ANALYSIS – Spanish Muslims feel squeezed over zoning law

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SHAFAQNA – Home to the biggest Muslim community in Spain, the city of Tarragona has seen its local officials propose new zoning laws that have people pondering what it means to be Spanish, or Muslim, or both.

Ruling conservatives in the town of Tarragona want to limit the number of kebab shops and Internet cafes in the town center, keeping them 500 yards apart to “protect traditional Spanish businesses” and prevent what they call ghettos.

But just what is a traditional Spanish business?

“You tell me! My tomatoes are Spanish, and so are the potatoes I sell,” says Nouari Benzawi, an Algerian immigrant who runs a kebab shop and halal grocery store.

“Please explain this to me!” he exclaims, stomping around his shop, pointing out Spanish products. “Do I need to sell pork to be a traditional Spanish business? Do I need to sell wine?”

He doesn’t sell these items, for religious reasons. Benzawi, 52, is a Muslim who has lived in Spain for 20 years. He’s married to a Spaniard and holds a Spanish passport.

“My business is legal,” Benzawi says. “I pay my taxes. I don’t sell contraband. So what are they so worried about? This is called discrimination.”

Authorities have said the new zoning laws, if passed, would not force the closure of existing businesses, but would regulate how and where new ones can open. Benzawi believes the proposal unfairly targets a certain type of business that is often owned or run by immigrants like himself.

Spain has a relatively small Muslim population, at about 2 percent of the total. The largest concentration is along the Mediterranean coast, in the region of Catalonia. In some coastal towns, including Tarragona, Muslims comprise about 10 percent of the population.

In Tarragona, where  overall unemployment rate tops 30 percent, such zoning proposal could actually make matters worse – disrupting existing businesses and discouraging creation of new ones.

The man behind the proposed “kebab law” is Alejandro Fernández, the spokesman for Tarragona’s branch of Spain’s ruling conservative Popular Party, who is also running for mayor. He exchanged emails with NPR but refused to comment for this story, instead recommending another PP leader, Carles Pellicer, mayor of the nearby suburb of Reus. Pellicer also said he was unable to comment.

But another party member, Joaquim Enrech Garola, Reus’s city council member for citizens’ security, expressed concern about Muslim youth congregating in the town center. “What we’re doing is in their interest and in ours,” he says.

Reus voted to ban wearing the traditional Muslim burqa and niqab in public places last year. Spain’s Supreme Court blocked the law, but the town has lodged an appeal. It removed the word “burqa” from the law. Enrech says it now applies to all full-face coverings.

“It’s not to stop the Muslim burqa or niqab,” he says. “It also applies to people wearing motorcycle helmets while walking down the street. It’s not religious.”

Some Muslim leaders see such laws — the burqa ban or the proposed limits on traditionally Muslim-owned businesses like kebab shops — simply as political pandering.

“It’s election season. We’re used to this. They think it’ll win them votes,” says Muhammed Abdul-Rahim Bokadira, the imam at Tarragona’s La Pau Islamic Center. It can’t technically be called a mosque because local authorities have yet to grant it a permit as an official place of worship. But hundreds gather to pray there every Friday, in a poorly lit space that used to house a municipal market.

Unlike many countries in northern Europe, Spain has no far-right, anti-immigrant political movement — so far. But after the January Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, fears about Islam are spreading across Europe, and Muslims in Spain worry that policies like the ones in Tarragona could become more prevalent across the country.

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