The Mosque in Torrejón de Ardoz doesn’t look much like a mosque. It occupies the ground floor of a drab block of flats near the main square in this town of 120,000 inhabitants just east of Madrid. But for the last decade and a half, it has been the only place of worship for Muslims here.
“This mosque is too small for us and we need a new site that is bigger and more apt for our needs,” says Farid Bahoudi, the spokesman for Torrejón’s Islamic community, pointing to the old building. He says there are now about 10,000 Muslims in the town, mostly from north Africa.
But local Muslims’ attempts to find a more suitable site for their mosque have sparked a dispute that has pitted politicians on the far right against activists from the radical left and highlighted the issue of race relations in crisis-ridden Spain.
“We’ve tried to overcome ignorance to show people the truth about who we are and show them the reality of Islam and the reality of coexistence,” says Bahoudi. “But instead of wanting to integrate with us, the locals here would rather we moved elsewhere.”
In February of this year, the municipality gave permission for the new, bigger mosque to be built on a site near the centre of town, where two empty houses stand in a small side street. The local Muslims immediately bought the land, for nearly €500,000, with donations from members of their community.
Bahoudi says he has never received any complaints from neighbours about the present mosque and he stresses that the new place of worship will not cause any noise or bother for neighbours.
But many locals are not convinced.
“How would you like it if two or three hundred ‘Moors’ came wandering in and out of your street to pray each day?” says one man who lives on the same street as the proposed site for the new mosque and who prefers not to give his name.
Francisco Morena, a pensioner who is sitting on a bench near the proposed site, knows little about the new mosque project. But when told about it, he says: “When we go to other countries, we have to behave the way people do in those countries. But it seems as if here it’s the other way round: we have to accept what the foreigners want.”
About 2,000 locals who feel a similar way have put their signatures to a petition against the new mosque project.
On June 27th, apparently prompted by this swell of resistance, the municipal authorities performed a U-turn, approving a proposal that changed the planned site for the new mosque to an industrial park outside Torrejón.
Farid Bahoudi and the Islamic community are deeply upset at the decision, which they feel will marginalise the town’s Muslims. Like many other Muslims here, Bahoudi is Spanish, having grown up in Ceuta in north Africa, a city that belongs to Spain.
“When people hear the word ‘Islam’ it’s as if they assume you’re automatically talking about a different country, as if Islam came from outside Spain,” he says, pointing out that Spain was under Islamic control for 800 years, during much of which time Christians, Jews and Muslims coexisted. There are now just over one million Muslims in Spain, according to estimates by Islamic organisations.
“Now, in the 21st century, people should be more open and more informed about who Muslims are.”
But Torrejón’s dispute has taken on a national tinge in recent days, with the intervention of a far-right politician from Catalonia, several hundred miles to the northeast. Josep Anglada, leader of the Platform for Catalonia anti-immigration party, visited Torrejón at the end of June, and staged a rally against the mosque and the “Islamisation” of Spain.
“We don’t want any mosques in Torrejón or anywhere else in Spain,” he said. “The mosque will bring degradation, violence, hate and fanaticism.”
Only a few dozen people attended the rally. But while Anglada’s party is relatively small, it has made substantial gains in Catalonia over the last few years and he has campaigned against the building of several mosques. Anglada has targeted other regions, with Madrid a priority.
His representative in the capital, José María Ruiz, explains from his office in Madrid the party’s ideas.
“This isn’t just a problem for Torrejón, it’s a national problem,” he says. “Over the last 15 or 20 years Spain has received more than five million immigrants, many of them from north Africa. Apart from the problems related to unemployment and so on, this is distorting our Spanish identity.” That identity, he adds, is based on Roman Catholic roots.
According to Leandro Ortega, a young leftist activist who took part in a counter-rally against intolerance and Anglada’s meddling in Torrejón, the politician is a “fascist”.
With Spain suffering a severe economic slump and with an unemployment rate of nearly 25 per cent, Ortega warns the country is susceptible to the far right’s message.
“Anglada sows hate, he makes people think immigrants have caused the crisis,” he says. “Right now there isn’t that much hate aimed at immigrants, but hate can be sown.”
The Muslims of Torrejón are now considering whether to appeal against the municipality’s decision to keep the new mosque away from the centre of town. But as the economic crisis refuses to fade, it is clear that this issue is not confined to a small town outside Madrid – it is something the whole country is having to come to terms with.