Spanish Muslims live under suspicion since 3/11
At Mussa Bachiri's butcher shop, the customers used to include a man now jailed on suspicion of playing a role in the Madrid terror bombings two years ago this week.

The alleged bomber was just a casual acquaintance who ran a cell-phone store down the street. Still, Bachiri wonders if he is not somehow tainted by association _ simply for sharing the man's Moroccan roots and Islamic faith.

"My Spanish neighbors look at me the way they always did," Bachiri said, pausing on an afternoon of chopping beef and slicing liver in Lavapies, an immigrant-rich district of Spain's capital. "But deep down inside, who knows?"

Two years after the bombings that killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,500, human rights groups and Muslims themselves say with relief that there has been no significant backlash against Spain's estimated million-strong Muslim community.

But Muslims feel targeted in subtler ways _ a rise in job application rejections, trouble finding housing, grumbling from neighbors when they want to set up a mosque.

"This is not something you can measure. But people live it. They notice it," said Begonia Sanchez, spokeswoman for immigrant aid group SOS Racism. "They notice it when they get on the bus. They notice it when they seek work. They notice it when they run into neighbors in the stairwell."

Islamic militants claimed responsibility for Spain's worst terrorist attack, saying they acted on behalf of al-Qaida to avenge the presence of Spanish troops in Iraq.

Most of the 24 people in jail on suspicion of taking part in the March 11, 2004, bombings are Moroccans, many of them longtime residents who owned businesses, received grants for university studies and otherwise blended into or benefited from Spanish society.

Human rights groups and Muslim leaders say Spaniards harbor negative stereotypes of Moroccans _ the pejorative term for them is 'moros,' or Moors, an allusion to the 700-year Moorish occupation of Spain _ and the Madrid attacks served as an excuse for more flagrant discrimination.

Bachiri said that when Moroccans _ Spain's largest immigrant group and the main component of the Muslim community _ call up a landlord to ask about a rental, there comes an inevitable query about nationality. "When you say Moroccan, they say 'OK, we'll call you back,'" he said.

Kamal Rahmouni, president of a Moroccan immigrant aid group called ATIME, recalls that a female colleague who wears an Islamic headscarf was spat on in the subway following the attacks. He remembers making a point not to speak Arabic on the street and telling colleagues to do the same.

"There was a sense that the country, or society, was betrayed by a few people who had been trusted," he said.

After the bombings, however, the Socialist government did several things that helped calm Spaniards and avert a violent backlash against Muslims, said Jesus Nunez Villaverde, an expert on the Islamic world and director of a Madrid think tank, the Institute of Studies on Conflict and Humanitarian Action.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero unveiled an international campaign, now taken up by the United Nations, to encourage dialogue between Western and Islamic nations, Nunez Villaverde said. The government also hired more police officers specializing in Islamic extremism rather than launch a broad crackdown on immigrants.

In addition, Muslims in Spain quickly condemned the attacks, said Mansur Escudero, a Spanish Muslim leader.

On the first anniversary of the attacks, Escudero went so far as to sign what is considered the first fatwa, or religious edict, against al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. It declared bin Laden an apostate for defending terrorism as legitimate and urged Muslims around the world to denounce him.

That earned Escudero swift condemnation as an infidel on a Web site associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaida's leader in Iraq, and a flood of e-mails Escudero interpreted as death threats.

But Nunez Villaverde said it remains to be seen how Spain will handle its Muslim population in years to come because immigration is still a new phenomenon here. It's only been a generation or so that Spain's been wealthy enough to lure immigrants rather than send off emigrants as it did in the lean decades after its 1936-39 civil war.

He said Spaniards are only now getting used to seeing blacks, Asians and North Africans in significant numbers. The Muslims here tend to be first-generation arrivals _ unlike second- and third-generation citizens in France _ who are not yet in a position to assert themselves socially or politically.

Down the road, how Spain treats its Muslims and other immigrants _ and how the latter react _ is anybody's guess. "We have no guarantee that just because nothing has happened so far it is not going to happen tomorrow," Nunez Villaverde said.
Posted by: Dan Darling 2006-03-10