To see Islam as a religious or economic issue?

“We are not guilty to the increase of theft, insecurity or of longer queues in hospitals. Neither are the costs of housing increasing due to our presence. Lots of confusing messages are being sent, leading society to connect Islam to terrorism and Muslim to terrorist as well”, says Khamal Rahmouri from the Moroccan Migrant Workers’ Association of Spain (ATIME) to the newspaper “El País”. The main country of origin of immigrants to Spain is Morocco, and many of the migrants practice the Muslim religion. Today they are often seen as terrorists, invaders, fanatics and thieves.

The Pew Centre carried out a survey on global attitudes, concluding that Muslims and westerners are wary of each other. The study was made in April and May this year, and included people from Germany, France, UK, USA, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Russia, Indonesia and Nigeria. To the majority of Muslims, westerners are selfish and arrogant and do not appreciate Arabs very much. Westerners on their part tend to blame Muslim people for their own national problems. They reckon that Muslims are fanatics and violent, and that the lack of progress in Muslim countries is due to corruption, poor education and Islamic fundamentalism.

In Spain, the view of the Islamic world has worsened even though the cultures coexist. Only 29% of people who were asked had a positive view of Islam, whilst a vast 83% consider the Muslims fanatics and believe there is a natural conflict between being an active Muslim and living in a modern society.

The worldwide polemic generated by the cartoons of Mohammed, the endless conflicts in and around Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, conflict between Israel and the surrounding Arab countries, as well as the terrorist strikes in Madrid and London reinforces stereotypes and generates further ones. One can say that a – false – global impression that a “clash of civilizations” really exists. This impression then produces the justifications for further military aggressions and removals of freedoms.

It is evident that interculturality is practically nonexistent and that there is little or no respect for cultural and religious differences. The situation of immigrants in Spain is far from perfect. Ghettos exist in which entire social groups neither know the Spanish language nor have legal papers to be in Spain, the possession of which is absolutely essential for escaping the labour precarity they suffer from. Furthermore, we must add that stereotypes, racism and xenophobia contribute to these problems. It needs to be acknowledged that migrants constitute an excluded group in Spanish society.

One of the clearest cases of social exclusion in Spain today is that of Moroccan migrants. Is this due to Islam, though, or are there other difficulties and obstacles that prevent migrants from integrating into society?

Long history of coexistence

During the eighth century Arabs conquered the south of the Iberian peninsula, taking it from the Visigoths and creating the area called “Al-Andalus” (heaven) which is now Andalucia. With half of the peninsula under Muslim rule, the area reached a very high technological and cultural level, like the rest of ancient Arab society. It was not until 1492 that, after a long struggle, the Muslims were defeated and, together with the Jews, expelled from the region by the Catholic monarchs (Reyes Católicos), who imposed Catholicism and created repressive institutions such as the infamous Spanish Inquisition. Nonetheless, contact with Islam was resumed when Spain conquered territories on the Moroccan coast and in Sahara, something that lead to a constant and rather forced coexistence of religions and to the present situation where diplomatic relations between Morocco and Spain are yet to be normalised.

Focusing on the twentieth century, we see that the long Franco dictatorship from 1939 to 1975 consolidated a radical, intolerant and rather aggressive “National Catholicism”. Even today the opinions of bishops have a notable influence on social and political relations.

Do Islamophobic acts take place in contemporary Spanish society? If marching against the construction of mosques is one of them, the answer is clearly ‘yes’. So what is the fundamental cause of this fear? Many of the racist insults and acts are directed at people with economic problems. A person who is in a situation of legal irregularity is a person excluded from society, either unable to find a proper job or brutally exploited and economically marginalised. They will not have the means or opportunity to learn the local language, nor will they share common spaces with the regular citizens, and the situation results in the creation of parallel societies. It is the socio-economical situation, much more than religion, that determines the problem. Yet, both religion and mosques play an important role for migrants, who see them as a source of aid and a link to their countries of origin. In addition, many migrants are young and they need a first welcome, which is currently being provided through the mosques and other institutions. From the point of view of Spanish society this seems an invasion, fanaticism.

No one dismisses the royal family of Saudi Arabia when they come for holidays, and the king of Spain can shake the hand of the king of Morocco without anyone complaining. Petrol money has always been a welcome investment no matter where it comes from, and big-spending sheiks are even a romantic image of the casinos of Monte Carlo.

So the question is not merely a religious one, but one with strong socio-economical roots, and it must be solved by society as a whole, that is to say, by both citizens and migrants. The first step to eliminate stereotypes and so to avoid discrimination has to be the regularisation of all migrant people, followed by the effective application of social inclusion plans that create further social housing without generating ghettos. The state must provide more resources for public schools so that these become the basic space for intercultural immersion and integration. And finally, since Catholics have churches, we must allow mosques for Muslims. In order to eliminate stereotypes, social movements must engage in campaigns on sensitivity for cultural differences, awareness and tolerance must be created, and discrimination and racism must of course be criminalised.

It is only by reducing the existing socio-economical gaps, by creating spaces where contact between people facilitates mutual understanding of cultures and religions, by recognising migrants as full-right citizens that we will reach real equality in a real democratic society, where religious problems will be overcome and “only” the differences between classes remain to be solved.

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