The Reconquista is Now: Anti-Islamic Discourse After the Attack in Barcelona

Ariel Koch explores the discourse that developed on SNS following the terrorist attack on Las Ramblas Boulevard in Barcelona, Spain, in August 2017.
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Younes Abouyaaqoub, the perpetrator of the August 2017 attack in Barcelona.
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Younes Abouyaaqoub, the perpetrator of the August 2017 attack in Barcelona.




The terrorist attack on Las Ramblas Boulevard in Barcelona on August 17 is considered to have been the first terrorist attack carried out by Spanish jihadists since the Madrid attacks in March of 2004. As far as currently known, the most recent attack was carried out by Spanish citizens who identified with ISIS, which for its part took credit for the attacks. The discourse on social networking sites (SNS) that developed following the attack was varied, and included black humor and ridicule against the jihadists, alongside violent and inflammatory discourse that was further expressed, inter alia, as physical violence directed against Muslims in Spain. This discourse reveals the threat perception of users from the far-right in Spain. This threat perception originated in the Middle Ages, when the Iberian Peninsula was conquered by Muslims, and corresponds, in a surreal manner, with the content world that their jihadist opponents use to justify their violent acts against the non-Muslim population of Europe, particularly in Spain.[1]

As with previous terror attacks in Europe, the attack in Barcelona sparked many reactions from extreme right-wing users. Spanish users took advantage of the event to claim that Muslims wanted to re-conquer al-Andalus (the Arabic name for the Iberian peninsula during the Muslim conquest in the 8th–15th centuries), with the aim of returning Spain to the fold of Islam. To support their claim, these users used a propaganda video distributed in the al-Khir district of ISIS in which, for the first time, two Spanish speakers threatened additional attacks and made it clear that Spain would be punished for the persecution of Muslims during the Inquisition.[2] The reactions ranged from mockery of the jihadists to defiance of the attempt to terrorize the Spanish population, and also included threats and curses against the Muslims in Spain and elsewhere. For example, a meme shared on SNS showed one of the speakers from the ISIS video with the caption, “Wanted to revive the Caliphate, become the meme of the year.”[3]

Among the prominent accounts disseminating anti-Islamic propaganda is that of a Spanish user named “Soy de Derechas,” (“I am a believer,” in Spanish) with more than 26,000 followers.[4] On August 20, he uploaded a short video showing a Spanish-speaking man holding a sword and threatening Muslims. [5] In the video, the sword was claimed to a replica of “tizona,” the sword of Rodrigo Díaz de Viver, better known as El Cid, an 11th-century knight, portrayed in Spanish-Christian narratives as a great Christian warrior who participated in “La Reconquista,” the re-conquest of Spain from the Muslims. [6]The man, whose identity is still unknown, cursed “the Moors” (the historical designation for the Muslim invaders from North Africa), and warned them, “there are still many Spaniards facing you.” The video was shared more 1,600 times, and received more than 1,400 likes. Most of the responses to the video were supportive, but some expressed incredulity and shock at the show of hatred. A similar video was distributed after the London Bridge attack, in which an extreme right-wing activist from Liverpool was shown wearing a hand grenade and brandishing a machete as he threatened to blow up mosques and injure Muslims. [7]

The anti-Islamic discourse that developed following the attack included, not infrequently, more general expressions of xenophobia, directed also against Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals. An example is the Twitter user known as “German Turis,” who has more than 30,000 followers. [8]He describes himself as an “anti-communist” and highlights his opposition to any Muslim presence in Europe. Hashtags used by the account include “#whitegenocide,” and “#defendeurope,” which are used by radical right-wingers, including neo-Nazis and supporters of white supremacy in Europe and beyond. By implication, these challenge the presence of other minorities in Europe.

In the context of this discourse, there were more than a few references to Muslim immigrants, who were presented as a tangible danger to Spain.  Such references included images that ridiculed liberals who ostensibly are closing their eyes to the supposed danger. Some users called for outlawing Islam and expelling Muslims from Europe. The illustration shown here was distributed using the Twitter account of a user known as “Kfan Patria & Madrid,” who describes himself as a patriot from Madrid. It shows a man kicking a book labelled “Koran” into a black hole, with the caption, “F*ck Islam. This Is Europe.”[9] Another image shows a map of Europe with the words “To protect our territory from the invaders: a white, united and strong Europe against the invader.”[10] This corresponds with the message disseminated by extremist right-wing elements in the West who contend that Muslim immigrants are terrorist operatives and dormant agents of ISIS. [11]

Following the terrorist attack in Barcelona, ​​Spanish media reported on Islamophobic incidents, including arson and attempted arson of mosques, and attacks on “Muslim-looking” civilians,[12] in addition to the attacks on Manchester and the London Bridge in England.[13] According to the Union of Islamic Communities of Spain (UCIDE), a mosque in Madrid was also attacked by members of a group affiliated with the extreme right after the March 2016 Brussels attack.[14] However, this seems to be a limited and relatively new phenomenon in Spain. For comparison’s sake, after the attacks in Madrid in 2004, public opinion leaned left, as exemplified by the election three days after the attack of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the left-wing candidate for prime minister.

Jihadi terrorism provokes and spurs the extreme right in Spain, which uses it to justify their hostility and violence, not only against the jihadists and their supporters, but against all Muslims. Together they are perceived as a single entity that intends to conquer Spain, and to expand into all of Europe. In this context, people on both sides of the divide use narratives and symbols from the Wars of the Reconquista to mobilize support, and to cast the current struggle as part of an ongoing, even eternal, struggle between the Christian world and supposedly avaricious Islam. Alternatively, such discourse is used to assert ancient rights to the Iberian Peninsula, according the world view of the beholder. Discourse of this type may have negative implications for the fabric of relations within society in Spain, and in Europe in general.

 



[1] I presented an example of this in my article “Jihad Works Both Ways: Representations of the New Crusaders,” Beehive, vol. 5, issue 6, June 2017.

[2] Manuel R. Torres-Soriano, “Jihadism in the Spanish Language After the Barcelona Attacks,” The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, August 2017. 

[4] @SoydeDERECHAS, Twitter. 

[5] @SoydeDERECHAS, Twitter, 20 August 2017.

[6] Rodrigo Díaz de Viver, known as El Cid Campeador (1044-1099), was for a time a mercenary who served Muslim rulers of Spain, even in their wars against Christians.

[7] Lorna Hughes and Stephen Jones, The Mirror, 5 June 2017; @ahudhayfah, Twitter, 7 June 2017.

[8] @german21168, Twitter.  

[9] @kfan90, Twitter, 12 September 2017.

[10] @kfan90, Twitter, 11 September 2017.

[11] Phillip Kleinfeld, Calling Bullshit on the Anti-Refugee Memes Flooding the Internet, Vice.com. 10 September 2015;  and also Rebecca Ruiz, Don't Ban Refugees. Ban Garbage memes about refugees. Mashable.com. 2 February 2017.

[12] Laura M. Mateo, Primeros ataques islamófobos contra mezquitas en España, el Mundo, 20 August 2017; Conor Gaffey, Newsweek, 25 August 2017,; On Islamophobia in Europe, see: Enes Bayraklı and Farid Hafez (eds.), “European Islamophobia Report - 2016”, Turkey, Istanbul: SETA -Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, 2016. 

[13] Alan Travis, The Guardian, 20 June 2017.

[14] Institución para la observación y seguimiento de la situación del ciudadano musulmán y la islamofobia en España, “Informe Especial 2016: Incidencias e Islamofobia,” Unión de Comunidades Islámicas de España, Madrid: 2017, p. 3. , and also The Local, 23 March 2016,