Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Muslims in Spain live under cloud of suspicion since Madrid attacks | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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MADRID, Spain (AP) – At Mussa Bachiri’s butcher shop, the customers used to include a man now jailed on suspicion of playing a hands-on role in the Madrid terror bombings of 2004.

The alleged bomber was just a casual acquaintance, a guy who ran a cell-phone store down the street. Still, Bachiri wonders if he himself is not somehow tainted by association, simply for sharing the man’s Moroccan roots and Islamic faith.

“My Spanish neighbors look at me the way they always did,” Bachiri said, pausing on an afternoon of chopping beef and slicing liver in Lavapies, an immigrant-rich district of Spain’s capital. “But deep down inside, who knows?”

Two years after the massacre that killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,500 in Spain’s worst terror attack, human rights groups and Muslims say with relief that there has been no violent backlash against the nation’s estimated million-strong Islamic community.

But Muslims feel targeted in subtler ways, a rise in job application rejections, trouble finding housing, grumbling from neighbors when they want to set up a mosque, even a makeshift one in a storefront or garage.

“This is not something you can measure. But people live it. They notice it,” said Begonia Sanchez, spokeswoman for immigrant aid group SOS Racism. “They notice it when they get on the bus. They notice it when they seek work. They notice it when they run into neighbors in the stairwell.”

Bachiri said that when Moroccans, Spain’s largest immigrant group and the main component of the Muslim community, call up a landlord to ask about a rental, there come an inevitable query about nationality. “When you say Moroccan, they say ‘OK, we’ll call you back,”‘ he said. Most of the 24 people in jail on suspicion of taking part in the massacre are Moroccans, many of them longtime residents who owned businesses, received grants for university studies and otherwise blended into or benefited from Spanish society, only to inflict terror on their adopted homeland.

The rapid-fire string of 10 bomb blasts on the Madrid commuter rail network was claimed by militants who said they had acted on al-Qaeda’s behalf to avenge the presence of Spanish peacekeeping troops in Iraq.

The days and weeks that followed were tumultuous, more than 10 million Spaniards took to the streets in protest, voters threw out the conservative, pro-U.S. government and brought in Socialists, and militants threatened more carnage.

The Islamic community suffered greatly in the aftermath of the bombings. Many Muslims were fired from jobs. Others up for contract renewal did not get it. Kamal Rahmouni, president of a Moroccan immigrant aid group called ATIME, recalls that a female colleague who wears an Islamic headscarf was spat on in the subway. He remembers making a point not to speak Arabic on the street and telling colleagues to do the same.

Today, the palpable tension is over but mistrust remains. “There was a sense that the country, or society, was betrayed by a few people who had been trusted. This feeling exists. We cannot deny it,” said Rahmouni.

Elsewhere in Europe, fears about immigration and Islamic terror have triggered violent reactions that have not yet been seen in Spain.

In the Netherlands, for instance, considered one of Europe’s most liberal countries, Muslim buildings were attacked in 2004 after a Dutch-born Muslim shot and stabbed film director Theo van Gogh to death over a documentary that criticized the treatment of women under Islam.

Human rights groups and Muslim leaders say Spaniards harbor negative stereotypes about Moroccans, the pejorative term for them is ‘moros,’ or Moors, an allusion to the 700-year Moorish occupation of Spain, and the Madrid attacks served as an excuse for more flagrant discrimination.

But after the massacre the Socialist government did several things that helped calm Spaniards and avert violence against Muslims, said Jesus Nunez Villaverde, an expert on the Islamic world and director of a Madrid think-tank, the Institute of Studies on Conflict and Humanitarian Action.

It took pains “not to demonize the entire Muslim community,” distinguishing between Islam and terrorism; it hired more police specializing in Islamic extremism rather than launch a broad crackdown on immigrants; and Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero unveiled an international campaign, now taken up by the United Nations, to encourage dialogue between Western and Islamic nations, Nunez Villaverde said.

Mansur Escudero, a Spanish Muslim leader, said that whereas terror attacks sometimes fail to draw public condemnation from Islamic leaders around the world, he and other prominent Muslims in Spain were quick to denounce the Madrid carnage.

In fact, on its first anniversary Escudero went so far as to sign what is considered the first fatwa, or religious edict, against Osama bin Laden. It declared the al-Qaeda leader an apostate for defending terrorism as legitimate and urged Muslims around the world to denounce him.

That stance earned Escudero swift condemnation as an infidel on a Web site associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, and a flood of e-mails Escudero interpreted as death threats. “In one way or another, it was implicit,” Escudero said. However, Nunez Villaverde said it remains to be seen how Spain will handle its Muslim population in years to come because for now, the very phenomenon of immigration is so new here. It’s only been a generation or so that Spain has been wealthy enough to lure immigrants rather than send off emigrants as it did in the lean decades after its 1936-1939 Civil War. He said Spaniards are only now getting used to seeing blacks, Asians and North Africans in significant numbers.

The Muslims here tend to be first-generation arrivals; and unlike second- and third-generation citizens in France, they are neither ready to assert themselves socially or politically nor prone to explode in rage like disenfranchised youths who rioted last year on the outskirts of Paris and other French cities.

Down the road, how Spain treats its Muslims, and how the latter react, is anybody’s guess. “We have no guarantee that just because nothing has happened so far it is not going to happen tomorrow,” Nunez Villaverde said.