Muslim woman's veil case represents clash of values in Spain

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 13, 2010

CUNIT, SPAIN -- This sunny little resort on the Mediterranean shore has long been a favorite for weekenders seeking to escape the congestion of nearby Barcelona for a dose of sandy beaches and sea breezes.

But Cunit has gained a new distinction: It is famous in Spain as the town where a Moroccan-born Muslim woman with a master's degree and a head of curly hair says she was threatened by Muslim fundamentalists because she took off her veil and tried to live like a Spaniard.

The treatment of Fatima Ghailan, 31, prompted an investigating magistrate to bring charges against the sheik of the local mosque, Mohamed Benbrahim, and the head of the Islamic Association, Abderraman el-Osri, the leading figures in Cunit's Muslim community.

The case also generated demands for the resignation of Mayor Judit Alberich, a liberal Socialist who, her political opponents said, catered to her Muslim constituents at the expense of respect for the law.

The conflict roiling Cunit and its 12,000 inhabitants has shown Spaniards that they are not exempt from the growing tensions in Western Europe over Muslim immigrants who seek to preserve their home-country ways -- and sometimes to impose a conservative strain of Islam -- in societies based on secular democracy and Christian tradition.

The unease has become a major political issue in France, where the government is trying to find a way to ban Muslim women's full-face veils without violating the constitution. In Switzerland, voters decided in a recent referendum to ban construction of minarets, and a petition is circulating for a second referendum to mandate expulsion of any immigrant convicted of a crime.

Spain's Muslim population, mostly immigrants from Morocco just across the Strait of Gibraltar, is about 1 million in a country of 47 million. It is far smaller than France's Muslim population of more than 5 million, which is the largest in Europe. As a result, the government in Madrid has not had to confront the tensions as a national issue, as have its counterparts in France and Switzerland.

Quiet resentment

But the feelings surfacing in Cunit have revealed a quiet resentment among many people who think that traditional European values are being challenged by fundamentalist Muslims.

"This is serious," said Ivan Faccia Serrano, a Cunit city council member. "There is a big part of the population that is not comfortable living with these Moroccans."

In many ways, Ghailan was an unlikely champion of assimilation when she arrived in Cunit as a teenager. Her father had been the sheik of a mosque in Morocco, and until recently, she dutifully wore a scarf.

But things began to change several years ago. Ghailan received a master's degree in Barcelona, and before long she stopped wearing a scarf, letting her hair move freely. She began driving a car.

Then she got a job at City Hall, assigned to work with the town's approximately 1,000 mostly Moroccan Muslims as a "cultural mediator." Her job was to encourage Muslims, particularly cloistered women, to participate in the life of the town, to take advantage of language classes and to leave their homes to attend festivals.

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