Spain's Moroccans shut out of history and politics

Spain's Moroccans shut out of history and politics
Comment: Spanish citizens of Moroccan descent represent a significant group within Spain's population, but they remain politically under-represented and written out of history, writes Samir Bennis
7 min read
23 Jun, 2016
Spanish nationals of Moroccan descent are strikingly under-represented in politics, writes Bennis [Getty]

Spain will be going to the polls this Sunday 26 June to vote in its general election. This will be the second election in six months since the country's political parties failed to form a government following the elections last December.

What is most striking about the list of candidates presented by the country's main political parties - the Partido Popular (PP), the Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol (PSOE), Podemos and Cuidadanos - is the absence of candidates of Moroccan descent. There are more than 766,622 Moroccans living in Spain and contributing to its economy, among whom more than 75,000 are Spanish citizens. Yet despite their presence and their importance in many vital economic sectors, Spain's political parties ignore them.

For Moroccans living in Spain and some observers, Moroccan-Spanish nationals have been deprived of their right to be represented in parliament. And while marginalising a significant population is bad enough, the fact that a major party like the PSOE has decided - if it wins the elections - to present a candidate from Senegal as potential Minister in charge of immigration, just adds insult to injury.

While the Moroccan community represents about two percent of Spain's population, there are fewer than 63,000 Senegalese immigrants in Spain. Given that Moroccans represent the second largest foreign community in Spain after Romanians and the first non-European community, they should be given a voice in government to reflect their concerns and defend their interests, as well as the interests of all communities of foreign origin.

In contrast to the utter lack of political representation in Spain, the Moroccan community in other European countries, such as France, the Netherlands, and Belgium is fully participating in the political life of its respective countries. The clearest example of this is in France, where there are currently three Ministers of Moroccan descent.

Spain has yet to come to terms with its Muslim past

This has prompted analysts to ask what is preventing Moroccans from fully participating in Spain's politics and achieving proper representation parliament. Is it because few Moroccans qualify to be candidates in elections, or be present in the government?

When the press asked PSOE Secretary-General Pedro Sanchez why his party did not field Moroccan candidates in the elections or as candidates for a position in the government, he said that he was not sure how Spanish voters would react to candidates of Moroccan descent.

Clearly, Spain has yet to come to terms with its Muslim past.

The Spanish politician's remark reflects the negative image of Moroccans in Spain's collective memory. Surveys conducted in recent years in Spain show that Moroccans are the group that inspires the least sympathy in Spanish public opinion.

The negative image of Moroccans in Spain is neither a coincidence nor the consequence of the diplomatic friction between Morocco and Spain since 1956. It is rather the result of the historical trajectory of the country, during which Spanish intellectuals have tried to disown their country's Muslim past and demonise Muslims.

The best way to gain an understanding of the reasons behind the negative image of Moroccans in Spain, is to look at how they are presented in Spanish history and textbooks.

Since the end of the Reconquista, many Spanish intellectuals have conducted in-depth works to re-write their country's history in order to purify it of every "foreign" element that undermines the view that Spain's character is exclusively European.

In addition, the Reconquista marked the start of a long and uninterrupted process during which Spanish society began the "Latinisation" of its history and national identity.

The Spanish politician's remark reflects the negative image of Moroccans in Spain's collective memory

One common theme in books published since the Reconquista is that the presence of Muslims in Spain was merely a temporary accident of history. To corroborate this claim, these advocates of a "sanitized" Spanish identity attempt to show that since the early years of Muslim rule in Spain, the indigenous population had begun to mobilise opposition to expel its enemies.

Given the role that Moroccans had played at the birth of the golden age of al-Andalus and in disseminating Islam in present-day Spain, the narrative of hate directed at Muslims following the early days of the Reconquista was mainly focused on Moroccans.

During the effort to reconstruct the Spanish identity, any analysis that adopted an approach that contradicted the dominant narrative about Spain's history, was dismissed as a diversion from Spain's historical tradition. That tradition consisted of praising the genius of Spain's indigenous people and emphasising their role in the splendor and cultural sophistication of al-Andalus.

These Spanish intellectuals aimed to distance themselves from the Muslim East, considered incapable of being the origin of such splendor. Analyses made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries respectively by authors such as the Conde of Campomanes and Jose Antonio Conde, did criticise this ethnocentrism with respect to the role played by Muslims in Spain, but unfortunately there was no chance of their work being accepted by the Spanish ideologues of the time.

Spanish Professor Bernabe Lopez Garcia notes, for example that Jose Antonio Conde in the preface of his book "Historia de la dominación de los árabes en España," writes that "virtually all nations were barbaric when the Arabs were scientists". Conde was vilified and accused of sabotaging values built on a partial view of the past.

It may well take Spain several decades or even generations to accept Moroccans as an integral part of its social fabric, and conceive of the idea that a Moroccan could be elected to high office

The vision that has prevailed since then is that of anti-Muslim authors, such as Javier Simonet, Julian Ribera, Modesto Lafuente and Menendez Pelayo. Unfortunately, the same interpretation of history is still conveyed in Spanish textbooks.

Speaking of the society of al-Andalus, the authors of textbooks give a very narrow view of that cosmopolitan society and overlook the more or less peaceful coexistence that existed between Muslims, Christians and Jews during that period. In doing so, they portray eight centuries of history in terms of a confrontation between good and evil, whereby good was represented by the indigenous people "trying to recover their territory" from the hand of the bad "invaders", Muslims.

Rather than focusing on the coexistence that prevailed between Muslims, Jews and Christians, the overwhelming majority of Spanish intellectuals portrayed Muslims as "invaders, barbarians, and fanatics". As a result, the narrative provided by Spanish textbooks reflects Spain's inability to accept the Muslim dimension of its identity.

This reading of Spanish history also prevails in the way in which Moroccans are portrayed in Spanish history books addressing the wars between Morocco and Spain from 1859 to 1926, as well as the Spanish Civil War.

According to prominent Spanish authors such as Maria Rosa de Madariaga, while history books that covered the wars between the two countries depicted Moroccans as "hordes of uncivilized, lascivious and unsavory people", the narrative regarding their role in the later Civil war described them as "bloodthirsty and savage murderers".

Spain should redress its wrongs against Muslims - including the five million descendants of the expelled Moriscos (Moors) who now live in Morocco

Given this view of Moroccans, it may well take Spain several decades or even generations to accept Moroccans as an integral part of its social fabric, and conceive of the idea that a Moroccan could be elected to high office, whether in the parliament or in the government.

However, for Spain to get there, it will first have to take a good look at history, accept and recognise the contributions Muslims have made to its success, and perhaps even apologise for expelling the millions of Muslims who were thrown out of Spain in the early seventeenth century, simply because of their religion.

Just as it did when it recognised and redressed its persecution of Jews through its decision to grant Spanish citizenship to all descendants of Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492, Spain should redress its wrongs against Muslims - including the five million descendants of the expelled Moriscos (Moors) who now live in Morocco.

Without such recognition, it is highly unlikely that Spanish citizens of Moroccan descent will play any significant role in Spain's politics in the foreseeable future. 

Samir Bennis is a political analyst. He received a PhD in international relations from the University of Provence in France and his research areas include relations between Morocco and Spain and between the Muslim world and the West, as well as the global politics of oil.

He has published more than 150 articles in Arabic, French, English and Spanish, and authored Les Relations Politiques, Economiques et Culturelles Entre le Maroc et l’Espagne: 1956-2005, which was published in French in 2008. He is the co-founder of Morocco World News and lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter: @SamirBennis

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.