Islam returns to a tolerant Andalucia

On a green hillside above Spain's southern city of Granada stands the magnificent Alhambra palace, the last seat of Iberia's Muslim rulers and the country's most famous monument to centuries of enlightenment and religious coexistence.

Across the Darro river, perched atop a steep hill stacked with whitewashed houses, is Granada's modern beacon of Islam: the first mosque to be built in the city since the collapse of the Moorish Iberian empire, known as al-Andalus, 500 years ago.

The mosque, completed in 2003 with €3m donated mainly by the Gulf Emirate of Sharjah, draws hundreds of visitors every day to its garden of orange, olive and pomegranate trees, which looks out over the 13th century Alhambra and the dazzling snowy mountains beyond.

On Friday afternoon, hundreds of worshippers – the majority of them North African men – climb the cobbled streets of the Albaicín, Granada's Arabic quarter, to reach the mosque. After prayers, men and women mingle in the garden and teenage boys in jeans and sweatshirts exchange high fives. A bearded farmer from the nearby Alpujarras hills sells lemons, oranges and avocados from the back of his van.

Spain's Muslim population – suppressed and then expelled 500 years ago by Catholic rulers – began to reemerge in the late 1970s as Spaniards converted to Islam. The 50,000 or so converts have been joined by an influx of North African and Pakistani immigrants, swelling Spain's Muslim population to about 1m.

While growing scrutiny of religious practices and fear of violent extremism have led to a sense of siege among many Muslims in Europe, Spain's Muslims say they feel broadly comfortable among the country's overwhelmingly Catholic population. A recent survey among 1500 Muslim immigrants indicated 74 per cent were fairly or very happy in Spain and 83 per cent said they felt free to practice their religion.

Incidents of harassment or racist violence are isolated and the debate about the Muslim headscarf that has convulsed European neighbours has not resonated strongly in Spain. The March 2004 bombing of Madrid commuter trains by Islamic extremists was viewed by many as a reaction to Spain's military presence in Iraq - since withdrawn – rather than the product of an insidious jihadist threat.

"Frankly, it's much easier these days to be a Muslim in Spain than it is to be a Muslim in Iraq or Algeria," says Sidi Karim Viudes, head of the Islamic Community, an organisation representing Spanish Muslim converts.

Munira Mendonca, a Californian Muslim convert, says there was initial hostility to the nascent Muslim community in Albaicín when she moved there 25 years ago.

"They threw rocks at us and sprayed stuff all over the walls. They thought we would take over Albaicín and then take over Granada," she says.

But respect between the communities grew, and several women from the mosque said their Catholic neighbours had stopped by in March 2004 to say they did not believe Islam was the culprit of the Madrid bombings.

Abdulhasib Castañeira, head of the foundation that runs the Granada mosque, believes interaction between religious communities is key to preventing prejudice and extremist violence.

"We have to avoid creating ghettos, isolation," he says. "We [Muslims] have to be realistic about the times we live in and communicate our values without causing confrontation."

The challenge now is to reach out to the immigrant Muslim community and try to foment a proper understanding of Islam, says Mr Castañeira. The mosque, where the imam, Sidi Muhammad bin Mubarak, preaches religious and cultural tolerance, is central to this effort.

"The only way to avoid alienation is for Muslims to know their own teaching and to recognise the values of European culture," he says.

Some Muslim representatives and analysts say Spaniards learned a bitter lesson in the 1936-39 war and have adopted a live-and-let-live attitude to minorities. The socialists government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has created a political backdrop of acceptance.

But, above any other factor, it is the country's Moorish history that has allowed Spain to accept its growing Muslim population, they say. Spanish culture, food and language is peppered with remnants of Moorish culture. Iman Travieso, Mr Castañeira's wife, says Muslim ablutions are performed in much the same way that Spanish children are taught to wash by their mothers.

"On the one hand, people don't want anything to do with Islam and see it as a thing of the past, of the Arabs. On the other hand, Islam is their heritage and they take pride in that," she says.

Granada is replete with architectural reminders of the coexistence of, and rivalry between, Christianity and Islam in Spain: many of the city's churches are built on the site of mosques and include Moorish minarets. Within weeks of breaking ground for the Albaicín mosque, the adjacent church of San Nicolas – abandoned for decades – suddenly reopened. Other than the Albaicín mosque, Granada's mosques are housed in ordinary buildings that have been repurposed.

In such a setting, it is hard to ignore the powerful history of al-Andalus, says Mr Castañeira: "It is very difficult to convince somebody who has seen the Alhambra that Islam is about brutality, about violence," he says.