Spaniards and Islam (ARI)

Spaniards and Islam (ARI)

Theme: This study analyses Spaniards’ opinions and attitudes towards Islam through data gathered for the Elcano Royal Institute’s Barometer survey.

Summary: It cannot be said Spaniards reject Islam: there is no Islamophobia in Spain. When there is criticism of some element of Islam, it is not specific but rather motivated by the growing secularism of Spanish society. This same secular tendency leads people to criticise certain public manifestations of Roman Catholicism as well. The process of secularisation of Spanish society is without a doubt the prism through which these attitudes must be viewed.


Right after the 11 March 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid, a variety of political leaders and some analysts speculated about the possibility of a wave of Islamophobia breaking out in Spain. Under this catastrophic vision, it was the last straw for Spaniards and their proverbial tolerance. Earlier, Muslim immigration to Spain, most of it from Morocco, had already triggered in certain circles a degree of concern over the cultural threat that los moros (the Moors) would once again pose for Spain. An episode in 2002 in which Morocco briefly seized the disputed, uninhabited islet of Perejil resurrected ghosts from the past and fuelled this kind of speculation and analysis, the conclusions of which were hasty to say the least.

Some time has now passed and there has been no wave of anti-Islamic violence in Spain. Nor has the persistent threat of Islamic terrorism in the wake of the Madrid attacks seemed to produce this kind of effect, as suggested by the alarmist scenario.

This paper aims to take a brief look at what Spaniards’ attitudes towards Islam and Muslim culture itself really are. But before getting under way on such a complex issue, it is a good idea to adequately frame the theme to avoid misunderstandings.

By considering only the cultural and religious aspect, we exclude other factors that often taint the analysis. On the one hand, we will not go into the issue of immigration: the idea of whether immigration from Islamic countries poses a threat or an opportunity, whether there are too many or two few Muslim immigrants, etc.

Nor is this an analysis of attitudes toward Islamic terrorism. Even though after the 11 March attacks there has been no shortage of more or less direct threats against Spain from al-Qaeda’s leaders, and even though there have been attacks, such as those against a group of Spanish tourists in Yemen last summer, and these make Spaniards feel that they among the targets of Islamic terrorists, it is true that there has been no violent reaction against Muslims in Spain. It seems evident, therefore, that Spaniards are able to distinguish between Islam and the radical brand of Islam in which terrorism is rooted. If public opinion is not simplistic, then why should politicians or analysts be that way, especially if there are data that allow us to reach unhasty conclusions? In the five years of its existence, the Elcano Royal Institute’s Barometer poll has been asking questions about Islam in very different ways, allowing us to understand Spaniards’ attitudes. This paper explains some of the results.

There is No Religious Islamophobia in Spain
To give an average figure from the institute’s different surveys, around 80% of Spaniards are worried about Muslim fundamentalism. But it must be noted that Spaniards differentiate perfectly between Islamic fundamentalism and Islam. Despite a feeling of being threatened by Islamic terrorism, only 37% say they have a negative opinion of the Muslim religion (BRIE 8, February 2005). Some might think that one in three is a high proportion. But taking into account the context of turbulence and insecurity coming from the Muslim world since the 11 September attacks in the US, an atmosphere Spaniards were unused to because of their low foreign policy profile, perhaps the ratio is not so high after all.

Another figure stands out in this verdict of innocence. A relatively high percentage of Spaniards (40%) are in favour of letting Muslims pray in the old mosque in Cordoba, just as Roman Catholics do in the cathedral built over the Muslim site.

There are more reasons to assume that in Spain there is no Islamophobia –in other words intolerance towards a religion in particular, in this case the Muslim faith– but rather a growing secularism that affects all religions, as only 46% are clearly in favour of displaying Christian crucifixes in schools.

