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Spain gets secular… with its Muslims

A Madrid school’s banning of the Islamic headscarf has drawn both support and opprobrium. But in a country with a large, newly arrived Muslim community, there needs to be a more considered response to the issue of religious expression.


The hijab issue raises a wider debate about Islam in Spain. Photo: DMahendra

A Madrid state-run secondary school’s decision to ban a 16-year-old female pupil from wearing a hijab, or Islamic headscarf, to classes has hit the headlines, bringing to the surface the uncomfortable issue of the place in public life of Spain’s more than one million Muslims.

The Camilo José Cela school in the prosperous Madrid suburb of Pozuelo has decided that Najwa Malha, who was born in Spain to Moroccan immigrants, has violated its dress code by wearing the hijab.

The school’s board has ratified the decision by an overwhelming majority, and Malha has been receiving individual tuition in the school’s waiting room. Her options are simple: accept the ban and remove her headscarf, or go to another school where dress codes do not include headscarves.

This second option is open to her, because unlike in France, where the government imposed a nationwide ban on headscarves in 2004, in Spain there are no clear guidelines on the wearing of Islamic headdress, and schools themselves are allowed to decide (a neighbouring school has also suddenly implemented a ban on the hijab, apparently so that Malha can not attend it either).

Spain would do well to listen to the way the debate is being played out in France; and maybe it could avoid the same problems a generation down the line that France is now facing.

This is not the first hijab ban in Spanish schools, although barely half a dozen cases have been picked up by the media in the last decade or so. And in some cases, bans on Islamic headscarves were overturned, based on the constitutional right to an education prevailing over a school’s prerogative to set dress codes.

Mansur Escudero, who heads Spain’s Islamic Commission, an official body, has filed several complaints over the banning of Islamic headdress in recent years, winning agreement from the Interior Ministry, for instance, that women could wear the hijab in photos for passports or national identity documents.

It should also be remembered that in the predominantly Muslim Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, girls in hijab routinely attend state schools. The same is true for schools in parts of Andalusia with a high proportion of Muslim immigrants.

However, the so far occasional bans on Muslim women wearing headscarves in public have been largely supported by both main national parties. Cabinet members of the Socialist Party administration lump headscarves in with chadors, veils, and even burkas, describing them as a “symbol of submission” and a “violation of a citizen’s civil rights”.

But while many of its ministers seem to support a ban, the government says that it will not address the issue of headscarves in schools and other public places in its upcoming legislation on religious freedoms.

The right wing Popular Party made immigration an election issue during the 2008 campaign. As well as a ban on headscarves, it has proposed that immigrants sign a legally binding document obliging them to learn Spanish and become familiar with the country’s customs.

Backing the burka ban

Perhaps Spain’s emerging debate over headscarves should be seen in the context of those of its EU neighbors, which have larger, and longer-established, Muslim communities.

A March poll by the Financial Times shows that more than half of voters in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Spain back a push by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to ban women from wearing the burka.

The poll showed some 70 percent of respondents in France said they supported a ban. There was similar sentiment in Spain and Italy, where 65 percent and 63 percent, respectively, favoured the move.

Notably, while opposition to the burka was strong, few respondents said they were prepared to support the ban as part of a wider drive towards secularism in their country. Interestingly, Americans answering the poll were much less inclined toward prohibition.

What is painfully missing from Europe’s debate on Islam is any recognition that Muslim immigrants are an integral part of Europe, that Islam is part of Europe’s historical heritage and its present. Muslim workers, mainly from Morocco, Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia, West Africa, and South Asia, continue to play a crucial role in the economic development of Spain and Europe.

Unlike the urban professionals -doctors, engineers and IT experts- who make up a majority of Muslims in North America, Europe’s Muslim immigrants are largely from poor, rural backgrounds and have come to the continent to do the dirty jobs. Some have climbed up the social ladder, but most remain on the margins of society, ignored by politicians and business leaders and facing discrimination in housing, schools and labour markets. Instead of easing integration of Muslims into mainstream Europe, the talk of bans on hijabs risks deepening the divide.

France’s 2004 ban on headscarves and other similar religious apparel, has now been followed by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s push for a ban on burkas, the garment that covers the female body from head to toe. The French police, however, say that they know of just 367 women in the country who wear the burka, and that they are aged under 30, and wore it out of choice, and as a political statement.

