MOLLET DEL VALLÈS, Spain—If Ikea sold a mosque-building kit made of cheap, flat-pack parts, the result might look like the flimsy space where Ahmed Balghouch prays. It has no dome, no crescent moon on the roof, and in fact no roof at all, being on the bottom floor of an apartment building. There is no sign on the door to suggest that it isn’t a storage unit or a meat locker, which is what it looks like from outside. As houses of God go, Al Huda de Mollet, outside Barcelona, is the sort of place that stresses humility more than exaltation before Him.
Only a mound of shoes on the sidewalk, piled on a recent Friday against two old fans ensconced in the wall, hints that the entrance leads to a house of worship. Men dressed in office attire or construction boots—women rarely attend—crowd the door. Directing traffic, Balghouch inquires of a few of the regulars about a construction job they are working. “Twelve-hour shift,” says a man in Spanish, kicking off his boots on the sidewalk. He pantomimes running a jackhammer before ducking inside, where a hallway of unfinished drywall runs a few feet to a small bathroom and a kitchen, both used for ablutions. Dozens of men wait their turn at the sinks. Another doorway leads to the main hall, where about 150 more people kneel on old carpets, jammed hip-to-hip, ready for evening prayers to begin. The imam at the front has the look people get on a 6 p.m. subway. “Volunteers teach Arabic and Spanish classes in the evening,” Balghouch offers to a visitor, trying to distract.
The Muslim congregation of which Balghouch is president rents this ground-floor storefront on a narrow side street in Mollet del Vallès, Spain, 15 minutes north of Barcelona. The site is too small, a fire trap.
Four years ago, with Muslim migration growing in Mollet and the rest of Spain's prosperous Catalonia region, more people started attending services at Al Huda and Balghouch decided it was time to find a bigger space. Funded by donations from the members, Balghouch says, the group signed a lease-to-own deal for the first floor of a downtown office building that offered about three times as much space as its current prayer room.
Later, Balghouch shows the way. It’s just around the corner, a two-minute walk to the vacant pale-brick rectangle, two stories high, beside a small plaza and a busy road.
Al Huda signed the lease in 2012, despite not yet having permission to open a mosque downtown. Balghouch says he figured it was a formality: “You fill out a paper, pay 25 euros.”
But before Al Huda could move in, the city of Mollet del Vallès rejected its application, citing a new urban plan that prohibited the establishment of centros de culto, or “places of worship,” in the sleepy downtown of the city of 50,100.
The simple zoning change made Al Huda’s new space illegal for use as a mosque. “The rules say that you can’t open a house of worship in that space,” Mollet’s mayor, a former basketball coach named Josep Monràs, said at a press conference soon after.
Instead, the city proposed Al Huda move to a former factory in an industrial area two miles away, on the edge of town.
Balghouch decided to fight the ban on places of worship downtown. He believes it was only enacted because Al Huda is a mosque, rather than a church. Catholic, evangelist, and Jehovah’s Witness congregations all gather in the city center; one of the four evangelist churches downtown opened after 2012, when the ban went into effect. “I am not a piece of merchandise put in an industrial park,” Balghouch says.
Battles like Al Huda’s have become flash points in a larger, often ugly discussion about Islam’s integration into European society. In its most extreme forms, opposition to mosques has been a winning issue for nativist political parties rising across Europe. (And as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s primary campaign has shown, the U.S. is not immune to such virulence.)
In Germany, the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, known by the acronym AfD, posted impressive gains in local elections in March and soon announced it would attempt to block construction of a local mosque planned by the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in the eastern state of Thuringia. Ahmadiyya, which says it has founded 47 mosques in Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall, was involved in a high-profile 2006 case in the sleepy Berlin borough of Pankow, where its effort to build the first mosque in East Berlin, and only the second in the former East Germany since before World War II, led to tense street protests. AfD has sought a total ban on mosque construction in Germany and appears to be using the Thuringia case as a precedent, according to reports.