Therefore, fear of radical Islam does not lead to a rejection of Islam as a whole. Terrorism is not attributed to religious factors so much as to international politics. For instance, 65% of Spaniards think the threat of international terrorism in the world is greater than before the US-led invasion that toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The Muslim Veil and Rejection of Gender Inequality
Spaniards also seem to differentiate between theological-religious content and ethical-moral practices. They are more intolerant towards the latter than the former. Everyone is free to think whatever they want, but in doing so they must respect the rights and basic freedoms of the individual in public life. This would sum up the Spaniards’ way of thinking.

The results of BRIE 14 (March 2007) show that 61% of Spaniards are against the idea of young Muslim girls wearing head veils to school, compared with 18% who are in favour. Does this reveal religious intolerance? There are reasons to rule this out as an explanation. Spain is a deeply egalitarian country in all aspects, from the welfare state to foreign policy, including relations between men and women. Gender inequality is rejected outright by Spaniards, especially in public, as shown by other studies and the support given to political initiatives to that purpose. To the former should be added the growing tolerance of sexual diversity, which corresponds with the values of a society which –we insist– is increasingly secular.

For all of these reasons, it should come as no surprise that, according to the data collected in BRIE 11 (March 2006) Spaniards overwhelmingly –by an extraordinary 96% margin– hold a critical view of Muslims as sexist. In any case, this opinion is shared by women in Muslim countries who are critical of this aspect of Islam.

To sum up, behind the rejection of certain aspects of Islam we should not look for religious factors but rather for egalitarian values on the basis of which this faith and other religions –such as Roman Catholicism– are judged. In the latter case there is criticism of denying women the right to be priests and of the need for a vow of celibacy in the priesthood. Egalitarian culture, and not Islamophobia: this is the key to interpreting the data.

Prejudices and the Effect of the International Situation
As these poll results shows, negative stereotypes about Muslims are widespread in some specific areas. Nevertheless, the context must again be borne in mind because the international situation is fuelling these stereotypes. This shows in the enormous impact of the ‘Danish cartoon crisis’, which involved the publication in certain European media of drawings of the Prophet Mohammed and a violent reaction to them in some Muslim countries.

In May 2004 (BRIE 5) 80% of Spaniards considered Muslims to be authoritarian and 57% felt they were violent.

In early 2006, as a result of the crisis touched off by the cartoons, in BRIE 11 (March 2006) 90% of those questioned considered Muslims to be authoritarian, 10% more than two years earlier. And 68% said they considered them violent, again 10 points more than in 2004.

The negative image of Muslim countries in this respect contrasts with the image held of Western countries, which seemed in the poll to be the antithesis of the Muslim ones. A total of 80% said they considered them to be democratic, and 70% peaceful and tolerant.

Despite these negative stereotypes, which as we see are enhanced by the international situation, the poor image has not spread to other issues. In 2004 it was the prevailing opinion that Muslims are more polite (46%) than rude (41%), and 44% also thought they are hard-working, although a similar percentage also found them to be lazy. But these perceptions were barely affected by the cartoon crisis, and in these aspects the prejudices have not been accentuated. Therefore, this is another area in which Spaniards are able to differentiate when it comes time to making an evaluation.

The ‘Danish Cartoon Crisis’ and Solidarity between Believers
The ‘Danish cartoon crisis’ led to criticism in Spain of the violent reaction of Muslim countries towards the publication of the caricatures, but also towards their very publication. Judging from the results of BRIE 11 (March 2006) Spaniards held a negative view all around of the cartoon crisis.

Of course, they were highly critical of the violent reaction of Arab societies; up to 88% had a negative opinion of it and 53% a very negative one. Still, it should be noted that most Spaniards (57%) also had a negative view of that fact that some European media had published the drawings.

As was to be expected, opinions on the caricatures were determined by how religious the person being interviewed was. The more religious, the greater their criticism of the publication of the cartoons. This seemed to give rise to an odd phenomenon of inter-religious solidarity between Roman Catholics and Muslims. While 41% of Spanish agnostics criticised the publication of the cartoons, the figure rises to 70% among those who consider themselves very devout Roman Catholics.

