Catalan society less discriminatory than most, say Muslim residents

Nowadays, multiple cultures, religions and traditions live side by side in the neighbourhoods of many European cities, and Catalonia is no exception, quite the contrary in fact. According to the Union of Islamic Communities in Spain, overall 1,858,409 Muslims live there. The majority of them are concentrated in Catalonia, a country with a long history of accommodating foreigners, where 509,333 followers of this religion dwell (out of a total population of 7.55 million people). Although acknowledging that individual acts of discrimination do occur, Muslims affirm that here the social climate is not filled with hatred. However, in the past few decades, 'anti-immigration discourses' have entered some isolated Catalan political parties' agendas and those whom we interviewed think that local media present a skewed picture of the Muslim community.

Veiled women in Lleida, western Catalonia (by ACN)
Veiled women in Lleida, western Catalonia (by ACN) / Valentina Marconi

Valentina Marconi

July 31, 2015 08:11 PM

Barcelona (ACN).- Nowadays, multiple cultures, religions and traditions live side by side in the neighbourhoods of many European cities, and Catalonia is no exception, quite the contrary in fact. While integration and coexistence are not always easy, during the last forty years – especially due to international developments – a particularly heated debate has taken place throughout Europe with regard to the compatibility of Islam and Western culture. According to the Union of Islamic Communities in Spain, overall 1,858,409 Muslims live there. The majority of them are concentrated in Catalonia, a country with a long history of accommodating foreigners, where 509,333 followers of this religion dwell (out of a total population of 7.55 million people). About 70% of them are foreign nationals (352,289 individuals) while the remaining 30% are Spanish nationals (157,044). Moroccans represent almost half of the foreign-born Muslim population in Catalonia (45% of the total), being the biggest group by nationality. Although acknowledging that individual acts of discrimination do occur, Muslims living in this country affirm that the social climate is not filled with violence or hatred. However, in the past few decades, 'anti-immigration discourses' have entered some isolated Catalan political parties' agendas and all those whom we interviewed agree on the fact that local media strongly contribute to presenting a skewed picture of the Muslim community.

Catalonia is the main centre of Muslim settlement in Spain, especially the Province of Barcelona. For Al Attouaki, Coordinator of the Islamic Council of Catalonia, "here people do not feel discriminated for the fact of being Muslims. If Muslim people were discriminated, no one would keep living here and migrants from Muslim countries would not continue coming". Indeed, "many decide to come on the basis of what friends or family members already living here say about this place", he adds. "For sure the culture and language are different and sometimes some frictions occur", he concludes.

During its history, Catalonia has attracted a great number of different nationalities, cultures and languages. After a first wave of domestic immigration (mainly from Andalusia, Murcia, Galicia and Extremadura) in the second half of the 20th century, another wave of immigrants (this time mostly from North Africa and Latin America) came to Catalonia at the beginning of the 2000s. Also during the economic crisis, foreign nationals kept coming in, especially from European countries, such as Italy and the UK, and Asia. While in 2000 Catalonia hosted 181,000 foreign nationals (less than 3% of its total population), by 2014 this figure had reached 1,089,000 people, which represents 14.49% of Catalonia’s total population (with the peak being registered in 2010 when the share was 15.95%). Notwithstanding being an intense melting pot, this land has succeeded overall in becoming a second home for many.

"We cannot speak of Catalonia as a discriminatory society" but problems do occur

"Muslim people live happily in Barcelona", says Toqeer, a 24-year-old Pakistani living in the Catalan capital's neighbourhood of Raval. According to Ahmed, a representative of the local Muslim community Al-Huda Mollet (based in Mollet del Vallès, in Greater Barcelona), "individual acts of discrimination always happen: however, in general, we cannot speak of Catalonia as a discriminatory society". "Dialogue and patience are the tools we use to fight this kind of behaviour", he says.For Al Attouaki, Muslims are aware of being a minority but that does not imply that they feel left out. "Daily problems occur but generally it works. Many people have formed their families here", he adds.