They say it’s for space, or [so] nobody bothers you. But the evangelist churches are in the center of town.
Mohannad Achab, secretary of the Islamic Council of Mollet
In February, a dead pig was left at the site of another planned Ahmadiyya mosque, in Leipzig, two hours from Berlin. A similar incident occurred in Austria in May. Plans for new mosques have sparked protests and arson elsewhere in Europe in the past year, part of an apparent rise in anti-Muslim sentiment following the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks and a continuing Mediterranean refugee crisis, in which many newcomers to Europe are Muslims. A March 2016 report by the SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, a Turkish think tank, documented a 400 percent increase in violent attacks on Muslims in France in the first half of 2015 and a 100 percent increase in verbal harassment. France saw 429 attacks, including arson, on Muslims in 2015, according to the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights’ annual Report on the Prevention of Racism, Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia, against 800 anti-Semitic attacks (the report also recorded a 20 percent increase in anti-Christian attacks last year).
In this video by Leighton Woodhouse and Olga Kravetz, a proposed new mosque to meet the needs of a growing Islamic population in Nice, France, runs into bureacratic delays, leading to frustration for local Muslims and security concerns for officials.
In the United States, a widely cited recent study by the Center for American-Islamic Relations claimed at least 63 attacks on American mosques occurred in 2015, from vandalism to attempted closure and suspicious modification of zoning laws, as in Mollet.
Catalonia has seen several fights over mosques in recent years. In 2008, protesters demanded the city council of Ripoll, a county seat in a mountain region about 90 minutes from Mollet, block the opening of a mosque downtown. After weeks of deliberations, the city council approved the mosque. In May 2016, a mosque association’s attempt to move to a larger space met opposition by community members in Pineda de Mar, a seaside town an hour north of Barcelona. Local reports quoted the town mayor, who supports the move, calling opposition to the mosque “misintentioned” and “a very blurred reality.” An emergent nativist political party, Platform for Catalonia, came out strongly against a reported deal involving the emir of Qatar’s intention to purchase La Monumental, the region’s most famous bullring, and transform the majestic 40,000-seat structure of towering domes and elegant tile along Barcelona’s main avenue into the world’s third-largest mosque after the shrines at Mecca and Medina. The party’s leader, a blustery politician named Josep Anglada, brought small teams of supporters to Barcelona to hand out pamphlets denouncing the sale and toured smaller towns giving conspiratorial speeches warning of a creeping Muslim influence seeking to conquer the regional capital.
(The bullring deal would fall through, with both the Qatari and the Barcelona sides denying talks had ever occurred.)
Mollet’s zoning change appears to be part of an ongoing urban planning trend of Spanish city governments attempting to force mosques to the edge of town. The idea started on Barcelona’s industrial periphery. “I don’t like the model of having houses of worship in the center of the city,” said Xavier García Albiol, the then mayor of Badalona, a suburb near Mollet, in 2010. “It ought to be in an industrial zone where it won’t bother anyone.” He later won reelection on an anti-immigration platform.
In Lleida, a city in the farmland two hours southeast of Mollet, mosque officials’ refusal in 2010 to move to an industrial park led to a campaign in which protesters blocked sidewalks. Police subsequently closed the downtown mosque for exceeding its maximum occupancy. A leader of the group was later quoted advocating a radical Salafi ideology, complicating matters.
Mollet’s other mosque, run by a group called the Islamic Council of Mollet, had moved in 2007 to the industrial area where city officials proposed Balghouch relocate Al Huda. The community would rather be downtown, says Moundir Zhari, a frequent visitor to the Islamic Council’s mosque: “It’s good because it’s big, but no one comes. Only Friday, because it’s a long way. If you want to come three or five times a week, or it’s raining, or you don’t have a car, it’s difficult.”
“In this past decade you’ve seen mosques [near Barcelona] obligated, forced to go to industrial parks,” says Mohannad Achab, secretary of the Islamic Council. “We wanted to negotiate for a place on the edge of downtown, and [city officials] said no.”
