“From exporting wise men to exporting Jihadists” – and back

Photo: Julia Weinzierler

A big share of foreign fighters left from the Spanish enclave Ceuta on African soil – what made this place so vulnerable for radicalisation besides the recent decrease?

One of the most famous descendents from Ceuta, a little Spanish enclave in the North of Africa, is Muhammad al Idrissi. The Muslim geographer, cartographer and Egyptologist drew one of the most advanced ancient world maps in the 12th century. “Just like him more prominent people came from Ceuta, for example the Jewish wise men,” explains Mariam Mohamed, coordinator at the Cultural Centre Al Idrissi. “So how did we go from exporting wise men to exporting Jihadists?” she asks. “Something happened in between.”

The population in Ceuta is divided in two big groups in almost equal numbers – Christians and Muslims live together in peace and co-existence. A majority of the more than 80.000 inhabitants of the city have no radical background – but what is also true is that the highest percentage of the Spanish foreign fighters left from the autonomous city. Between 2011 and 2015 there have been 75 arrests in Spain with 40 percent of detainees being from Ceuta.

While the press officer of the city government declined an interview with the argument that to his opinion, there are no radicals in Ceuta, official numbers prove him wrong. “You can say whatever you want, but the reality and statistics are what they are,” Mariam says. “There have been young people that travelled to zones of conflict.” She speaks about a young Muslim girl called Asia that left to go to Syria and is now in jail in Spain – while her grandmother is living in Ceuta with Asia’s two little children. What has happened?

Mariam Mohamed is aware of the different factors that influence radicalism in Ceuta. Even when in her opinion, the problem is smaller than the media depicts it, she knows that prevention work is important for the children in Ceuta. Photo: Julia Weinzierler

Socio-economics affect radicalisation

According to sociologist Carlos Rontomé from the University of Ceuta, one of the variables that favour radicalisation is the socioeconomic exclusion. While only 15 percent of the Christian population are affected by poverty and social exclusion, the number of Muslims affected is unequally higher with 65 percent.

“Historically the Muslims are not living on the same socioeconomical level as the other religious groups,” Mariam says. Before Spain entered the European community the so-called musulmanes in Ceuta were stateless – religion was not only an identification characteristic of Spaniards but was also a requirement for the Spanish citizenship. “For a long time they weren’t considered Spanish, even though they were born in Spain,” Mariam says. Additionally they did not have the same opportunities in terms of education or work, but since then time has changed. “Although it should have disappeared a long time ago, it sometimes is still going from generation to generation, from father to son.”

The Spanish flag is very present everywhere in Ceuta and the Spanish identity is still highly connected to religion – especially in the little enclave, where secularisation happens at a slower pace than the rest of Spain. Photo: Julia Weinzierler

Ceuta’s bordering the “Moroccan triangle of radicalisation”

Apart from the fact that today the Ceutí Muslims on paper have the same opportunities and rights as the rest of the population, the geographical location makes the radicalisation threat visible: Rontomé explains that Ceuta is bordering the Moroccan triangle of radicalisation, which is formed by Tetuan, F’nidek and Tanger. Morocco has a very strict policy in terms of radicalisation. “So what do the radicals do?” asks Mariam. “They go to European cities and the closest one is Ceuta.” Moroccan cities near the border have a special agreement with Spain, they can enter the enclave without going through visa procedures.

“Spain also has a problem with the Imams and preachers,” Mariam says. They have to go to other countries for their education, since Spain does not have universities for them. Since there are no other options for them, Mariam says Spain can’t control what knowledge they are bringing. Furthermore they are not paid by Spain – but by Morocco or Saudi-Arabia. “And who pays, rules,” Mariam concludes.

The location of Ceuta is very unique: The enclave as well as its sister Melilla is the only two land borders of Europe to Morocco. In the left corner one can already see houses in Morocco. Photo: Julia Weinzierler

Surrounded by constant pressure

The group of recruiters is thereby expanding the virus of victimisation to make the Muslim youth in Ceuta easier to manipulate and boosts islamophobia in the rest of the society to increase the gap between the religions, explains Mariam. “That is what started generating fear.” This fear is what gives radicalisation a space – and Ceuta is surrounded by a constant pressure.

“Here is the door of Africa to Europe, we border with an African country who is demanding us,” Mariam says. “There is always fear, that part of the Muslims living here are pro-Moroccan.” That is the point where separation starts – and separation leads to lack of belonging and lack of identity, which are drivers of radicalisation according to sociologist Rontomé.

Recognising and preventing

“Ceuta has a large group of young ‘religious novices’ that look for a clear identity,” Rontomé explains. “In the last two decades rigorist religious organisations settled in the city.” In view of a young, Muslim population in search of belonging and identity, their manipulation can reach young people easily. “Ceuta has 59 Islamic communities, it’s impossible to control,” says Mariam. “We have to recognize that we have a problem that is not as big as the media portrays it, but that still exists.”

Because of multiple reasons the number of foreign fighters decreased. Not only the Islamic community contributes its part, also the budgets of police and authorities were raised. Spain still finds itself on level four out of five in the terrorist alert scale, which means more budget, an increase in surveillance and protection. For Mariam the prevention work is essential – to work from bottom-up and to prevent that people like the children of the girl Asia who left for Syria will be manipulated by the same ideas. Good education to see what Ceuta exports next.