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Islam's Claim on Spain

In Granada, once the center of a rich Muslim culture, adherents are trying to reassert their historic role amid a climate of suspicion.

January 18, 2005|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

GRANADA, Spain — Across a valley of fragrant cedars and orange trees, worshipers at the pristine Great Mosque of Granada look out at the Alhambra, the 700-year-old citadel and monument to the heyday of Islamic glory.

Granada's Muslims chose the hilltop location precisely with the view, and its unmistakable symbolism, in mind.

It took them more than 20 years to build the mosque, the first erected here in half a millennium, after they conquered the objections of city leaders and agreed, ultimately, to keep the minaret shorter than the steeple on the Catholic Iglesia de San Nicolas next door.

Cloistered nuns on the other side of the mosque added a few feet to the wall enclosing their convent, as if to say they wanted neither to be seen nor to see.

Many of Spain's Muslims long for an Islamic revival to reclaim their legendary history, and inaugurating the Great Mosque last year was the most visible gesture. But horrific bombings by Muslim extremists that killed nearly 200 people in Madrid on March 11 have forced Spain's Muslims and non-Muslims to reassess their relationship, and turned historical assumptions on their head.

"We are a people trying to return to our roots," said Anwar Gonzalez, 34, a Granada native who converted to Islam 17 years ago. "But it's a bad time to be a Muslim."

Spain has a long, rich and complex history interwoven with the Muslim and Arab world, from its position as the center of Islamic Europe in the last millennium to today's confrontation with a vast influx of Muslim immigrants.

For more than seven centuries of Moorish rule, "Al Andalus," or Andalusia, was governed by Muslim caliphs who oversaw a splendid flourishing of art, architecture and learning that ended when Granada fell to Christian monarchs Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in 1492.

Muslims were expelled or exterminated in the Inquisition that followed, but the legacy of the Moors is seen throughout Andalusia, Spain's southern tier, in its language, palaces like the Alhambra, and food.

Unfortunately for Spain's Muslims, the militants who swear loyalty to Osama bin Laden are history buffs too. In claiming responsibility for the March bombings, they cited the loss of "Al Andalus" as motivation.

"We will continue our jihad until martyrdom in the land of Tarik Ben Ziyad," they said in a communique issued after the massacre, alluding to the Moorish warrior and original Islamic conqueror of the Iberian peninsula.

Spain today, like most of Europe, is struggling with ways to accommodate its fast-growing Muslim community while keeping tabs on those who might turn to radical violence.

Converts like Gonzalez are a small percentage of the nearly 1 million Muslims believed to be living in Spain -- a number that has probably doubled in the last decade. The vast majority of the Muslims are immigrants -- mostly from Morocco, frequently on the margins of society and often at odds with native-born Muslims. Most of the suspects arrested in the March attacks that tore apart commuter trains in the morning rush hour were Moroccan.

A relatively homogenous society ever since the 15th century expulsions, Spain has far fewer Muslims than France or Germany. Yet only in Spain is the debate fraught with such mythology and deep-rooted cultural echoes.

Spaniards sometimes refer to Arabs, derogatorily, as Moors. And it doesn't help that the late dictator Francisco Franco rose to power on the back of Moroccan troops whom he used to launch the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

In Granada, the old Moorish hamlet of Albaicin, now a gentrified neighborhood of red-tile roofs and white-washed villas, spills down the hill from the Great Mosque. It could almost pass for a town on the West Bank or in Morocco, if perhaps a little more picturesque.

The narrow, winding streets are full of teashops, butchers and bakeries selling baklava and kenafa, a fresh soft cheese. Locals greet each other with "As-Salaam Alaikum," and, in October, signs in stores wished a "Feliz Ramadan" to passersby.

At the University of Granada, it is not uncommon to see a woman in a hijab, the Muslim head scarf. In the pharmacology school, about 40% of the 2,100-member student body is from Arab or Muslim countries, according to the student association.

Moroccan student Amal Benyaich, a 20-year-old sophomore, said she generally feels at home in Granada but has occasionally endured insults shouted in public, especially after the bombings.

"How can your people do this?" someone demanded of her.

"Am I a terrorist?" she responded.

"I want them to understand what Islam is," said Benyaich, wearing a white hijab, long skirt and velvety red sweatshirt. "Terrorism is not a specific religion."

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