Balghouch is aware of the other group’s problems. “They’re too far. They’ve lost all the activities they were doing, and the people don’t go,” he says. People with jobs downtown are closer to Balghouch’s space.
That’s why he wants Al Huda to remain in the city center: “You’ve just come home from work, you’re tired, you’re going to walk a kilometer?”
A stocky metal worker in his 40s and the father of seven, Balghouch moved to Europe from northern Morocco in the mid-’90s, when a real estate boom made it easy to find unskilled work in Spain, and anyone who could swing a hammer had good odds of landing legal residency.
The argument over whether the city of Mollet can force a mosque to the outskirts of town has made Balghouch a political figure. He says Al Huda asked for a permit to establish its new downtown mosque in May 2012, before the zoning change went into effect that December.
The city, however, says it suspended the granting of new permits while it was deliberating the proposed rule change. In a series of public statements starting in July 2012, after turning down Al Huda’s request, Mollet officials claimed the city had informed Al Huda that a permit would not be approved before the new rule was enacted later that year and that Al Huda went ahead with the lease-to-own arrangement on the building anyway.
Balghouch quickly organized street protests against the refusal to issue a permit, coinciding with Ramadan. The protests involved dozens and occasionally hundreds of people praying in front of city hall.
The protests continued into October and resumed the next year. On at least two occasions members of Al Huda entered the rented space illegally and in one case refused to leave, forcing their removal by the police. Spanish media sent reporters to the small city, and the incident circulated in Anglophone conservative circles. But the city government didn’t budge.
Last year Balghouch reached out to the local office of the ombudsman. Many cities in Catalonia employ an ombudsman to mediate conflicts between citizens and local government, as a means of avoiding long, expensive lawsuits.
The ombudsman helped shift Al Huda’s case from the streets. In a December 2015 letter cosigned by the Islamic Council of Mollet, Al Huda requested the city of Mollet provide a copy of the original 2012 urban plan and other materials related to the change in the city code made that year. Receiving no response, the ombudsman’s office sent a second letter, in February of this year, in which it stated that the documents were necessary to determine “the circumstances or motives that produced the change” in the zoning law and “the facts that effected the suspension of permits.”
The Mollet city government did not respond to the request, missing a legal deadline. It continued to stonewall through April.
Even before the Mollet case, Avi Astor, an American researcher in sociology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, had noticed a curiously large number of conflicts resulting from the establishment of new mosques around Barcelona and wanted to figure out why. Working from press reports and his own interviews in small towns, he confirmed the wealthy region, usually known for left-leaning politics, was more hostile to mosques than any other place in Spain. At least 31 communities in the region near Barcelona had organized protests or taken steps to block mosques since the early 1990s, dwarfing any other part of the country.
“We don’t want moros [“Moors”] here, they are all delinquents and they destroy the peace of the neighborhood,” a protester told Spanish newspaper El Mundo during a demonstration against a new mosque in Viladecans, a suburb of Barcelona, in 2002.
Astor undertook a series of interviews in the industrial towns around Barcelona and published his findings in April in International Migration Review, an academic journal.
Barcelona’s mosque battles, Astor found, were concentrated not just in the towns where new Muslim residents were migrating but in places that had seen an internal migration a generation earlier.
In the 1970s and ’80s, jobs in factories in the towns near Barcelona drew Spaniards from across the country, including many from the country’s poorer agricultural south. In the decades since, many of those working-class, domestic migrants remained segregated in lower-income neighborhoods and lower-wage jobs—southerners still marginalized in the north.
When a new wave of migration rose in the ’90s, this time from predominantly Muslim countries, the newcomers settled in almost the same industrial exurbs of Barcelona where the earlier Spanish migrants had—and where they were still often struggling. The Muslim population of Catalonia, the region of which Barcelona is the capital, rose 500 percent over the next 15 years. Census figures from the Catalan government show that the population has increased from just under 50,000 people in 2000 to nearly 170,000 in 2010 to nearly a quarter-million now, out of about 7.5 million residents. A study by Catalonia’s Office of Religious Affairs found the number of mosques and smaller prayer rooms rose nearly 90 percent from 2004 to 2014, from 139 to 256.
