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.

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.

"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.

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.

"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."

Criticism from politicians, Muslims

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."

An Islam promoting European values

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."

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