Re-Birth of Islam in Italy: Between Indifference and Intolerance
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Atop the main entrance of Mazara del Vallo's eleventh century cathedral, a large relief sculpture depicts the Norman prince Roger I on horseback, sword in hand, personally chasing away the last Muslim infidels from Sicily.
The sculpture, added during the sixteenth century as a tribute to Roger, whose armies conquered Sicily after 200 years of Muslim rule, sent a not-so-subtle warning to Muslims of the fate that would await them should they try to return to Italy.
Nine hundred years after the Arab defeat at the hands of Roger, millions of Muslim immigrants are again crossing the Mediterranean and establishing permanent communities in Italy and across Europe. Like the Arab conquerors of the past, these modern immigrants bring with them a strong cultural and religious heritage that is transforming the character of the societies in which they settle. But the Muslims returning to Italy are not warriors. They are peasants, merchants and workers-often highly educated-seeking opportunities denied to them by the economic stagnation and overpopulation of their home countries.
For many, Mazara del Vallo is the first stop in their journey north in search of work in the agricultural harvests or as street-side merchants in Italy's largest cities. Closer to Tunis than it is to Rome, Mazara has been at the center of Italy's thousand-year old interaction with the Muslim world. Mazara was where Muslim warriors first landed in the ninth century to conquer Sicily; it was one of the last Muslim strongholds to fall to Roger's Norman crusaders; and it was Mazara where the first modern Muslim immigrants landed in the 1960s.
Today Mazara del Vallo is probably Italy's most Arab city. An important fishing town on Sicily's western coast, it is home to about 5,000 Muslim immigrants-ten percent of the town's population-who live in the same narrow streets and courtyards that their ancestors designed one thousand years earlier when Arabs were the city's only residents. The Arab-language school run by Tunisian instructors and a couscous restaurant competing with a pizzeria for business on the town's sea-side promenade are visible signs that the Muslim minority has become part of the social fabric of the town. Though these are heartening signs that Muslims are gaining acceptance into Italian society, the slightly faded sculpture of Roger striking down a Muslim warrior, just a few blocks down the street from the couscous restaurant, is a constant reminder that they may be unwelcome guests.
It is difficult to imagine what goes through the minds of Muslim immigrants as they walk beneath the sculpture. Maybe they hardly notice it at all. But those who venture north to Rome will not fail to notice the other symbolic welcome mat that has been prepared for them: Europe's newest and largest mosque. In contrast to the sculpture's suggestion of intolerance, the size, location and cost of the mosque send a powerful message that Italy is serious about promoting religious and cultural diversity. Inaugurated this summer, the mosque is also an impressive symbol Islam's permanent presence in Italy. The building alone, which sits on several acres of property donated by the city government only a few kilometers across the Tiber from the Vatican, sprawls over 300,000 square feet. It boasts 16 cupolas, a 130-feet tall minaret and a construction bill that reportedly exceeded 50 million dollars, financed completely by contributions from Saudi Arabia and a half dozen other Muslim countries.
The mosque and the sculpture of the Norman crusader are evocative symbols that reflect the ambivalent messages that Italian society sends to Muslim immigrants. I went to Italy this summer hoping to gain a better understanding of how Muslim immigrants negotiate this narrow space between xenophobia and tolerance as they struggle to build communities, practice their faith, and integrate into Italian society without renouncing their ethnic and religious identity. I came away with the troubling conclusion that despite the overt claims of religious tolerance and diversity symbolized by the mosque in Rome, the underlying reality is often best represented by the Norman crusader whose menacing gaze is mirrored in the attitudes of a growing number of Italians.
There are currently about 15 million Muslims spread across the European continent, at least six million of whom are foreign immigrants settled in western Europe. France alone hosts more than two million Muslim immigrants, Germany one and a half million and Great Britain another million. Because the large-scale immigration of Muslims into Italy began more recently, the size of this population is still comparatively small, probably not exceeding 800,000.
Although fewer in number, the difficulties and challenges their presence poses for Italian government and society are nonetheless significant. Having traditionally been an exporter of labor, Italy was caught by surprise by the large influx of immigrants from Africa. Unsure at first how it should respond, the government stumbled over the last decade to find a coherent immigration and integration policy. Italian civil society has also had a mixed response. Some sectors, in particular Catholic relief agencies and volunteer organizations, met the challenge by providing housing, meals, and basic welfare services to supplement the inadequacy of the government's policy. But many Italians have reacted with indifference and, increasingly, with intolerance. As long as the number of immigrants remained small and invisible, they were tolerated, but as the presence of immigrants has grown in size and visibility, so too have the acts of xenophobic violence-a correlation that is as troubling as it is strong. Conservative and neo-fascist political parties that campaigned with anti-immigrant platforms were rewarded in the most recent local and national elections with their best electoral showing since Mussolini came to power.
Muslim immigrants have responded to this ambivalent reception by seeking the support of religious and ethnic communities. Because mosques require only minimal organization, stability and space they are not difficult to establish and often become focal points for such community-building efforts. Many mosques in Italy have been set up in garages, abandoned buildings, and even in the basements of Catholic churches. By providing a space in which to meet friends, share experiences, establish contacts, exchange information, and renew their religious commitment, mosques often become both the catalyst and the foundation of new Muslim communities in Italy, and across Europe.
