[First published in Catalonia Today on 13 March 2008.]
[Photo coutesy of Vilafranca mosque]
‘There is respect for Muslims here’
El Hajj Ibrahim, spokesman for the mosque of Vilafranca del Penedès, talks about the evolution of the city’s growing Muslim community
–Is it easier or harder for an immigrant to adapt to life in a smaller town like Vilafranca compared to Barcelona?
I think it depends on how you look at it. In a big city people can have less contact with each other. A smaller town is the opposite. People know one another and there can be more interaction between people native to the town and those who have come to live there. People in smaller towns are more introspective; more reserved and normally are more cautious with you. But in Barcelona for example, people usually mind their own business, so I think it can be more difficult for a Muslim to adapt in regional towns because everybody holds closer to their roots and their own culture and religion. In general though, I have to say that there is a lot of respect for Muslims here in Vilafranca.
–How was the mosque created in Vilafranca? Is it a converted shopfront?
Well, our mosque has been relocated four times in Vilafranca because it became too small for the increasing numbers of people coming to pray. The present location was an unoccupied building that had been closed up for some time. The Muslim community bought it. The Iman has had a full-time position there for the last 10 years.
–Did you experience any problems setting up the mosque?
The only real problem we had was that some local people did not want a mosque in its present place and there was opposition from a few neighbours close to the building. They collected signatures for a petition against the opening of the mosque. Fortunately, the owner of one of the sites of our previous mosque had a high opinion of us and had good relations with the Muslim community. He supported us by writing to local newspapers such as La Fura. We also had a day where we opened our doors to the general public and this helped. A lot of residents of the area came in, including the coordinator of the petition, who said that it was not what she had expected and she changed her opinion. After that visit they stopped collecting signatures against the opening. The town council also assisted us in helping to deal with our neighbours and we have not any problems for a long time.
–People in Spain and elsewhere often tend to associate Muslim with terrorist. What can be done about this misconception?
People may tend to think this way because normally citizens are influenced by the mass media and politicians, worldwide. There is not enough close contact between Muslims and non-Muslims to change this perception. For example, the comments by PP leaders do not help people to see that a Muslim is a normal person who just has different beliefs. But I think the average person doesn’t see a Muslim as a terrorist. I don’t think that Muslims should do much about this except that we could open-up more in living together with people from other faiths. This doesn’t mean rejecting one’s beliefs. We can all still be someone who lives with others while being true to ourselves.
–Is the situation not as bad as those politicians suggest?
Well, in my opinion people here have more of a capacity to take Muslims as they find them and for who they actually are. Immigration is a reality. Spain’s neighbours include Muslim countries and there has been a shared history with them, so we should have fewer problems because of this. Spanish people should get to know North Africans and be better at this than other Europeans because eight centuries of living side by side in places like Cordoba and Granada are positive influences. –Are you hopeful about the future of relations between Islam and the West? Muslims have to behave in the right way and work to get the sympathy of other people. God spoke to the prophet Mohammed in the Koran, but was communicating also to Muslims when he said: “You are sent for the mercy of all mankind.”
The Vilafranca del Penedes mosque, on carrer La Moja, will be having its annual Open Day on May 10.