The thinking of many of our leaders seems to be that the hijab is the thin end of the wedge: like cannabis smoking leads to heroin addiction, the veil leads to wearing the burka as a political statement.

After more than four decades of immigration in France and Germany neither country has done enough to engage their Muslim minorities, allowing a more militant version of Islam to gain a foothold among the younger and most disaffected members of the community. Young Muslims are now much readier to proclaim their Islamic identity than their parents and also more likely to fall under the sway of largely foreign-trained imams espousing the strict Islamic traditions of Saudi Arabia and other Islamic nations which are far from the realities of life in Europe.

What’s more, as Muslim leaders in France point out, in contrast to liberal Europeans’ efforts to “emancipate” Muslim women, young Muslim men continue to be the target of job discrimination, French police prejudice, and public distrust.

For many Muslim women in France, the hijab has become a symbol of this radicalization. Muslim women who wear headscarves are seen by European feminists as victims of a repressive religion and culture. They are seen by the right as refusing to integrate. While many young Islamic women do wear them as a protest, others have found ways to incorporate the headscarf into fashion.

Three important points: Spain will never be a secular state in the sense that France is. Also, Spain’s Muslim population is relatively small, and still newly arrived. Like all recently arrived immigrants, Spain’s Moroccans are determined to make their way and to provide for their children, whom they assume will join Spanish society as full members. Thirdly, the government isn’t going to issue a ban on hijabs, and while the Popular Party is prepared to talk up immigration for electoral purposes, at a national level it is unlikely to waste political capital or electoral good will pushing for a ban.

So if, as seems likely, some schools will continue to ban the hijab, then the more debate the better, as long as that debate is widened to address how to accept Islam, and how Spain can learn from the mistakes of its neighbours when a country fails to integrate newcomers.

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Published: Apr 27 2010
Category: Politics
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9 Comments for “Spain gets secular… with its Muslims”

  1. In addition-this girl is not an immigrant,which seriously annoys the PP as she cannot "integrate",and a headscarf is not a burka.

    I wonder,though,how this backward state would deal with real democracy-Jews with skullcaps,Sikhs with turbans or kosher,Hindu etc food for school meals.

  2. Bilingual Muslims children have a right, as much as any other faith group, to be taught their culture, languages and faith. alongside a mainstream curriculum. Rejecting faith schools as "anti-democratic" or "divisive" is simply the wrong approach to take.

    Compulsory state education has promised to promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental, physical and academic development of a child in preparation for adult life – has failed far too many children, particularly national minorities and especially Muslim childldren. Now the time has come that parents and community should take over the running of their local schools The Local Authority's role should be confined to simply ensuring schools operate within the prevailing legislative framework (admissions criteria, Special Educational Needs, Community Cohesion, Financial Audit, etc). Parents can perform a better job than the Local Authority because parents have a genuine vested interest – namely the best educational outcome for their children. The Local Authority simply cannot be trusted.

    There is no end to Forced marriages and honour killings as long as Bilingual Muslim girls keep on attending state schools with notoriously monolingul non-Muslim teachers. Muslim schools are attractive to Muslim parents because they have better discipline and teaching Islamic values. Bilingual Muslim teachers are role models who understand the needs and demands of their children.

    Bilingual Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teahers as role models during their development period. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school.

    No body has the right to tell a woman how to dress, or worse, how to undress? Let her wear what she likes, especially if it's part of her religion. I see the banning of headscarves or niqabs as an attack on both religious freedom and on the rights of women & girls. In the United Kingdom, there is a social and economic pressure of Muslim women not to cover themselves with headscraf or a veil.

    Each and every Muslim child should be in a state funded Muslim school with bilingual Muslim teachers as role model during their developmental periods. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school.

    Bilingual Muslim children need to learn and be well versed in standard English to follow the National Curriculum and go for higher studies and research to serve humanity. At the same time they need to learn and be well versed in Arabic, Urdu and other community languages inorder to keep in touch with their cultural roots and enjoy the beauty of their literature and poetry.

    A Muslim is a citizen of this global village. He/she does not want to become notoriously monolingual Brit.

    There are hundreds of state and church schools where Muslim children are in majority. In my opinion, all such schools may be designated as Muslim community schools.

    Muslim children are in majority because native parents remove their children as soon as they find that the number of Muslim children is on the increase. They do not want their children to mix with Muslim or any other migrant children

    Iftikhar Ahmad

    London School of Islamics Trust

  3. This is Spain so if you don't like what you see you are free to leave. No one forced you to come here! If it is so wonderful outside of Spain what are you doing here?

