Multicultural mayoring

In a small town near Barcelona a Moroccan-born Muslim woman with a master’s degree

says she was threatened by Muslim fundamentalists because she took off her veil and tried to live like a Spaniard. The treatment of Fatima Ghailan, 31, prompted an investigating magistrate to bring charges against the sheik of the local mosque, Mohamed Benbrahim, and the head of the Islamic Association, Abderraman el-Osri, the leading figures in Cunit’s Muslim community. The case also generated demands for the resignation of Mayor Judit Alberich, a liberal Socialist who, her political opponents said, catered to her Muslim constituents at the expense of respect for the law.

The self-appointed ‘leading figures’ in the male portion of ‘Cunit’s Muslim community’ – except those who don’t agree with them, of course, who never count when journalists are telling us who the leading figures are. It’s just shorthand of course, and we get the drift, but when there is controversy that usage does bestow a legitimacy on putative leaders that they don’t necessarily have or deserve. We don’t really know whether those two are ‘leading figures’ or just bullies. And clearly Alberich catered to some of her Muslim constituents, at the expense of others of them as well as respect for the law. Clearly not all of Alberich’s ‘Muslim constituents’ want women to be bullied by men for not wearing hijab.

Ghailan was an unlikely champion of assimilation when she arrived in Cunit as a teenager. Her father had been the sheik of a mosque in Morocco, and until recently, she dutifully wore a scarf. But things began to change several years ago. Ghailan received a master’s degree in Barcelona…Then she got a job at City Hall, assigned to work with the town’s approximately 1,000 mostly Moroccan Muslims as a “cultural mediator.” Her job was to encourage Muslims, particularly cloistered women, to participate in the life of the town, to take advantage of language classes and to leave their homes to attend festivals. Ultimately, that is what brought her into conflict with Benbrahim and Osri. As a representative of City Hall, Ghailan wielded power over the immigrant community. That, residents said, was something the traditionalists could not accept — particularly because it involved a woman who refused to cover her hair. Benbrahim organized a petition demanding Ghailan’s firing. Ghailan said the dispute soon escalated; she lodged a formal complaint against Benbrahim in November 2008, charging that he had harassed, threatened and attacked her and her family. A local court issued a restraining order, barring the sheik from going near Ghailan or her family, and launched a formal investigation in which procedure dictated that Benbrahim be taken into custody. But, Ghailan said later, the mayor, Alberich, intervened to prevent the arrest, saying that it would disrupt relations with Cunit’s Muslim community.

Alberich is a woman and a socialist – yet she opted to leave Ghailan exposed to the bullying of an imam.

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