The history of the Catalans and Islam is distinctive from that of the rest of Spain. The Catalan language, which counts some 10 million speakers, is an official idiom along with Castilian, in the Spanish regions of Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands. Barcelona, the great Catalan metropolis, was taken back from Muslim conquerors in the year 801—only ninety years after the Umayyad invasion of 711—and became the capital of the Marca Hispanica, or the Spanish March, controlled by the Christian heirs of Charlemagne. Catalonia was thus never part of Al-Andalus and is one of the few regions of Spain from which a Muslim cultural legacy, in the form of architectural monuments and Arabic loan-words, is absent.
Muslim immigration became a significant recent phenomenon in Catalonia in the 1980s when the need for agricultural labor in the region's rich vineyards and other farming enterprises became acute. Seglers, the author of Musulmans a Catalunya, is a professor of ecclesiastical law at the University of Barcelona and has conducted wide-ranging studies of immigration in Canada and throughout the European Union. This book, aimed mainly for the use of Catholic clerics and governmental authorities, is a serious, factually-based examination of the legal issues that have emerged as Catalonia has struggled with North African and black African immigration.
While Seglers does not take up the point, Catalonia resembles, in some ways, the Flemish areas of Belgium, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, and Switzerland vis-à-vis the challenges presented to a native population by an influx of new Muslim residents. Muslims represent a minority in these territories (anywhere from 4-6 percent of the population according to a 2005 estimate) and are increasingly demanding special status for themselves. In the meantime, the Catalans, Flemish, Dutch, etc. are communities and nations with small populations whose cultures and languages vary from those of their larger European neighbors. If Muslims are a minority in Catalonia, Catalans are a minority in Spain. Catalans, and other small European nations, thus fear cultural dilution from two directions, and concern about a growing, and increasingly militant, Muslim population in these small Western European communities is based in reality. At the same time, new Muslim residents have, for the most part, been slow to recognize the sense of cultural threat felt by those from whom they ask a privileged protection.
Seglers argues that a peaceful integration of Muslims in Catalan life is possible if it is based on Muslim acceptance of European democratic values. The author writes that guarantees of religious freedom in Europe must rest not on acceptance of Islamist demands for special treatment but in demarcating the principle that Muslims may become citizens, as long as they jettison the tenets of Islamist ideology. As he writes, "Muslim citizenship" and Islamism remain at odds, producing "hidden conflicts."
Such conflicts include controversies over Islamist proposals for European accommodation to Shari'a-based family law with rights to polygamy and an acceptance of forced marriages. These matters, according to the author, define the limits of religious freedom and include important examples little known outside Spain. In 1994, for example, a Moroccan immigrant tried to register a second matrimony in Spain. He argued that he had contracted the marriage with his second wife in his native land where polygamy is legal before becoming a Spanish national. His case was dismissed due to the country's ban on polygamy, which was reaffirmed by adoption of new legal language in 2000.
A ban on talaq, or unilateral divorce by a husband's oral declaration, was strengthened when, in 1999, the practice was judged a violation of "the constitutional dignity of the person and against the Spanish conception of marriage." The country has also maintained legal prohibitions on forced marriages and female genital mutilation.
Seglers' work is replete with important information in which Catalonia and Spain serve as particularly appropriate examples for examining the legal and social problems rising from increased Muslim immigration in the West. He is especially critical of the current legal regime governing relations between Islam and the Spanish state through the Comisión Islamica de España (Islamic Commission of Spain or CIE). The CIE was established in 1992 and was the first institution to embody an "official" Islam in Western Europe. Seglers points out that the CIE defines Islam as a faith equal in rights with the Catholic church, which represents 94 percent of the Spanish population. He writes disapprovingly:
It is evident that the CIE was not born as the fruit of an imposition by the Spanish political power; nevertheless, the need to consolidate it as unique interlocutor has ended with its conversion into a kind of artificial church, parallel to the Catholic [church].
Seglers points out that, in contrast to Catholicism, Islam in Spain "has neither a body of canon law nor a hierarchy rooted in the broader society, nor the same spiritual needs as the Catholic citizenry." Put simply, Catholicism is by far the majority faith of Spanish religious believers with a long history and association with the dominant culture, and in Seglers' view, religious minorities like Muslims, as well as Jews and Evangelical Protestants, cannot reasonably be considered as institutional equals to the Catholic church. Additionally, having come under the direction of members of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as Saudi and Moroccan religious scholars, the CIE is currently being reorganized.
Seglers' book is uniquely valuable, but unfortunately, the likelihood that it will be translated or published in other languages is small. Spain's modern encounters with Islam should not be neglected by the rest of the world.
Stephen Schwartz is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, DC. He has published extensively on Spanish and Catalan affairs.