On the Edge of Society

Since the terrorist attacks in Madrid, many Moroccans resident in Spain are fearful of exclusion, marginalisation and racist attacks. Already, they often feel shunned and unwanted, like second-class citizens. Bettina Ambach reports from Madrid.

photo: AP
Detained suspects - alleged to be connected to the train bomb attacks in Madrid - outside the Nuevo Siglo telephone centre.

​​Close to the M30, the city motorway, stands Madrid’s biggest mosque. Normally, up to 1000 people come here to pray. In the last few days, however, the building has been strikingly empty, with only around 50 of the faithful attending. In the Lavapies quarter - home for many immigrants - it’s now unusually quiet. One of the suspected bombers ran a telephone shop here.

At present, many Muslims prefer to stay at home, for they are frightened of racist assaults. The police are currently focusing their inquiries on Muslims, for it seems fairly certain that there is a connection between the atrocities in Madrid and those in the Moroccan capital of Casablanca in May 2003.

Islam is not identical with Saddam and Bin Laden…

Mustafa Bougrine is angry: "When people hear the word ’Islam’, they think of Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi – but that’s not Islam. I am against any form of fanaticism, against the suicide bombers and what they call 'jihad'. Muslims here in Spain believe in democracy, and in the peaceful co-existence of Christians, Jews and Muslims."

Bougrine is a Moroccan restaurant-owner who has been living in Spain for the last 19 years, and his wife is Spanish. He worries about the possibility that the Spanish people might become "Islamophobic".

Around 600,000 Muslims live in Spain. A large majority of these are from the North African countries, especially from Morocco. They started coming in the 80s, and the numbers arriving increased in the following decade. Most of them work in agriculture, construction or catering, or else they are employed as domestic servants.

These people form the quiet majority amongst Spain’s Muslims. When negotiations are conducted with the Spanish government about their rights and responsibilities, the task is normally performed by Spanish converts or representatives of a few Saudi-funded Islamic cultural centres.

Saudi Arabia’s Islamist export

There are countless tiny Moroccan organisations in Spain. Most of their efforts are devoted to alleviating poverty - and often, they campaign for mosques to be built in their neighbourhoods. Mohamed Chouiridi works for the Moroccan Workers’ and Immigrants’ Association.

He finds it worrying that so many Moroccans have to perform their religious duties in such impoverished, run-down mosques, for there’s a big danger they will accept financial aid from wealthy donors:

"We believe that money from Saudi Arabia has already been given to the small Moroccan ‘living-room mosques’ on the edge of the city", says Chouirdi.

"This is how Saudi Arabia attempts to promulgate the doctrines and practices of Wahabism – its own brand of Islam. The problem is that many Moroccan immigrants are very poorly educated, and so they don’t realise how dangerous these practices can be. To them, Islam means praying five times a day and following a whole lot of rules. They accept uncritically anything that comes from outside, in this case from Saudi Arabia."

In recent years, Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist variety of Islam has made ever-greater inroads into Spain. All of the large representative mosques in the country were built with Saudi money – and in many cases, they sent along the Imam too, who puts a Wahabi interpretation on the Koran.

Wahabism rejects all the trappings of modernity, disdains any kind of dialogue amongst the religions, and closes itself off from all foreign cultures. In the last few years, this may have provided a fertile breeding-ground for the recent wave of terrorism; for both the Casablanca bombers and the suspected culprits for the Madrid crimes are members of terrorist groupings influenced by Wahabi ideology.

Ceuta – the gateway to Europe

Now, everyone is wondering how it could happen that a minority of Muslims became susceptible to Islamist propaganda. In this context, it’s instructive to take a look at Ceuta, one of the two Spanish cities on the Mediterranean coastline of Morocco. Ceuta is the gateway to Europe. This is where the line runs between Europe and Africa, between Islamic Morocco and Catholic Spain.

photo: AP
Border fences between Spanish enclave of Ceuta and Morocco

​​It’s a city of 72,000 inhabitants, half of them Christians, the other half Muslims - and almost all of them are Moroccan in origin.

Abdelselam Hamadi is president of the "Comunidad Islamica de Ceuta". He says that many Muslims feel like second-class citizens, and complain that they aren’t granted the same chances as Christians:

"A great deal remains to be done. Only a few Muslims are employed in Ceuta’s municipal administration. The reason given is always the same: they aren’t well-enough qualified for the job. Naturally, this is no longer true. But if more Muslims were given work by the administration, they would eventually outnumber the Christians, who are of course frightened of such a development."

Hamdi’s last remark was meant as a wry joke. The fact is that Ceuta’s Muslims are much more poorly housed and educated than the city’s Christian inhabitants. Most Muslims live in El Principe, a poor part of the city right on the Moroccan border. In this exclusively-Muslim district, there’s not a trace of integration.

Here, one can meet young Muslims who were born in Spain of Moroccan parents. Though they don’t feel themselves to be Moroccan, they are not fully accepted into Spanish society. It would be no surprise, then, if some of them became attracted to promises of the "true Islamic message."

Bettina Ambach


Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

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