Spain’s African enclaves seek to maintain harmony in face of far right
Vox expected to perform well in elections in Ceuta and Melilla on anti-immigrant platform
View of Ceuta from the city’s centre. Photograph: Guy Hedgecoe
In Ceuta’s bustling commercial centre, large panels on the pavement advertise the fact that the local Burger King’s meals contain halal meat. This meeting of Western and Islamic values is just one of many ways in which the city’s ethnic and cultural mix makes it stand out from the rest of Spain.
Although it is a Spanish territory Ceuta is perched on the North African coast, separated from Morocco only by a six-metre-high border fence. Ceuta and its sister city Melilla along the Mediterranean coast have Europe’s only land borders with Africa.
“Ceuta has a great deal of cultural diversity,” says Mohamed Alí, spokesman for the Caballas political party, which represents many Muslims in the city. “Some of us want to deepen that multiculturalism and respect for plurality.”
He points to the fact that almost half of Ceuta’s 80,000-strong population is Muslim, the other half mainly Catholic, while small Jewish and Hindu communities also inhabit the city. In Melilla, which is a similar size, the population has a similar profile.
But that delicate cultural balance, which has seen both places long held up as models of tolerance and co-existence, is changing and being tested by political developments.
On April 28th, Spain will hold a general election, followed almost a month later by regional and municipal elections. The conservative Popular Party (PP) has long governed in both of Spain’s north African cities. But polls suggest that the far-right Vox, which frequently expresses hostility to Islam, is heading for a strong result which could feasibly put it in control of either Ceuta or Melilla – or both.
“Vox and the far right are criminalising Islam and Muslims,” said Alí. “That’s very dangerous in a city where around half the population are Muslim.”
Vox has promised to deliver a “reconquest” of Spain, a term that harks back to the Middle Ages when Catholics took control of the country following eight centuries of Muslim dominance.
“I’m tired of this constant worry about Islamophobia,” the party’s leader, Santiago Abascal told one interviewer. “We don’t like how they treat women, we don’t like their understanding of freedom, we don’t like it. And saying that, is that Islamophobic?”
Many in Spain believe it is. An Islamic association has presented a legal complaint against Vox’s deputy leader, Javier Ortega Smith, for alleged discrimination and hate speech when he told supporters that “the Islamist invasion” was “our common enemy, the enemy of Europe, the enemy of progress, the enemy of democracy”.
Vox’s Ceuta office declined a request for an interview. However, party sources told The Irish Times they are hopeful of winning the city’s single seat in the Spanish congress and of matching the PP’s performance in the municipal election, giving Vox a chance of governing in a right-wing coalition.
While Vox’s national message is frequently hostile to Islam, the party adjusts its rhetoric in Ceuta, focusing more on promising to clamp down on the sub-Saharan migrants who attempt to scale the city’s fence from Morocco or the unaccompanied Moroccan minors who wander the streets.
“There’s a desire among many people to stop what some call the ‘Moroccanisation’ of the city,” says Ignacio Cembrero, author of La España de Alá (Allah’s Spain), a book about the country’s two-million-strong Muslim community. “There’s this idea that those [Muslims] who are here who are Spanish are ours and that’s fine, but that no more should come in.”
Clashes between communities in Spain’s two African cities are rare. A brawl between Muslims and Catholics during an Easter procession in Melilla in 2013 stands out as an exception and Cembrero does not expect a sudden eruption of racial conflict if Vox is voted in. However, he does detect a siege mentality among many non-Muslims, which Vox is exploiting.
Housewife Caty Godino, who says she plans to vote for Vox, is one example. “We’re used to having Muslims here,” she says. “The bad thing is those who come from abroad, from Morocco and so on. Co-existence with those who live here is fine. The bad thing is those who come from outside.”
The Muslim community’s relatively high birth rate and the exodus of many educated white Spaniards from Ceuta are among the factors that are tipping the population balance in favour of the city’s Muslims. That seems to concern driving instructor Francisco de las Serras, who defends Vox’s policies.
“It’s not an anti-Muslim stance, as far as I can tell,” he says. “It’s a stance against terrorism and oppression, because without a doubt Islam is an ideology – not just a religion – that impregnates everything and is oppressive.”
Several Muslims in Ceuta say that Vox’s views on Islam reflect opinions that many non-Muslim locals have long held, albeit behind closed doors, in a deeply conservative city.
“It’s co-existence but we’re not living in harmony together,” says Karim Prim, a Muslim civic leader. He points to the very different conditions in which the two communities live: many Muslims, for example, inhabit the El Príncipe neighbourhood, a poverty-stricken area lacking basic services which has become infamous for drug trafficking and jihadist activity. Non-Muslims tend to live in more affluent areas.
“People might talk about equality here, but the reality is different,” Prim says.
On Ceuta’s Paseo del Revellín street, such a schism is hard to detect. Flagships of Spain’s international business clout, such as retailer Zara and BBVA bank, line the street while nearby are Moroccan-style tea rooms and kebab houses. Along the street the Moroccan version of Arabic, Dariya, can be heard mingling with Spanish.
Nearby, on the harbour front, Prim casts a glance at Vox’s local headquarters, where the party’s green insignia hangs from the windows.
“We can’t allow ourselves to be pitted against each other over ethnicity, culture or religion,” he says.