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Hybrid identity and practices to negotiate belonging: Madrid’s Muslim youth of migrant origin


A qualitative case study of self-identifying Muslim youth of migrant origin in Madrid sought to understand how they formulated identity and employed real cultural practices in navigating belonging. The majority of these youth drew from the so-called “1.5” and “second” generations, and expressed a hyphenated or hybrid identity: they combined one or several aspects of religious, cultural or ethnic identity alongside an identification with Spain or Madrid. As such, these layered and complex identities could indicate attachment to community of residence. Hybridity was also manifested in behaviours, with participants demonstrating multiple language use, as well as variegated cultural or religious practice. Moreover, in negotiating inclusion and belonging, some argued for their rights to express these plural identities and engage in diverse cultural practices, particularly when such rights were perceived as denied. This paper primarily contends that participants leveraged hybrid identities in representing themselves and finding common ground: they maintained attachments to Madrid or Spain alongside their minority identification and diverse cultural practices, or incorporated these practices in engaging with their communities. It furthermore observes that despite perceived experiences of discrimination, this population’s claims to membership and respect for individual rights reflected an understanding of citizenship based in participation and recognition of difference, raising questions as to the impact of past or future citizenship policy and education.


This article presents a qualitative case study of Muslim youth of migrant origin in Madrid, which analysed self-identification in order to examine how participants related to the Madrid or Spanish community, finding that manifestation of hybrid identity and cultural practices emerged in negotiating belonging. Belonging among this population has captured research and public interest given the political, societal, media and even academic rhetoric surrounding real or imagined boundaries between minority migrant groups and native European society, with special emphasis on cultural discrepancies regarding religion. In particular, Europe’s Muslim minorities are often framed as “the other,” either in terms of migrant background, in juxtaposition with Europe’s historic Christian tradition and current mainstream secularism, or via a combination of both (Fetzer and Soper 2005; Nielsen 1999). Throughout this, Muslim youth of migrant origin face discrimination in their European communities of residence that militates against a sense of belonging, compounding the disadvantages or challenges that children of migrant parents otherwise face (Karlsen and Nazroo 2013; Voas and Fleischmann 2012). Meanwhile, as citizens, and regardless of religious affiliation, international norms and liberal democratic frameworks purportedly guarantee these youth comprehensive inclusion in their European societies of residence, with rights and opportunities that should be equal to that of peers with native-born parents (Koenig 2007; Soysal 1997).

Of course, the notion of citizenship and its accompanying immigration and integration policy remains contested, laden with political agendas and normative terminology. The European Union and its member states have explored various policies for a modernized approach to a politics of difference and individual agency, versus calls for a homogenized cultural project drawing from traditional nation-state discourse (Kymlicka 2003). In order to do so, a formulation of citizenship or membership based in participation via autonomous election, alongside prioritization of sociocultural rights (though not limited to these elements), is presented as an approach by which minority populations, or in fact all groups, can find their place in an equitable society (Bloemraad 2000; Rodríguez-García 2010). This “radical citizenship” serves as an ethics for pluralist realities. It is a citizenship project that recognizes the difficult need to balance protections of difference alongside the right to participate and contribute to the polity (Isin and Wood 1999). A contentious part of this membership includes the citizen’s identification and how it relates to a sense of belonging—i.e., the psychological solidarity that an individual or group experiences in the collective or public sphere. Some studies of European Muslim youth observe a trend of reactive ethnicity, or a similarly conceptualized reactive religiosity (reinforcing a more traditional religious identification as a means of protesting hostile reception by “mainstream” society) when exposed to factors including societal marginalization and discrimination (Fleischmann et al. 2011; Torrekens and Jacobs 2016). For this reason, belonging comes to the fore in studying Muslim youth of migrant origin in Europe, and in this case in Spain: such relatedness to community would challenge arguments contending that ascription to Islam inherently entails obstacles to societal participation (Leszczensky et al. 2019).

In a concrete manifestation of the dynamics of diversity management, the Spanish context is distinct in its unique modern historical, political and societal trajectory in comparison with other European states, with a primarily emigratory profile until migrant labour flows in the 1980s (Arango 2012). Based on nationwide surveys, Spanish public opinion and political culture has been described in the past few decades as more welcoming towards immigration, in contrast with some comparative European societies, even in the wake of economic crisis (Cea D'Ancona and Valles 2012; Cebolla Boado and González Ferrer 2013). Moreover, studies have found a “positive outlook on second generation adaptation” (Portes et al. 2016). Despite the policies of homogeneity pursued prior to this young democracy, the pluralistic makeup of Spain has consistently remained a reality, with its national-regional identifications (Zapata-Barrero 2010; Escandell and Ceobanu 2010). Spain has worked towards a unique multi-level governance, and delegates local autonomy in managing pluralism, including relegating diversity management to the local level.

