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

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 13, 2010; A09

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.

Ultimately, that is what brought her into conflict with Benbrahim and Osri. As a representative of City Hall, Ghailan wielded power over the immigrant community. That, residents said, was something the traditionalists could not accept -- particularly because it involved a woman who refused to cover her hair.

Petitions and complaints

Benbrahim organized a petition demanding Ghailan's firing. Ghailan said the dispute soon escalated; she lodged a formal complaint against Benbrahim in November 2008, charging that he had harassed, threatened and attacked her and her family.

A local court issued a restraining order, barring the sheik from going near Ghailan or her family, and launched a formal investigation in which procedure dictated that Benbrahim be taken into custody. But, Ghailan said later, the mayor, Alberich, intervened to prevent the arrest, saying that it would disrupt relations with Cunit's Muslim community.

In an interview, Alberich said she did not prevent the arrest but discussed the case with the police chief, who decided it would be a bad idea to make an arrest.

At the same time, Alberich undertook to mediate directly with Benbrahim. In her mind, she said, the issue was a personal dispute, not a clash of values.

"There is no coexistence problem in Cunit," she said. "We have never had that."

The situation remained tense but quiet until the magistrate announced two weeks ago that his investigation was finished and that Benbrahim should be jailed for five years on charges of harassment, defamation and threats and that Osri should be sentenced to four years for harassment and defamation.

Spain's national newspapers took notice, and TV crews arrived. Soon afterward, Ghailan's friends said, she was threatened in the street again, this time by some of Benbrahim's followers.

Ghailan, who was briefly hospitalized for anxiety attacks, was unavailable to relate what happened, as was Benbrahim. But Ghailan told local reporters last week that she had been approached by Alberich after the magistrate's announcement with a suggestion that she withdraw her complaint to foster improved relations with the Muslim community and get the problem behind her.

Allegations that Alberich had sought to exempt the Islamic leadership from the legal system were the main issue that generated the calls for her resignation.

"It is important for political leaders to put clear limits, so the Muslims know they have to live with Spain's values," said Montserrat Carreras Garcia, a centrist city council member also unhappy with Alberich's performance.

In the interview, Alberich said she did not ask that the complaint be dropped but recognized that it would be difficult for Ghailan to continue working if Benbrahim and Osri are on trial and risk prison terms. In the meantime, she said, Ghailan is on sick leave.

"When she comes back, we'll have to see," Alberich said.

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