The mosque in Torrejón de Ardoz doesn’t look much like a mosque. It occupies the ground floor of a drab block of flats near the main square in this town of 120,000 inhabitants just east of Madrid. But for the last decade and a half, it has been the only place of worship for Muslims here.
“This mosque is too small for us and we need a new site that is bigger and more apt for our needs,” says Farid Bahoudi, the spokesman for Torrejón’s Islamic community, pointing to the old building. He says there are now about 10,000 Muslims in the town, mostly from north Africa.
But local Muslims’ attempts to find a more suitable site for their mosque have sparked a dispute that has pitted politicians on the far right against activists from the radical left and highlighted the issue of race relations in crisis-ridden Spain.
“We’ve tried to overcome ignorance to show people the truth about who we are and show them the reality of Islam and the reality of coexistence,” says Bahoudi. “But instead of wanting to integrate with us, the locals here would rather we moved elsewhere.”
In February of this year, the municipality gave permission for the new, bigger mosque to be built on a site near the centre of town, where two empty houses stand in a small side street. The local Muslims immediately bought the land, for nearly €500,000, with donations from members of their community.
“How would you like it if two or three hundred ‘Moors’ came wandering in and out of your street to pray each day?” says one man who lives on the same street as the proposed site for the new mosque and who prefers not to give his name.
About 2,000 locals who feel a similar way have put their signatures to a petition against the new mosque project.
On June 27th, apparently prompted by this swell of resistance, the municipal authorities performed a U-turn, approving a proposal that changed the planned site for the new mosque to an industrial park outside Torrejón.
Farid Bahoudi and the Islamic community are deeply upset at the decision, which they feel will marginalise the town’s Muslims. Like many other Muslims here, Bahoudi is Spanish, having grown up in Ceuta in north Africa, a city that belongs to Spain.
Torrejón’s dispute has taken on a national tinge in recent days, with the intervention of a far-right politician from Catalonia, several hundred miles to the northeast. Josep Anglada, leader of the Platform for Catalonia anti-immigration party, visited Torrejón at the end of June, and staged a rally against the mosque and the “Islamisation” of Spain.
“We don’t want any mosques in Torrejón or anywhere else in Spain,” he said. “The mosque will bring degradation, violence, hate and fanaticism.”
According to Leandro Ortega, a young leftist activist who took part in a counter-rally against intolerance and Anglada’s meddling in Torrejón, the politician is a “fascist”.