At the same time, accommodating religious, linguistic and regional or national pluralism remains a work in progress (Astor and Griera 2016; Godenau et al. 2015). Additionally, not unlike observed trends in other European countries, either a rise in Islamophobia, or a discrimination due to Muslim identity (directed towards youth of migrant origin or otherwise), has been recorded in Spain and Madrid (Adlbi Siba 2009; Cea D'Ancona and Valles 2012; Ramírez 2014). Furthermore, the Spanish public’s previous, relatively favourable attitudes towards immigration could be characterized as shifting, particularly when considering the immigration policies of Spain’s far-right Vox party, which made unprecedented gains in the 2019 national elections; some of its leaders have been accused of Islamophobic rhetoric (Rolfe 2019). All of these developments are significant in that, although not all Spanish Muslim youth are of migrant origin,Footnote 1 Muslim youth of migrant descent would presumably face comparatively heightened challenges.

Within Spain, youth of migrant origin are in their nascence, largely composing a second (and even third) generation that is gaining visibility and representing a significant demographic (Gebhardt, Zapata, & Bria, 2017). Spanish society and institutions are uniquely positioned to approach diversity management and societal inclusion given the above, as well as in considering the learning curves of European countries with more dated immigration trajectories. The Madrid community was chosen for empirical research, given the distinct regional autonomy, demographics and policies throughout the 17 Autonomous Communities (Godenau et al. 2015). The local context helps to more tangibly shed light on how an individual’s identity construction and practices relate to broader meso or macro societal formations.

This work will provide an overview of second generation migration theory, alongside broader social theory regarding identity and cultural hybridity, to conceptually frame the trajectory and significance of studying identity among this population, and to illustrate why a Madrid case study within the Spanish configuration is particularly salient. Then, after a brief outline of the comparative context of Spain and Madrid, participant accounts point to several findings.

Identity and belonging within migration and citizenship studies

An overview of the trajectory of second generation migration theory is useful in investigating how identity among youth of migrant origin has been approached to date, and why understandings of citizenship and identity continuously evolve. Though migrant origin is more removed in other European states, with third and fourth generation migrants forming part of the social fabric, the second generation in SpainFootnote 2 is either embarking upon or is currently in the process of accessing the labour force and social welfare, as well as addressing issues of sociocultural inclusion (Gebhardt, Zapata, and Bria, 2017). Alongside a small comparative group of first generation migrants, the majority of the participants in the empirical Madrid study could be termed second generation.

Second generation integration theory dates slightly earlier in the United States as compared to Europe, although the European context has increasingly become a priority in both policy and scholarship. Initially, second generation studies reflected an evolution in the concept of assimilation (conformation to the host society) that marked earlier study of American immigration. Portes, Aparicio and Haller classify literature on second generation adaptation in recent history into two branches: on the one hand, the “culturalist” perspective investigates assimilation into a purported mainstream society in cultural, linguistic and political terms; on the other, the “structuralist” approach focuses on socioeconomic assimilation, via downward or upward mobility (2016). Another term, “acculturation,” most frequently employed from a psychological perspective, came into use in a transdisciplinary sense to refer to sociocultural adaptation; the psychosocial element of this term especially helps in discussing youth of migrant origin’s incorporation into their community of residence (Berry 1997). For example, in measuring second generation integration specifically, self-identification that manifests a sense of belonging or attachment to the “host society” has been presented as a “soft” indicator that can denote successful “positive mode of incorporation” (Portes et al. 2016). Alternatively, disassociation from the community of residence, in traditional theories of integration, indicates downward assimilation and complications with adaptation. However, in the ensuing hybrid identity discussion, it is important to note that selective acculturation or biculturalism, rather than exclusive nationalism, has been argued to lead to positive outcomes (Schwartz et al. 2014). Effective psychosocial adaptation, or the individual’s ability to adjust to new psychological and social conditions, can lead to positive attitudes and well-being, conducive to successful societal membership (Leszczensky et al. 2019).

At the same time, American integration or adaptation models can differ from European understandings and approaches to diversity, or conceptualization of ethnicity. There is often a European emphasis on the receiving country’s obligation to ensure equal civic and social rights protections to the immigrant as part of the welfare state model (Aparicio Gómez and Tornos Cubillo 2006; Crul et al. 2012). Indeed, the terminology and agenda of “integration” can often be vague: it has been identified as problematic if it is understood to measure immigrants’ conformity to the host population status quo. Often the subject of governance policies, integration has been increasingly critiqued as a concept and policy objective if understood in this way, as one-way migrant conformance to a host society. This definition could imply racial exclusion, reinforce structures of inequality, or reference an antiquated nation-state model that does not take into account new, transnational social formations (Hadj Abdou 2019; Schinkel 2018; Saharso 2019). While integration theory to date has served to analyse migration and citizenship governance, it must be used cautiously, with consciousness of the policy agendas or ideologies with which it may be historically or currently linked. This article remains critical of the potential underlying assumptions of “integration,” but given its continued widespread use, still refers to it in comparing various theoretical and policy approaches to migration and pluralism.

