In Barcelona, a heartening rejection of Islamophobia

Barcelona — In the aftermath of Europe’s latest terrorist attack , a set of familiar tensions clouded this sunny, vibrant city Sunday .

Some here insist that Barcelona is a state of mind, a nonstop celebration of the good life where anyone is welcome and anything goes. But then came the almost predictable events of last week. In a scheme that resembled recent assaults in Paris and Brussels, a group of young, local Moroccan Muslim men — some of whom spoke Spanish and Catalan better than Arabic — staged Spain’s deadliest attack in more than a decade. The Islamic State later claimed responsibility for their actions.

Suddenly, Barcelona — and the surrounding region of Catalonia — is being put to a test that has faced not just Paris and Brussels, but also Nice, Berlin, Stockholm and London in the past two years. At stake is the place of the region’s Muslim community, the largest in Spain.

For now, Barcelona seems to be responding differently than its neighbors, whose reactions to similar violence were often marked by a fierce anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment that, in some cases, even translated into political traction. With the rise of the once-obscure Marine Le Pen, for instance, some saw the French elections in May as a referendum on Muslims in France. The migration issue also looms large in Germany’s elections, slated for next month.

Although there were isolated reports of vigilante violence against Muslims here, Barcelona appears to be generally resisting being drawn into a post-attack culture war. A traditionally left-leaning city where Muslims have lived for centuries, its officials and citizens have mainly chosen to speak out against the potential for the kind of Islamophobic backlash seen elsewhere in Europe.

On Sunday, thousands of local Muslims marched down La Rambla, the scenic, tree-lined boulevard where the first of two coordinated attacks took place. Young and old, men and women, many of whom were veiled, the demonstrators chanted in unison: “I am Muslim! Not a terrorist!” Non-Muslims lined the sidewalks, clapping and crying. Some stepped forward to hug demonstrators as they passed.

At a Sunday news conference on the investigation, Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s regional president, grew most animated when he spoke in defense of the local Moroccan population. “The Moroccan people are integrated in Catalonia, and they have made important contributions to the community,” he said.

Some, especially in rural Catalonia, might have said otherwise. Home to the largest percentage of Spain’s Muslim population — about 25 percent — the region is also the locus of Islamist militant activity in the country. Roughly a quarter of those arrested on suspicion of radicalized tendencies between 2013 and 2016 were arrested in Barcelona and its environs, according to data released by the Real Instituto Elcano, a Madrid-based think tank.

Carola García-Calvo, a senior terrorism analyst at Elcano, said that part of the reason was that Barcelona has long been a receiving center for immigrants and one of the few places in Spain where the vulnerable group of second-generation immigrant youths has matured in a concentrated mass.

On Friday, less than 24 hours after the Las Ramblas attack, a small group of demonstrators from the far-right Falange movement — named for a fascist group active in 1930s Spain — protested what they called the “Islamicization of Europe.”

But that was far from a widespread sentiment. Thousands of counterprotesters ultimately turned out in response, drowning out the handful of rightists and forcing them to disband.

In recent days, a number of Muslim citizens of Barcelona said they had not experienced major discrimination before or after the attacks last week, although many emphasized that their experiences did not mean that there is no Islamophobia in Spain.

Chaima Jalili, 23, is from Morocco, in the same demographic as the ring of suspects. She came to Barcelona three years ago to study design, she said.

“Actually, Barcelona has been great to me,” she said. “I’ve been to France and Germany, and I’ve never felt more safe and secure.” Every morning before going out, she said, she puts on her scarf. “I’ve never been scared.”

Asked about Islamophobia, she said: “I have never experienced any of that.”

Naoufal, 22, a young Moroccan waiter in a trendy cafe in the city’s Nadal district, said he felt a subtle change in the way he was perceived after the attack. He felt he had drawn heavy scrutiny because of the way he looked.

“They see you in a car with a Moroccan face, and the police tell you to stop. Yesterday I left work, and they stopped me like four times, from here to my house,” he said, emphasizing that it was just a short distance away.

Sana Ullah Gondal, 51, from Pakistan, owns a computer supply store here. He said that his 15 years in Spain have been marked by a notable absence of prejudice.

“There are drunk and drugged people who sometimes speak badly,” he said, in an interview in his shop. “But normal people don’t say anything.”

Vahangir Alam Ali Segum, 52, owns the Turin Supermarket. Born in Bangladesh, he has lived in Barcelona for 26 years and says he has never experienced Islamophobia, either.

“I've only had problems with thieves, and then I call the police,” he said. “I live better than in my country — Spain is very quiet.”

“I go to my house. We pray in the mosque. It’s a normal life,” he said. “This store is over 15 years old, and almost the whole neighborhood knows me, and I know them. We live as brothers, as family members.”

At the Muslim march on Sunday, Lourdes Miguel, 50, a lifelong Barcelona resident, stood on La Rambla with her son, watching the Muslim demonstration. She held back tears.

“This shows that they march from the heart,” she said, gesturing at the marchers. “It’s not fake.”