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.
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Three converts were among those arrested in the British planes plot this summer. And in Spain, two recent books have raised alarms about the influence of Islamic converts in Spanish society. Popular Party congressman Gustavo de Arístegui argues in "Jihad in Spain" that New Muslims threaten to spread extremist ideas.Skip to next paragraph
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"Jihadist groups were once suspicious of converts because they feared that they were intelligence agents trying to infiltrate their cells," says Mr. Arístegui. "But someone with blue eyes and a Western last name raises fewer suspicions, and the jihadists realized they can be effective cannon fodder for suicide missions. They are almost impossible to detect, especially if they have not revealed their conversions to their families."
Arístegui acknowledges that only a small percentage of converts are jihadists. Indeed, of more than 200 Muslims arrested in Spain in relation to 9/11 or the Madrid bombings, only one – Yusuf Galan – was a convert. But he says that the "number who support the ideals that feed terrorism is much greater."
Writer and philosopher Rosa María Rodríguez Magda worries less about terrorism than converts' potential to subvert democratic values.
"In principle, Spanish converts intend to defend moderate Islam," she says. "As such, they shouldn't pose a danger but rather an opportunity for debate. But they have to do it rationally, without accusations that only create conflicts whose consequences could disturb social harmony."
In her book, "Spain Converted to Islam," Magda accuses some converts of inconsistency in their support for feminism because they also embrace polygamy.
Moreover, she sees converts as the "Trojan horse" through which Islamist ideas about "reclaiming al-Andalus" could take hold in Spain.
"Perhaps this friendly face of Islam is more dangerous than the fundamentalist affirmations of certain imams," she writes. "At least with the latter we know who the enemy is; they're not wolves in sheeps' clothing."
Junta members reject such characterizations, however.
"For neo-cons like Arístegui," says Mr. Escudero, "we converts don't fit within the mold of the [Islamist] enemy they've tailor-made. So we make them uncomfortable."
The Junta may also be falling out of favor with other Muslims as well. Early in 2006, the Islamic Commission unexpectedly replaced the moderate Escudero with a new secretary-general.
Felix Herrero is a convert himself, though his mosque was investigated for terrorism, and some believe he is sympathetic to – even controlled by – powerful Saudi donors.
Escudero's ouster may have been caused by his democratic endeavors.
"They criticized the fatwa against bin Laden, saying no one has the right to eject a Muslim from Islam," says Prado, who is now the director of the Junta Islámica's Catalonia branch."It was a clear rejection of the Junta Islámica's agenda."
The Junta's role does appear to be changing. Nevertheless, converts are still an important buffer in Spain, according to Escudero.
"We know the institutions and how the government works," he says, "so it makes sense that the role of mediator would fall on Spanish Muslims, on converts."
And Prado underscores their importance in fostering a locally grown Islam that promotes European values. "With the Junta Islámica, we've broken the monopoly that certain foreign countries have on Islam in Europe."