For example, in the Spanish case to be further detailed, while the term “integration” is referenced in policies and programs, governance language has evolved towards concepts like “coexistence” or equity, rather than solely speaking in terms of migrant inclusion or exclusion. Meanwhile, a sense of belonging as part of an individual’s identity remains a consideration for citizenship governance in a manner similar to the way it is approached in second generation integration theory; it is important to the individual engaging in their current space (Chimienti et al. 2019). Citizenship models and policy based in an ethics advocating respect for sociocultural rights and recognition of difference, rather than an essentializing, homogeneous cultural project, would presumably allow for those from diverse backgrounds to take part in the social, as well as civil and political aspects, of membership.

In considering such governance as it influences youth of migrant origin, a 2017 study of 14 Western democracies, the majority of which were European states and included Spain, indicated that citizenship matters with regards to belonging if considering the host populations’ perceptions of who belongs; however, it presented a null finding as to whether citizenship policies affect immigrants’ sense of belonging (Simonsen 2017). Youth of migrant origin present a unique case in that they often fit the definition of citizen, or are classified as such, but can also be viewed as migrants either by themselves or others.

Identity within cultural analysis and the relevance of hybridity

This study’s exploration of self-identity and how it can manifest a sense of belonging takes into account how both individual and collective identity have become important in understanding citizenship and solidarity (Brubaker and Cooper 2000). In this sense, “identity” goes beyond an introspective, reflexive understanding of the self, to include the way an individual or group relates to, or differentiates his or itself, from the group or groups. This situational aspect also underlines the fluid component of identity, as an individual re-evaluates and continually adjusts throughout their societal existence, perhaps increasingly so given flexible modern social processes and structures (Bendle 2002).

Current understandings of identity attempt to balance agency or reflexivity on the one hand, with the unconscious habitus on the other (Adams 2006). Proponents of the pervasive reflexivity of identity emphasize individual agency alongside collective human agency; there is a critique that this overstates a conscious, autonomous choice (Giddens 1991). On the other hand, the Bourdieusian approach of habitus, or unconscious identity formation, is critiqued as deterministic (Bourdieu 1977). Ultimately, it may be most useful to reconcile the two, examining how identity is produced while engaged in other cultural practices (Lizardo 2017).

In that hybrid identity is emphasized in the empirical findings, the term’s discussion in cultural analysis to date requires consideration. Literature on hybridity, or specifically cultural hybridity, emerged in postcolonial studies in the 1980s. Bhahba initially conceived of it as a third “in-between” space in the postcolonial context, in that it dislodges hegemonic colonialist paradigms and contests such discrimination (Bhabha 1994). Hall linked it to identity in diaspora, migration or (multi) cultural studies, arguing that identity is lived through difference via hybridity (Hall 1990). This hyphenated identity, or syncretism, also referred to as creolization, among other terms, can be applied in observing cultural beliefs and practices of youth of migrant origin. Cultural hybridity theory can be helpful in that it addresses the multiple societal boundaries that individuals confront (Pieterse 2001). It incorporates the reflexive emphasis on identity, in that it encompasses the autonomous selection of systems of belief, regardless of nation or community, and avoids defining a “stranger” (Werbner 1997). Of course, cultural hybridity has since undergone critique, especially with the assertion that such theory finds its foundation in static and bounded categories; i.e., such categories serve as the norm to which hybridity is the exception (Palmié 2013). The term as used in the analysis, however, is not meant to presuppose essentialist notions, but rather is based in theory that argues for a continual, historical process of hybridities (Pieterse 2001). The ensuing case study intends to examine how and in what zones of encounter hybrid identities and practices are formed (Kuortti and Nyman 2007).

In short, the study works within a communitarian understanding of citizenship that emphasizes how both participation as well as sense of belonging are important elements of a membership that incorporates the societal in addition to the civic and political (Yuval-Davis 2006; Isin and Wood 1999). Considering cultural hybridity provides the added value of examining practices alongside self-identification in understanding interaction between an individual and their community. This is especially useful with reference to a self-identifying Muslim population, given the debate surrounding their cultural or religious practice as a distinguishing variable from other groups in European societies (Casanova 2006). The framework not only emphasizes the autonomy of the individual in constructing belonging, but also examines the conditions or space within which they conduct this process, which would in turn impact ways of formulating citizenship governance.

Madrid, Spain: a timely and illustrative comparative context

Spain’s diversity in the historical, political and social context, and within that, the uniqueness of the Madrid region, are significant considerations when examining belonging alongside multiplicity versus homogeneity. In briefly speaking to the historical context, beginning with the Civil War ending in 1939, Francisco Franco’s post-war authoritarian regime asserted a hegemonic narrative with appeals to a glorious past of “Hispanidad”; this term, first coined in colonial days, is rooted in close ties to the Catholic Church, rendering the historic Muslim occupation of the Iberian Peninsula from 711 until 1492 as an invasion, eventually countered by the “Christian Spanish” and the medieval Reconquista (Zapata-Barrero 2010). However, in modern Spain’s 1970s democratic transition, there was a turn towards recognizing Spain’s plurality, especially given the national identities and linguistic differences among the regions of Galicia, the Basque Country and Catalonia. The new democracy’s Constitution of 1978, still in effect, granted a legal personality and the right to self-govern to the Autonomous Communities, but did not specify the extent of the regions’ competencies; as a result, today different regions have varying levels of autonomy (Constitution of Spain 1978). While the central government regulates flows of immigration, regional and within those local governments often take on other responsibilities related to social inclusion (CE 1978; Godenau et al. 2015).

