On January 8, a day after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Pegida, the German-based anti-Islam movement opened a branch in Spain, and called for a mass rally in front of mosques in Madrid and Valencia. On January 12, Spanish newspapers reported proudly that the Alhambra, the Moorish palace in Granada, had celebrated “the best year of its history”, breaking its own record in receiving 2.4 million visitors in 2014, making it once again the most visited cultural site in Spain, if not in Europe.
A day earlier, papers had reported that the historic Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba had also broken its own record, receiving 1.5 million visitors on 2014. But then on January 15, 200 people were evacuated from the Mosque-Cathedral – a poorly parked car nearby had police worried about a possible car bomb.
Spain prides itself on not having the anti-immigrant movements or hysteria that have swept other parts of Western Europe – and in showing remarkable restraint after the Atocha station bombings of 2004. The only Spanish movement to make international headlines over the past year has been Podemos, the left-wing party, that has directly taken on “la casta”, the political establishment.
Vandalism and threats
But the last couple of weeks have been tumultuous, as half a dozen mosques have been vandalised, and as “la casta” decides how to respond to the Paris tragedy. A bi-partisan anti-terrorism law is in the works, a counter-violent extremism programme is being launched, and police departments in Andalusia have received new guidelines on how to profile Muslims.
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Spain’s ambivalence about its Islamic past and its proximity to Africa is not new. The debate goes back at least to the 1940s to a spat between two prominent historians, Americo Castro and Claudio Sanchez-Albornoz.
While Castro argued that Spaniards should take pride in their mixed history – after all Spanish cultural identity was born in the Middle Ages through a symbiosis of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian elements – Sanchez-Albornoz saw the Moorish invasion of 711 as a national disaster and Muslim-Christian relations as generally antagonistic.
He also claimed that Spain had historically been a member of Europe and in the Middle Ages conveyed a vibrant civilisation to the rest of Europe, but that its sacrifice to shield Europe from the onslaughts of Islam and Africa, had left it an impoverished society.
These competing visions – Spain as indebted to the “Orient”, or a “fortress” Spain, protector of Europe against Islam – have risen and fallen at critical moments in recent Spanish history. It’s not surprising that the idea of a “fortress Spain” has reared its head of late.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has drawn up an anti-terrorism pact, supported by his Popular Party and the opposition Socialist party.
Rajoy is clearly responding to a public unnerved by growing immigration, ISIL’s stated desire to ‘liberate’ al-Andalus, and the fact that Amedy Coulibaly, the French jihadi who murdered four people at a kosher deli in Paris, spent a week in Madrid in early January.
A national plan to counter violent extremism is also being hammered out. Rajoy is clearly responding to a public unnerved by growing immigration, ISIL’s stated desire to “liberate” al-Andalus, and the fact that Amedy Coulibaly, the French jihadi who murdered four people at a kosher deli in Paris, spent a week in Madrid in early January.
Thus far we know that Spain’s counter-violent extremism programme is modelled on the British Prevent Violent Extremism programme, and will focus on “lone wolf” attacks.
Critics are already noting some troubling provisions, including the behavioural indicators that security officials will be told to look out for in identifying “at risk” youth – for example, students refusing to shake hands with members of the opposite gender, and patients refusing to disrobe in front of a doctor.
Rajoy’s national unity pact is already proving divisive. Pablo Iglesias of Podemos has denounced the “punitive populism” of the proposed anti-terrorism laws. Journalists on the left have also asked why the Rajoy government is moving so swiftly to pass a bipartisan security pact, when it hasn’t shown such resolve or unity to fight joblessness and corruption.
Juan Carlos Monedero, a spokesperson for Podemos has accused Rajoy of going to Paris to march in defence of freedom of expression, while “impeding” free speech at home with the “Gag Law”, a public security law approved by parliament in late December, which will, among other things, penalise the burning of the Spanish flag, and protesting outside parliamentary buildings.
Handling economic crisis
Socialist MPs see the law as simply an attempt by the ruling party to chill protest around its handling of Spain’s economic crisis.
Most controversial, however, has been a document written by the Seville police department, and leaked to the press last week, outlining how law enforcement in the Andalusia region should deal with people of “Arab origin” – Seville’s police chief has since stated that the document was meant for internal circulation only.
The suspicious behaviour that law enforcement were told to look out for are Arabs taking photos in “non-tourist areas”, or using laptops while seated inside a car. Police were also told to focus on Algerians as they tend to be “conflictive”. The Federation of Algerian Associations in Europe has already filed a complaint with the Spanish Ministry of Interior.
The partisan bickering seems set to continue – and somehow the country’s Moorish past gets bound up with current political quarrelling. Thus the Diocese of Cordoba which controls the site of the Mosque-Cathedral – and benefits from the flux of visitors – recently began referring to the monument simply as a Cathedral, rather than Mosque-Cathedral which is the name approved by the city council.
“Hiding [the cathedral’s] past as a mosque is like calling the Alhambra the palace of Charles V – it’s absurd,” said Andalusia’s Minister for Tourism Rafael Rodriguez.
National pride mixes with historic angst in Spain. Now Pedega has entered the fray.
On their Spanish-language website, the group recently uploaded a painting depicting the expulsion of the Moors from Granada in 1492, stating: “We did it 400 years ago, and we will do it again.”
Hisham Aidi teaches at Columbia University. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture, a study of black internationalism and global youth culture.