On a slightly different note, for Ramon Llull University Professor Xavier Marín "the hostility toward Muslims represents a widespread phenomenon: in many sectors so-called 'Islamophobia' is present but legally it is not clear". "Only one case has been won in Catalonia so far", he adds. This occurred in 2014 when a Barcelona judge, María Pilar Calvo, passed down a 2-year sentence for Islamophobia against Jaime T., administrator of the web page 'denunciascivicas'. According to Professor Marín, "the presence or absence of a 'legal conviction' in a court clarifies whether discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation has occurred or not". "For the same reason, for some years now, Islamic movements have been taking legal proceedings in order to see their rights recognised", he says. "However, if you ask Muslim people living in Catalonia whether they feel discriminated, the vast majority would reply with a firm 'no'", he concludes.

Not everyone thinks the same, however. Natalia Andújar is the founder of the Training Centre Educaislam, and an Islamic feminist with dual French-Spanish nationality who believes that "Muslim people in Catalonia are victims of violence because of their faith and not necessarily because they are foreigners". "We have had several examples of this kind: acts of vandalism against mosques, verbal attacks against veiled women, labour discrimination based on religious affiliation, etc. Islamophobia is in the streets, the media and also at the level of political institutions", she says. It is noteworthy to mention that the term Islamophobia (coined about a century ago) is not universally accepted: different arguments have been put forward against its use. However, many people also think that the need to go back to this concept indicates that "a 'new' reality exists which needs to be named".

Racist practices by security forces is one of the most alarming current issues

According to a 2014 report by the NGO SoS Racisme, racist practices carried out by some officers of the security forces represent one of the most alarming issues currently concerning this Autonomous Community. In particular, last year a total of 141 people turned to this NGO reporting racism-related incidents: out of the total, 28% of these cases concerned abuse or aggression by public security officials (the most prevalent type of discrimination by number of cases). Moreover, not all people asking for help from the NGO follow up by reporting their case to the authorities: for SoS Racisme, the abuse or aggression both by public and private security officials are the two types of discrimination which fall into this category the most.

A young man from Bangladesh who works in a mini-market in Raval and has been living in Barcelona for 4 years says "when I arrived here I thought Spain was going to be a completely different world. But the truth is – especially when there are a lot of tourists – bad things such as robberies against passers-by happen a lot. The more this phenomenon occurs, the more people are prone to critique Muslim people in general, without making any distinction". According to him, "when they see our colour and realise we are from a Muslim country they do not trust us. Police from time to time behave in a different way with us. I’ve seen this happen a lot of times. And I think this is because now many people link robberies and criminal acts taking place in the city with the Muslim community in general", he says. 

"Not long ago me and my friend were walking in a park", he recounts. "At some point we stopped in front of a group of parked bicycles. I just touched one of them, making the bicycle bell ring. Three police officers swiftly approached us and stopped us", he continues. "I explained we had no intention of doing something bad but the police officer said: ‘It's not your country, you can't touch things which are not yours’. We tried to clarify the situation with respect but they would not allow us to", he says. "One of the police officers said that next time we want to touch something we best put our hands in the bin", he concludes.

Although people seem to agree that isolated cases of discrimination do occur, the Coordinator of the Islamic Council of Catalonia thinks that the situation here is much better that in other European countries as the society is pluralist, with diversity being a value. However, "there are very few minority groups that could be described as xenophobic", he says. Andújar thinks along the same lines, stating that "here, left-wing parties and movements are more aware of the fact that diversity is an asset and societies should be inclusive. The idea that veiled Muslim women run as candidates for left-wing political parties would be unthinkable in other European countries like France", she says. Also, "there is an interesting convergence between anti-fascist and anti-capitalist struggles and Muslim groups", she concludes.                                     

