Converts have become the agreeable face of Spanish Islam
With his wire-rimmed glasses and neatly trimmed beard, Abdulhasib Castiñeira would look like a scholar if he weren’t so elegantly dressed. Born in a tiny village in Galicia, which is among Spain’s poorest, most rural regions, the fifty-one-year-old spent the first ten years of his life among sturdy, simple folk devoted to fishing, harvesting small plots of bitter greens, and practising the Catholic faith. It is somewhat surprising, then, that Castiñeira, educated as he was in a place where crosses top even the granaries, today directs the new mosque in Granada.
A trip to Castiñeira’s office is an exercise in symbolic geography. After climbing the steep cobblestone streets of the Albaicín, the city’s old Moorish quarter, where Granada’s Muslims retreated after Ferdinand and Isabel’s armies vanquished King Boabdil in 1492, you pass the sixteenth-century San Nicolas church. From there, it is only a few steps to the mosque’s lush garden of bougainvillea and jasmine, with its stunning view of the Alhambra, perched on a neighbouring hill. Tucked between this Renaissance church and the architectural icon of seven centuries of Hispano-Muslim rule, Granada’s mosque — built and staffed largely by converts — stands at the intersection of Islam and the West.
Now, when Spain is home to hundreds of thousands of North African immigrants, converts like Castiñeira are crucial mediators of a profoundly multicultural nation. Their tolerant, Sufi-inflected religion has become the palatable — the agreeable — face of Spanish Islam. And although these New Muslims, as many wish to be called, are but a fraction of Spain’s Muslim population, their influence is great. It is the discourse of the convert community, with its emphasis on Andalusian Islam and an “alliance of civilizations,” its promotion of women’s rights, and its rejection of violence, that non-Muslim liberal Spaniards, including Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, have embraced. While al Qaeda calls for the violent “reconquest of al-Andalus,” Spain’s Muslim converts hark back to that golden age, forging a conciliatory version of the faith.
The converts are not a large group — between 20,000 and 50,000 of the estimated 1.5 million Muslims in Spain — and they no longer form a single community. In the 1970s, as Franco was dying, Scottish convert Ian Dallas — renaming himself Sheikh Dr. Abdalqadir as-Sufi — introduced Islam to contemporary Spain. Crossing the peninsula’s southern region from his base in Granada, he taught a faith both Sufi and Andalusian in its inspiration, which many eagerly embraced. The Murabitun critique of an exhausted West and a corrupted capitalism spoke to these self-identified progressives. But disagreements split the original Murabituns into groups holding different opinions about, among other things, Dallas’s legitimacy and the New Muslims’ political role.
The importance of the medieval Hispano-Muslim kingdom of al-Andalus — not as a land to be reconquered but as an example to be emulated — is not something about which converts disagree, however. While New Muslims, like current Islamists, yearn for an untainted Islam, they look for inspiration in al-Andalus, which for seven centuries beginning in 711 AD boasted architectural splendours, scientific achievements, beautiful literature, and advanced medicine. But al-Andalus’s greatest accomplishment for today’s New Muslims was the social harmony it achieved among Jews, Muslims, and Christians — its convivencia. “We recognize ourselves as members of a community that managed to give to the world one of the most beautiful civilizations that man has known,” says one convert, “a civilization that, with its light and shadows, was able to reach levels of humanity that still serve today as an example in our quest for models of how to live and live together.”
There are countless reasons for conversion, but among Spain’s New Muslims certain themes recur. Castiñeira was first drawn to the communal support that reflected his earlier village life but, like many other converts, he quickly came to appreciate the holistic nature of the faith. “It makes sense of every aspect of life. It covers everything,” he says. Particular political concerns also made a difference for many New Muslims. After forty years of dictatorship and National Catholicism, Spain’s transition to democracy was by no means assured, and in the 1970s and ’80s Islam both signalled resistance to Franco’s enforced conformity and confirmed a degree of democratic pluralism and religious freedom — ideals for which al-Andalus’s peaceful social experiment provided a valuable, if perhaps romanticized, example.
And throughout Spain lie rich and abundant remnants of al-Andalus itself, traces of a medieval past that kindle the imagination of most New Muslims. Mansur Escudero, the most prominent of convert leaders, describes the attraction. “Al-Andalus will continue being al-Andalus for Muslims of all ages. It is there; we have created it. Here we have our dead, who remain alive, awaiting Resurrection Day.” We, our — converts like Escudero feel bound to those early Hispano-Muslims, by affinity if not by blood.
Not far outside Cordoba, once the seat of the caliphate, sits a community equally inspired by history. Almodóvar del Rio is a tiny town, best known for its well-preserved castle. It is also the home of the Junta Islámica, a non-profit organization founded by a small group of converts, which now wields disproportionate power. From its crowded office just below the castle, staff members take calls from Libya about an upcoming conference, maintain the group’s influential website, webislam.com, and offer visitors a slice of “halal ham” (made from beef ). The Junta hosts Spain’s only halal institute, which ensures that products across Spain, from meat to cosmetics, meet Islamic standards. For Isabel Romero, the halal institute’s director and a recent convert, the Junta’s public role is clear: “Spaniards have a habit of thinking of Muslims as foreign, but I’m not foreign, I’m Spanish,” she says. “We are Spanish Muslims, as much members of our societies as anybody else, and this puts us in a privileged position to talk about all the supposed incompatibilities between Islam and the West.”
Headed by Escudero, the Junta was founded to protect Muslim rights and promote the study of Islam. By the time the socialist Zapatero was elected prime minister, just three days after Islamist terrorists killed 191 people on commuter trains in Madrid in March 2004, Escudero was also serving as co-secretary general of the Islamic Commission, the government’s liaison with the Muslim community, and the Junta Islámica was well positioned to reassure Spaniards that not all Muslims were a threat. They were not alone in this endeavour. Egyptian-born Sheikh Moneir Mahmoud, imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of Madrid, preached peace and convivencia to followers and the media alike, as did Riay Tatary, Escudero’s co-secretary general. But the Junta’s members, with their native Spanish and greater familiarity with Western media and politics, emerged as the most representative voice for Spanish Muslims.
More than practical advantages led to the Junta’s dominance in Muslim relations, however; its reassuring position on several thorny issues also helped. When an imam in Fuengirola publicly justified wife-beating, for example, the Junta denounced him, establishing itself as a defender of Muslim women’s rights. After the Madrid bombings, the government sought to crack down on radicalism even as it extended a hand to Muslims — the vast majority of whom, as Zapatero himself emphasized, were appalled by the killings at Atocha station. The Junta, which condemned violence while adopting progressive attitudes toward integration and women’s rights, was an especially welcome ally. It wasn’t wholly submissive — when the then minister of the interior, José Antonio Alonso, proposed in 2004 that mosques and imams be monitored, Escudero led opposition to the measure — but it demonstrated that its goals were complementary to Zapatero’s aims.