Islam and Independence in Catalonia: Unlikely Partners
By: Selvi Bunce
September 18, 2018

The Catalan region of Spain has a rich history – steeped in both culture and cultural tension. While Barcelona is one of the most diverse cities in Spain, it maintains a wariness to newcomers that can be traced back to the banning of Catalan language by Nationalist Caudillo Francisco Franco in his effort to centralize Spain, and the following influx of Spanish speaking immigrants that was viewed as a cultural assault in the 1960’s. This wariness has not worn off, and can be seen today in the rift between the Catalan/Spanish population, and the newer Muslim population, mainly from Morocco and Pakistan. For Catalonia to achieve its desired autonomy, it must first learn to work with its internally diverse population.

This cultural rift manifests in different ways, such as with the banning of the burqa in Lleida in 2010 (overturned by the Spanish central government in 2013). But, it is most strongly manifested in the public opposition to mosques.

Over the past few years, residents have mobilized against mosques in 30 different Catalan municipalities. This mobilization often comes in the form of petitions organized by neighborhood associations that aim to dissuade local governments from authorizing the use of a given area for worship and prayer. For example, in 2005 the city council of Badalona closed one of the two central mosques, Al Furqan, on claims of an improper license. This left the Bilal mosque as the only prayer room serving the city. There was soon an agreement made to establish a new mosque in an industrial suburb. However, residents of the suburb filed a petition in protest and the mosque was never built.

As a result, the Muslim community was left with a lack of worship space. This necessitated some Muslim communities to conduct prayers in the public plaza, reinforcing negative stereotypes that claim the newer Muslim immigrants bring social disorder and degrade public space. Therefore, the opposition to Mosques in Badalona directly contributed to the conditions used to justify it.

While mosque opposition is prevalent in Catalonia, the statistics do not ring true for the rest of the country. For example, Madrid and Andalusia, two regions of Spain with comparable Muslim populations, face far less mosque opposition than Catalonia. In fact, 54% of respondents from Catalonia viewed opposition to mosques as “very acceptable” or “pretty acceptable,” compared to just 28% of respondents from Madrid and 35% of respondents from the rest of Spain.

However, Catalonia needs its Muslim communities when it comes to the very thing that distinguishes it from the rest of Spain – its quest for independence. The support of the Muslim community is integral for an independent Catalonia to succeed – 7.3% of the total Catalan population is Muslim. Without their support, the independence movement will lose a key demographic.

This is increasingly the case as Muslim communities in Catalonia become more directly involved in politics. For example, Najat Driouech, a Spanish citizen and a Muslim woman born in Morocco, became Catalonia’s first female Muslim Member of Parliament in 2017. Driouech says she ran for MP to fight the racism she sees in the region. In fact, in a survey of second-generation immigrants in Spain, carried out by Princeton, Clemson and Miami universities, 20% said they had suffered discrimination in the past three years.

For Catalonia to effectively address its tensions with the Spanish government, it must first effectively address and work with its Muslim population. To do so, Catalonia must actively work to ensure that its local governments are supporting mosques and the right of Muslims to worship as equal to that of other religions in the region. This may be done through working with pre-existing organizations such as the Unió de Centres Culturals Islàmics de Catalunya to learn what the community needs, by building diverse local networks, and by implementing local policy in the region that ensures fair treatment and space allowances. Catalonia is a diverse region with diverse ideals, and no matter what its end goal is, it will not be accomplished without the help of its Muslim brothers and sisters.

The views, thoughts, and opinions in this blog belong solely to the author and are not representative of an official position or endorsement by the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD).