Santiago Abascal, spokesman for Vox, during rally in Plaza de Colón, Madrid, Spain. Lito Lizana/Press Association. All rights reserved.
The relationship between VOX ̶ headed by its leader Santiago Abascal ̶ and the Muslim community has never been easy. Back in 2015 when VOX (founded at the end of December 2013) was still a very minoritarian political force relatively unknown in Spain, Abascal and the leader of the Islamic Commission of Spain at that moment, Natalia Andújar, engaged in a fierce verbal confrontation. The origin of the battle was an article that the head of VOX had published in the online newspaper Libertad Digital entitled “Caballo de Troya” (Trojan Horse) in which he warned about the potential dangers of allowing Muslim students to be taught Islam in primary school as the then government allowed. Abascal argued that they were according Islam “a dangerous privilege”. Predictably, Andújar replied calling him “a xenophobe as well as an Islamophobe promoting anti-democratic values”. Abascal responded, reiterating his warning.
Three years after that incident, the position of VOX towards Muslims and Islam has not budged. During the recent electoral campaign in Andalusia in the last month of November 2018, the central term in party speeches was “Reconquista” (Reconquest). Even though some deny that this amounts to a religious crusade of Christians against Muslims, the term historically refers to the expulsion of Muslims by Isabel – Abascal’s role model for a politician – and Fernando (the Catholic Kings), de facto spelling the end of the kingdom of Granada, the end of Muslim rule in Spain after eight centuries of domination especially in Andalusia (Al-Andalus) and, ultimately, the end of Islam in Europe in 1492. The connotations of that word are clear: the ‘new conquest’ of Spanish territory for the principles VOX defends.
The Muslim community represents a growing 4% of the Spanish population, almost 2 million inhabitants, of whom more than 800,000 are Spanish citizens. Clearly the promise made by VOX in its electoral campaign was of special importance to them. As with the rest of electoral programme, Abascal’s articulation of what the party thought about minorities and measures to be implemented in relation to immigrants pulled no punches.
In 2017, the president of VOX contended that there was no danger of Islamophobia in Spain: the real danger was Islamophilia.
VOX claimed they disliked Islamic pillars of their religion such as the lack of separation between religion and politics as well as the basic way Muslims saw the world (for example, the treatment of women). Abascal, like many other citizens, judged a whole religion practiced by around 1600 million followers throughout the world on the basis of a homogenous block without any potential for differentiation, while typically confusing the culture, religion and politics implemented in the name of their faith.
The problem is that Abascal is not only an average citizen but also and especially the head of a political party, so his choice of words has an impact on whether hundreds of thousands of Spaniards reject or trust the Muslims among them. Consequently that choice should be made cautiously. Or maybe this was entirely calculated.
Just before the electoral campaign in Andalusia began in the autumn 2018, he said in a talk in Gran Canaria that immigrants from South America would be preferred over and above those coming from Islamic countries, since the former share our language, culture and worldview, adding that he feared 4% of Muslims living in Spain could “become a problem”. The kind of problem he had in mind was never clarified.
During a meeting last November with 700 people overcrowding a hotel in the city of Cordoba, the candidate of the party for the province, Alejandro Hernández Valdés, stated they were going to fight those who wanted to turn the cathedral into a mosque, an ancient and deeply rooted controversy ever present in Andalusian society.
In a radio interview with the popular journalist Carlos Herrera just a couple of days before the election, Abascal argued that immigration should be regulated in relation to the economic demands of the country as well as “according to their compatibility with our culture” so that “we don’t have to have to change our traditions or the menu in schools”. The reference was to the inclusion of halal menus in primary schools if a minimum of 10 students requires it, as guaranteed by Cooperation Agreements signed by the Government and the Spanish Islamic Commission in 1992.
By mid-December, after the Andalusian elections and the unexpectedly steep victory of VOX that took place, the Catalan independentist politician, Najat Driouech, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, called VOX’s ideology “male chauvinist” in the Catalan Parliament. Abascal’s reaction on Twitter was quick and inappropriate. Using an ugly term of address (calling Mrs. Driouech “this (esta)” rather than addressing her by her name) he told her “to look first to her own home” (obviously her religion, italics added) before describing them as male chauvinists.
That Najat Driouech was insulted in this way by the political leader of a party that had won a historic 12 seats in the Andalusian Parliament the first time they ran in elections, is worrying enough. No less so was the proliferation of racist and Islamophobic comments made by citizens following him up on social media. Classic Islamophobic tropes of women’s oppression under Islam (for wearing a hijab), curbs on expressing their opinions, or not being born in Spain despite having Spanish nationality were once again the most frequent slurs.
So, the relationship between VOX and the Muslim community was complicated from the outset. Muslims are the most numerous religious minority in Spain and their status as citizens seems now seems under threat from VOX’s political arsenal. There were problems in Spanish society in relation to Muslims even before VOX burst into the political arena. But this kind of explicit attack, unfortunately familiar in the wider European context we belong to, is something very recent on the Spanish political scene.