HRS International

Letter from Spain

The Muslims vote Socialist, and in return the Socialists take a passive approach to political Islam; the Church seeks Islamic support on social issues; and the country sends more welfare payments abroad than any other nation in Europe. In an incisive essay written specially for rights.no, Spanish political scientist and journalist Antonio Golmar provides an illuminating overview of where immigration stands in his country.

Antonio Golmar, for Human Rights Service

“No Whites Allowed.” Thus read the signs at the entrances of several bars in the alleys of Torrejón de Ardoz, a town of 100,000 just 20 kilometers from downtown Madrid. Over the past 10 years, this working class burg governed since 2007 by the People’s Party (the more conservative of Spain’s two major parties) has seen its population increase by around 3,000 a year. According to the local immigration department, created in 2008 and managed by a Romanian immigrant, almost 25% of torrejorenos are foreigners. This is the average proportion of foreign residents in the suburbs of both Madrid and Barcelona. The highest concentration of immigrants, however, is found in certain rural areas of the south and southeast, where the need for agricultural workers offers North Africans as well as Latin Americans and Eastern Europeans a chance to improve their job prospects.

In Tarragona, 100 kilometers south of Barcelona, the police and a judge are currently investigating the first known sharia court in Spain. According to tapped telephone conversations and the testimony of the victim, a 30-year-old woman from North Africa under the assumed name of Boshra, “20 turbaned men sentenced me to death”. Her sin: having reported her partner to the police for threats following a disagreement over whether she should have the baby she was pregnant with by him. She wanted to have it; he did not. She was abducted and taken to a country house, where the sharia court deliberated for hours. The morning after, she was taken by a couple to a nearby house. At night, she overheard the couple arguing: the court had ordered the husband to kill her and the baby, and the wife was threatening to leave her husband if he carried out the sentence. Boshra took advantage of the confusion to flee. Ten of the 20 members of the sharia court have been arrested and face charges of up to 23 years in prison. Mohamed Arab, the man who was allegedly given the task of carrying out of the sharia court’s sentence, is out on bail. The victim’s partner lives abroad. Unfortunately, it is just a matter of time before honor killings, a sad reality among Muslim communities in Britain, France, and Scandinavia, begin to take place in Spain.

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Boshra’s plight and the tale of Torrejón’s barrio de la estación, a formerly quiet neighborhood which turned into a no-go area after the arrival of African Muslims (most of the former residents of the alleys left when police stopped patrolling the area and their calls to report violent incidents and anti-social behavior went unanswered), represents the downside of immigration in Spain, which is rapidly transforming the face of the nation as well as its ethnic and religious composition, and is creating new social and political cleavages.

In less than 20 years, Spain, a country that had been sending millions of emigrants, first to Latin America and, since the 1950s, to what was then the EEC, became the #1 country in Europe when it comes to the amount of welfare payments sent by immigrants living within its borders to their families living abroad, and #3 in the world after the US and Saudi Arabia. Immigrants comprise 11% of the country’s population (13% if we include the estimated 1 million illegal aliens), and are responsible for the current surplus in the public pension fund and most of the population growth since the mid 1980s. Half of the new jobs created between 2001 and 2005 were taken by foreigners, and in 2006 legal immigrants had an employment rate of almost 80%, compared to just below 70% for natives. Most immigrants have been coming to Spain to work, and did so even without papers.

In 2005, the Socialist government implemented the largest amnesty to date. An estimated 700,000 immigrants obtained work permits. Contrary to government predictions, however, the number of illegal workers remained almost the same, because the amnesty provoked a massive entry into the country of foreigners who claimed to have lived and worked in Spain. Similar mass regularizations implemented by the Conservative government between 1997 and 2000 also failed to reduce, and in some cases increased, the number of illegals. Recently, Parliament passed a reform of the Immigration Law limiting family reunifications. From now on, immigrants can only invite their legal spouses and children to join them.

The recession has had a tragic impact on the immigrant communities. The amount of money sent by immigrants to their families abroad have plummeted (by 20% in two years) and unemployment has soared. Over a quarter of legal immigrants are now jobless, whereas the proportion of natives on the dole remains around 18%. As most foreigners were employed in unskilled jobs in construction, bars, restaurants, and domestic service, thus contributing neither to productivity nor human capital, the abrupt decline in personal consumption, along with the near collapse of the housing sector and the reduction of disposable income, have resulted in the end of the Spanish dream for hundreds of thousands, some of whom are slowly making their way back to their homelands and altering the sociological profile of foreign workers.

In the first quarter of 2009, 6% of Spain’s Romanians – 86% of whom are Orthodox Christians, over 90% of whom are literate, and all of whom speak a Romance language, which allows them to integrate into the job market and the school system without much government help – left Spain. The number of new immigrants from Latin America, a vast majority of whom are Catholic, literate, and native Spanish speakers, has dropped sharply since 2008. However the influx of Moroccans, the single largest foreign minority (730,000 legal residents, that is, 1.6% of the population) and by far the fastest growing (5% of all births), with an illiteracy rate of over 40% (and much higher among women), has not been affected by the crisis. Besides, this group displays some clear cultural differences, religious and otherwise, which pose the biggest challenge to integration into Spain’s democratic, capitalist, postmodern, and increasingly secular society.

