Barcelona’s Muslims deliver unequivocal message: not in my name
City’s Muslim community is well integrated, and contemptuous of last week’s terror attacks
If you take a turn off Las Ramblas and walk west for about five minutes you’ll notice a subtle change in the cityscape.
The countless tapas bars and souvenir shops that make up Barcelona’s most famous street start to disappear and are replaced with kebab restaurants and tiny bodega stores. Mosques and Islamic centres begin to outnumber churches and women with uncovered heads become the minority.
This is El Raval, a gritty district right in the centre of the city which is home to most of Barcelona’s Muslim community. Its name comes from the Arabic word for neighbourhood and it has been referred to by some in the right-wing press as Barcelona’s Molenbeek, after the district in Brussels which has become synonymous with Islamist terrorism.
Even a short visit shows this to be inaccurate and unfair. As well as hosting a large immigrant community (nearly 50 per cent), El Raval is also home to hipster clothes shops and art galleries. Some outlying parts are becoming quickly gentrified, and rents are rising rapidly, much to the annoyance of the families living there.
Residents also point out that this Muslim community is well integrated into Catalan life and that none of the suspects in last week’s terror attacks came from the district despite it being located less than a kilometre from the site of most of the killing.
“Everywhere you look there are Muslims and non-Muslims. We live together, there is no other choice,” said Tahir, a waiter in a Tandoori restaurant in the area.
Of course, there are others who believe this is a rose-tinted view of the situation in Catalonia, a region home to a quarter of Spain’s 1.9 million Muslims. At the weekend the right-wing newspaper La Razon carried an opinion piece calling Catalonia “the capital of Salafism in Spain”. It also accused local Muslims of being blasé in the face of terrorism from their co-religionists.
This week El Raval’s residents were weary of being asked to justify or explain the violence of a tiny number of extremists.
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“Every day, same question: ‘Why do Muslims do this?’” Tahir said. “How can I know? I am Muslim but they are not Muslim. I’m glad they are dead. Catalonia is our home. Nobody wants them here.”
Since the attacks, mosques across Spain have been the target of Islamophobic attacks. A Muslim centre in Seville was graffitied with the words ‘Killers, you’re going to pay’ while neo-Nazis used flares to attack a mosque in Granada.
As of Tuesday there have been no similar reports from Barcelona. Some residents says this is down to the the left-leaning, cosmopolitan nature of the city.
However there is cause for concern. The day after the attacks, the far-right group La Falange, named in honour of the party of Franco, the fascist dictator who ruled Spain for five decades, gathered on Las Ramblas to protest against Spain’s immigration policies. The protest was short-lived.
“If you look you see that there were many more people against them. They booed the Falangists and chased them down the street,” cafe owner George Canto said, only slightly exaggerating. “They are not welcome here.”
On Monday, evening well over 1,000 people from about 40 Muslim groups gathered on Plaza de Catalunya for a march against terrorism.
A young Muslim woman wept as she was badgered by an onlooker. He told her she must understand the anger towards people of her “skin colour”. She replied repeatedly, “We are not terrorists, we are not murderers” before another onlooker approached and hugged her.
Despite the incident, Ashir, a immigrant to the city from Kashmir, believes Barcelona is still a welcoming place for Muslims.
“In Barcelona we find people are very, very friendly. They are very happy to see many different faces and many different cultures,” he said during Monday’s demonstration.
He even had some sympathy for people who see Muslims as a threat.
“Not everybody is educated, so they can’t understand the different types of Muslim people so they blame all Muslims. The key is more education and more marches like this one.”
The message from the demonstration, the third such gathering since the attacks, is that most Muslims hate what has been happening on European streets as much as everyone else. On Monday there was genuine anger towards Younes Abouyaaqoub, the van driver in Thursday’s attack who was shot dead by police hours earlier.
“This is bullshit man, he is not a Muslim man, he is an animal. Actually animal is too good for him,” said Mani, a Pakistani man who has been living in Barcelona for 12 years. He attended the march carrying a Catalan flag.
As the march passed the giant circular shrine to the victims on Las Ramblas, there was a warm round of applause from the hundreds of people who had gathered to pay their respects. This prompted another thought from Mani: “First comes the person, then the religion. What religion? I don’t care. You respect me, I respect you.”