One balmy evening last summer, hundreds of ecstatic Muslim teenagers, many in headscarves, throbbed and swayed to the lyrics of Islamic pop singer Maher Zain at the sedate Garcia Lorca Theatre in Madrid’s working class suburb of Getafe. The Lebanese-born star sang mostly of peace and love in English and Arabic, and referred to ‘my brothers and sisters’ from Palestine, Morocco, Syria, but also Madrid and Barcelona. The evening reached its climax when a little boy presented a Syrian flag to Zain, who draped it around his shoulders and declared: ‘I’m not political, but babies are dying there; this song is for Syria: “Freedom”.’ The audience, which included a sprinkling of Spaniards, exploded with cries of ‘freedom, freedom’. Afterwards, the organisers carefully marshalled the wildly cheering crowd out of the theatre in small groups to avoid any clash with the crowds massed on the square for a traditional Spanish parade of fallas, or giant paper mache figures, and fireworks. The two worlds mingled happily without incident. It was the first ever such concert in the Spanish capital, sponsored by the local Muslim Youth organisation and Muslim Relief, the Spanish branch of a British-based Islamic charity. There were no special security forces, no protest demonstrations, not even right-wing media charges of ‘Islamisation’. Yet as recently as 2010, one Muslim girl, who chose to wear a headscarf in a public school in Madrid, caused a national uproar, with angry right-wingers screaming against ‘a second Islamic invasion’, forcing the teenager to change schools. For Muslim and non-Muslim observers alike, the fact that the Getafe concert happened without polemics, in fact went unnoticed by the general public, is a positive step towards the normalisation of Spanish Islam.
Given its turbulent history, the return of Islam to Iberia is of special significance. But who are Iberia’s new Muslims? How have they coped in this land, still haunted by the contradictory legacy of al-Andalus, as the peninsula was known under Islamic rule, with its dark phantoms of war and pillage and tangible reminders of the brilliant multicultural civilisation of Cordoba, Seville, Toledo, and Granada? How have the newcomers been received by a largely Roman Catholic population in the post-9/11 age?