A wave of labour migration in the 1980s converted Spain from a country of emigration to immigration; this also meant that religious plurality would become a domestic migration issue rather than a diplomatic one (before, religious management took the form of making concessions to maintain foreign ties) (Arango 2012; Astor and Griera 2016). With the new Constitution establishing a Concorditarian church-state structure, the CIE, or official government interlocuter for Islam, composed of the UCIDE and FEERI organizations, ratified an agreement with the Spanish state in 1992. At the time, those within the CIE of migrant background, or their progeny, drew more from Arab countries within UCIDE, while FEERI included converts. As the 1990s saw a great deal of immigration from North Africa, there have been claims of little leadership change since the CIE’s founding; as part of this, it is argued that the wider Spanish Muslim community requires more authentic representation, especially given decentralized, association level activity (Mijares and Ramírez 2008).

Meanwhile, despite the letter of the law establishing religious neutrality, Spain continues a preferential cultural, and even arguably institutional, relationship with the Catholic Church (Zapata-Barrero 2010). At the same time, there are Spanish institutional efforts to accommodate religious and cultural pluralism. With regards to religious pluralism, the Council of Ministries established the Foundation for Pluralism and Coexistence in 2004 to promote religious freedom through cooperation with religious minorities (La Fundación Pluralismo y Convivencia 2016). As it remains a state entity, the Foundation reinforces the structure of the CIE through its funding channels (Álvarez-Miranda 2009). In 2011, the Foundation also collaborated with the Spanish Federation of Local Governments to create an Observatory for Religious Pluralism (Observatorio del Pluralismo Religioso en España 2018). This combined state and local initiative addresses how religious spaces and their regulation (including of health, security, accessibility, noise and capacity) can often be subject to the discretion of municipal authorities (Astor and Griera 2016).

In treating of both religious and cultural inclusion, and as an example of regional level programs, the Community of Madrid offers free “Know your laws” courses to immigrants, who generally have already received a basic level of Spanish via free language classes in the community’s immigration centres (La Spina 2015). Madrid has a Ministry of Social Policies, Families, Equality and Birthrate with a remit of working towards anti-discrimination and social inclusion, including commitments to anti-discrimination measures, and a “Community Immigration Plan for 2019-2021,” outlining integration policies (Comunidad de Madrid 2019). The immigration reception and orientation programs throughout the years is perhaps a consequence of the region’s large foreign population; as of 2018, the Community of Madrid hosted 13.4% foreign residents, or the second largest population of foreigners in Spain.

Estimates as of 2015 place Madrid as the region with the third largest number of Muslims in Spain; religious affiliation of households is not recorded in the census, but a rough projection arrives to a Spanish Muslim population of around one million (Observatorio Andalusí 2016; European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights 2017). Official religious spaces include the two larger Madrid city mosques (one of which is affiliated with the CIE), although there are many more mosques and prayer spaces throughout the Madrid city and community registered as sociocultural organizations, including those in Fuenlabrada, Parla and Lavapiés, visited in the empirical portion of this study. While the CIE serves as the official institutional religious conduit, as noted earlier, several Muslim communities hold activities and receive funding via sociocultural rather than religious organizations, and operate at the local level alongside civil society; this finding was confirmed in this study’s fieldwork (López García et al. 2007).

In sum, with its multilevel, decentralized governance, Spanish cultural and religious diversity management models from the federal to local level (in both policymaking and education) have begun to transition towards promoting an inclusive “coexistence” rooted in non-discrimination, although it manifests in distinct forms depending upon local governance structures.

Methods and fieldwork

The empirical insights of this paper derive from 29 in-depth semi-structured interviews among self-identifying Muslim youth of migrant origin in Madrid, conducted over a timeframe spanning from March 2016 to February 2018. The sample size was decided upon to an extent organically, based on the principle of saturation (Mason 2010). All interviews were conducted in Spanish, with the exception of one first generation interview in English. Of the 29 respondents, 16 could be categorized as second generation and eight as generation 1.5, alongside a comparative sample of five first generation migrant youth.Footnote 3 In the second and 1.5 generations, most participants had parents that originated from Morocco, while a few had Palestinian, Egyptian or Syrian origins. Finally, among the first generation group, one participant hailed from Tunisia, another from Senegal, and the remaining three from Morocco.

Madrid can be characterized by a more equal distribution of immigrant groups across neighbourhoods. This would be in comparison with regions like Barcelona, for example; rather than resembling ethnic ghettos, Madrid could be depicted as having diverse, working class neighbourhoods (Astor, 2009). Participants drew from a range of towns or municipalities in the Community of Madrid, as well as neighbourhoods in the city, that fit such a characterization. The entire group broke down into 52% female and 48% male; with ages falling within ranges that included twelve participants from ages 16–20, eight from ages 21–25 and five from ages 26–30, with additional outliers including one 13-year-old and a 32, 33 and 35-year-old. The older participants were included because of their continued activity in youth organizations, and the added value of their perspectives.