'Get rid of the scarf', is what Adeeba Asghar was asked to when applying for a job

According to NGO SoS Racisme, political parties' exploitation of the Islamic veil issue for strategic purposes represents one of the main racism-related problems currently facing Catalonia. For Andújar, "veiled women suffer discrimination the most, especially because for them access to employment is very difficult. Adeeba Asghar, Secretary General of the Women’s League Minhaj-ul-Quran, said to ACN: "in the workplace I have always suffered discrimination. At the beginning, I did not think of it as Islamophobia but I used to categorise it more broadly as xenophobia". "I hold a Diploma in Pharmacy and I am a nurse but I could never find a job in my field. As I wear the scarf, every time I go to a job interview people ask me how long I have been living here and why I continue to dress this way", she adds. "I am sorry but my clothes are part of my identity and I don't see why other people can dress how they want and I can't", she concludes.

"People are assessed on the basis of their dress code and not their curriculum vitae. At the moment I am working in a City Council's intercultural project", Asghar states. "I am working in a sector where my integration was easy and luckily I like it and have gotten some formal training as well. But the truth is I chose this career path also because I experienced rejection in the other sectors and I think that for Muslim girls living here who are not willing to do social work it is going to be difficult finding a job", she highlights. "When you apply for a job involving contact with people, first thing they say to you is 'get rid of the scarf and wear what we think is appropriate'", she concludes. According to the Coordinator of the Islamic Council of Catalonia, "some companies let veiled Muslim women work; others in some cases have problems with it. It's not a black or white situation". 

Ashgar recounts that veiled women are also victim to verbal harassment on the street. "This kind of attack is not very common but some people feel free to comment on the fact that you are wearing a scarf" she says, also noting that this phenomenon is more frequent in neighbourhoods with less Muslims residents and outside the cities. 

Muslim women's rights entered the Catalan political debate

In Catalonia as in the rest of Europe, the Islamic veil attracted a great amount of both media and politicians' attention. For Andújar, "Muslim women's rights entered the Catalan political debate but the politicians' objective was not to improve their situation. Indeed, they were not even asked for their opinion". In a blog entry published on the Catalan Government's website, Joan Lluís Pérez Francesch, Professor of Constitutional Law at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), explains that in 2010, in the city of Lleida (located in western Catalonia) a local regulation was approved prohibiting the burqa (a long piece of clothing covering the face and body with just a mesh screen to see through, often associated with Afghanistan) and the niqab (an Islamic face-covering for women which leaves visible only the eyes, typical for the Middle East) in municipal public buildings. This local legislation also set a €100 to €600 fine for women wearing these items of clothing in restricted buildings.

In other Catalan cities, a similar approach was followed. In Reus (in southern Catalonia near the Costa Daurada and Tarragona), the prohibition was stretched even further to include the presence of burqas and niqabs in all public places (e.g. the streets), not only municipal closed-door facilities. The Lleida city ordinance was revoked by the Supreme Court of Spain in 2014 for infringing the statutory reserve on fundamental rights. Similarly, the Supreme Court of Catalonia (TSJ) suspended without prejudice the Reus city ordinance in February 2015.

This kind of legislation was often justified by politicians arguing against the supposedly sexist character of the Islamic scarf and portraying the latter as a symbol of Islamic fundamentalism. Robert Hernando, General Secretary of Plataforma per Catalunya (a Spanish nationalist far- right and xenophobic political party, which has a very marginal institutional presence and has never sat in the Catalan Parliament) told ACN that his political formation presented the first motion to prohibit the burqa in 2004. "We were accused of being xenophobes and racists", he says. "Now, ten years later, there are some city councils administered by the Socialist Party (PSC) or Convergència and Unió (the centre-right two-party coalition which ran the Catalan Government up until last June’s official split) which have prohibited the burqa", Hernando adds. "I believe that time has proven us to be right. We support the prohibition of the burqa not only in public spaces but everywhere. A woman cloaked from head to toe is an aberration to me. Its gender violence", he concludes.

According to Asghar, the burqa is not common in Catalonia where it may be worn by a maximum of 7 women in total, she said. "If they happen to go to the City Council's premises and they are asked to be identified none of them will refuse to do it as in their countries of origin they have to do the same. Moreover, no woman wearing this type of attire works in the City Council, that’s why I don't understand the logic of this piece of legislation", she states. "For me if these women are not willing to show their faces in the streets it does not constitute a problem: it's their choice", Asghar adds. "I am aware that some schools have passed internal regulations prohibiting the use of the Islamic scarf. People do not know how to defend themselves against it: often mothers are obliged to move their kids to another school or – in the worst case scenario – their kids have to go to school without the veil. But these are internal norms which schools arbitrarily make up and can be dismissed", she concludes.

