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In Spain, dismay at Muslim converts holding sway

'New Muslims' have gained prominence as mediators between politicians and Islamic groups, but now they face new scrutiny.

By Geoff PingreeCorrespondents of The Christian Science Monitor, Lisa AbendCorrespondents of The Christian Science Monitor / November 7, 2006


When Abdennur Prado adopted Islam in 1998, he had no idea that he would become a spokesperson for the Spanish Muslim community. As a young writer, Mr. Prado, whose parents were non-practicing Catholics, was a confirmed atheist. But during a spiritual crisis in his early 20s, he came across the Koran.

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"I was struck by what it said about the unity of all creation," he says. "Institutional religions, including sectarian Islam, erect barriers. In the Koran, I found a religion without barriers."

The tolerant Islam that moved Prado has propelled Spain's "New Muslims," as many converts here prefer to be called, to a position of relative power. Although their numbers are small compared with foreign-born Muslims, Spanish converts have wielded a significant mediating influence in both the country's institutions and its public discourse.

Yet as countries across Europe struggle with the question of how to assimilate a Muslim population that for many symbolizes the growing threat of Islamist terrorism, Spain's converts have come to occupy a difficult middle ground.

Some Spanish politicians fear they make easy targets for terrorist recruiters, while some more traditional Muslims distrust their liberal approach to Islam.

Historic model of moderate Islam

Inspired by the social harmony achieved among Jews, Muslims, and Christians under al-Andalus – as Spain's Muslim kingdom was known during the Middle Ages – today's converts oppose fundamentalism, promote women's rights, and reject violence.

Such principles – espoused on the popular WebIslam site run by Junta Islámica, a convert organization – have reassured Spain's recent governments, particularly in the wake of 9/11 and the 2004 Madrid bombings.

And on the first anniversary of the Madrid attacks, the Islamic Commission – set up in 1992 as a liaison between the government and the country's burgeoning Muslim population – issued a fatwa against Osama bin Laden that was warmly received in the Spanish press.

"To both the Muslim community and the government, we have emphasized that Islam and democracy share the same values," says Mansur Escudero, a Junta leader and the first secretary-general of the Islamic Commission. "The government doesn't even use the term 'Islamic terrorism' because we have explained on many occasions that one cannot characterize as 'Islamic' something that is totally prohibited in Islam."

Today, Spain has an estimated 1 million Muslims, roughly 20,000 of whom are converts. Many of those New Muslims adopted Islam in the late 1970s, led by their perception of Islam as a religion of the marginalized.

They soon became a leading voice for Spain's Islamic community, negotiating with the government in the late 1980s to obtain for Muslims some of the privileges granted Spanish Catholics.

These days, the Junta still works closely with the government on social issues. The Justice Ministry helps finance the group's annual conference on Islam and Feminism; the publicly funded National Distance Learning University offers a course, partly created by Junta members, to train experts in Islamic civilization and culture; and several of the public schoolteachers offering classes in Islam to Muslim students in regions like Andalusia are converts.

Converts: probable terrorist recruits?

Such liberalizing efforts have not convinced some in Spain who, fearful of immigration and Islamist terrorism, view the once-privileged convert community in a different light.