Islam in Catalonia

By Schwartz, Stephen | Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Islam in Catalonia


Schwartz, Stephen, Middle East Quarterly


Musulmans a Catalunya: El repte de l'integració i la Uibertat religiosa (Muslims in Catalonia: The Challenge of Integration and Religious Freedom). By Alex Seglers GomezQuintero. Barcelona: Angle Editorial, 2004. 206 pp. euro15.90.

The history of the Catalans and Islam is distinctive from that of the rest of Spain. The Catalan language, which counts some 10 million speakers, is an official idiom along with Castilian, in the Spanish regions of Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands. Barcelona, the great Catalan metropolis, was taken back from Muslim conquerors in the year 80 1 - only ninety years after the Umayyad invasion of 7 1 1 - and became the capital of the Marca Hispánica, or the Spanish March, controlled by the Christian heirs of Charlemagne. Catalonia was thus never part of Al-Andalus and is one of the few regions of Spain from which a Muslim cultural legacy, in the form of architectural monuments and Arabic loan-words, is absent.

Muslim immigration became a significant recent phenomenon in Catalonia in the 1980s when the need for agricultural labor in the region's rich vineyards and other farming enterprises became acute. Seglers, the author of a Catalunya, is a professor of ecclesiastical law at the University of Barcelona and has conducted wide-ranging studies of immigration in Canada and throughout the European Union. This book, aimed mainly for the use of Catholic clerics and governmental authorities, is a serious, factually -based examination of the legal issues that have emerged as Catalonia has struggled with North African and black African immigration.

While Seglers does not take up the point, Catalonia resembles, in some ways, the Flemish areas of Belgium, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, and Switzerland vis-à-vis the challenges presented to a native population by an influx of new Muslim residents. Muslims represent a minority in these territories (anywhere from 4-6 percent of the population according to a 2005 estimate) and are increasingly demanding special status for themselves. In the meantime, the Catalans, Flemish, Dutch, etc. are communities and nations with small populations whose cultures and languages vary from those of their larger European neighbors. If Muslims are a minority in Catalonia, Catalans are a minority in Spain. Catalans, and other small European nations, thus fear cultural dilution from two directions, and concern about a growing, and increasingly militant, Muslim population in these small Western European communities is based in reality. At the same time, new Muslim residents have, for the most part, been slow to recognize the sense of cultural threat felt by those from whom they ask a privileged protection.

Seglers argues that a peaceful integration of Muslims in Catalan life is possible if it is based on Muslim acceptance of European democratic values. The author writes that guarantees of religious freedom in Europe must rest not on acceptance of Islamist demands for special treatment but in demarcating the principle that Muslims may become citizens, as long as they jettison the tenets of Islamist ideology. As he writes, "Muslim citizenship" and Islamism remain at odds, producing "hidden conflicts."

Such conflicts include controversies over Islamist proposals for European accommodation to Shari'a-based family law with rights to polygamy and an acceptance of forced marriages. …

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