The interview script consisted of a combination of multiple choice and open-ended questions, although if the participant opted to continue in a certain direction beyond these confines, they were encouraged to do so. Questions proceeded in various groupings, seeking a sense of the participant’s background (name, age, sex, current place of residence, birthplace, legal status, and so forth), current trajectory, and future plans. When initially asked if they ascribed to a certain religion, and once self-reporting as Muslim, they were then prompted to provide their own perceptions of their religious, social or cultural practice of Islam. The participant was later asked if they self-identified in other respects (i.e. nation, ethnicity), and as to how they believed their family, friends and society identified them. Interviewees were accessed via snowball and volunteer sampling through various channels, including through personal contacts, colleagues, social networks and Muslim communities and youth associations. The author conducted interviews at libraries, mosques, cafés and community centres, with a few arranged via email as agreed with the participant, and two interviews administered by a second professionally qualified interviewer.

Regarding email interviews, while a relatively new phenomenon, it is increasingly standardized in the literature as a new form of data collection. Advantages include how it allows for access to otherwise inaccessible groups, as well as can remove cues or field status differences between researcher and participant (Meho 2006). In this case, the researcher could certainly not claim authentic access to some neighbourhoods. At the same time, this method has several drawbacks, including that it may jeopardize the validity of the data, and that it may limit participant expression (Cea D'Ancona 2014).

In this vein, several other limitations and qualifications surfaced, many of which stem from the nature of the study’s constricted size and scope. As outlined earlier, even given greater resources and remit, studies in Spain are limited in accessing Muslim populations. One can gather from the educational and occupational breakdown of the sample, as well as the consistent generous cooperation and coherent expression in the narratives, that the study could carry a selection bias, most likely due to the utilization of the snowball method (causing a self-selecting participant pool). Additionally, the study’s lack of longitudinal data means it cannot provide insight as to an evolution of identity that would take place. It is also important to take into account the attitudinal or memory bias of the participants’ self-reporting. Moreover, the author held an “outsider” position as a researcher, and moreover did not belong to the group under study, which could affect how a participant may contribute in a discussion (Carling et al. 2014). Finally, the researcher could understand or interpret interactions subjectively, albeit with a conscious attempt at to remain objective.

Research findings

Hybrid identities in conscious self-identification

The principal finding in this investigation of self-identity and belonging includes how the participants would present their multi-faceted self-identities, consciously selecting, combining or retaining identity labels. Each individual articulated different combinations of nationality, community allegiance, cultural or religious identification. Iman, a generation 1.5, 23-year-old engineer, explained his own self-label of three components:

“I identify as Muslim, Muslim and Spanish, also. Also Arab. I don’t have any problem with it. You don’t have to feel only Muslim or Spanish or Arab, there’s no reason, so I feel like all of them. If you call me Arab, yes, I speak Arabic perfectly. If you say Spanish yes, perfectly Spanish. If you say Muslim, yes, perfectly Muslim. I can identify with any of them without an issue.”

In this account, Iman communicated how he did not feel the need to limit himself to an exclusive ethnic label. For example, he also emphasized his identification with Islam alongside his self-described Spanish and Arab components. Indeed, some participants rejected exclusive identities in conscious identity construction. There was a propensity to entertain multiple attachments and engage in continual reconstruction of identity. As 30-year-old, second generation international development professional Ayim recounted, he felt his identity was composed of his life trajectory of experiences:

“Honestly, I identify as the sum of my experiences that have composed my identity. Something that makes it unique is that I speak and write Arabic, a characteristic that unites me with a large part of the population. I grew up in Spain, where I have had the most important experiences of my life, and Madrid is my city. I consider myself Muslim, the religion in which I was raised. So, the sum of all these experiences, this is what makes me who I am.”

Similarly, 26-year-old, second generation dentist Obadah explained:

“I identify as a citizen of the world, because I was born here. But my family, my origins are from there [Palestine]. I was born in Granada, but later I lived in Valdepeñas and then came to Madrid. I have so many places that I don’t feel rooted in one. I am a citizen of the world, you have to change the chip, there aren’t as many borders between countries and now it is very important that we don’t fall into these problems that the world has … we have to open the mind and think of what we have in common with people, rather than what sets us apart.”

A few more examples serve as illustrative. Nur, a second generation, 13-year-old student, identified as Spanish, Muslim and Madrileña with Syrian origins. She felt most at home in Spain, although explained that in the future she would consider travelling and living in another country, like the U.S. Chaima, a 16-year-old student and second generation, identified as Spanish, Muslim, and partially Moroccan, and felt most at home in Spain. Of course, the hybrid identification among Muslim youth in this study has been observed in other research on Muslim youth throughout Europe (Vertovec and Rogers 1998). However, further observations regarding this hybrid identity,Footnote 4 unique to these Madrid participants, follow.

