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Europe

Muslim migrants 'feel at home' in Spain

Can Spain resist the wave of Islamophobia sweeping through Europe? Tolerance and openness have marked the arrival of migrants, but the second generation will be the litmus test of successful integration.

A woman in a burqa walking alongside a Spanish woman

Spain's Muslim population is growing rapidly

Arabic is often heard as you walk through the streets of Lavapies in central Madrid. Here, traditional tapas bars and bakeries mix with Shisha joints, Bangaldeshi corner shops and African restaurants.

One of these, doing a swift trade in spicy fish, is run by Ibrahima Ndiaye. He has two children with his Spanish wife and has enjoyed financial success. He started out as a night club bouncer and now runs a boutique and this popular restaurant.

He is part of Spain's diverse Muslim population, which now numbers around 1.3 million people - just under 3 percent of the overall population of 45 million.

His restaurant is in the same neighborhood where Islamic fundamentalists planned the train bombing that killed 191 people March 2004. But he says there was no backlash locally.

"I have lived here for many years. My Spanish neighbors know me, they know how I live. It's true that terrorism has created problems. When you travel or go to a public place people do look at you now. But I haven't suffered consequences in my neighborhood."

Ibrahima Ndiaye outside his restaurant

Ibrahima Ndiaye runs a successful restaurant in Lavapies, Madrid

Minimal conflict

An annual survey of the Muslim community suggests he is not alone. Some 70 percent of Muslims say they feel at home here, and 80 percent say they feel they have adapted well to the Spanish way of life.

Islam is now the second largest religious domination, with a range of liberal, progressive branches represented, from the Moroccan Maliki school of thought to the Tarikat Sufi order from West Africa.

Spain transformed into a multicultural society with spectacular speed. And yet conflict between communities has been minimal according to Madrid's leading expert on Muslim communities, Berbabe Lopez.

"The person who comes adapts, although they keep the trappings of their culture especially the older generation. People don't live in ghettos; they are spread out all over the country, throughout neighborhoods," he told Deutsche Welle. "And I think that the Spanish population - from whom you might have expected more racism - has really absorbed immigrants well. In almost 15 years - there has been 12 percent immigration. That hasn't happened at such great speed in any other country in Europe."

Arab sweets in the windows of a Morrocan shop in Lavapies.

Muslim migration has benefitted sweet teeth in Spain

Pix and mix

Lopez says there is no Spanish government 'model of integration'. Instead, the ruling Socialist party has borrowed different policies from other European countries. The result is neither the assimilation prototype of France nor the multicultural model of the UK.

Social integration has been aided by national politicians refusing to talk down Muslims. Their response to the terrorist attack was the 'Alliance of Civilizations', a diplomatic push for cooperation between Mediterranean cultures that drew on Spain's shared history with Morocco.

At home this was mirrored by social cohesion programs. But in parallel – and perhaps more importantly – there were regular amnesties for the immigrant workers who had powered Spain's construction boom.

In the last ten years over a million people who could prove they were working were granted legal status. Meanwhile all residents – even those without papers – have access to health and education.

And immigrants have not been blamed for the current crisis – even if this may cost votes.

Emigrant hosts

One reason for this inclusive approach is that Spaniards emigrated in living memory. "When I was young we didn't have immigrants. People here were the migrants. People came back from Germany and Switzerland and England at summertime to spend the holidays here," said Ana Planet, an Arab and Islamic studies professor at the Madrid Autonoma University.

Spain also has a legal commitment to religious freedom, which is enshrined in its Constitution. This law tends to foils isolated attempts by town halls to ban veils.

And although they live in a mainly secular society, Spaniards still recognize the importance of faith.

"We still consider religion as an important part of life and we are familiar with the this idea that 'you have your religion', 'you do that because of your religion'," said Planet.

An informal neighbourhood mosque in a shop premises in Lavapies.

Impromptu mosques are springing up across the capital

A marginalized group

But it is not all positive. Ana explained that full social acceptance is still some way off. Catalonia is seeing conflict emerge over the construction of mosques. And a far-right party plans to field candidates in mayoral elections.

Moroccan migrants, who make up around 80 percent of Muslims here, tend to bear the brunt of prejudice, and fall within the most marginalized sector of society.

The crisis has left 30 percent out of work, compared to the 20 percent Spanish average.

"Bear in mind that we immigrants have always had the lowest-qualified jobs. We do the jobs that no one else wants. We have very casual contracts, in very bad conditions - you can be fired at any time and all this complicates the process of integration," said Kamal Rahmouni from Moroccan immigrant association ATIME.

But Rahmouni ended on at upbeat note. He feels the "complex, long road to integration" is generally going in the right direction.

At the crossroads

Spain passed the arrivals test but now faces the challenge of meshing these new identities with its own as the children of immigrants come of age.

They will not measure their lives against relatives from their parents' country of origin but with their peers.

Restaurant owner Ibrahima (like 90 percent of Muslims surveyed) believes Islam is no barrier to being Spanish. He is convinced his children will have the same chances as classmates.

"I think that opportunities depend on your studies and the abilities of a person. These days it doesn't depend on a person's color," he said.

The crisis has made immigrants vulnerable. But it has also brought down new arrivals by 43 percent.

This may create space for the government to make sure that the second generation of immigrants does enjoy equality of opportunity in the future.

Author: Hazel Healy in Madrid
Editor: Rob Turner

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