The lower house of the Spanish Parliament is debating a proposal to prohibit the wearing of body-covering burqas and face-covering niqabs in all public spaces in Spain. The measure, which follows similar moves by nearly a dozen local and regional governments across Spain, marks a major escalation in the national debate over Muslim immigration and the role of radical Islam in Spain.
Critics say the rate of Muslim immigration to Spain now far exceeds the rate of assimilation. And polls seem to support that claim. According to a Pew Global Attitudes Survey, for example, religion is central to the identity of Spanish Muslims. Nearly 70 percent of Spanish Muslims identify themselves primarily as Muslim rather than as Spanish. This level of Muslim identification in Spain is similar to that in Pakistan, Nigeria, and Jordan, and even higher than levels in Egypt, Turkey, and Indonesia.
There is now a widespread feeling among Muslims that the territories they lost during the Spanish Reconquest still belong to them, and that they have a right to return and establish their rule there. This is based on the Islamic idea that territories once occupied by Muslims must remain under Muslim domination forever.
The majority of Muslim immigrants to Spain are from Morocco, Algeria and Pakistan. They mostly live in clusters along the Mediterranean coast. Fully one-third of Spain's Muslims live in the north-eastern autonomous region of Catalonia, the capital of which is Barcelona. Tarragona, one of the most important cities in Catalonia, has also become ground-zero for Salafist Islam in Spain.
Salafism is a branch of revivalist Islam that calls for restoring past Muslim glory by re-establishing an Islamic empire across the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Europe. Salafists view Spain as a Muslim state that must be reconquered for Islam.
Muslims ruled large parts of Spain for a period of about 800 years. Islamic rule over the region then known as Al-Andalus ended in 1492, when Granada, the last Muslim stronghold, capitulated to the Roman Catholic kings.
In Granada, for example, there are now parallel societies and some Muslims want traditional Sharia law to be applied there instead of Spanish law. They are also demanding Muslim education and special Muslim schools for their children. They even want an equal share in the money made with ticket sales for the fabled Alhambra palace, which they regard as part of the cultural heritage of their Muslim ancestors.
The debate comes after the Spanish Senate, on June 23, voted 131 to 129 to "use all options under our legal system and to proceed with rules to prohibit the public use of the 'burqa' and the 'niqab' to ensure equality, freedom and security." The Senate language also calls on Spain to outlaw "any usage, custom or discriminatory practice that limits the freedom of women."
Leaders of the ruling Socialist Party have said they support the proposal, which was introduced by the opposition center-right Popular Party. Spanish Justice Minister Francisco Caamaño said that full-face veils such as the burqa are "hardly compatible with human dignity." The unusual display of bipartisan unity on the burqa issue makes a ban likely unless Spain's highest court rules it unconstitutional. A final vote on the ban is expected to take place in early September, after the summer holidays.
The burqa debate comes as immigration from Muslim countries to Spain continues to soar. Spain currently has a Muslim population of slightly over 1 million, or about 2 percent of Spain's total population. Although this percentage is smaller than in other European countries such as France (7 percent), Holland (6 percent), Belgium (4 percent), Germany (3 percent) and Britain (3 percent), Spain has experienced a whopping ten-fold increase in the number of Muslim immigrants in just 20 years.
As recently as 1990, there were only 100,000 Muslims in Spain. Up until the 1980s, Spain was a net exporter of labor and there was very little Muslim labor immigration to the country. Instead, Spain was a transit country for Maghrebian [North African} immigrants on their way to France and other European countries with significant and well-established Muslim communities. But during the mid-1990s, Spain's traditional role as a transit country became that of a host country for Muslim immigrants, especially from Morocco.
Immigration, however, is only one reason for the steady rise in Spain's Muslim population. Muslim fertility rates are more than double those of an aging native Spanish population. Spain currently has a birth rate of around 1.3, which is far below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per couple. At the current rates, the number of native Spaniards will be cut in half in two generations, while the Muslim population in Spain will quadruple.
Another survey sponsored by the Spanish government shows that only 46 percent of Muslim immigrants can understand, speak and read in Spanish without problems.
The Pew survey also shows that Muslim immigrants are viewed with suspicion by Spanish society and that most Spaniards doubt that Muslims coming to Spain want to adopt their national customs and way of life. Almost 70 percent of Spaniards say that Muslims in Spain want to remain distinct from the larger society.
Almost 80 percent of the Spanish public sees Muslims as having a strong Islamic identity. Among those in the Spanish general public who see Islamic identity on the rise, 82 percent say it is a bad thing. Around 65 percent of Spaniards are somewhat or very concerned about rising Islamic extremism in their country.
In October 2007, Amr Moussa, the Egyptian Secretary-General of the Arab League, asked the Spanish government to allow Muslims to worship in the cathedral of Córdoba. This building was a mosque during the medieval Islamic kingdom of Al-Andalus. Muslims now hope to recreate the ancient city of Córdoba, which was once the heart of Al-Andalus, as a pilgrimage site for Muslims throughout Europe. Funds for the project are being sought from the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, and Muslim organizations in Morocco and Egypt.
The debate over Muslim immigration and radical Islam in Spain recently flared when an imam in Tarragona was arrested for forcing a woman to wear a hijab head covering. The local prosecutor had asked the judge to jail the imam and three others for five years for harassment, but the case was eventually dismissed after the Socialist mayor said she wanted to prevent "a social conflict."
In another case, nine Salafists in Catalonia kidnapped a woman, tried her for adultery based on Sharia law, and condemned her to death. The woman escaped and fled to a local police station just before she was to be executed by the Islamists.
Not surprisingly, the Spanish debate over banning the burqa is especially heated in Catalonia, where nearly a dozen municipalities have banned the use of Islamic veils in public. In June, Barcelona was the first major Spanish city to bar the use of face-covering Islamic veils in municipal buildings.
In the Catalan town of Lleida, where 29,000 Muslims make up more than 20 percent of the town's population, the town council recently voted to ban the burqa in all public spaces. Women found wearing burqas will be let off with a warning, but second offenders will be fined up to €600 ($750).
The burqa issue burst onto the national stage last November, when a Muslim lawyer was ejected from Spain's high court in Madrid, where she was defending a client, because the lawyer refused to remove her headscarf. And in April, a 16-year-old schoolgirl was banned from a school in Madrid after refusing to remove her hijab, in violation of the school dress code. That decision sparked a debate because there are no clear guidelines over the wearing of Islamic headdresses in state schools in Spain.
The proposed burqa ban, which has the support of all of Spain's major political parties except for those on the extreme left, would not include head-covering veils, such as the mantilla shawls often worn by Spanish women, especially during religious ceremonies in southern Spain.
If the burqa ban is approved by the Spanish Parliament, it will still need to be vetted by the Supreme Court to determine its compatibility with the Spanish Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. The Council of Europe, the European institution dealing with human rights issues, recently warned national governments against imposing a complete ban, saying that it would constitute an "ill-advised invasion of individual privacy."