It is a pity that President Bush could not make it to the peace march in the heart of the Spanish capital on Saturday night. The rally was just a few minutes away from the railway station where nine days earlier bombs killed more than 200 early morning commuters and wounded another 1,700.
If Bush had been there, he would have seen thousands of brave and sincere people–a contrast to Washington, DC, where just a few days earlier Republican leaders had accused Spaniards of appeasing terrorists because of their vote to oust the conservative Popular Party in the wake of the attacks.
There was none of that crude cynicism at the Saturday night demonstration. “It is more important then ever to call for peace. The bombs reminded us of that urgency,” said Valeria Suárez Marsá, a 40-year-old teacher.
Prime Minister-elect José Luis Zapatero has called the war in Iraq “a fiasco” and has pledged to pull out Spain’s 1,300 troops by the end of June unless the occupation comes under United Nation control. Haizam Amirah, an analyst at the Real Elcano Institute in Madrid, notes that a troop withdrawal was on the party platform for months before the election.
People were bewildered by the American interpretation of their decision to kick out the ruling conservative party as a sign of weakness. In the elections three days after the attacks, voters turned out in record numbers to repudiate an arrogant government that had ignored the overwhelming public opposition to the invasion of Iraq and then tried to manipulate the investigation of the railway bombings. “The vote was a punishment for the years of lies,” said Iris Bernal, a 26-year-old sociologist attending the march.
So far, Spaniards have vented their anger via the polling booth, and there has not been a backlash against the country’s sizable Muslim population. Since police arrested eight Moroccan men in connection with the attacks, several Arab men have been attacked, but Muslim leaders hope these are isolated incidents. “The Spanish population has proven itself very mature and knows the difference between terrorism and Islam, the same way it differentiates between ETA and all Basques,” said Helal-Jamal Abboshi Khaledi, the general secretary of the Union of Islamic Communities in Spain.
Whether this tolerance will continue is still an open question. Yousef Mustafa, a 28-year-old Palestinian-Spaniard who was at the march, said he has not seen an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment but admits he is uneasy. “On Friday I was nervous about going to the mosque to pray. I was afraid there would be a bomb.”