A Spanish Bridge to Islam ; Spain's Muslim Converts Reach out to Moroccan Immigrant Women and Children

Article excerpt

As a teenager, Elena Rodriguez Arteaga visited the Alhambra, Granada's great Moorish citadel, and became intrigued with Spain's Muslim past. She studied its role in her overwhelmingly Catholic country, and the more she learned, the more she wanted to know.

Three years ago, she converted to Islam. Now Ms. Arteaga, a nurse at a public hospital in Madrid, uses her understanding of both the Western and Muslim worlds to help new immigrants - particularly women and children - adapt in Spain.

As in much of the rest of Europe, politicians here continue to link immigration with increasing delinquency, and efforts to tighten immigration laws are gaining ground as tensions between the native and new communities rise.

But Arteaga is reaching out to the new arrivals, who hail primarily from Morocco, by running health classes in Arabic schools for young Muslims throughout the city. She helps teach the children nutrition and emergency first-aid skills and asks her colleagues learn some basic Islamic principles before entering the classroom.

In working with immigrant women, Arteaga and others like her say they hope to chip away sexist interpretations of Islam that the women may have inherited in their native country - and which often cast Islam in a negative light. For example, when a leader in Spain's Muslim community issued a book that included a chapter on how to beat wives without leaving visible marks, women throughout the country were outraged. Female Spanish converts vigorously protested its publication.

"Too often interpretations of Islam are cultural ones, and have nothing to do with the Koran," Arteaga says. "Our role is to teach new immigrants, who learn [about] Islam from books or their husbands, how to adapt to the customs in our country while remaining true to the Koran."

Islam has historically been a source of tension for Spain, whose monarchy expelled Muslims in 1492. Dictator Francisco Franco banned the practice of religions other than Catholicism, and the state officially recognized Islam only in 1989. Today, nearly 95 percent of Spaniards consider themselves Catholic. But more than half a million Muslims live in Spain - a number that continues to grow because of immigration and the birthrate among Moroccan immigrants, which is more than double that of Spanish women, according to UN figures. …