The king of Morocco, who is considered a direct descendant of prophet Mohamed, is head of both the state and the government and his extended family controls 60% of Casablanca’s stock exchange. Some mountainous areas are ruled by tribal leaders. Homosexuality is punishable by law (last March the Moroccan Government announced “the end of tolerance of homosexuals”) and married women are considered to be “under the authority and guardianship of their husbands.” Also, Moroccan fundamentalist religious leaders have an irredentist view of Spain – in other words, they regard it as a Muslim territory that was stolen by Christian Crusaders and that must be returned to Islam. This is taught in madrasses all over Morocco, some of whose pupils end up living in Spain.

The massive arrival of immigrants has created social and economic tensions owing to the discriminatory policies implemented by regional and local governments of all parties in the provision of social services like employment, housing and lunch and textbook grants for schoolchildren. To the traditional objective criteria of income, family size and disabilities, authorities have added new non-quantifiable merits such as “risk of social exclusion” or “special circumstances.” Almost all immigrant families and job applicants automatically qualify. In Huesca, 45,000, a town in the northeast, 46% of school grants go to immigrants, who make up less than 3% of schoolchildren. The proportion is 33% in Madrid (where 15% of the schoolchildren are of immigrant stock). Last year, under pressure from angry citizens who flooded the letter sections of several local newspapers complaining about the favoritism towards foreigners, Catalonia’s regional government introduced new objective criteria for their school grants

In addition to the zero-sum game created by the access to welfare provisions in the midst of the worst peacetime economic crisis in a century, the flight of natives from some urban areas, the deterioration of public education, the proliferation of enclaves (residential segregation remains lower than in the rest of Western Europe, but is increasing rapidly) and the negative impact of immigration on crime (immigrant women are six times more likely to be victims of domestic violence than Spaniards; the number of foreign prison inmates has increased threefold since 2000, while the respective figure for natives is only 24%), the addition of two million new foreign voters in the next local elections (a 6% increase), together with the polarized nature of Spanish politics, the slim majorities enjoyed by the mayors of most major Spanish cities and the assertiveness of Muslim organizations, all suggest that immigration and integration issues are likely to become increasingly salient and contentious.

The Islamic Junta, the main Islamic organization in Spain, has actively supported the ruling Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) in the last three general elections, all of which have taken place since 2000. During the 2008 general election campaign, some of its leaders organized rallies in mosques in support of the Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and against Mariano Rajoy, president of the center-right People’s Party (PP). Also, the Coalition for Melilla, a Muslim party in the town of Melilla and the second largest party in a city where Conservatives usually get around 60% of the vote, ran in a coalition with PSOE. Melilla is situated on the northern coast of Morocco, but has been part of Spain for over 500 years. The ruling Conservative Government prides itself of the intercultural, as opposed to multicultural, nature of Melilla despite the attacks on synagogues and on the Jewish cemetery, not to mention the spread of threatening anti-Semitic graffiti throughout the city. The Jewish proportion of the population has dwindled over the past few years.

The Islamic Junta has been careful to avoid conflict with the Socialists, even when same-sex marriage was legalized in 2005. Their response was to suggest that legislation should also contemplate other forms of unions, such as Muslim marriage and polygamy, a demand made in 1992, when the Spanish state signed its first cooperation agreement with the Islamic Commission. Recently, the Congress (the lower house of the legislative) passed a motion demanding the withdrawal of crucifixes from all schoolrooms in both public and private schools. Almost immediately, the PSOE rescinded the measure and said that it was only intended to apply to public schools. None of the major parties, however, whether at the national, regional or local level, has ever attempted to restrict the use of the hijab in schools, and they turn a blind eye to Muslim parents’ exclusion of their daughters from physical-education classes and of their daughters and sons from music classes in several schools.

On November 25, the Foreign Relations Committee passed another resolution, introduced by a Socialist member of parliament for the province of Granada, calling for the government to strengthen the “social, cultural and economic links” between Spain and the descendants of the 300,000 Moors who were expelled from the kingdom in 1609 after decades of uprisings and complicity with the Ottoman Empire and Barbary pirates. Granada, site of the last Muslim kingdom of Spain and of several madrasses and Islamic centers funded by Saudi Arabia (the area around the Alhambra, the old Muslim royal palace, is being transformed by Saudi citizens who are building upmarket second homes there), saw the creation last July of the first Muslim national political party, Rebirth and Union of Spain (PRUNE) by a group of local Muslims, some of whom were born in Morocco, such as Mustafá Bakkach, treasurer of the Islamic Council, and some of who are converts (the rate of conversion to Islam in Spain is especially high among leaders of the radical Basque left, which has close ties to the terrorist organization ETA and its outlawed political wing). The party explicitly rejects terrorism and embraces Islam as one of its foundations and a “key factor in the moral and ethical regeneration of Spanish society.” PRUNE aspires to capitalize on immigrant voters and become Spain’s third largest party nationwide. Given that the third biggest political organization, the Communist-led coalition, United Left (IU), got a 3.8% share of the vote in the 2008 general election, PRUNE’s mid-term goal is not unrealistic.