The fights over new mosques weren’t evenly distributed across Spain, or across Catalonia, because the Muslims and other marginalized communities weren’t.
Al Huda rented its current space at the beginning of that boom, in 1995, and had plenty of room at the time. The city’s Muslim population was 1.5 percent of 30,000 residents for most of the 1990s, according to Carles Peña, a resident who has written extensively on Mollet’s Muslim community and serves as unofficial historian. He owns a small bookstore beside the city’s fresh food market and hosts a talk show on the local radio station.
Soon that number tripled, following the regional trend, to between 3 and 5 percent of its current population, according to local census statistics. More people started coming to Al Huda’s services regularly—enough that its storefront started to get crowded.
Astor’s paper argued that the previous wave of migrants, though Spanish, had not done well in the north and remained marginalized in important ways. So when new migrants came, from North and West Africa, the groups ended up in competition and with similar feelings of exclusion. “Many of the current difficulties related to the incorporation of Muslim immigrants…stem from unresolved problems regarding the incorporation of past waves of internal Spanish migrants,” he wrote.
Just as blue-collar whites left out of the economic gains of the last 20 years in the U.S. have responded to Trump’s hostility to migrants from Mexico, one group of marginalized people in Spain—domestic migrants from the economically depressed south—was blaming another for its marginalization. Unlike the protests over the plan for the bullring in Barcelona and smaller mosques in Ripoll, the conflict over Al Huda wasn’t a grassroots affair but was stoked by politicians. “Even in 2012, when they were doing all the Ramadan prayers on the sidewalk, there wasn’t a single problem with the citizens,” Peña says. “Not a single conflict.” No major protest against the mosque has occurred in three years—some immediate neighbors of the site briefly hung banners opposing it, but they quickly disappeared—and neither Mollet mosque has experienced vandalism or threats. Even the town’s graffiti artists seem to avoid mentioning religion, appearing more interested in anarchism.
As in Lleida, conflict began with the response of local government. Politicians saw an opportunity in the growing distrust, and mosques became the battleground.
“What’s happened here in Mollet is a pure political conflict,” says Balghouch, sitting in a shawarma joint across the street from Al Huda’s current space.
There appears to be something to the charge.
The year before Al Huda rented its new space, the regional ultra-right-wing Platform for Catalonia—the same group that would oppose the use of La Monumental as a mosque in Barcelona—competed in Mollet’s municipal elections for the first time. The group had sprung up during the recession that began in 2008, and focused on contests in small towns where recovery still seemed far-off. Mollet was perfect.
Six months before Al Huda tried to open its new mosque, as unemployment in Spain hovered at around 25 percent, Platform for Catalonia campaigned against mosques in Catalan cities. It won 5 percent in the 2012 poll in Mollet—841 votes. Another 600 votes shifted from incumbent mayor Monràs, of the center-left Democratic Socialists, to the candidate from another right-wing party, Spain’s ruling Populists, which had run anti-immigration-tinged campaigns in neighboring cities, where mosques had also faced opposition.
Though he kept his seat, Monràs was weakened by the town’s shift right, losing nearly a quarter of his support from the previous election.
Balghouch believes Monràs’ sudden zoning change that effectively banned Al Huda from opening a new mosque was a calculated move to win back conservative votes.
“He found our thing in front of him, and he took advantage of it,” Balghouch says. Monràs did what any Republican member of Congress who has faced a primary challenge from the right does the next time he’s up for reelection—he chased the votes he’d lost. He tacked right.
Astor pointed out that Mollet’s newest migrants were from abroad, and many, even with legal residency papers, under Spanish law did not have the right to vote.
“It's a big problem here—many of the Muslim communities I’ve spoken with feel powerless for that reason. Their need to protest publicly in plazas is linked to their inability to influence political action through more conventional channels,” he said.
