Sunday, March 16, 2008

SPAIN: Where did all the mosques go?

Some years back, I read a book by an English Muslim author named Ahmed Thomson. The book concerned the history of Islam in Spain during and after its Jewish-Muslim golden age. That was a time when Cordoba housed the largest mosque on the planet. And when people of all denominations flocked to al-Andalus in search of knowledge, wealth, health or just somewhere to live in peace.

Basically, people went to Spain for the same reason so many people settle in Australia or New Zealand or some other stable Western country.

Today, Australia has plenty of Muslims and no shortage of mosques. In fact, in some cities and localities, we have too many mosques. When I was growing up, we had to travel 30 minutes to get to our nearest mosque. Now, we have 2 or 3 mosques within 5 minutes drive. One of these mosques was established when there was a split in the leadership of the other nearby mosque. The splinter faction went 3 km south-east and established a small prayer hall adjacent to a shopping centre carpark.

These days there are so many splinter-group mosques that it is hard to know where all the splintering started. One community elder once told me that even the Imam Ali ben Abi Taleb mosque in Lakemba started out as an ethnic splinter mosque.

Yet if a recent article in the New York Times is any indication, it seems we should start exporting some of our mosques to Spain. It seems that in many Spanish towns, Muslims have had to start saying their Friday congregational prayers in converted garages.

Although Spain is peppered with the remnants of ancient mosques, most Muslims gather in dingy apartments, warehouses and garages like the one on North Street, pressed into service as prayer halls to accommodate a ballooning population.

The mosque shortage stems partly from the lack of resources common to any relatively poor, rapidly growing immigrant group.

Then, of course, there is the usual factor of ordinary Muslims with no interest in violence or even politics having to suffer thanks to the violence of a few extremist ratbags.

But in several places, Muslims trying to build mosques have also met resistance from communities wary of an alien culture or fearful they will foster violent radicals.

Distrust sharpened after a group of Islamists bombed commuter trains in Madrid in March 2004, killing 191 people, and in several cities, local governments, cowed by angry opposition from non-Muslims, have blocked Muslim groups from acquiring land for mosques.

Complicating the issue is Spain's historical enmity between Islam and Catholicism and the steady rise in Muslim migration that has only taken place in the last decade or so.

Muslims ruled much of Spain for centuries, but after they were ultimately vanquished in the 1400s, their mosques were either left to ruin or converted into churches. Since then, fewer than a dozen new mosques have been built to serve Spain’s Muslim population, which has grown in the past 10 years to about one million from about 50,000 as immigrants have poured into the country.

That rise has coincided with a decline in church attendance in overwhelmingly Catholic Spain, giving new echo to an old rivalry between the two religions. It was the Catholic king and queen, Ferdinand and Isabella, who defeated the last Moorish ruler in Spain in 1492 and oversaw the expulsion of Jews and Muslims. Now, as churches struggle to draw a dwindling flock, Muslim prayer halls are overflowing.

“The reality of this country has changed much faster than that of other countries,” Ángel Ros, Lleida’s mayor, said in an interview. “A process that took 30 years in Italy or France has taken 10 years in Spain.”

The situation is so bad that in one region of Spain, the local parliament is even considering passing a law forcing local councils to allow land to be set aside of religious buildings, including mosques.

... the ruling coalition in Catalonia submitted a bill in the regional parliament in December that would oblige local governments to set aside land for mosques and other places of worship. Representatives of Muslim organizations hope it will inspire a similar national law.

“People are realizing the world has changed and they can’t look the other way,” said Mohammed Chaib, a member of the Catalan parliament and the only Muslim lawmaker in Spain.

Not everyone sees things the same way.

Cardinal Luis Martínez Sistach, archbishop of Barcelona, opposes the bill, which would entitle all religious groups to land on an equal basis. He argues that Catholicism requires different rules.

“A church, a synagogue or a mosque are not the same thing,” he said, according to the conservative Spanish newspaper ABC. The bill, he said, “impinges on our ability to exercise a fundamental right, that of religious liberty.”

While no law on religious land use exists, the wealthy Catholic Church faces no difficulty acquiring land, experts in law and religion say ... Spain’s secular state cannot finance religious buildings, though it has a special arrangement to subsidize the Catholic Church.

And we thought we had it bad here in Australia.

© Irfan Yusuf 2008

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