A few politicians exploit the 'Otherness' paradigm for their electoral strategies

Just as the veil entered the political debate not just in Catalonia but in most other Western European countries, immigration in general appears on the political agenda of some Catalan political parties as well. According to Professor Marín, "some politicians exploit the 'Otherness' paradigm for their strategies and this has an impact on society", he says. However, he stresses, "we do not have data allowing us to quantify this impact". Indeed, "some political parties make very strong remarks on immigration such as, for example, Plataforma per Catalunya (PxC)", he says.

The aforementioned PxC – which entered its first municipal elections in 2003 – represents only a tiny minority of the Catalan political landscape, never going beyond being present in a small number of town halls. In the 2011 municipal elections, the xenophobic party reached its peak and doubled its result, obtaining 67 Councillors (out of 8,200 in Catalonia altogether) with a total of 66,000 votes (2.3% of the vote). In the 2015 municipal elections, these figures greatly decreased, with the party returning only 8 Councillors and receiving 27,348 votes. 

In an interview held just before the municipal elections, Robert Hernando, Plataforma per Catalunya's Secretary General said to ACN that the Muslim community in Catalonia represents "a threat" for the local culture. "Muslim immigrants do not make an effort to integrate into our society and often try to impose their own costumes on us", he stated. "We are not going to allow that mosques or Koranic schools are built and we want to work against the spreading of Jihadism like the National Front is doing in France", he concluded.

However, according to SOS Racisme, the greatest magnet for the racist and xenophobic vote is the People’s Party (known as PP, the right-wing party which runs the Spanish Government). The party performed badly in the recent municipal elections in Catalonia, gaining a total of 216 councillors, in comparison to 473 in 2011.

During the recently-held electoral campaign for municipal elections, some electoral posters used by the People’s Party were deemed xenophobic by most of the other parties. In Rubí (a city of 75,000 inhabitants in Greater Barcelona), the PP candidate ran with a poster which read: “Those from home, first”. An identical motto was used throughout Catalonia in 2011 by the PxC. The greatest controversy revolves around the figure of Xavier García Albiol, the PP’s candidate in Badalona (Catalonia’s third-largest city, attached to Barcelona municipality) where the party's slogan for the 2015 municipal elections was “Cleaning up Badalona”. In response to protests from the other political parties, Albiol replied by saying this was a general statement not explicitly referring to immigrants. However, Albiol has been criticising immigration for many years and in the 2011 campaign distributed leaflets linking migrants and crime. Some of the parties brought this to court but the judge ruled that distributing the leaflets did not constitute a xenophobic act. A few days ago, the PP chose Albiol to be the party's candidate to President of the Catalan Government in the forthcoming elections, scheduled on 27 September.

Finally, the PP’s candidate for Mayor of Barcelona in May's municipal elections, Alberto Fernández Díaz also used immigration as one of his main topics during the last campaign, promising to ban the use of the burqa and niqab in the Catalan capital and saying that “illegal immigrants, not only are illegal” but also do not adapt to Western culture and values. For Andújar, "all far-right and right-wing political parties have exploited Islamophobia and xenophobia for electoral purposes". "Where the number of Muslims is higher, Islamophobic campaigns tend to be more aggressive", she says.

However, in Catalonia – in comparison to what is happening in other European countries such as France, Denmark, Austria and Hungary – xenophobic political parties have an extremely limited political space, with the exception of some PP politicians.

Electoral flop for Catalan political parties spreading xenophobic messages

"All the Catalan political parties which voiced anti-Islamic and xenophobic messages during the electoral campaign performed badly in last May’s municipal elections", Ahmed from Al-Huda Mollet says. "Plataforma per Catalunya disappeared from the political map", he says. "In Badalona, the People's Party – which promised to 'clean' the neighbourhood of migrants – remained outside of local government", he adds. "Finally, in Mollet, the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) – which does not have an Islamophobic stance but was in conflict with the local Muslim association over the construction of a local mosque – lost 5 councillors while expecting to win a majority", he continues.