  4. So wonderful outside.. That's your wrong idea of "outside" people have.

    Unfortunately, in Italy it's even much worse than in Spain where students or people who were born here are still considered foreigners. The so called "second generation" is trying to build a true multicultural world but if old politics and backwards ideas still live I think it's only our fear to face this increasing number of "differences" which contribute to make us better. At school it's a real mess…Italians parents won't be able to understand this changes if we do not collaborate in creating this new change. It depends on all of us educators and common people.

    Thanks for your artcile and reflections…


  5. When are people going to learn that multiculturism doesn't work. Years gone by when immigrants emigrated to a new country they settled in the best way they could but brought their children up as citizens of their new country. Now people want to move to another country and set up what they left behind in their new abode. It will only lead to trouble.

  6. It is easy to say" Go back to where you came from",but do not forget that British Muslims are actually born and educated here. They are in the unenviable position of trying to combine two diffent worlds. That is no easy.

    Attacks on the Muslim community are at an all time high. The newspapers

    are full of abuse against Muslims. Physical attacks are rising. Muslim demonstrators are being sent to prison. The election of a right wing government will only mean more

    anti-Muslim policies while in Europe governments are lining up to ban the Burqa and impose restrictions on the Hijab.

    Multiculturalism is not about separation, ghettoisation or balkanisation. It is, instead, a recognition of both diversity and the need for common ground, mutual respect,and cultural engagement.

    Muslims all over the world never opposed English as a language what they did was opposition of the English culture and their system of education. In Pakistan, the medium of instruction is English and the official language is both English and Urdu. Pakistan is going to send English teachers to Korea for the teaching of English language.

    Muslim parents would like their children to be well versed in standard English to follow the National Curriculum and go for higher studies and research to serve humanity. Majority of Muslim children leave schools with low grades because state schools with monolingual teachers are not capable of teaching English to bilingual children.At the same time, they need to learn and be well versed in Arabic, Urdu and other community languages to keep in touch with their cultural roots and enjoy the beauty of their literature and poetry.

    I am concerned with the education of the Muslim children. It is nothing to do with integration or segregation. Those state schools where Muslim children are in majority, in my opinion, may be designated as Muslim community schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models.

  7. I don't see the point in forcing that integration. We have our own rules here, sorry. If you don't like them, we also have many airports and bus stations, you are free to go to whichever country you like, including your own, where I suppose you can wear burkas of different colours at your will.

    Go cry to other places.

    BTW- I have hope lately … looks like in reality most of Europe think the same, as we can see in Belgium, Switzerland, etc.. only they are silenced by opportunistic politicians that wanna be in the photo with a smiling face. Same here, but fortunately our political system is also so broke that politicians don't even respect themselves and act as free riders.

    I am proud of Lleida, same as I am proud of Belgium, and of Switzerland. We've seen what kind of tolerance Muslims have towards, for example, Denmark and the mahoma caricatures thing.

    I hope we would never end like Britain, a faded country without identity invaded by poverty and delinquence, where third generation terrorists are in fact integrated. I prefer to be outlined as racist. And proud of it.

  8. Fancy being proud of being racist! Instead of the rather unimaginative, knee-jerk reaction of telling the author to 'get out of here' why not consider why he or she might feel like this? For hundreds of years people have been looking for better living conditions in other nations, it's part of the human condition, and just because we are lucky enough to be living in a country without conflicts or terrible social deprivation doesn't give us the right to criticise others who want to seek a better life for their families. Countries and boundaries of land do not belong to individuals and we shouldn't be so complacent, things can change at any time. What I don't really agree with is that just because there may be some schools which have a majority of muslim children, that the responsibility of learning arabic and Urdu should fall to the education system. Surely that's the parents' responsibility, as generations of immigrants have taught children their native language at home? Spain is a Spanish-speaking country, the learning of Urdu and Arabic is not something for public sector education.

  9. I am surprised by the level of backwardness, intolerance and moral decadence of the spanish people. what does ones dress have to do with public concern? if you are disgusted by muslim women wearing decently(long atire), are you of the logic that women showing their nakedness to every one (the way your spanish women put one indecent wear) is the best? i don't think so. but the perpetrators of the seggregation of muslims world over will certainly have to regret their acts one day.

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