With even a growing Muslim population representing a tiny, disenfranchised segment of the city, the mayor had little to lose. Al Huda was a handy target.
A spokesman for the Mollet city government refused to comment on Balghouch’s suggestion that the change to the zoning law was motivated by politics, or on the delays in responding to the ombudsman's letters. “If you do not have a permit, you are in violation of the law. There is nothing else to talk about,” said the spokesman, who would identify himself only as Ramon. Mollet’s press office denied repeated requests to speak with the mayor or city planning officials.
A thousand miles from Mollet, the Khadija mosque in Pankow is everything Ahmed Balghouch wants—a tall white building featuring the symmetry and familiar dome of traditional Islamic architecture. The mosque, behind a Kentucky Fried Chicken and an auto shop, is hard to find but obvious enough that someone threw a pig’s head in a bag over the wall onto mosque property last year. “The caretaker took it,” says Said Arif, the imam. “He just threw it in the compost bin.”
In 2006, protests began in Pankow after the small Ahmadiyya Muslim community bought the parcel of land, for just over 1 million euros. A public meeting to announce plans for the mosque attracted more than 1,000 protesters and was disrupted by a neo-Nazi group.
Police had to escort Ahmadiyya’s representatives from the meeting.
“Some people said, You are picking this place because you want to shoot down airplanes,” Arif remembers. The neighborhood is on the flight line to Berlin’s nearby Tegel airport.
The purchase also caught the attention of Germany’s National Democratic Party, an ultraright forerunner of the AfD, which organized more protests against the mosque.
Ahmadiyya’s land purchase and permit to build the mosque had already been approved, and city officials in Berlin backed the project despite protests over the next two years, including the torching of a construction vehicle.
“Obviously they pick on Islam and they criticize Islam and Muslims and stuff,” Arif says. He is a young imam, 30, and speaks like it. “But the biggest part of the conversation with them is they’re frustrated with German politics.”
He says National Democratic politicians had used the Khadija project as a convenient issue to rally around, a political symbol for groups with national agendas, more than a neighborhood issue. The protesters had been worried about “their properties and their wealth and their status, and that they’re going to fall into poverty. It’s a bit similar to the situation in the U.S. right now,” he says. “Those people who are voting for Trump, they’re voting for him not because they hate Muslims but because he promises them jobs and, like, progress and this and that.”
Also like the U.S., Germany has seen immigration take center stage in its politics, with the influx of more than 1 million refugees just in 2015 leading to a surge in support for the nationalist AfD in regional elections. Attacks on mosques in Germany have increased over the same period.
A mosque Ahmadiyya is trying to build in Leipzig has been the scene of ongoing protests in addition to the now-popular habit of tossing a dead pig onto the site. “The refugee crisis has fueled the situation,” says Arif. “They level everything—Islam, refugees, and mosques.”
Even as nationalism scores political victories in Germany, he says, it is a lot easier administratively to build a mosque in Germany than it is in Spain. Though opposition to Ahmadiyya’s mosque projects has led to street protests and arguably hate crimes, government support has been solid. “In Leipzig there’s huge support, not just for our community but for religious freedom,” says Arif. Zoning arguments and laws banning mosques from the town centers are rare in Germany.
In Pankow, that meant once the construction was completed, the controversy seemed to end. “Once the mosque was inaugurated it was like the silence after the storm,” Arif says. A National Democratic rally planned for the day of the mosque’s opening was canceled for lack of interest, according to German reports at the time.
Today the Khadija mosque has 360 members, mostly Germans of South Asian descent, and problems have all but disappeared. Arif believes “100 percent” the incident with the pig’s head was tied to the refugee crisis, not the mosque per se. Still, he thinks plans to build mosques will continue to generate controversy in Europe and the U.S., whether the opposition is private citizens or local governments.