Hybrid identity alongside attachment to community of residence

As can be observed in the data presented thus far, when self-identifying, participants almost always included reference to the community of residence. Of 16 s generation participants, 13 indicated some attachment to Spain or Madrid. Out of the three that did not express such belonging, two were instead emphasizing their identity as a world citizen (not exclusive of a Spanish affiliation), while only one identified solely as Muslim. Five of the eight generation 1.5 participants referenced some ties to Spanish or Madrid identity. Finally, one of the five first generation participants expressed affiliation with the city of Madrid, and the rest identified with their country of origin.

For example, among the second generation, Yusuf, an 18-year-old student, emphasized his Riffian origins, but also added,

“I identify as a believing Muslim, and think it’s because my father taught me how to believe, and since then I have believed in God. I feel Moroccan when I’m with my parents, when I’m with my friends I feel Spanish.”

Warda, a second generation, 19-year-old university student, also emphasized she felt Spanish, even when peers identified her otherwise:

“I am a Muslim Spaniard, my brothers, we are Muslims, we feel Muslim, but later with the issue of Spanish or Moroccan, I feel more Spanish … I remember we did a survey [in class], and I put that I felt more Spanish than Moroccan, and when they did the count, they counted me as more Moroccan than Spanish, and I, directly I told the group, that why had they changed count? That I felt more Spanish than Moroccan, and they have to respect my decision and can’t change it.”

While they are relatively small comparative groups, overall, more of the second generation conveyed sense of attachment to Madrid or Spain than did generation 1.5; moreover, the majority of the first generation did not express attachment to their place of residence. The second generation affiliating with the resident community more than the first is an observation that resonates with the findings of the recent “Long-term Study of the Second Generation in Spain.” It surveyed over 6000 children of immigrants from 2007 to 2008 and over 5000 of the same participants from the previous survey over the years 2011–2012, in the cities of Madrid and Barcelona (Portes et al. 2016).

It is of brief note that in addition to expressing attachment to their communities via self-identification, the participants’ sense of belonging to the community could also manifest in a less conscious manner, simply through a communication of rootedness. For example, Jihan, an age 18 university student and also generation 1.5, said she felt Muslim and Moroccan, yet felt most at home in Spain, preferred to speak in Spanish, and wanted to continue to live in Madrid. This brings the discussion to how actual practices reflected identity and sense of belonging, in addition to solely conscious self-identification.

Hybridity in practice: multiple language use and mixed cultural or religious practice

The interviews were directed so as to not only allow the youth to consciously reflect on identity, but also to gather related information indicating whether there were links to this reported identity and cultural practices. In consonance with hybrid identification, participants provided narratives that demonstrated diverse cultural practices. To varying degrees, respondents identified multiple language use in interacting with different groups, whether families or peers. Moreover, in explaining their faith practice, they also indicated that mosque attendance took on a different significance in Madrid in comparison to its meaning in their or their parents’ origin country, for example.

The participants often communicated in multiple languages depending on the environment in which they found themselves. This enabled them to connect and navigate among a variety of groups. Among the first generation, there was an unsurprising preference to speak in a language other than Spanish. Meanwhile, most of the second and 1.5 generation confirmed that they largely spoke Spanish among friends, and all were at least bilingual. Arabic was sometimes spoken in the home in some measure, and if participants had friends with migrant origins, they often used a language apart from Spanish to speak with them. However, even with family and their (first generation) parents, participants explained how language depended on the context. As 20-year-old, second generation student Ihsan described:

“It depends on who I am talking to. When my mom is happy … we speak in Moroccan. When she’s angry we speak in Syrian, and when there’s a debate, in Spanish. I speak in Syrian with my father, apart from Moroccan jokes.”

Nur, second generation and 13, spoke with her parents in a mix of Spanish Arabic [“Españarabe”], and with her siblings in Spanish or English. She used mostly Spanish among friends, although tried to practice her English among those who could speak it, and sometimes spoke in Arabic with others. Iman also adapted his language choice to his audience:

“With my friends it depends, a bit more [in Spanish], there are times when it’s not easy in Spanish and other times when it’s not easy in Arabic. It depends on what you are talking about, because sometimes you feel like a subject is a lot easier than the other.”

Adapting language use to the specific context provides one example of how the youth employed hybrid practices. In addition to this, the way in which they incorporated civic engagement within their communities of residence, alongside their cultural or religious beliefs and practices, demonstrated another form of meshed multiple identities and practices. Rajae, a 30-year-old, first generation Arabic teacher from Morocco, with a second generation husband, observed that mosque attendance seemed to assume another meaning in Spain than in her origin country:

“Here in the mosques in Europe, they can take on a different role than mosques in a Muslim country. For example, I come to the mosque to pray and perform my religious activities, but apart from that, the mosque is a place where we can do interesting things, like teach Arabic, provide activities for young Muslims—for example, young Spanish Muslims that were born here—give talks about a lot of things that aren’t only about a religious theme. So, the mosque relates to things apart from religion, we do community things.”

Amin, a twenty-two-year-old second generation student, who also worked and volunteered part-time, explained how his Islamic association helped underprivileged youth in the municipality of Parla in the Community of Madrid,

“We work at an association that helps young people find work. Here in the southern zone there is a lot of unemployment and people don’t finish their high school studies. At the Muslim level, we work with ONDA of Madrid.”