Socialist rapprochements to the Muslim minority may not have borne fruit after all, then, for they have not prevented the creation of an Islamic party that, if serious about the role of Islam in politics, may become an anti-system force to be reckoned with. Yet since the regions ruled by the Conservative Party, among them Madrid and Valencia, which, combined, represent 25% of the country’s population and account for one-third of Spain’s GNP, are making great efforts to lure Latin Americans and Eastern Europeans by appointing immigrants from those areas as heads of their Immigration and Integration Departments (in private, senior members of PP concede that their only hope is to gain votes from non-Muslim minorities, as the Islamic voting bloc belongs part and parcel to the Socialists), the Muslim vote has become one of the left’s most important assets. The close ties between Muslims and the Socialist Party may have been enhanced by some prominent figures of the Conservative Party, including former prime minister José María Aznar and Jaime Mayor Oreja, leader of the Spanish Conservative group in the European Parliament and responsible for the mass regularizations of the late 1990s, who since last spring have been blaming immigrants for the rise of unemployment and the fall of birth rates among ethnic Spaniards in such simplistic and contradictory terms (Aznar hinted at the reform of the welfare state but refused to go into detail as to how or what to do). This apparently newborn nativism on the part of these top Conservatives seems to be playing into the hands of the Socialists.

This move has also affected Spain’s foreign policy. A few examples: the Alliance of Civilizations initiative led by Prime Minister Rodríguez Zapatero, which caused him to co-write a letter with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemning the Danish Mohammed cartoons; the “special relationship with Morocco”, decried by the opposition as an act of submission; and the Spanish government’s frequent brushes with Israel, which leading members of PSOE have called a “genocidal” power.

Meanwhile, in Catalonia, the Socialist-led left-wing ruling coalition government has coined a new term, “Catalan Islam,” in order to gain Muslim support for its nation-building initiatives, among them the creation of “welcome centers” for immigrants under the umbrella of the so-called “Catalan First” policy – a move heavily criticized by Latin American organizations (50% of the residents of Catalonia and over 40% of people born in the region speak Spanish as their main language at home) but endorsed by the Association of Pakistani Workers. The Catalan government supports several Islamic institutions, such as the Islamic Center Path to Peace, through its Cultural Islamic Council. But not all Catalan nationalists seem to approve of this alliance. Joan Carretero, a former member of the nationalist Republican Left (ERC) and leader of the new party Reagrupament (Rally), is pro-Israeli and is not a friend of immigrants. Mrs. Pilar Rahola, another ex-leader of ERC, has warned of the “totalitarian discourse” and the “fundamentalist culture” which in her view are byproducts of Islamic immigration.

In Andalusia, Islamic organizations are adamant in their insistence that the Archbishop of Cordova, the former capital of the Caliphate, allow Muslims to pray in the Cathedral, an early Christian temple turned into a mosque by the Arabs and then consecrated as a Christian church in 1236. Both the Socialist and the Communist parties, as well as the Socialist trade union UGT, support the initiative. The Socialist regional government has also supported Islamic organizations in the construction of new mosques despite staunch opposition by residents’ associations in cities like Seville, where the local government donated a 6,000-square-meter lot to the Islamic Commission for the construction of Europe’s largest mosque. Residents sued, and last year Andalusia’s Supreme Court ruled in their favor, citing the irregularities of the process. The court pointed out that it “does not understand how the city pressed on” despite the unlawfulness of its actions, which were defined in the court’s decision as “fraud.” On December 11 the Islamic Commission revealed that the local government had agreed to compensate it should the project fail, and now demands a compensation in the amount of 180,000 euros.

Will immigration and integration, especially related to Islam, create a new kind of bitter partisanship in Spain along religious and cultural lines? Is the Socialist Party playing with fire by encouraging social divisions or simply acknowledging the multicultural reality of the new Spain? Furthermore, is the government willing to allow the introduction of Islamic law in Spain? And if so, is this an infringement of the principle of equality under the law, which is enshrined in the 1978 Constitution? Will the Conservative Party manage to attract new voters among immigrants even as some of its leaders blame foreign workers for Spain’s economic ills and preach a nativist message to the electorate? Is Spain ripe for the creation of an anti-immigration party? Will the Catholic Church, which so far has taken a cautious line – on the one hand seeking support from Islamic organizations in its opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion and, on the other, highlighting the lack of reciprocity of Muslims, who demand tolerance and acceptance abroad while repressing religious freedom in their own countries – continue to take a passive approach to political Islam in Spain?

Immigration, an economic blessing during the prosperity years, may in fact have been a curse in disguise, and is likely to become a hot political and social potato and a new source of conflict among Spaniards that the political establishment prefers to ignore – or, even worse, take advantage of while ignoring the long-term consequences.

Antonio Golmar is a political scientist and freelance journalist and translator based in Madrid.