Public prosecutors in Spain have dropped charges of "advocating gender violence" against a Muslim cleric who, on April 2013, preached a two-hour sermon in Spanish, entitled "The Queens of Islam," during which he made a number of pronouncements about the role of women in Spanish society, including: "Any woman who wears perfume and leaves the house and walks past men who can smell her perfume is a fornicator, and every glance she gets is a fornication."
The case involves Malik Ibn Benaisa, a Muslim imam based in Ceuta, a Spanish exclave in North Africa where Muslims constitute about 50% of the total population.
Benaisa also said that women should be banned from wearing blue jeans and high heels and from leaving the house unless their hands and face are completely covered.
The comments, which were aired on Spanish public television, enraged women's rights activists and triggered a nationwide debate over when religious speech becomes abusive and crosses the line into "sexual discrimination" and "gender violence."
After Benaisa's sermon was re-broadcast on Spanish public television for a second time during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in July, the Secretary for Gender Equality for the Spanish Socialist Party in Ceuta, Sandra López Cantero, accused Benaisa of being an "advocate for gender violence" and called on public prosecutors to investigate the imam for violating the Spanish Penal Code.
During a press conference on July 23, Cantero recited quotes from Benaisa's sermon: "A women cannot show her face or bare hands, she cannot wear high heeled shoes, she cannot wear blue jeans, she must wear a scarf to cover her chest, she cannot pluck her eyebrows and she cannot wear perfume because if she uses it she becomes a fornicator. A woman must keep her head down because a jealous husband can cause problems with other men. A woman should be in total submission to her husband. She has an obligation to wear the veil."
Cantero added: "We will not allow anyone to hide behind any religion or any culture in order to advocate violence. The Socialist Party will not allow any attack on the dignity of women, wherever it may come from. We will not allow the advocacy of violence, especially in a public medium."
For his part, the President of the center-right Government of Ceuta, Juan Jesús Vivas, said in a statement that he "manifests his defense of the unequivocal values enshrined in the Spanish Constitution, and in particular, those relating to non-discrimination and equality between men and women."
Vivas added: "The Government of Ceuta believes that all should endeavor, each within the scope of their responsibilities, to reconcile respect for all faiths with the supremacy of democratic values that are the pillars of our social order and of coexistence."
Amid considerable media controversy across Spain, Benaisa organized a press conference at the Ibn Rochd Benzúa mosque in Ceuta to defend himself. Surrounded by some 150 Muslim female supporters, Benaisa said he lamented the "de-contextualization" of his statements, which he said were aimed exclusively at "Muslim women" in accordance with "the teachings of the Prophet and the Koran."
Malik Ibn Benaisa, surrounded by supporters, speaks at a press conference in Ceuta.
According to Benaisa, "My message has always been to advise and not to impose, as this is not part of Islam, because in the Koran Allah makes it clear that there is no compulsion in religion."
Benaisa also said that the term "fornicating" was not offensive in tone and that its essence was applicable to both men and women, "who when preening themselves excessively before going out are seeking to be unfaithful to their partners and to Allah."
Spanish public prosecutors have decided to give Benaisa the benefit of the doubt. After analyzing Benaisa's sermon, the district attorney concluded that the imam had not broken any laws.
In a statement dated August 7, the Ceuta District Attorney said that labelling women as fornicators is not a crime: "In relation to domestic violence, the law refers to concrete action in the form of threats, injuries, coercion or abuse, while the sexual or religious discrimination section of Article 510 of the Penal Code refers to encouraging discrimination, hatred or violence. This did not occur at the conference in question."
In an interview with the Madrid-based newspaper El Mundo, Benaisa said: "Europeans are very ethnocentric, they believe that if they think something, everyone thinks alike. Spanish society has such a low opinion of Islam and of Muslim women because of the media. Whenever there is a case of abuse perpetrated by a Muslim they attribute it to religious principles. But when the accused is a non-Muslim, no one ever mentions if the abuser was a Christian or a Jew or a Buddhist or a New Age follower."
Benaisa is not the first Muslim cleric to test the limits of Spanish laws on religious freedom.
In Barcelona, a court found Mohamed Kamal Mustafa, a Muslim cleric at a mosque in the southern Spanish city of Fuengirola, guilty of inciting violence against women after he published a book entitled "Women in Islam," in which he advised men on how to beat their wives without leaving incriminating marks.
Mustafa wrote that verbal warnings followed by a period of sexual inactivity could be used to discipline a disobedient wife. If that failed, he argued that, according to Islamic law, husbands could administer beatings. "The blows should be concentrated on the hands and feet," he wrote, "using a rod that is thin and light so that it does not leave scars or bruises on the body."
The judge sentenced Mustafa to six months in prison and ordered him to study the Spanish Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Mustafa was released after 22 days on the condition that he undertake a "re-education course." An unrepentant Mustafa characterized his time in prison as a "spiritual retreat."
In January 2010, Mohamed Benbrahim, an imam in the city of Tarragona near Barcelona, was arrested for forcing Fatima Ghailan, a 31-year-old Moroccan woman, to wear a hijab, an Islamic head covering. The imam had threatened to burn down the woman's house because, according to him, she is an "infidel" as she works outside of the home, drives an automobile and has non-Muslim friends. Bowing to political pressure to prevent "a social conflict," a court in Tarragona absolved Benbrahim of all wrongdoing.
In March 2012, Spanish authorities arrested a radical Islamic preacher for calling on Muslims to use physical and psychological violence to "discipline" errant wives who refuse to submit to Islamic Sharia law or obey their husbands.
Spanish public prosecutors said Abdeslam Laaroussi, a charismatic imam from Morocco who preaches at a large mosque in Terrassa, an industrial city 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of Barcelona, was guilty of "incitement to violence against women" for "providing concrete examples of the manner in which wives should be beaten, how to isolate them inside the family home and how to deny them sexual relations."
Police say witnesses provided them with recordings of sermons Laaroussi preached at the Badr Mosque in downtown Terrassa where more than 1,500 people attend prayers services each Friday, and where he instructed his listeners to "hit women with the use of a stick, the fist or the hand so that no bones are broken and no blood is drawn."
Laaroussi has refused to cooperate with police or provide evidence: he says he does not recognize the legitimacy of the Spanish state.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.