The Basque regional government in northern Spain is drafting a controversial new Law on Religious Institutions, which states that mosques and prayer rooms with a capacity of fewer than 300 people will no longer require prior local government approval.
The draft law is generating considerable opposition from elected officials of all political stripes, who fear the new measure will encourage the proliferation of mosques throughout the Basque region.
The mayor of the Basque capital Vitoria-Gasteiz, Javier Maroto, said in an interview that the practical effect of the new law will be that "any fruit and vegetable shop can be converted into a mosque and there will be nothing we can do about it." He has promised to fight the new law, which he believes will encourage "mosques to spring up like mushrooms."
The debate comes as a new survey shows that one in four Basques reject the idea of having a mosque in their neighborhood, and according to a new survey commissioned by the Basque regional government in northern Spain, one in five do not want a Muslim as a neighbor.
The new study, entitled Religious Diversity, was commissioned by the Basque government as part of an effort to assess public support for the new law. The survey shows that while nearly half of all Basques say they have had personal interaction with Muslims, 49% say they are opposed to the construction of more mosques in the Basque Country.
The Basque Country is home to more than 50,000 Muslims, as well as two dozen officially licensed mosques and hundreds of unofficial Islamic prayer rooms and cultural centers.
Hailing mostly from Algeria, Morocco, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa, Muslims in the Basque region have become increasingly assertive in recent years.
In May 2011, for example, more than 2,500 radical Muslims gathered in the Basque town of Trápaga for the third annual Salafist Congress. The president of the congress, a Moroccan named Jamal Ennaciri, said the purpose of the meeting was to find ways to live together side-by-side with Spaniards. He characterized the congress as "intercultural dialogue."
But Salafism is a branch of radical Islam that seeks to establish an Islamic empire (Caliphate) across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, particularly Spain. The Caliphate would be governed exclusively by Islamic Sharia law, which would apply both to Muslims and to non-Muslims. Salafists believe democracy, because it comes from man not from Allah, is an illegitimate form of government.
In October 2010, residents of the Basque city of Bilbao found their mailboxes stuffed with flyers in Spanish and Arabic from the Islamic Community of Bilbao asking for money to build a 650 square meter (7,000 square feet) mosque costing €550,000 ($735,000).
Up until just recently, the Islamic Community of Bilbao had the following statement posted on its website: "We were expelled [from Spain] in 1609, really not that long ago. … The echo of Al-Andalus still resonates in all the valley of the Ebro [Spain]. We are back to stay, Insha'Allah [if Allah wills it]."
Al-Andalus was the Arabic name given to the parts of Spain ruled by Muslim conquerors from 711 and 1492. Many Muslims believe that the territories they lost during the Spanish Reconquista still belong to them, and that they have a right to return and establish their rule there -- a belief based on the Islamic precept that territories once occupied by Muslims must forever remain under Muslim domination.
In December 2011, Islamic Sharia law arrived in the Basque Country when a Chechen immigrant attacked his 24-year-old son-in-law, a Christian, for marrying his 19-year-old daughter, a Muslim.
The victim, who goes by the pseudonym Julián Gómez because of the Islamic "death sentence" against him, said: "My father-in-law wants to kill me so that he can regain his honor because I am a Christian and I married his Muslim daughter. According to him, his daughter should only have married a Chechen Muslim."
The daughter said: "This seems as if it is a horror movie, but it is not. I have no doubt that my father is capable of killing my husband to get what he wants. And what he wants is to send me to Chechnya. All my father wants is that we know our native language and focus on our Chechen culture and religion. But I am Spanish. I was five years old when I arrived here. This cannot be."
In November 2011, a Muslim man stabbed and killed a 65-year-old man and injured six others in the Bilbao district of Santutxu before being constrained by local residents and subsequently arrested by local police.
In October 2011, hundreds of residents of Bilbao protested against the construction of a new mosque in the Basurto district. Bilbao Mayor Iñaki Azkuna said there were "enough" mosques in the city and he vowed to oppose the construction of any new ones. A spokesman for the local Muslim community, Redouan El Farah, promised a fight: "We are not going to give up. We are going to continue fighting until this mosque becomes a reality."
In June 2011, residents of the Basque city of Vitoria faced off against angry Pakistanis who want to build a mosque in the Zaramaga district. Pakistanis marched to city hall to demand "respect for the freedom of religion."
In December 2010, 24 Islamic associations banded together to form the Islamic Council of the Basque Country. The Islamic Council, which aims to become the main interlocutor between Muslims living in the Basque region and the regional government, has been lobbying for the introduction of special Muslim menus in Basque public schools, reserved spaces for Muslims in municipal cemeteries, and the construction of new mosques.
In July 2010, it emerged that 60% of the 480 public schools in the Basque Country now serve special halal meals for Muslim students. Muslim parents are now pressuring local education authorities to begin teaching Arabic in public schools.
Meanwhile, Basque and Spanish counter-terrorism authorities have arrested dozens of Islamists in terror sweeps throughout the Basque Country in recent years. One of them, a Moroccan imam by the name of Samir Ben Abdellah, was directly linked to the train bombings in Madrid in March 2004 that left 191 people dead and 1,800 wounded. Before his arrest, Abdellah was grooming future Jihadists in mosques throughout the Basque Country.
The Islamic Council of the Basque Country says Basques should view the spread of Islam in their region "not as a problem, but as an opportunity. Diversity is good." To those who remain skeptical about Islam, the group recommends that they "change their chip."