What is behind spate of racist attacks in Spain’s Murcia?

Media and institutional silence contribute towards climate of impunity, experts say, pointing to the rise of the far-right and the normalisation of xenophobic narratives.

Far-right Vox became the third-largest party in Spain's parliament in the 2019 elections [File; Emilio Morenatti/AP Photo]

A wave of racist attacks in Murcia, an autonomous region in southeastern Spain, has sparked shock and outrage, with local organisations denouncing what they describe as an unprecedented month of racially motivated violence.

Younes Bilal, a 37-year-old Moroccan man, was fatally shot at a bar on June 13 by a Spanish man who had been hurling racist remarks at Bilal and a group of friends, according to witnesses at the scene. The same week, an Ecuadorian-Spanish woman, Lilián Zúñiga, was admitted to hospital after being assaulted by a woman at a food bank line who allegedly used a racist slur and yelled: “They are stealing food from us”. This was after a 22-year-old Moroccan man, Momoun Koutaibi, was assaulted on June 5 by a coworker, leaving him in coma, an attack witnesses and the victim’s family allege was racially motivated.

This month, tensions in the region were heightened after a local mosque was vandalised in the district of Cabezo de Torres. In February, there was an attempt to set fire to a mosque in the town of San Javier. Last year, activists said protesters staged a rally outside a centre for migrants, alleging that those staying there were bringing with them COVID-19.  A “fake” explosive was found outside the centre in 2019.

“It has been horrible,” says Juan Guirado, a spokesman for an anti-racist organisation, Convivir Sin Racismo. “Murcia is a calm region,” he added.

“We have had a Moroccan population here for 30 years, we never had any issues like this.”

It took several days for Murcia’s regional assembly to issue a statement condemning “the racist murder of Younes Bilal” and criticising “the hate discourse promoted by a xenophobic far-right, whose effects the region is already tragically suffering from”. The statement was signed by all political parties in the assembly.

The conservative Popular Party (PP) governs the region with support from the far-right VOX party, which took the most votes in Murcia in the 2019 general elections. VOX won four seats in the autonomous elections of 2019, but in June, the party asked to revoke the membership of three of its deputies, reported El País newspaper.

“There is the creation of a discourse based on constant fear, they pose immigrants as ‘threat’ that they are taking our jobs, using our social security, that they are a security issue,” Guirado said, lamenting the absence of strong condemnation from national political institutions.

“These aren’t isolated cases, this is what we are trying to tell them.”

Sabah Yacoubi, who heads the Association of Morrocan Migrant Workers (ATIM) in Murcia, also criticised the lack of extensive national coverage on the recent racist attacks, as well as the absence of a public statement from Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. Yacoubi argued that the media and institutional silence were contributing towards a climate of impunity.

‘Denial of the problem’

Spain’s national council for the Elimination of Racial and Ethnic Discrimination condemned (PDF) Bilal’s murder and the racist aggressions in a report, appealing to “media and public representatives” to avoid “racist or xenophobic narratives that affect co-existence in our country”. In 2020, the council reported a nationwide increase in racial and ethnic discrimination, partly driven (PDF) by far-right political groups and fake news.

Antumi Toasijé, the president of the council, which acts as an autonomous branch under the Ministry of Equality, believes that “there is a clear connection between political discourse and the actions in the streets”, adding that the current numbers of racist attacks are largely under-reported.

For Toasijé, the institutional silence condemned by local actors was unsurprising. “There is a general denial of the problem [of racism] in the whole country,” he said, drawing a distinction between the far-right that openly promotes racist discourses and other political parties and groups who often disseminate similar narratives less overtly.

Historically, North African communities are among the main targets of racial discrimination in Spain, said Toasijé. This includes Muslim communities which are not always given institutional support.  When it comes to VOX, its anti-immigration rhetoric is often selective, added Toasijé. “It is reluctant against African and Muslim migrants but less so towards Latin American migrants,” in a narrative often veiled under justifications of “cultural unity”.

In 2019, VOX went from garnering largely insignificant shares of the vote to becoming the third-largest party in parliament.

Earlier this year, Twitter temporarily disabled VOX’s account for “inciting hate speech” after claiming Catalonia’s Muslim community was responsible for 93 percent of police complaints. In 2019, VOX leader Santiago Abascal falsely suggested that almost 70 percent of gang rapes in Spain was committed by foreigners.

Andrés Santana, a political scientist and professor at Universidad Autonoma de Madrid whose book examines the rise of VOX, argued the party’s rise was mainly driven by its opposition to Catalan independence. However, the strength of territorial issues in attracting voters seems to be waning, leading VOX to place a greater emphasis on its immigration discourse. “VOX is learning from what other relatively successful populist radical right parties have been doing in other countries and it has learned that flagging the anti-immigration issue can earn them votes.”

In May, a campaign poster placed by VOX ahead of regional elections in Madrid’s Puertas Del Sol station used an acronym often employed pejoratively to refer to unaccompanied migrant minors (MENA), claiming: “€4,700 [$5,533] a month for a MENA. €426 [$501] a month for your grandmother’s pension.” In smaller print, it read, “Protect Madrid. Vote for safety.”

These numbers are false but this month a Madrid court ruled the statements were protected under rules governing freedom of expression. El País reported that the court stated that “independently of whether the figures offered are true or not, [foreign migrants] represent an evident social and political problem, with consequences and effects on our international relations, as is well-known”.

For Lorenzo Gabrielli, a senior researcher at GRITIM-UPF and an adjunct professor at Barcelona’s Universitat Pompeu Fabra researching borders and migration policies, these institutional reactions help legitimise VOX’s conduct. “This is a clear case of xenophobia and racism based on fake data.”

According to Maldita.es, an independent platform monitoring disinformation and public discourse in Spain, the past year has seen peaks of disinformation around immigration on social media and WhatsApp, particularly when migrants arrive in the Canary Islands.

In May, when thousands of people crossed the Ceuta border, Maldita.es journalist Natalia Diez said, “In 12 hours, we had almost 10 articles published about hoaxes that went viral”.

In 2019, Facebook took down (PDF) several networks spreading far-right content ahead of the national elections, according to the campaign group Avaaz. The pages also shared anti-immigration content, often through false and misleading statements.

Gabrielli believes the press often fails to question some far-right narratives, predominantly on irregular migration, where negative or fake news are often reproduced wholesale. “Visibility is given in an uncritical way,” he said, adding that VOX had significant news coverage even before entering parliament, unlike other parties with a similar share of votes.

“This exposure is setting the agenda, it’s framing perception on things and the reaction often is simply trying to dismantle what is being said,” Gabrielli said. He suggests that this places news outlets at a disadvantage when competing with the regular influx of fake news, “whilst people are deconstructing these fake news and racist narratives, the far-right has produced three more headlines”.

Santana agreed that a significant share of Spanish media still accommodates some of VOX’s political views and expressed fears this will help legitimise some of the party’s discourse, if left unchallenged.

“It seems we are running in that direction.”

Al Jazeera reached out to VOX and Murcia’s regional assembly for comment but did not receive a reply by the time of the publication.

Source: Al Jazeera