Cablegate: Muslim Parliamentarian Discusses Islam in Spain

DE RUEHLA #0154/01 3101419
R 061419Z NOV 09




E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (U) SUMMARY: Spain's first Muslim Parliamentarian
discussed with POLOFF Muslim relations in Spain and stressed the
importance of grassroots activism to integrate Muslims into
Spanish society. Noting the vast increase of Muslim immigrants
into Spain in recent years, Mohammed Chaib cautioned against
radical and fundamentalist trends in the country. In addition
to xenophobic political attitudes, Chaib faulted the lack of
unity within the Muslim community as a barrier to developing a
more positive role for Muslims in Spain. He also criticized the
divided Muslim leadership for not collaborating to build an
official mosque in Catalonia, which has more Muslims than any
other region in Spain. On a positive note, he said that the
Arab world has high hopes for President Obama. END SUMMARY

2. (U) POLOFF met on October 29 with Mohammed Chaib, a
socialist party deputy elected to the Catalan Parliament in 2003
and, more notably, the first Muslim Parliamentarian in Spain. A
Moroccan born immigrant whose family moved to Barcelona when he
was a small child, Chaib shared his views on the state of Islam
in Spain, and stressed the importance of immigrants integrating
into Spanish society. He said that the high rate of Muslim
immigration into Spain has greatly changed the Islamic community
over the past 15 years, and noted that more Muslims live in
Catalonia than in any other region of Spain. Approximately 1.3
to 1.5 million Muslims live in Spain, roughly half of whom are
from Morocco. The number of Muslims in Spain has nearly tripled
since 2003, when the population was estimated at only 525,000.
Less than 30 percent are Spanish citizens, including descendents
of immigrants and Spanish converts to Islam.


3. (U) The Islamic Commission of Spain (CIE), created in
1992, is the official entity representing Muslims in Spain. The
CIE has outlined cooperative agreements on education, prayer in
the workplace, imams and other policies to help manage Muslim
relations with Spanish society. According to Chaib, however,
these agreements were never fully developed and have been poorly
implemented. He said that competing interpretations of Islam,
coupled with cultural differences between Arab, Pakistani,
sub-Saharan and Spanish Muslim converts create further
divisions. He added that much of the discordance within the
Muslim community stems from the competing interests of the two
administrative bodies that comprise CIE - the Federation of
Islamic Religious Entities of Spain (FEERI) and the Islamic
Community Union of Spain (UCIDE). Chaib explained that FEERI
was originally created to serve Spanish Muslim converts, while
UCIDE was oriented toward Arab immigrants. He said that the two
federations need to unite under one secretary general with a
common mandate to integrate Muslims into Spanish society.
Chaib, who participated in a State Department International
Visitors Leadership Program on immigration in 2002, noted,
"Islam is the same. However, the administration of Islam is
very different."

4. (U) Chaib faulted the Islamic institutions for not
adapting to the changes and rapid growth of the Muslim
community. He warned of the "dangers of many different
religious movements from all over the world" competing for the
attention of Muslims in Spain, explaining that a unified,
moderate religious leadership is necessary to fight radical
views. Chaib is a staunch proponent of Muslim integration, and
he said that his primary struggle is "against those Muslims who
want to stay un-integrated." He explained that two types of
radicalism exist in Spain-political radicalism, which is an
anti-modernization, fundamentalist movement led by the
Moroccan-based Justice and Charity group, and religious
radicalism, which is characterized by Salafists who advocate a
separatist, strict interpretation of Islam. Promoting his
modern, moderate views, he declared, "we are living in the 21st
century, not in the era of Muhammad."

5. (U) Having grown up in Barcelona, Chaib's first
languages are Catalan and Spanish, and he said he did not learn
to speak Arabic until he returned to Morocco to attend high
school. He maintains strong ties with Morocco and recently
traveled there with the mayor of Barcelona on an official visit
to discuss the Moroccan community in Catalonia. Adding that
Moroccans comprise half of the Muslim population in Spain, he
stressed the importance of Spanish-Moroccan relations to combat
radicalism and cautioned that Morocco needs to stay vigilant
against extremism to prevent "what happened in Algeria."

BARCELONA 00000154 002 OF 002


6. (U) Although Catalonia has more Muslims than any other
part of Spain, no proper mosque exists in the region. Muslims
in Catalonia congregate in approximately 170 neighborhood prayer
rooms and oratories, many of which are informal operations run
out of garages or commercial spaces. In 2006 a proposed mosque
in the beachfront Badalona neighborhood of Barcelona was
defeated by a campaign directed by Partido Popular activists who
gathered 4,000 voters' signatures against the mosque. (Note:
Another ongoing proposal to build a mosque in the city of Lleida
has faced similar opposition for the past eight years. End
Note.) Chaib also cited the anti-immigration Platform for
Catalonia party as "racist and anti-Muslim". Much of the
blame, he added, stems from the lack of unity within the Muslim
community as the different factions cannot agree on the
characteristics of an official mosque. While Chaib did say that
relations between Moroccans and Pakistanis in Catalonia are
good, he believes that the Pakistani community resists
integrating and being more open to Spanish society. Chaib said
that his goal is to have a "Muslim community that lives in peace
within Spanish society, and has a true mosque."

7. (U) Chaib said that until several years ago many of the
imams in the informal prayer centers did not have residency
permits, and obtaining religious-based visas was difficult. He
credited the Spanish government in recent years for recognizing
the importance of legalizing the immigration status of religious
leaders, and said that most of the roughly 170 imams in
Catalonia are now legal residents. Chaib said that as the
number of Muslim immigrants increased, traditional fathers
increasingly voiced their concerns with their daughters
receiving a westernized education. As a result, the Spanish
government recognized the importance of promoting moderate
religious leaders to explain the role of Islam in a western


8. (U) Chaib also stressed the importance of educating
Muslim youth and Spanish born children of immigrants to be
politically active and participate in society. The founder of
the Ibn Batuta Socio-Cultural Association, a secular
organization that aims to improve relations between Muslims and
Spanish society, Chaib is active at both the political and
grassroots level. The Ibn Batuta center - named after the famed
14th century Moroccan explorer - organizes cultural activities,
neighborhood dialogues, workshops on Islam, and job assistance
programs. Chaib said that because of the high number of
immigrants that typically work in Catalonia's now struggling
construction industry, the economic crisis has hurt Muslims
particularly hard. He added that economic woes and unemployment
create more tensions than do religious and cultural differences.
Noting that Latin American immigrants in Spain can vote in
municipal elections - unlike most Muslim immigrants- Chaib
mentioned the importance of the Spanish government signing
bilateral accords with Morocco, Pakistan and other countries to
allow non-citizen immigrants to participate in the political

9. (U) Chaib, who excused himself three times during the
hour and a half long meeting to vote on different resolutions in
the Catalan Parliament, spoke highly of his 2002 visit to the
U.S. and like many interlocutors these days was hopeful that
President Obama would visit Barcelona next year. Before
concluding the meeting with a tour of the Parliament building
and introductions to several other socialist deputies, Chaib
said that Arabs have both high hopes and high expectations for
President Obama, noting "the doors of hope are opening, and it's
easier to work in that environment.

© Scoop Media

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