation of worship spaces, the initiative was welcomed by a strong backlash from neighbours.
"People in Spain are afraid of any mosque they see, they view us all as terrorists"
Pan-banging protests to disturb prayers, signature collections to close the mosque and harassment against worshippers pushed the mayor to intervene, but neighbours would not cease.
Finally, the mayor placed some shacks in a far-away isolated piece of land and asked the Muslim community to move there until they found a solution. 19 years on, Santa Coloma’s Muslim citizens remain without a decent and accessible worship space, and this is not an isolated case.
Regulations “tailor-made to affect some particular communities”
Article 16 of the Spanish Constitution states that individuals' and communities' ideological and religious freedom shall be guaranteed without any limitation.
The responsibility to protect those rights and regulate worship spaces falls under the jurisdiction of the regional governments, but these, in turn, pass the issue to the city councils, who depending on their political nature, legislate to hinder the installation of mosques.
Mustafa Aoulad Sellam, an activist for Muslims’ rights in Catalonia, claims that “the regional government, with its decree in 2010, wanted to give city councils room to legislate at their whim the requirements that worship spaces should fulfil” and that cities like Santa Coloma de Gramenet “have taken advantage of these regulations to make the urban planning tailor-made to affect particular communities”.
In fact, the latest land legislation in the city of Santa Coloma de Gramenet was made in 2013 after the mosque incident happened and the Muslim community was left in limbo.
The regulation asked for things such as a distance of 250 meters between two different worship spaces or that at least the main entrance is located in a 6 metres wide street. “But there are hardly any such streets in a congested city like Santa Coloma,” Mustafa argues.
Mohamed El Ghaidhouni, president of the Islamic Communities of Catalonia, affirms this is common practice among city councils. “Unwilling to defend minority religious communities, they opt for an easy solution, moving worship spaces to the outskirts”. But not all cities are able to do that, and the only resort is facing the neighbours.
Racist neighbours and institutional neglect
One of the most notorious cases of violence against Muslim worshippers happened between 2017 and 2018 in the city of Barcelona, known as the ‘Japan Street’ case.
The Muslim community wanted to open a praying space under an apartment building, and a year of daily violent protests, vandalism and slurs in response to it pushed the community to ask for legal help.
Although the Catalan Directorate-General for Religious Affairs tells The New Arab that it has “an advisory and accompanying service to all religious communities seeking to open or move their centres of worship", Muslim neighbours claimed that assistance arrived quite late.
While it is true that, finally, they won the legal battle and could stay, other Muslim communities have continued experiencing the same harassment and institutional neglect.
Mahmoud, from the coastal city of Premià de Mar, recounts to us how the city’s Muslim community bought a premise to build their mosque 15 years ago.
15 years onwards, they have never been able to use it because of the neighbours’ response, and a city council that has decided that defending religious rights was not their priority.
“In Spain, even if you comply with the law, even if you have the permits, the approval of the architects and engineers and finally the city council, you also have to have the permission of the neighbours,” says Mahmoud with indignation. “And people in Spain are afraid of any mosque they see, they regard us all as terrorists”.
“They view us all as terrorists”
The coverage of terrorist attacks in Western media has made a lot of harm to diaspora Muslim communities. It started in Spain as in other countries around the world in the early 2000s after 9/11, and it was strengthened in the country following 2017’s attacks in Barcelona.
Aziz Sabbani, secretary of the Islamic Community of the city of Hospitalet de Llobregat, tells the New Arab he was on holiday with his family when the attacks took place. In a split second, his phone collapsed, and the treatment his and other communities received from public administrations would never change.
Aziz tells us that especially from that day on, members of the defence authorities would come regularly to mosques in order to keep an eye on communities and that “whoever denies that they[defence authorities] are not present in all mosques is not telling the truth”.
Rather than spying undercover, of what he cannot be sure, he claims those people directly show up asking for information, to find out who is in control, who is part of the executive board, to which branch they belong…
Constant questioning and suspicion impregnate Spanish society, even among the youngest.
At Al-Fath Mosque in Hospitalet de Llobregat, where Aziz is involved, they started carrying out some guided visits to their worship space for secondary school students precisely to battle such stereotypes. “Some students would come to me and confess they didn't think a mosque would be like this” tells Aziz. “Many said they were surprised, saying they didn't think it would be such a clean and open space”.
The need to open up
Atif Kouied, from Assafa Mosque in Barcelona, agrees on the fact that the key is opening up. His mosque also struggled when opening up some years ago, needing to ask for the city council’s help to convince some of the neighbours of their installation. However, he just organised an open day to welcome everyone and show that their space is all about peace: “We want to open up”.
While the event was a success and many people showed up to embrace the cultural and religious diversity of their neighbourhood, Atif confesses there are still some who keep throwing cigarette butts at the mosque as a sign of despise. “But what are we going to do? We don't respond” he says. “In the end, what our religion tells us is not to respond, to be patient instead”.
But activist Mustafa Aoulad Sellam does not agree. “A big problem we have is the non-realisation by the Muslim community that we are also part of citizenship, and that we can fight for our rights” he firmly affirms. “We have the idea that we are guest-neighbours, that someone has invited us to their home and that, if they accept us here, they're already doing us a favour”.
For Mustafa, Spain wants an Islam that is invisible, despite it having inhabited the territory for over seven centuries. But, as Eid Al-Adha is set to take place this Wednesday, June 28, an invisible Islam becomes less likely.
For a decent Eid Al-Adha
The organisation of big prayers and celebrations such as Eid Al-Fitr or Eid Al-Adha also used to be a struggle for Spain’s Muslims.
A 2016 report from the platform ‘Stop to Islamophobic Phenomena’(SAFI) exposed that some public civic centres or sports centres would often deny Muslim communities’ requests to hire their premises alluding to their “secularity and collective character”.
Most of the interviewed communities recognised that this point had improved in recent years. Some will organise Wednesday’s Eid prayers in hired venues, while others will hold it in public parks in the open air, as is recommended.
It is true that a few communities, like Aziz’s, continue being denied the public venues that they repeatedly ask for without reason, but he is not upset. “As we did for this year’s Eid Al-Fitr, we will fill our mosque and the streets surrounding it”.
In fact, last April, Hospitalet de Llobregat’s Al-Fath Mosque covered a whole street with worshippers and their sajadah, their prayer rugs. This is a picture Aziz will not erase from his memory, as it reminds him that although obstacles are constantly put over his community, they will always find a way out.
Bianca Carrera is a freelance writer and analyst having specialised in Middle Eastern and North African politics and society at Sciences Po Paris. She has written for Al Jazeera, The New Arab, Al-Quds Al-Araby, EU Observer and others. She is based between Spain, Morocco and Egypt
Follow her on Twitter: @biancacarrera25