In any case, regardless of their religious convictions, the democratic principles of Spaniards are clear. Even if the people being interviewed did not like the caricatures, 72% said freedom of expression should prevail, compared with 14% who said respect of religious belief should come first.

Indeed, it can be said that the reaction was balanced, as there is criticism of radicalism but respect for Islam.

There is No ‘Clash of Civilisations’
As a result of the differences perceived between Western and Islamic countries, in the case of the Mohammed cartoon crisis 74% of Spaniards said there is in fact a ‘clash of civilisations’, compared with 22% who do not feel this way (BRIE 11, March 2006). However, this view is nuanced when those surveyed express opinions on other issues, since 63% also think there are differences between Muslim countries. This happens with the Western countries as well: 72% believe there are differences between them.

And for a relatively high percentage (38%), the reaction of the Muslim countries was not spontaneous but rather manipulated by their governments.

All in all, although the idea of a clash of civilisations does ring true for a significant number of Spaniards, they do not view the current situation as an irreconcilable conflict between religions and/or civilisations. When political considerations are raised, they are capable of including and evaluating them as factors that must be taken into account.

Lack of Knowledge
From what we have just seen in the earlier section, Spaniards very correctly seem to note differences between Muslim countries as an element to bear in mind. But this is more an intuition than something they really know, because it turns out they do not have an even approximately accurate picture of the different circumstances.

In Barometer 5 of February 2004, those surveyed were asked to compare different countries of North Africa and the Maghreb, namely Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Mauritania. Asked which was the most ‘fundamentalist’, 15% said Libya, another 15% said Algeria and 10% Morocco. But the most significant news is that up to 55% could not differentiate among them, or had no qualms about lumping them all together.

The same occurred when they were asked which country was the most ‘democratic’. A total of 10% said Egypt and another 10% Morocco. But again, 66% did not pick any of the countries, or thought all of them had authoritarian governments. This fits in with the stereotype analysed earlier.

Therefore, if Spaniards know little about the Muslim countries closest to them, it is evident that they cannot have a complete picture of the diversity of a culture as vast as that of Islam. But again we should not blame only the average man in the street for his ignorance, because the current climate of tension between the two worlds, fuelled by some international leaders, tends to spawn simplistic visions. There is an undeniable problem of ‘demand’ for news but also one of political and journalistic ‘supply’.

The Political Rights of Muslims in Spanish Society
Finally, as proof of their tolerance towards Islam, the results of BRIE 14 (March 2007) show that only 25% of those questioned reject the idea of Muslim residents of Spain voting in municipal elections. In June 2006 (BRIE 15) very few Spaniards held a negative view of candidates in regional and local elections who represented the interests of Muslim immigrants.

Similarly, BRIE 13 (December 2006) suggests that a majority of Spaniards (59%) are in favour of letting Muslims join the Spanish armed forces, although 33% are against. This rejection is a minority sentiment and demographically limited. It is among people of lower educational and socio-economic status that opposition to allowing Muslims to join the Spanish armed forces is greater. Therefore, access to information is influencing the evaluations of these groups of people. This does not mean there are not ideological slants as well, as seen in the fact that opposition to Muslims joining the armed forces is also higher among those who consider themselves politically conservative.

The Problem of ‘Ecological Validity’
Finally, as a limitation of this analysis, one must address the question of ‘ecological validity’, which is not always taken into account in this kind of study and can lead to conclusions that do not have much of a foundation.

The BRIE and most of the surveys done in Spain (and other countries) on these issues are representative at the national level, but not by region, much less city or neighbourhood. However, a key variable in this analysis is the fact that Muslim immigrants in Spain are concentrated in just a few areas (Madrid, Catalonia, Valencia and Andalusia) and this limits the degree of direct knowledge that Spaniards can have of Islam.

Of course, over the long term, in order to gain a fuller idea of the relationship between the two variables –attitudes toward Islam and Muslim immigration– it will be necessary to break things down and study in depth these specific contexts, in which we do in fact know that in some cases there have been outbursts of violence, although before the 11 March attacks (El Ejido, Maresme, etc). This issue is too important to keep speculating on it in a vacuum, without thorough research.

