Aitana Guia@the Central: Exclusive sample of her most recent publication.

Aitana Guia@the Central 

The Muslim Struggle for Civil Rights in Spain: Promoting Democracy through Migrant Engagement, 1985–2010 demonstrates that a key factor left out of studies on the Spanish transition to democracy—namely immigration and specifically Muslim immigration—has helped reinvigorate and strengthen the democratic process.  Despite broad diversity and conflicting agendas, Muslim immigrants—often linking up with native converts to Islam—have mobilized as an effective force. They have challenged the long tradition of Maurophobia exemplified in such mainstream festivities as the Festivals of Moors and Christians; they have taken to task residents and officials who have stood in the way of efforts to construct mosques; and they have defied the members of their own community who have refused to accommodate the rights of women.  Beginning in Melilla, in Spanish-held North Africa, and expanding across Spain, the effect of this civil rights movement has been to fill gaps in legislation on immigration and religious pluralism and to set in motion a revision of prevailing interpretations of Spanish history and identity, ultimately forcing Spanish society to open up a space for all immigrants.

The following extract is the final section of Chapter 4 “Mosque Building, Catalan Nationalism, and Spain’s Politics of Belonging, 1990-2003.” After discussing why Barcelona is, together with Athens (Greece) and Ljubljana (Slovenia), one of the last three large European cities without a great mosque despite significant Muslim population in the region, the chapter discusses the pressures to culturally assimilate Muslims migrants experience in Catalonia. 


“Catalonia need not have a complex.  It has been more welcoming to immigrants than anywhere else in Spain,” claimed the former president of the Catalan government Jordi Pujol in 2004.[i]  Pujol was pointing to the fact that Catalonia was the first region in Spain to approve an Immigration Plan to coordinate and streamline different levels of government dealing with migration.  What he overlooked were criticisms that assimilationist demands were more strident in Catalonia, hatred of Muslims and outsiders was prevalent, and Spain’s first extreme-right xenophobic party, the Platform for Catalonia (PxC), had arisen in Catalonia.  Catalan nationalists might hold up shining examples of visible minorities who had managed to integrate successfully, using them as proof of the welcoming nature of Catalans, yet after three decades of immigration reality for most migrants remained stark.

Miquel Àngel Essomba, Director of UNESCO-Catalonia, Chair in Pedagogy at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and a Barcelonan born to a Cameroonian father and Catalan mother, lamented nationalists’s emphasis on immigrant acculturation while disregarding their “ombliguismo,” or naval gazing, a term coined by writer Juan Goytisolo.  “I like cultural fusions, a mixture of styles,” Essomba explained.  “Building interculturalism is not about knowing the customs of others alone; it’s about building new cultural products, creating new mixtures out of customs from different places.”[ii]  In Catalonia, he admitted,

I guess I am part of an ethnocentric society which consumes essentially its own cultural products and rarely the products of other cultures … I have read few authors who are not from my [Catalan] culture.  Indeed, I rarely open up to other worlds.[iii]

While politicians and academics advocate “interculturalism,” in practice the healthy nationalist contingent among them re-centre debate on native society and seal it off to outside cultural influences.  Use of the term interculturalism itself—rather than the despised multiculturalism of the Anglo-American world—reveals a lot about the mentality.  Catalan scholars of migration believe that interculturalism suits the Catalan context better than multiculturalism.  Multiculturalism creates ethnic enclaves and divides societies into cantons, they argue.  In this misrepresented understanding of multiculturalism, governments are required to grant cultural communities distinct collective rights and the state, with a strong central government in the middle, is flattened into equal rival subunits, in which “historical nationalities” become diluted.  Multiculturalism is political pluralism, the “Anglo-Saxon” model.  Interculturalism, on the other hand, is the more familiar French model.  It aims to develop a common civic culture based on the values of freedom, fraternity, and universal human rights, much in the mold of the European Enlightenment.[iv]

In Catalonia and Quebec, as elsewhere in Europe where the emphasis is on interculturalism, the “common civic culture” necessitates a degree of assimilation.  In Catalonia, migrants are expected to learn Catalan and appreciate the received national culture before they can contribute to it.  Only one sort of interculturalism, however, is welcomed.  If cultural innovations bypass the Catalan language and culture, then they are actively opposed as contrary to the Catalan ethos.  Some Catalan nationalists still refuse to accept as Catalan intercultural artistic fusions such as the Catalan Rumba, a musical genre in Spanish that such world-renowned Catalan Roma musicians as the Gypsy Kings and Los Manolos have developed since the 1950s.

Moreover, forty years after the arrival of the first Spanish-speaking internal migrants to Catalonia, fictional works in Spanish, written in and dealing with Catalonia, continue to struggle for acceptance in official Catalan culture, as illustrated by the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2007.[v]  Catalan was the year’s “cultural guest of honour” and the Ramon Llull Institute, a public institution financed by the Government of Catalonia, was charged with “presenting the Catalan culture in all its diversity to the world.”  The Institute allowed only “writers in the Catalan language” to represent it.[vi]  While unknown writers from England, the Czech Republic, Benin, Valencia, the Balearic Islands, and elsewhere were invited to showcase their works in Catalan to the international publishing industry,[vii] renowned residents of Catalonia who write in Spanish, including Juan Marsé, Eduardo Mendoza, Javier Cercas, Carlos Ruiz Zafón and others, were excluded.