“If we stay in, like, apartments…they have a problem with that, because they say, ‘We can’t trust you. We don’t know what they’re up to,” he says. “People with beards. They have trust issues in that regard. OK, then we’re going to be apparent, and we’re going to be in the society, and we’re going to be visible. Then they have a problem with that. They’re like ‘No, they’re expanding.’ You can be hiding, or you can be visible. Both ways it’s not going to please anyone.”
An opinion piece published in the German daily Die Welt in May seemed to confirm that view: “Muslims tend to keep to themselves more than other groups of immigrants…. [I]t has already become clear that certain ethnic groups prefer to congregate in specific cities,” wrote Dorothea Siems, chief correspondent for economic policy for the paper.
After missing two of the deadlines Catalonia requires of municipalities to reply to ombudsman requests, the government of Mollet del Vallès sent its internal documents over the change in the 2012 city plan to the ombudsman’s office in late May. The sealed case is expected to be under review for some months, said Marta Buel, a spokesperson for the office, when a decision will either end Al Huda’s legal route to moving into the new space or force the city of Mollet to revisit the application. “By now, a lot of it is personality,” said Peña, sorting books in his store downtown. “The relationship between Ahmed and Monràs is just…” He trailed off, shaking his head.
In the meantime, Balghouch is still praying in his crowded room. After the Friday sermon in early May, the members of Al Huda filtered out slowly, waiting in line to get out the door. Balghouch shook hands with worshipers and saw them off. A few were heading back to work. The construction project where some of the congregants were working, involving improvements to the highway to Barcelona, was running behind, and a few of the men were scheduled to work the sabbath. It took a while to find everyone’s shoes.
The sermon had not been political. The imam, who spoke in Arabic, discussed generalities about being an upstanding person, according to two members of the congregation who translated pieces of the speech. The fight with Monràs didn’t come up.
As an organization, Al Huda has a reputation for conservatism, and Balghouch doesn’t avoid the issue: “In Morocco, the [ruling] party is Islamist. So what? Since the Islamists took over the Moroccan economy is rising, security is better, everyone’s salary is up, there’s more aid. The secularists ruled for 70 years, and they brought misery. What do you want?”
Here in Spain, he said, he’d done everything by the proper channels, paid his rent. Now he deserved his keys.
Later that evening, across the train tracks two miles away, the leadership of the Islamic Council was sitting in the middle of its empty former factory.
“It’s exclusion,” said Achab, the secretary, of the town’s effort to move Muslim gathering places out of downtown. He’s a tall man in his early 30s, born in Morocco but raised in Mollet since elementary school. “They say it’s for space, [or] so nobody bothers you. But you say, ‘The evangelist churches are in the center of town.’ ” He said the Islamic Council took the decision to locate the mosque in an industrial zone because no other solution existed at the time:
“There was pressure from all sides [to leave downtown]. There was pressure from the government, pressure from the members who wanted a place to go, pressure from the other community [Al Huda] that was very crowded. So you look for an alternative.”
“There’s a sense that people don’t know Muslims; everyone goes home to their neighborhoods after school,” said Zhari, the congregant. After the Paris attacks, he said, strangers asked him whether he supported terrorism. “You do get tired of defending yourself.”
The local and regional police visit the mosque about twice a year, said Achab. “The cops come; they interview you; they ask questions. They ask, ‘Who’s here? Do you study? What do they study?’ ”
“They talk about terrorism and that they need to know who is coming and going from the mosques,” said Khalil Habti, the president of the Islamic Council, sitting on the floor of the old factory and watching a boy playing in the vast space. “The politicians say they are worried about radicalism. And then they send us way out here and don’t even come to collect the garbage.”
He worried a piece of the carpet between his fingers. “My kids, on Friday afternoon they talk about where they are going to go to play after school. To the park?” Mollet has several large parks in the center of town but none in the industrial area, where the Islamic Council’s Friday prayer often includes families.
“And my children, they ask me, ‘Why does my classmate have the right to play in the park after school, and I’m out here?’ Kids are smart. They already have this inside them.”
What does he tell his children?
“You tell them the truth,” he said.