That said, data from surveys that are representative of the Spanish population in general already show something that must be borne in when carrying out surveys by region or other areas rather than at the national level: at least the cultural context that surrounds potential hot spots is not Islamophobic. This atmosphere of tolerant values and attitudes will always serve as a curb for possible outbreaks at the local level and for any copy-cat effect that might threaten to spread such conflicts to the rest of Spain.

To give an example, in comparison with post-11 March Spain, such an attitude of tolerance was not present in reunified Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nationalist-minded public opinion was the perfect fuel for xenophobia in the Länder of the former communist east, and discrimination did in fact break out and spread in a chain reaction. News of attacks in one city led to attacks in others, as hooligans were made to feel they were not alone and that other people shared their values. Local contexts of interaction among groups of different race or religion are important, but at the same time they cannot be isolated from the general context of values. When it comes to looking for explanations, excessive extrapolation is as mistaken as radical contextualism that is blind to cultural factors of a general nature.

Conclusions: If we limit ourselves to just a few general observations, it is easy to say that Spaniards are wary of Islam. But one need only dig a bit underneath a thin layer of prejudices to find a panorama that is rich in nuance.

In this respect, the basic results of the Barometer of the Elcano Royal Institute are conclusive. First, there is no Islamophobia in Spain. Even Spanish Roman Catholics expressed solidarity with Muslims over the crisis triggered by the Mohammed cartoons. But this does not mean Spaniards are not critical of certain aspects of Islam. On average, Spain’s highly secular society is less tolerant of certain aspects of Muslim culture, such as inequality between men and women.

Furthermore, when there is rejection of some element of Islam, it is not specific but rather driven by the growing secularity of Spanish society, a trend that also leads to criticism of certain public manifestations of Roman Catholicism. Spaniards advocate respect for all religions, including Islam, but within the principles of a democratic society and the rule of law.

Spaniards do not perceive an irreconcilable conflict between religions, or a ‘clash of civilisations’. They have an idea that there are differences between the countries with an Islamic culture, but it must be said that this is against a backdrop of deep ignorance even of the Muslim countries that are closest to Spain.

Finally, Spaniards are in favour of including Muslims as fully-fledged citizens in Spanish society. People welcome the idea of their participating in politics, but also joining the armed forces. However, the threat of Islamic terrorism, as an issue of both national security and defence, raises some qualms with regard to a Muslim presence in the armed forces.

The process of secularisation of Spanish society is without a doubt the backdrop that must be kept in mind when these attitudes are studied. Although Roman Catholicism still holds influence, it does so much less than in the past, and this is undoubtedly helping to create a more tolerant atmosphere.

This analysis has also noted the role of Spain’s egalitarian culture when it comes to understanding criticism of certain aspects of Islam, such as inequality between men and women. Spain is one of the most egalitarian countries in the world in every way, and this feature of Spanish culture is also seen in these questions that seem so far removed.

Egalitarianism has created a welfare state rich in all-encompassing policies which facilitate, for instance, access to education for all Spaniards. And in analysing attitudes towards Islam educational levels must be borne in mind, as this is another variable clearly linked to tolerance. Over the past 30 years Spain has made a great effort to grant universal access to education, and it appears to have borne fruit, at least in this regard. The effort has helped create a tolerant cultural setting that shuns xenophobia even at a time of tension that some have gone so far as to describe as a ‘clash of civilisations’.

In any case, even though the average educational level of the Spanish population has risen in the past 30 years, it is clear that Spaniards have little knowledge of Islam or Muslim countries, even those closest to them, such as the Maghreb. Initiatives like the creation of the Casa Árabe in Madrid can be a step in the right direction of bringing Spaniards closer to those cultural realities which are at once so close yet so far.

Javier Noya
Senior Analyst on Spain’s International Image and Public Opinion at the Elcano Royal Institute