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Spain's Moroccan Community Fears Backlash After Barcelona Attack

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

An intensive manhunt is still going on in Spain and France for a 22-year-old Moroccan immigrant accused of driving that van that ran over scores of pedestrians in Barcelona last week. Also elusive is the answer to why he or the other 11 men who spent most of their lives in Catalonia became terrorists. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports that this question is troubling not only Moroccans there who fear a backlash but also Catalonian leaders who consider their region a place where immigrants and natives live in harmony.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: These women chant "we are Muslims; we are not terrorists" at a protest in Barcelona this past weekend by Moroccan and other Muslim residents. One woman who took part was Fadwa, who says she's a university researcher who immigrated to Catalonia from Morocco two decades ago. She refuses to tell me her last name. That's because like many in her community, Fadwa fears a backlash against Moroccans who live here over the fatal van attacks last week.

FADWA: (Speaking Spanish).

NELSON: She says what the 12 men accused in the attacks did defies explanation. But it has nothing to do with them being Moroccan or Muslim. At a bakery here in Barcelona, Jamila al Masry says a group of young men she encountered earlier that morning felt differently.

JAMILA AL MASRY: (Speaking Spanish).

NELSON: Masry says they were cursing and shouting at her to, quote, "go back to your country." She says she feels many people glare at her since the attack because she's Moroccan. It's something she says she never experienced here before, since arriving 14 years ago. The backlash hasn't only been verbal. A mosque and a Moroccan consulate west of Barcelona were defaced late last week with red paint and slurs.

But activist Miriam Hatibi says so far, these incidents have been rare. She credits Catalonia's success as a melting pot, where immigrants and locals often live and work together in the same neighborhoods. That isn't always the case in other parts of Europe. Neither Catalonian nor the rest of Spain, for that matter, has produced the kind of hardline anti-Islam movements seen elsewhere. Nor has there been a groundswell of Muslim extremists here, although Spanish authorities have thwarted Islamist plots.

Hatibi says she believes ISIS does try and recruit here but is hard pressed to find any takers. The 23-year-old was born in Catalonia to Moroccan immigrants and, like many in her generation here, isn't shy about speaking up.

MIRIAM HATIBI: So our parents were focused on working. They were focused on just building better lives for us. They were focused on trying to help their parents back at home. And we, as Catalan Muslims, we focus a lot on really, like, asking for what we want.

NELSON: She says she just can't understand why anyone who was born here or grew up here would join a terrorist cell. She wants Younes Abouyaaqoub, the suspected driver in last week's attack, to be caught. Hatibi says she plans to demonstrate against terrorism this evening on the promenade where the attack took place.

HATIBI: We are organizing a protest to show everyone that we, as Muslims, do not accept this type of actions. This means that if this guy is watching TV or watching the radio, we want him to hear from us that we do not accept his behavior, that he will never be someone that represents us or someone that we believe did something good.

NELSON: What she hopes won't happen is for officials to start closing borders or mosques. It's something Raul Romeva, who is Catalonia's minister for foreign affairs, opposes as well.

RAUL ROMEVA: Actually, 17 percent of the population in Catalonia is not born in Catalonia. So this is not the problem. Where we need to combat is those attitudes that perceive this coexistence as a problem.

NELSON: Romeva says he's determined to make sure Moroccans here aren't stigmatized. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Barcelona.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDAMAME'S "CLADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.