In this way, some participants combined participation in their local community with their “minority” religious or cultural identity, alongside demonstrating multiple language use as a medium for adjusting or attuning to the demands of the situation.

Hybridity in navigating and claiming inclusion and belonging

In exercising these bilingual or multilingual skills, as well as combining religious or cultural behaviours with forms of societal participation, participants leveraged hybrid identity and practices as a resource for inclusion. Some recognized this explicitly. For example, Nessrin, a 32-year-old lawyer and generation 1.5, contemplated how speaking Arabic as well as Spanish had opened many doors for her in her career, explaining she felt it was an advantage. She elaborated on why she believed hybrid identity is an asset:

“I never thought about the question of identity until I was in an interview a couple of years ago. They asked me if I felt Moroccan or Spanish, and I didn’t answer because I didn’t know what to answer. I never thought about having to choose between one or the other, and I always thought that both added up to more than the two alone.”

Ibrahim, a 22-year-old, second generation student, also explained how his hybrid identity and range of perspective allowed him to find solidarity with multiple groups:

“I was born in Europe, I’m European. And it could be that I have much more in common with a well-travelled Spaniard than with a Moroccan from a small town, because we find ourselves in the same thing, we grew up in the same way. Basically, I also believe that the Spanish identity is a little complex. What is Spanish, right? …. And I think it’s true that I—for example –-the fact of being Spanish or from Madrid makes me share this identity with a lot of people from Madrid, and the fact that I speak Arabic means I have something in common with these people although they are from different worlds, but in the end, I feel I share things with them. … We are composed of many things, we can’t limit ourselves. Identity is multiple.”

As such, hybrid identity and practice among this collective were often used as strategies for inclusion, as they were willing and able to employ their multiple social and cultural capital to better mesh with the given situation or particular environment (Zhou and Bankston 1994).

However, in addition to the above pattern, several participants communicated that they further felt they had a right to such diversified identities, and that their difference should be respected in Spanish society. In other words, not only did they demonstrate a sense of belonging in expressing attachment to Madrid or Spain, but they also felt facets of their identity or religious practice should not exclude them from recognition and belonging, either.

Jauad, a 28-year-old financial analyst and generation 1.5, identified as Moroccan and part Madrileño, and said he felt more at home in Spain than in Morocco, and planned to remain in Madrid in the future. He also emphasized rights as part of a citizenship that included policies accommodating or allowing religious practice. He pointed out:

“Religion and politics have their respective places and shouldn’t be mixed. This doesn’t mean that you can’t create policies for practicing religious, and they should also be able to participate as citizens with full rights. I think people practicing their religion in freedom should be normalized, in the same way it is for people who don’t believe.”

It is of note that experiences of discrimination were communicated by the vast majority of the participants, although not consciously or directly linked to their hybrid identity or practices. While this account cannot digress into these discrimination experiences, they were referenced at times when claiming a right to multiple or minority identity.

For instance, Ibrahim had argued earlier that identity was multiple, and expressed his objection to being stereotyped:

“There is a very typical idea from Spanish society, and that is that being Moroccan or being from the Maghreb even though I’m from Madrid, from Madrid all my life, they see me as “moro.” It’s a concept that we make negative and doesn’t exist in Arabic, or in other languages. It’s a name that a lot of people in the world are grouped under, “moro.” It reduces it to just that, and it’s a negative thing.”

Ibrahim’s note as to Spanish societal use of the epithet “moro,” often levied with a derogatory connotation, points to the specific real and imagined boundaries that this population may address. In Spain, in addition to referring to migrant origin, “moro” can also be a blanket term to refer to Muslims, depending on the intent of the individual articulating it. The intersectionality of the term, and the negativity associated with it, is very illustrative of the compounded discrimination these youth can encounter.

Ihsan also claimed what she believed were her rights to minority religious practices, arguing that the law protected these individual rights when it came to donning the veil:

“In public school, they don’t want you to wear the veil. [They say] “You—take off your veil.” Supposedly we can be free, in the Constitution it says we have freedom of religion. I don’t understand why, when I have to study, when I have to work, when I have to live my life, I need to be restricted to what you want. I don’t like it, I don’t understand it, I don’t understand … they have the law, and later there is what they say.”

A final example of claims to hybrid identity includes Moseen, a 35-year-old, second generation graphic designer. He identified as Spanish, Muslim and from Madrid, and similarly argued for his rights to religious observance in light of his Spanish citizenship:

“I’m Spanish, Muslim, I believe first Spanish by birth, second place Muslim and third place Madrileño... I’m Spanish, I’m Spanish and patriotic, but they make you, they discriminate and they make you feel, it’s painful, it’s because of uneducated people, closed people, they are closed, but this can create other problems … in my case I’m Muslim and if they deprive me of my right to, I don’t know, observe Ramadan for example, this is depriving me of a right.”

