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From the March 2004 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 51, No. 3)

Europe's Furor over Faith

In Spain, Imam Sparks Legal Controversy

Juan María Alponte, El Universal (conservative), Mexico City, Mexico, Jan. 5, 2004

Today, 2.5 million foreigners live in Spain, of which 50 percent are undocumented. Many of these newcomers are from North Africa.

Recently, the imam of [the southern Spanish town of] Fuengirola, Mohamad Kamal Mustafa, was taken to court for infringing Article 510.1 of the Spanish Penal Code. The lawyers, on behalf of a number of [women’s] associations, have accused him of gender discrimination: In his book Women in Islam [published in 1997], the imam defended a husband’s right to beat his wife [and gave suggestions on how to beat her so as not to leave any marks. In July 2000, women’s groups filed suit against the imam, demanding the withdrawal of the book—WPR].

In front of the judges, however, the imam limited himself to saying that it was the Prophet’s doctrine, and although the controversy in Spain has caused snickering, it is no joking matter. [On Jan. 14, the iman was sentenced to 15 months in prison and was fined for encouraging violence against women. He will not, however, serve the sentence, because under Spanish law, individuals without previous convictions have their first sentence suspended if it is less than two years.—WPR]

In the past six months, about 60 Spanish women were murdered by their husbands. Cases of domestic violence are not uncommon (as in other parts of Europe), despite the clear presence of the rule of law, which, in Spain, has strengthened the forms of defense and accusation to guarantee gender equality. The imam’s case fueled an interesting cultural and sociological debate.

In France, the debate over Muslims’ head scarves in schools has triggered a controversy that focuses on the strict application of secularism. The Catholic Church defends these external symbols of religion, since their prohibition could eventually be problematic for Catholics, too. French President Jacques Chirac, however, remains firm in imposing the secularizing law.

Such issues must be priorities for European societies, especially given the current situation in the Middle East. Moreover, immigration is practically impossible to prevent, and millions of Muslims take incredible risks by crossing the Strait of Gibraltar or the Mediterranean.

The imam’s trial raised the question of how to interpret the Prophet’s words regarding the condition of women. Presumably, the imam’s justification is chapter four of the Quran, especially verse 38. This verse addresses men’s superiority “due to the qualities conceded by God to men over women.”

The imam smiled as he talked about how “the virtuous women are obedient and submissive” and that in cases of disobedience, men are allowed to beat their wives or drive them away from the marital bed—“but as soon as they obey the man, he should not look for more dispute.” His writings triggered the wrath of Spanish women, who are now campaigning hard against domestic violence.

This question, important for all societies, is especially crucial in Mexico, where violence against women is rampant.

In Europe, however, the topic has an important social meaning: The extremely low birthrate in the rich countries fuels the need for foreign workers, who balance the huge deficit of the welfare states. Most of them come from Islamic regions of the old European colonial empires.

The rule of law serves to integrate the growing number of undocumented immigrants into nations that have adopted more secular ideas, such as abortion, divorce, or acknowledgment of consensual unions of any sexual preferences, as essential guarantees for living together peacefully.

Under such conditions, one can understand how meaningful the imam of Fuengirola’s case is in confronting through the law an issue of extraordinary importance for the elimination of old chauvinistic culture. On this question, the rule of law cannot take even the tiniest backward step.

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