Why doesn't Barcelona have a mosque?

Islam is one of the most practiced religions in the city, but there are limited options for worship in the Catalan capital

An old copy of the Koran, in the Cultural Islamic Center of Catalonia  (by Clàudia Ferràndiz)
An old copy of the Koran, in the Cultural Islamic Center of Catalonia (by Clàudia Ferràndiz) / Nil Montilla & Clàudia Ferràndiz

Nil Montilla & Clàudia Ferràndiz | Barcelona

May 19, 2018 06:35 PM

Unlike other major European cities, Barcelona does not have a large mosque. The Vienna Islamic Centre, the Great Mosque of Brussels, the Mosque of Rome are sites of worship that can accommodate thousands of people. If Barcelona has such an important Islamic population, why does it not have a big mosque? 

It is certainly not because Islam has less believers than other cities. Indeed, although there is not a mosque, there are many Muslim locals or centers of worship. There are 29 oratories, 11 of which are in the Ciutat Vella district. Islam is the third religion with the largest number of centers of worship, behind Catholicism and Evangelical Christians. In Catalonia, there are almost 500,000 Muslims, according to the Islamic Spanish Commission. 

The project of building a mosque seems to have been on the agenda for a long time. In fact, there were rumors that it would be built last summer in La Monumental, an old bullring in Barcelona. However, the left-wing Town Hall explained that Muslims preferred small centers of worship rather than a major mosque.

Muslim centres in Barcelona

According to Mohammed Halhoul, spokesman for the Catalan Islamic Council, the Catalan Government turned down the idea of building a big mosque around the year 2000 because that would mean that “third countries would interfere”. So, they decided to fund smaller communities and oratories instead. 

The entrance of the Cultural Islamic Center of Catalonia, one of the largest in Barcelona / Nil Montilla

Islamic studies scholar Dolors Bramon supports this idea: “A mosque can only be paid for by someone with a lot of money and, right now, the richest countries in the Islamic world are the Gulf countries, which practice a suspiciously authentic Islam”. Bramon adds that, sometimes, the country that finances a mosque also chooses the imams that will be sent there as well as deciding what will be taught. 

A representative of the Cultural Islamic Center of Catalonia, Adil Arradi, also considers that the country that financed a mosque would inevitably play a role in running the mosque and would “impose some conditions”. The Cultural Islamic Center has been financed by private donors, although they have received proposals of foreign financing, according to Arradi.

 Do Muslims prefer smaller centers of worship? 

Arradi says that Muslims may prefer oratories instead of a large mosque because, if there was only a religious building, “it would be less accessible for a lot of people”. Arradi adds that it is more comfortable to have multiple oratories rather than having to go to one place, which could be far away. 

Mohammed Halhoul explains that it is not that “Muslims do not want a mosque, just that it was not possible” to build one, mainly because the Government and the communities did not have enough money and they did not want to depend on other countries. In addition, there was no available building land in the city center. The spokesman of the Islamic Council adds that among Muslim communities “there was no unanimous agreement to deal with such a big project”, as they only had been operating here in a more or less organized way since the 1990s.

The community had priorities before having a mosque, which were to improve the centers of worship so that they would “meet basic needs”. For this reason, the Office of Religious Affairs of Barcelona states that the City Council increased the aid given to them. 

Muslim centers, nowadays 

Halhoul considers that “there are no oratories in a precarious situation anymore, as they must respect current laws and they are all legal”. However, Bramon says that, although there have been some improvements, in general their situation remains inadequate. The main problem is the location, as they are usually far from the center, in peripheral neighborhoods. That means that Muslims need to drive to get there. Around 80% of them are in basements. 

Oratories tend to be smaller than 100 square meters. A small room may be enough to pray, but that is not the only goal of a Muslim center. A mosque is a meeting point where Muslims pray, talk and rest. Bramon considers that it is also a madrasa (‘school’ in Arabic) to teach the Koran. Indeed, a lot of centers of worship offer Arabic classes. Arradi emphasizes the associative role that these centers play: “They offer services that Muslims cannot find in other places, and hold a wide range of activities”. 

Due to its limited space, women tend to suffer the consequences. According to most Muslims, men need a larger room because Islam states that they have to pray every Friday, while women are not forced to do so because they can pray from their houses. Therefore, if the oratory is very small, women either have a small and insufficient room reserved for them or they cannot even get inside the center, especially on Fridays at noon, when the most important prayer of the week takes place. 

Administrative and social obstacles 

According to the Catalan Government law regarding centers of worship (Law 16/2009), councils must define areas which can be used for religious purposes and they must grant licenses to open and use religious centers. However, administrative obstacles remain when opening or expanding a Muslim religious building. Adarri explains that they have been trying to enlarge the Cultural Islamic Center for a long time, but so far there has not been significant progress. 

Apart from the administrative obstacles, there are social difficulties too. In Japó street in Barcelona, a Muslim oratory was supposed to open in May 2017. However, work on it did not start until last March due to protests against it. Neighbors, some of them from extreme right parties such as Democracia Nacional or Plataforma per Catalunya, organized demonstrations against the project. Nowadays, the number of demonstrators has significantly decreased. According to Diego Garrido, member of the platform in favor of ethnic and religious inclusion Nou Barris Acull, this could be due to the platform’s role in organizing demonstrations to support the Muslim center. 

This is not an isolated case. In Catalonia, from 1990 to 2008 there were up to 40 conflicts against the opening of new Muslim centers of worship. The psychologist Kadijatu Dem says that these episodes cannot be summarized as a conflict between neighbors, as many factors are involved: the council, the neighborhood, the Muslim community, mass media and social associations. Islamophobia also plays a role. 

These conflicts tend to end either with the relocation of the center to a peripheral neighborhood or with the non-building of the project.

Nevertheless, the representative of the Catalan Islamic Council considers that these situations are not the general trend: “There are just a few people that act in such a way”. “Everyone is free to think what they want”, he adds, “as long as they respect other people and the law”. If not, there are mechanisms to stop them, such as a district attorney dedicated to incitement to racial, religious or sexual hate. 

Will there ever be a mosque in Barcelona? In the foreseeable future, it does not seem likely. So, for now, Muslims will have to keep using the 29 oratories at their disposal all over the city, and defend their rights to practice their religion in a mainly Catholic city.