Despite this tendency to form communities around mosques, the near impossibility of finding a secure job and decent housing have made it difficult to create stable and enduring communities. Many immigrants move from city to city working as street vendors or following the agricultural harvests, while only a small percentage have found stable jobs in factories or hotels. Housing is also a major obstacle to family reunification and stabilization. In spite of some efforts by local governments and Catholic relief organizations to provide immigrants with hostels, many live in miserable and overcrowded apartments. In one reported case, 120 Senegalese immigrants shared a ten-room house in Turin, and in another case, several thousand immigrants slept inside an abandoned building in Rome.
Although reports like these were widely circulated in the media, local and national governments reacted slowly and sporadically, often with stop-gap measures that created as many problems as they solved. For example, upon hearing of the overcrowded conditions in the building, local Roman authorities evicted the immigrants without providing them with an alternative shelter. Not surprisingly, these same immigrants appeared over the next few days in the train station, in the subway tunnels and in other abandoned buildings. The search for longer-term solutions was hindered in part by the inefficacy of government institutions that were already stretched beyond capacity trying to provide housing and welfare services for Italy's own lower-class citizens. Italy's inexperience with immigration also contributed to the confusion. Since the government had never bothered to write laws providing for immigrant's rights or guaranteeing their access to social services, new immigrants arriving in large numbers during the 1980s found themselves in a legal vacuum.
Numerous private and Catholic volunteer organizations have partially compensated for the state's absence by providing free meals, temporary housing, Italian language lessons, and other valuable services for the newcomers. In Villa Literno, a small town near Naples that receives thousands of African immigrants during the tomato harvest every summer, a Catholic priest acted as the sole mediator between the immigrants and the state. Until only a couple of years ago, he was the only person who documented their presence, assisted them with legal matters and informed them of their rights under Italian labor laws. He even mailed their cash and paychecks home to Africa, received their mail and provided them with limited emergency funds in case of unexpected hardships.
The Italian government has recently stepped up its efforts to improve the immigrant's situation. An amnesty law passed in 1990, for example, granted amnesty to more than 150,000 illegal immigrants already living in Italy. They were given work permits, were entitled to unemployment benefits, had access to low-cost medical services, and were allowed to apply for subsidized housing. The new-found stability has had immediate and tangible effects for the stability and vitality of the Muslim immigrant community. Since the amnesty law, permanent mosques have sprung up all across Italy. Of the 59 mosques that Belgian scholars Stefano Allievi and Felice Dassetto counted in January 1993, at least 35 were established since 1990. They expect that within the next few years the number of mosques will triple. Halal butcher shops and Quranic schools, once present in only a handful of cities like Mazara del Vallo, have also become more common.
These small victories in their every-day struggles to find a niche in Italian society have encouraged Muslim immigrants to express their social and political demands with increasing insistence. Numerous Muslim groups have organized letter-writing campaigns to petition local governments for land for Islamic cemeteries, for buildings to house mosques and for other similar concessions. A Rome newspaper reported recently that the city government was considering creating three seats on the city council for representatives of immigrant groups.
Though heartening, this growing activity is challenging Italian institutions and is threatening to awaken the spirit of the Norman crusader from its millennial slumber. A 1991 survey of Italian's attitudes toward foreign immigration showed that there has been a sharp increase in hostile attitudes toward foreigners. The percentage of respondents who thought there were too many foreigners in Italy rose from less than 50 percent in 1989 to more than three-quarters by 1991. Furthermore, the political activities of the Muslim community have raised fears among many Italians that Islamic Fundamentalism will spread to their country. The Rome mosque "will become the headquarters of Islamic expansion in Europe," warned Giulio Ferrari, a leader of the Northern League, during a press conference after the inauguration of the mosque. These fears were also echoed by a representative of a conservative Catholic group who complained that "the Pope cannot be happy that the enemies of Catholicism have now established a foothold in God's city," and by Irene Pivetti, Newt Gingrich's counterpart in the Italian Parliament, who joined another influential Catholic group to pray for "protection" from the mosque.
Fears of militant fundamentalism are not totally unfounded. This summer, Italian police dismantled an Algerian organization based in Naples and an Egyptian organization based in Milan that reportedly had links to Islamic terrorist groups in these countries. They arrested more than twenty immigrants and charged them with planning terrorist activities in their home countries and in Europe. The recent subway bombings in Paris are also signs that European countries are vulnerable targets of Islamic terrorism.
The future does not hold any easy solutions. The economic and demographic imbalance between the countries of the north and south Mediterranean basin leaves little doubt that the flows of immigrants from Muslim countries will continue and perhaps increase during the next thirty years. Recognizing these strong push and pull factors, the Italian government recently passed stricter immigration laws aimed at keeping the unwanted immigrants out. But the experience of the U.S. with illegal immigration from Mexico is evidence of how difficult such efforts can be. As long as the economic and demographic imbalance persists, the pressure and incentive to emigrate north will be strong. Determined, and desperate, immigrants will find a way in.
Despite the progress that was made during the past five years, the increasing radicalism of Islamic groups in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe have raised the stakes involved with the integration of Muslim minorities. The Italian government has not been particularly foresightful in the past, a sign that the road to integration will not be easy. Moreover, the strengthening of the political right, along with voters' apprehension over the presence of politically active Muslim communities, may make the development of reasoned integration policies even more difficult. The Italian government and its citizens must realize that Islam has become a permanent feature of Italian society. Only by accepting this fact can Italians begin to seek solutions in cooperation with, not against, their new neighbors.
Claudio Holzner is a graduate student in Political Science. His pre-dissertation research was supported by the International Institute.