As briefly mentioned, Spanish citizenship governance has established various diversity management instruments and protective bodies, in support of constitutional and legal rights to religious liberty and wider non-discrimination based on race, sex, religion or other personal attributes. Participants cited these guarantees throughout the course of their interviews. Moreover, in providing accounts of perceived discrimination, either due to migrant or ethnic origin, or encountered institutionally or societally, several participants asserted their rights to a variegated or minority identity, or to engage in practices that formed a part of that.


In observing identification and accompanying practices among Muslim youth of migrant origin in Madrid, a pattern of robust, continual and reflexive hybridity emerged. This hybrid identity and several accompanying practices served as effective tools to engage with multiple groups and find common ground, leveraged both in conscious and unconscious strategies to cross-cut boundaries and negotiate inclusion and belonging. This local level, qualitative examination of self-identifying Muslim youth, a participant pool chosen in light of the polemic surrounding their inclusion versus marginalization, found that participants expressed belonging and attachment to either Madrid or Spain. The observation aligns with the limited data available from additional Spanish studies finding that youth of migrant origin overall express significant levels of national attachment to Spain.

At the same time, the trajectory of social theory treating of identity and citizenship outlined earlier points to the importance of superseding static notions and boundaries of culture. Such citizenship, finding membership based in equal rights, recognition and participation, is now being addressed in Spanish citizenship governance policies, as well as Madrid-specific policies, both of which affect these Muslim youth of migrant origin in Madrid. Many of the participants, although expressing attachment to the community of residence and perhaps manifesting belonging in this way, emphasized that other aspects of their identity and accompanying practices were not recognized or respected as they believed they should be. Moreover, the multiple accounts of discrimination indicate that some perceived such rights as rejected. In light of these findings, it would be notable if further studies could examine to what extent Spanish civic education (again, varying at the regional levels) teaches such a definition of citizenship, and if this affects such rights claims; essentially, it would take the form of an inquiry as to how Spanish citizenship governance and education addresses who belongs and how, and according to whose perspective. In this case, asking for recognition of minority or plural identities, along with manifesting attachment or loyalty to a “majority culture” or society (that may or may not be perceived as respecting such claims) did not seem mutually exclusive. How and why does this occur? What measures can be taken by local governments, like that of Madrid, to take into account the plural affiliation and identity, or to better provide for youth psychosocial adaptation in this regard? To what extent would such measures implemented at national level policies in Spain, or at European level policy, be effective?

In seeking further data and examining these questions, it goes without saying that not only given dynamic demographic trends in regions throughout Spain, but also throughout Europe, it is helpful to continually assess comparative examples of identity construction and accompanying practices to better inform models of citizenship governance that currently promise equal participation and recognition. As Muslim youth of migrant origin confront heightened visibility and othering in political, societal and academic discursive contexts, exploring the boundaries that they perceive affect their belonging, and how they conceive of their own community membership, should demand the same renewed, reflexive and persistent energies that these youth exercise themselves in negotiating plural societies.

Availability of data and materials

The datasets used and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request. The data are not publicly available due to information that could compromise the privacy of research participants.


  1. 1.

    The term “Muslim” has grown to encompass several categories in recent European social theory, and there is a tendency to label populations. This paper notes that Spanish Muslim youth can also be categorized or self-identified as native, and that there are Spanish Muslim youth converts not included in this study.

  2. 2.

    It is worth commenting on how the terminology “second generation” can be imprecise; it can refer to native-born individuals who have not migrated, rather than having been foreign born like their parents. In this sense, such individuals are by definition not immigrants, and as this paper later demonstrates, may not identify with migrant origin.

  3. 3.

    This defined the second generation as a child with at least one foreign-born parent, who was either born in Spain or arrived to Spain before age 12, or before beginning secondary education (Portes, Vickstrom, and Aparicio 2011). It counted generation 1.5 as those who were not born in Spain but arrived before age 12.

  4. 4.

    In light of these accounts, “hybrid identity” is employed as a term to reference the participants’ self-reported identities, rather than using terminology such as “bicultural” or “multicultural” identity, partially due to participants’ descriptions of a fluid identity experience.


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The author declares that they have no funding sources to declare, as the research was conducted as part of their doctoral thesis.

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C.B. recently defended their PhD in Sociology and Anthropology at the Complutense University of Madrid under advisor Professor Joaquín Arango. They previously received an M. A with high distinction in Near and Middle East Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Further related academic experience includes their past work as Managing Editor of the International Journal of Health Services, a health policy quarterly with an emphasis on social inequalities, published by SAGE. They are currently in the process of designing and obtaining funding for an ethnographic postdoctoral project to be conducted in Madrid and Amsterdam, exploring complexities surrounding perceived boundaries and the conceptual entanglement of culture in religion in considering the “European self.” Meanwhile, they serve as research manager and CSIC (Spanish state research institution) liaison at Common Action Forum, a transnational NGO based in Madrid.

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Boland, C. Hybrid identity and practices to negotiate belonging: Madrid’s Muslim youth of migrant origin. CMS 8, 26 (2020).

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  • Hybridity
  • Second generation
  • Islam
  • Belonging
  • Identity