In Catalan interculturalism, nationalists call on minorities to accept, value, and ultimately renew Catalan culture while they simultaneously encourage natives to maintain a traditional outlook and to feel under attack from Castilian and other “foreign” influences.  Catalans “love to learn about their own traditions but struggle to learn about others,” explained Mohamed Chair, a member of the Ibn Battuta Association.  This is unfortunate because “if the environment in which the immigrant settles takes an interest in him, his level of integration and performance is higher.”[viii]

The reality of Catalan nationalism is premised not on equality but privilege and the preservation of natives’ culture and language, and no matter how much an immigrant assimilates by gaining citizenship, learning the language and culture, or identifying with nationalist values, he or she is still seen by many as that outsider, the moro or “negret” (little black).  “At first people here pity you; later, when you are progressing, they distance themselves from you.  You have to exert tremendous energy to convince them that you are equal or even better at some things than they are,” claimed Chair.[ix]

Pujol and his wife Marta Ferrussola’s belief that Muslim demands for religious pluralism in Catalonia were impositions obeyed the ethnocentric logic of “Catalans first.”  “The historical continuity of a nation … [is something] immigrants can contribute to,” but in the end is a matter for native society, not immigrants, argued Pujol.[x]  In Catalonia, the nation is for and by native Catalans, a view shared by the PxC, even though Pujol and many nationalists have distanced themselves from that party.

Recent debate over the burka and niqab in public venues in Catalonia revealed the pervasiveness of PxC-like thinking.  Over a span of two months, the four largest Catalan cities—Barcelona, Tarragona, Hospitalet, and Lleida—each outlawed substantial religious headgear in public offices, schools, libraries, and hospitals.  Except for the Catalan United Left Party (Iniciativa per Catalunya-Verds), all parties supported the ban.  Nationally, the Socialist Party (PSOE) opposed the ban and because they were in power in the city of Barcelona, debate was intense there.  In smaller cities such as Vendrell, where the PxC had success at the polls and elected city councillors, local parties were more unanimous.[xi]  Unity among Catalan political parties, over wide-ranging issues and policies, has rarely been as solid.  This is one way in which Catalans are proving they are different:  In the rest of Spain, little political consensus has existed for a similar ban and the discourse of “Spaniards first” is only advocated by right-wing groupuscules.

Political scientists Will Kymlicka remind us that “symbolic gestures granting or denying recognition can have profound and continuing effects within a political culture in ways that directly affect the well‐being and self‐respect of citizens of minority cultures, as well as their enthusiasm to participate in the political life of the larger state.”[xii]  Were Catalan nationalists to take seriously their own commitment to interculturalism, they would, for instance, prioritize religious pluralism over cultural assimilation.  Catalan authorities would support a purpose-built grand mosque in Barcelona that fused Romanesque with Moorish styles without undermining the pride they feel for Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Church.

[i] Pujol, “Immigració: Gent i País.”

[ii] Goytisolo, “Pájaro.” Jamshed and Essomba, Diàlegs, 60.

[iii] ibid., 59.

[iv] Ros et al., Interculturalitat; Garreta Bochaca and Llevot Calvet, El espejismo intercultural; Interculturalitat, educació i llengües.  For a theoretical analysis of the concept and policy applications of interculturalism, see Zapata Barrero “The Three Strands of Intercultural Policies.” For an extensive discussion on liberal societies and multiculturalism, See Parekh, Rethinking Multiculturalism.

[v] Stewart King, “Catalan Literature(s) in Postcolonial Context,” 253-264.

[vi] “Frankfurt 2007 Objectives,” accessed December 24, 2009,  For a list of invitees, see “Autors,”

[vii] The Beninese author Agnès Agboton, Slovenian author Simona Škrabec, British author Mathew Tree, and Czech author Monika Zgustova—all of whom write in Catalan—were invited to attend the Frankfurt Fair.

[viii] Guillem Martínez, “Entrevista with Mohamed Chair. ‘Al catalán le gusta que asimiles sus tradiciones, pero le cuesta aprender otras’,” El País, April 30, 2000.

[ix] ibid.

[x] “Pujol pide a los inmigrantes que respeten la identidad catalana,” El País, March 20, 2003.

[xi] Juan Ruiz Sierra, “El PSOE insta els alcaldes socialistes a no impulsar més vetos al burca,” El Periódico, June 23, 2010, 25 and Juanjo Robledo, “España se blinda contra la burka,” BBC World, June 23, 2010.  Ramírez, La trampa del velo, 124-139.

[xii] Kymlicka and Norman, “Citizenship in Culturally Diverse Societies,” 29.

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