People shout slogans during a demonstration called by SOS Racism organization under the slogan 'Against institutional racism' in Madrid, Spain. Photo: EPA/RODRIGO JIMENEZ
People shout slogans during a demonstration called by SOS Racism organization under the slogan 'Against institutional racism' in Madrid, Spain. Photo: EPA/RODRIGO JIMENEZ

Hate crimes and religious intolerance such as Islamophobia are on the rise in Spain, according to figures from the country's interior ministry and the Movement Against Intolerance. That group said there is also a rise in anti-Spanish sentiment in Catalonia.

Religious discrimination and hate crimes are on the rise in Spain, and are being pushed by rhetoric from far-right political movements. The country's interior ministry sounded the alarm in its most recent report, which revealed a 120 percent increase in incidents connected to crimes of religious intolerance in 2017, with 103 cases registered compared to 47 the previous year. 

Many of the crimes were related to Islamophobia in Catalonia, where the majority of the two million Muslims living in Spain reside, and where there are 317 mosques. The region saw a 307 percent increase in such crimes compared to 2016. 

Islamophobia increased following attacks 

Religious communities don't consider the figures alarming, but they are on guard against the spread of hate speech online, particularly in social media and mass media. Experts are pointing out the use of racist, anti-Muslim messages by right-wing groups as part of their platforms in the country's upcoming general election on April 28. They said these messages feed intolerance. Miguel Angel Aguilar, coordinating prosecutor for the Barcelona prosecutor's Hate Crimes and Discrimination Service, said his office noted an increase in Islamophobia connected to the August 17, 2017 attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, as well as a return to aggression against Muslims and hate speech on social media, although "the figure isn't alarming." 

"The Barcelona prosecutor's office opened 41 judicial proceedings in 2017 for crimes against religious freedom, 39 of which were for Islamophobia," Aguilar said. The Spanish Islamic Commission (CIE) said it registered over 300 writings and attacks against Muslims following the August 2017 attacks. According to the Report on the Observation of Islamophobia in the Media 2017, presented by various universities and foundations in Spain, "Islamophobia in the press is an indisputable truth". Citing the study, the president of the Al Fanar Foundation for Arab Knowledge, Pedro Rojo, said 65% of articles in newspapers published in 2017 were Islamophobic, "for which we can say the majority of the Spanish press is as well." 

Xenophobic messages in politics, social media 

Many analysts believe the phenomenon in Spain is less widespread than in other European countries, where racist rhetoric against Muslims has brought support for xenophobic, populist parties. But the issue is on the rise not only due to the right-wing political forces, such as Vox. Esteban Ibarra, president of the Movement Against Intolerance, said the populist, xenophobic message is being received by political parties with local and regional representation and is "strongly expanding through social media, which disturbs us." 

Ibarra was in Madrid to present the 'Raxen Report 2018'. The study annually monitors incidents of racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, anti-Roma attacks, and other forms of intolerance. It estimates that annual hate attacks in Spain number between 4,000 and 6,000, although the majority go unreported to police or judicial authorities. 

The organization is calling on the government to make the figures "objective" by creating a database that currently doesn't exist. From a quantitative standpoint, the movement, which works directly with victims, registered 602 incidents in 2018 connected to hate crimes. It said there were "numerous" violent racist or neo-Nazi-style attacks against migrants, Muslims, homosexuals, and other citizens targeted for their diversity. 

One of the main conclusions is the increase in anti-Spanish sentiment in Catalonia, torn apart by the pro-independence movement. On the other side, there is a peak in Spanish nationalism. In addition, hate speech conveyed over social media often goes unpunished. "Freedom of expression is not freedom of aggression," Ibarra said. "There's doctrine and jurisprudence so that those who spread hate on social media don't go unpunished," he said, emphasizing that at issue is the need to "facilitate police reports by ensuring, among other things, anonymity". Ibarra said his organisation is calling on politicians for "rigor in defending the Constitution and coexistence."

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