On the same note, for Al Attouaki "the 'philosophy' of the PP provokes problems". "However, they have been "punished" for it, performing very badly in the recently held municipal elections and – I think – for them it is going to be even worse in the upcoming Catalan election in September", he adds. "Other social alternatives are catching on but some provocative voices remain. Certain political parties think that speaking out against migrants will help them gain votes", he concludes. For Andújar, "in times of crisis, far-right parties use minority groups as scapegoats. In Catalonia, the fact that these parties flopped in the elections "was not due to a change in people's prejudiced views on Muslims but more to the fact that they do not see these electoral programmes as a realistic solution to the crisis", she says.

Moreover, "in the last municipal elections, the electoral participation of immigrants was high, having a strong impact at the ballot box such as, for example, in Badalona and Mollet del Vallès", Ahmed from Al-Huda Mollet stated. "In Badalona, a Muslim woman entered the local Government", Asghar highlights. "She did not win because she promised to defend Muslim people's rights but because she sided with integration and coexistence. There are Muslim women here who are currently working to better everyone's situation. We do not have to be closed up in our communities, we need to learn how to share spaces and coexist", Asghar concludes.

Mainstream media often adopt a sensationalist approach towards Islam, Andújar says

But political parties are not the only ones to voice negative messages about Islam. The large majority of Muslims in Catalonia think that the media reflect incorrect stereotypes or depict the Muslim community in an unfair way.

For Andújar, "mainstream media often adopt a sensationalist approach towards Islam in order to attract larger audiences. Information is usually biased and negative, tending to reproduce a monolithic view of this religion that validates existing stereotypes." "This can happen for two reasons", she explains, "either media have specific agendas and interests, or journalists do not have a specialised knowledge and end up reproducing stereotypes due to their ignorance".

"The media – together with politicians and academics – play a role in the process of 'normalisation' of Islamophobic behaviour, promoting a discourse on Islam charged with prejudices and hate, and do so with total impunity, as if it was normal", she says. "Also the linguistic choices they make endorse a negative view of Islam: the use of the word "jihad", for example, as a synonym for terrorism", she concludes. According to Akram, a 33-year-old Pakistani who works in a phone shop in Raval, "the media depict us in a very bad way, however in my daily life I have never experienced violence of any kind and I feel free to practice my religion".

"Journalists tend to generalise, describing all of us as terrorists and giving the impression that we are radical. It should be clear that the radical ones are not real Muslims", says Toqeer. For the Coordinator of the Islamic Council of Catalonia, "the media talk very badly about Muslim people because they talk badly about anything "foreign", depicting it as potentially damaging to the culture of the country of arrival". "Moreover, all that is happening in Syria right now is applied to the reality here as well; journalists take a topic which is going on abroad and transfer it to here", he concludes.

Many Muslims don’t feel heavily discriminated against in Catalonia

Although individual acts of discrimination do occur, local Muslim associations tend to depict Catalonia as a society which is not extremely discriminatory. However, some worrying signs also exist, especially coming from the political arena where in the last years some (admittedly isolated) far-right and right-wing parties have been engaging in a distinctly anti-immigration political discourse.

The pressure on Muslim women's bodies seems particularly high, as is always the case in patriarchal societies. For example, verbal harassment against veiled women on the street must be contextualised in a social framework where virtually every woman (not only Muslims) deals with this kind of discrimination on a daily basis, with the excuse being the kind of attire they wear. In addition, when acts of discrimination occur it is not always easy to single out whether they are only grounded in the religious affiliation of the victim or linked to other factors as well, such as social class, gender, the status of immigrant or race-related stereotypes (often more factors combine).

Without entering into the debate over whether intercultural relations are more difficult now than in the past or if Islamophobia is the correct word to use, it is clear that coexistence-related problems have emerged again – to varying extents –  throughout Europe, with Catalonia representing another case in point, although be it not an extreme one.