News Date: 25th November 2013
Concerns about creeping radicalism in Spain’s North African enclaves have made military commanders question the loyalty of Muslim soldiers recruited from those regions, prompting staff shifts and worries about religious tolerance.
The doubts – focusing on whether recruits from the two enclaves on the Moroccan coast would follow orders in the event of a dispute with Morocco – have reportedly led the army not to renew some contracts and sparked protests for the rights of Muslim soldiers.
Muslim soldiers’ ties with neighbouring Morocco are “a subject of worry among many military commanders,” the daily El Pais writes.
But those worries, in turn, are prompting frustration among local advocates of the rights of Muslim soldiers who say questioning their loyalty is a form of discrimination.
“Many of the Muslim soldiers are third or fourth-generation Spaniards, and they feel Spanish,” said a spokesman for the Ceuta-based Muslim-dominated party UDCE, which has campaigned for the rights of Muslim soldiers.
The concern focuses on the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the Moroccan coast, which have a population of about 80,000 each. More than 40 per cent of residents are Muslims. They, in turn, make up more than a quarter of the thousands of troops stationed in the two strategically important military outposts.
Several Muslim soldiers stationed in Melilla have been replaced with non-Muslims recently, according to El Pais.
Police are also concerned about an increase of Islamic radicalism in Ceuta, where cases have been reported of Muslim soldiers not getting their contracts renewed in recent years.
“These are cases of blatant discrimination,” the UDCE spokesman told dpa by telephone.
A Defence Ministry spokesman declined to comment on the El Pais report, but denied discrimination against Muslims in Spain’s professional army.
“We have taken measures which we believe are necessary to prevent discrimination,” he told dpa. Army representatives say Muslim soldiers are not the only ones not to get their contracts renewed.
There has been concern for several years in Spain that Muslim soldiers, many of whom have relatives in Morocco, could side with that country in case of a bilateral conflict. Such concerns are not completely unfounded: Spain and Morocco barely avoided a military conflict over an uninhabited islet in 2002.
There are also lingering concerns about an eventual conflict over the sovereignty of Ceuta and Melilla, which are claimed by Morocco.
Many of the Muslims in Ceuta and Melilla receive religious instruction from imams coming from Morocco who may urge loyalty to Moroccan King Mohammed VI as the official leader of his country’s Muslims.
Francisco Jimenez from Spain’s Islamic federation FEERI believes that in such a case, most of the Muslims living in the enclaves would support Spain.
“They want the enclaves to remain a part of Spain, where they enjoy a higher living standard than they would in Morocco,” he told dpa.
Others also dismiss concerns about disloyalty.
“I do not have any knowledge of some soldiers not being loyal to Spain,” a spokesman for the military professionals’ association Aume told dpa.
But police are concerned about the increase of Islamic radicalism in the enclaves. Ceuta officials estimate that about a dozen local Muslims have travelled since last year to fight in Syria, where at least five of them have been killed.
In 2006, three Muslim soldiers were forced to leave the army for having had contacts with members of an alleged terrorist cell in Ceuta.
In 2008, the army was forced to readmit a Ceuta Muslim whose contract was not renewed because he was deemed too “emphatic” in his criticism of Israel and of the Iraq war.
Spanish law recognizes the right of Muslim citizens to serve in the army, where they are offered pork-free menus, the right to daily prayers and to fast during Ramadan whenever the situation allows for it.
“We have no reports of those rights not being respected,” Jimenez said.
A military career is a good option for many Muslims in Ceuta and Melilla, where they have higher failure rates in the Spanish-language educational system and higher unemployment than Catholic residents.
Nonetheless, several Muslim soldiers have now been replaced with Latin Americans in Melilla, El Pais quoted Muslim representatives as saying.
The Spanish army has tried to make up for its lack of manpower by recruiting 1,598 soldiers so far from Colombia, Ecuador and other Latin American countries.
Many of them are not Spanish citizens, but they are seen as sharing Spain’s cultural heritage, and do not arouse the same kind of suspicions as Muslim soldiers do.