Some 3,000 Muslim immigrants took to the streets in near Barcelona to protest recent cuts in social welfare benefits.

The protest, which took place on December 5 in the industrial city of Terrassa, about 30 kilometers from Barcelona, was organized and attended by Moroccan immigrants.

The size and spontaneity of the demonstration caught local officials by surprise -- they had been expecting no more than 300 demonstrators -- and reflects the growing assertiveness of Muslim immigrants in the northeastern region of Catalonia.

The protest could confirm the fears of Spanish intelligence agencies that the new Islamist government in Morocco may attempt to incite Moroccan immigrants in Spain to organize demonstrations, in an effort to force Spain's new conservative prime minister, who takes office on December 22, to resolve a series of longstanding disputes between the two countries.

The starting point for the demonstration was the heavily Muslim neighborhood of Ca N'Anglada, which is located in downtown Terrassa. The demonstrators then made their way through the city center to the municipal social security office.

The Moroccans were protesting austerity measures that make it more difficult for immigrants to collect social welfare handouts from the regional government in Catalonia.

Budget cutbacks that entered into effect in July 2011 increase the residency requirements to two years (from one year previously) for immigrants who want to collect welfare benefits. The changes also limit welfare handouts to 60 months.

Local politicians fear the protest was the opening salvo of what may become a more sustained campaign of unrest by Muslim immigrants in Catalonia, which has become ground zero in an intensifying debate over the role of Islam in Spain.

The Muslim population of Catalonia reached 300,000 in 2011, compared to just 10,000 in 1990, thanks to a massive wave of immigration, both legal and illegal.

In Spain as a whole, the Muslim population reached an estimated 1.5 million in 2011, up from just 100,000 in 1990.

The influx of Muslim immigrants on such a massive scale has led to an increasing number of Islam-related controversies in Spain.

In September, for example, Muslim immigrants were accused of poisoning dozens of dogs in the Catalan city of Lérida, where 29,000 Muslims now make up around 20% of the city's total population.

The dogs were poisoned in Lérida's working class neighborhoods of Cappont and La Bordeta, districts that are heavily populated by Muslim immigrants and where many dogs have been killed in recent years.

Local residents say Muslim immigrants killed the dogs because according to Islamic teaching dogs are "unclean" animals. Over the past several months, residents taking their dogs for walks have been harassed by Muslim immigrants opposed to seeing the animals in public. Muslims have also launched a number of anti-dog campaigns on Islamic websites and blogs based in Spain.

In December 2010, a high school teacher in the southern Spanish city of La Línea de la Concepción was sued by the parents of a Muslim student who said the teacher "defamed Islam" by talking about Spanish ham in class.

José Reyes Fernández, a geography teacher, was giving a lecture about the different types of climates in Spain. During the class, Reyes mentioned that the climate in the province of Andalusia offers the perfect temperature conditions for curing Spanish ham (Jamón Ibérico), a world-famous delicacy.

At this point, a Muslim student in the class interrupted Reyes and argued that any talk of pork products is offensive to his religion. Reyes responded by saying that he was only giving an example and that he does not take into consideration different religious beliefs when teaching geography.

The Muslim student informed his parents, who then filed a lawsuit against Reyes, accusing him of "abuse with xenophobic motivations." Article 525 of the Spanish Penal Code makes it a crime to "offend the feelings of the members of a religious confession." The lawsuit was later thrown out by a Spanish judge.

In November 2010, the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla, two enclaves in northern Africa, officially recognized the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice), as a public holiday. By doing so, Ceuta and Melilla, where Muslims make up more than 50% of the total populations, became the first Spanish municipalities officially to mark an Islamic holiday since Spain was liberated from Muslim captivity in 1492.

In October 2010, the Islamic Association of Málaga, in southern Spain, demanded that Television Española (TVE), the state-owned national public television broadcaster, stop showing a Spanish-language television series because it was "anti-Muslim." Muslims accused TVE of violating the Spanish Constitution for airing a program that criticizes certain aspects of Islam, such as forced marriages and the lack of women's rights in Muslim countries.

That same month, residents of the Basque city of Bilbao found their mailboxes stuffed with flyers in Spanish and Arabic from the Islamic Community of Bilbao asking for money to build a 650 square meter (7,000 square feet) mosque costing €550,000 ($735,000). Their website states: "We were expelled [from Spain] in 1609, really not that long ago. … The echo of Al-Andalus still resonates in all the valley of the Ebro [Spain]. We are back to stay, Insha'Allah [if Allah wills it]."

In September 2010, a discotheque in southern Spanish resort town of Águilas (Murcia) was forced to change its name and architectural design after Islamists threatened to initiate "a great war between Spain and the people of Islam" if it did not.

La Meca was a popular discotheque during the 1980s and 1990s. After being closed for more than a decade, the club reopened in August 2010 under new management, but using the original name, La Meca. The mega-nightclub featured a large turquoise-colored mosque-style dome, a minaret-like tower, as well as traditional Arabic architecture common in southern Spain.

But soon after its reopening, Muslims began to complain that the nightclub is offensive and insulting to their religion; a group of Muslim radicals posted a video on the Internet calling for a boycott of Spanish goods and jihad against those who "blaspheme the name of Allah." Spain's intelligence agency, the Centro Nacional de Inteligencia (CNI), warned La Meca's owners that the discotheque was being directly targeted by Islamic extremists.

The nightclub owners agreed to change the name to La Isla (the island) "to avoid further problems and to ensure that patrons keep coming." They also confirmed plans to modify controversial features of the club's architecture, namely a minaret-like tower that has since been converted into a lighthouse-like tower.

Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.

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