Muslims of Spanish city caught in the crossfire

Many believe the growing resentment among members of the community could result in their supporting Morocco's claim on the enclave of Ceuta.

Muslims attend Friday prayer at the Mohammad Almobarak mosque in Sid Embarak, a working-class quarter of Ceuta.

Credit: John Thorne/The National *** Local Caption ***  IMG_1806.JPG
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CEUTA, SPAIN // Under a sky splotched with winter clouds, a Moroccan girl named Mariam Abdelati hurries past the Mesjid Mohammed Almobarak, a large white-and-green mosque, where 200 Spaniards are praying.

"The Muslims here are just like Moroccans," said Ms Abdelati, 20, who commutes weekly to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, on Morocco's northern coast, for work cleaning houses. "Ceuta is Moroccan - I don't understand why people here don't see that." Ceuta's Muslim inhabitants take religious inspiration from Morocco, but most consider themselves firmly Spanish. That puts them at the middle of a decades-long political wrangle between Spain and Morocco that most would rather avoid.

The two countries have strengthened relations in the past few years and co-operate on fighting terrorism, drug trafficking and illegal immigration. But tempers flare periodically over Ceuta and Melilla, a pair of cities on Morocco's Mediterranean shore that Spain has held for more than four centuries. In July, Abbas El Fassi, the Moroccan prime minister, used the occasion of a visit by Jose Rodriguez Zapatero, his Spanish counterpart, to trumpet Morocco's claim on Ceuta and Melilla and warn Spain against raising tensions. Last year, Morocco's King Mohammed VI said a visit by King Juan Carlos I of Spain to the enclaves jeopardised relations between the countries and temporarily withdrew Morocco's ambassador to Madrid.

The bluster could open wider cracks between Spain and Morocco, but is primarily a way for both countries' governments to rally popular support, said Haizam Amirah Fernandez, a researcher at the Real Instituto Elcano in Madrid. Ceuta's Muslims share affinity to both countries, said Laarbi Maateis, the president of the Union of Islamic Communities of Ceuta, which groups most of the city's mosques and Quranic schools. "But Ceuta also has its own history, culture and traditions."

Ceuta occupies a headland that clings like a teardrop to the Moroccan coast opposite the Rock of Gibraltar, a crossroads between Europe and Africa that played host to Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals and Byzantines before serving as the launch pad for the Islamic conquest of Spain. By 1580, Christian Spain was master of Ceuta, and for centuries has considered it and Melilla sovereign Spanish territory. When Gen Francisco Franco relinquished Spain's 20th century colony in northern Morocco in 1956, he kept the enclaves.

Today, downtown Ceuta is unmistakably Spanish, with euros in the banks, tapas in the bars and the red and gold of Spain's flag fluttering at every turn. But nearer the border are glimmerings of Morocco. Opposite the Mesjid Mohammed Almobarak, in the working-class quarter of Sid Embarak, is an anonymous little restaurant where everyone speaks Arabic, Moroccan fried bread and semolina cake are served, and Al Jazeera burbles from the television in the corner.

Ceuta's Muslims regard Mohammed VI as their leader, and most of the city's imams are from Morocco or have undertaken religious instruction there, Mr Maateis said. Muslim leaders hope to open Islamic academies to train home-grown imams. For now, religion offers a valuable point of co-operation between Spain and Morocco, said Ahmed Yazid, the imam of the Mesjid Mohammad Almobarak. Imams are accredited by Morocco's Islamic affairs ministry, but pass under the jurisdiction of Spanish authorities once they come to preach in Ceuta, a city of 75,000 that is about one-third Muslim.

The men who gather for Friday prayer at the mosque wear jeans, pullovers and sweatshirts. A few wear brown djellabas and white skullcaps. In the basement is a Quranic school and a kitchen where the poor come for food. Two weathered men sit at a folding table, spooning soup into their mouths. "Both culturally and economically, Muslims are worse off than non-Muslims," Mr Yazid said. Although Ceuta's government provides funding for Islamic institutions, resentment among the growing Muslim population could translate into support for Morocco's claim on the city, said Mohammed Ali, president of the Spanish Federation of Islamic Religious Institutions, which represents two of Ceuta's mosques. "No one forgets their origins," said Mr Ali, who supports Morocco's claim.

But Ceuta's younger Muslims are more focused on securing a future as the global financial crisis has pushed Spain's unemployment rate to nearly 13 per cent in recent months. "Some people say we Muslims are Moroccans, but it's just talk," said Yusuf Abdelkader, 18, walking home with friends after prayer at the Mesjid Mohammed Almobarak. "I'm Spanish." Mr Abdelkader, the son of a plumber, has grown up in Sid Embarak, watching Islam and drug use compete for the attention of a bored young generation. After he finishes school next year, he wants to join the police.

"There aren't many options here," said Yusuf's friend, Muni Tami, 18, who plans to enlist in the army. Despite a passport that allows them access to jobs across the European Union, neither boy is interested in leaving home. "I'm used to Ceuta," Mr Tami said. "If you grow up here, you don't know how to live anywhere else."