Benign Neglect or Religious Limbo? On Italy's Muslim Population

Published January 29th, 2020 - 11:00 GMT
Great Mosque, Parioli, Rome -  Alessandra Bocchi/Al Bawaba
Great Mosque, Parioli, Rome - Alessandra Bocchi/Al Bawaba


Italian Muslims don’t make international headlines. Unlike most of its neighbors in Western Europe, Italy hasn’t seen a major terrorist attack in decades.

The United Kingdom, France, Germany and Spain, have all been severely attacked by jihadist terrorism, especially since the migrant and refugee crisis began in 2015. Why has Italy been spared?

 

The lower number of Muslims in Italy cannot fully explain the fewer acts of terrorism or radicalization. Italian Muslims constitute 4.8 percent of the population. In Spain, a country that has seen more terrorist attacks, Muslims constitute only 2.6 percent of the population. The data was given by a Pew Research survey. Similarly, Italy’s less extended and marked colonial history in Muslim countries cannot fully explain its anomaly with Islam either.

The United Kingdom and France have large colonial histories in Arab countries, fueling resentment from some of their Arab populations. But Spain and Germany have had a smaller modern colonial history than Italy, and both these countries have seen more jihadist attacks. Italy is thus a unique country in Europe with regards to its relationship with its Muslim population. 

Italian Muslims constitute 4.8 percent of the population, while in Spain, a country that has seen more terrorist acts than Italy, Muslims constitute only 2.6 percent of the population, according to a Pew Research survey.

A large part of the reason it has avoided jihadist terrorism is because of Italy's security apparatus, which is used to dealing with political terrorism and organized crime. A more complex social reason is the relationship between Italian Catholics and Muslims. Islam isn’t officially recognized as a religion in the country, so Italian Muslims are largely isolated in their faith, which means they tend to live within their own communities. As a result, there is no forced attempt by Italian society or by Italian Muslims for integration. Both groups also unkowningly share more similar views with regards to their adversity for progressive policies. Paradoxically, this has led to a less conflicted relationship, despite the less favorable attitude the majority of Italian Catholics have towards Muslims compared to other European countries. 

A brief history of Islam in Italy

Before exploring why Italy has had fewer issues with jihadism, it is worth noting that Islam has had an extensive imperial history in the country. Islam is thus deeply embedded in the country’s historical conscience. 

Starting from the 7th century, at the beginning of the Arab conquests, the Italian island of Pantelleria, which can be found between Sicily and North Africa, was conquered by the Saracens. The Arabs and Berbers attempted to conquer Italy further with raids that reached the northern regions of Piedmont and Genoa.

Starting from the 7th century, at the beginning of the Arab conquests, the Italian island of Pantelleria, which can be found between Sicily and North Africa, was conquered by the Saracens.

In the 9th century, Islam’s presence in Italy reached its peak, when Sicily came under the full control of the Abbasid Caliphate. From Sicily, the Muslims began raiding the neighboring region of Calabria, finally conquering Taranto, Bari, and Brindisi. Until the 12th century, the presence of Muslims in Italy was pervasive, especially in the country's southern regions, but they also had a small presence in the center and towards the north.

Islam’s control over Sicily came to an end when the Normans conquered the island, expelling large parts of the Islamic community. Nevertheless, under Normal rule, a small Muslim population co-existed peacefully with Christians. For this reason, Sicily remains home to a unique Roman-Arabian-Norman synthesis in art, culture and science. 

under Normal rule, a small Muslim population co-existed peacefully with Christians. For this reason, Sicily remains home to a unique Roman-Arabian-Norman synthesis in art, culture and science. 

However, this peaceful co-existence soon came to an end. Under Papal pressure, especially during the crusades, the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Sicily became increasingly strained. Most of the remaining Muslims in Sicily either converted to Christianity or emigrated to North Africa, where Muslims felt more at home under Islamic rule. 

In the 15th century, Islam’s presence in Italy briefly returned with the Ottoman conquests. The Turks were conquering southeastern Europe, after fully absorbing the Byzantine Empire. They seized Genoa’s last remaining rights in the Black Sea and Venice’s Greek colony of Euboea, while also invading Italy’s northeastern Friuli region and its southeastern town of Otranto. Brutal massacres took place at this time on behalf of the Ottomans.

An alliance of Italian city-states, Hungary and France led by Alphonso II of Naples put a halt to the Turkish invasions, leading to Islam’s real imperial presence in Italy. 



Great Mosque, Parioli, Rome - Saturday 25th Jan, 2020


Italy’s modern security apparatus

Back to the present day, Italy is an independent Republic with Catholicism as the official state religion, although freedom of faith is inscribed in its constitution. Security concerns in post-World War II Italy have been particularly high with regards to political and mafia-related terrorism, leading its authorities to develop advanced counter-terrorism methods.  

Italy has suffered from political terrorism from the end of the 1960s to the early 1980s, where communists and fascists both committed terrorist acts in an effort to seize power. The peninsula has also suffered from mafia-related terrorism, especially the prominent killing of two anti-mafia judges in the 1990s, who are today remembered as national heroes.

While radicalized Muslims in Italy exist, they have so far failed to successfully commit a terror attack on Italian soil. Anis Amri, the Tunisian responsible for the 2016 Berlin Christmas market attack, was believed to have been radicalized in a Sicilian prison. He was also found and shot by the Italian police in Milan. Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the Tunisian behind the 2016 Nice attack, was first identified by Italian police as having spent time in the border town of Ventimiglia.

Anis Amri, the Tunisian responsible for the 2016 Berlin Christmas market attack, was believed to have been radicalised in a Sicilian prison.

The 2017 London Bridge attack, where one of the terrorists, Youssef Zaghba, was an Italian of Moroccan origin, showed how Italian authorities were more prepared than their British allies. Italy had attempted to alert the UK several times on the security threat Zaghba posed, to no avail.

The terrorist’s mother said that he was regularly stopped at Italian airports and interrogated. He was under close surveillance in Italy. Upon Zaghba’s arrival to London, however, the mother said he was never stopped by British authorities despite Italian warnings. 

Counter-terrorism efforts have been largely effective, and without too many scruples with regard to accusations of discrimination. According to the Italian interior ministry, at the height of terrorist activity in Europe in 2016-2017, authorities stopped and questioned 160,593 people and interrogated around 34,000 people at airports, arresting 550 people suspected of terrorism, with 28 sentenced on charges of terrorism. Efforts to combat extremism online have also resulted in the shutdown of 500 websites and have a million monitored. 

Italian authorities also do not need a permit to intercept phone calls. Suspicious activity is enough to make authorities listen to conversations and present them as evidence in court, which is forbidden in countries like the U.K..

Organized crime, especially in the south of Italy, means phone calls are regularly intercepted, and family members and social interactions are watched closely and even disrupted with undercover agents. However, unlike the U.K. and U.S., sweeping data collection methods are not as common. Intercepting communication is considered a more useful form of counter-terrorism than mass digital surveillance. 

“One time a policeman saw me, and told me not to cause a bombing,” a Bangladeshi-Muslim immigrant who asked for anonymity, said.

“One time a policeman saw me, and told me not to cause a bombing,” a Bangladeshi-Muslim immigrant who asked for anonymity, told Al-Bawaba. He has lived in Italy for more than twelve years. Asked on whether this bothered him in terms of discrimination, he said he accepted his looks, which are based on a fundamentalist Sunni view of Islam, could be seen in a negative light.

According to his testimony, the Italian Muslim community is more tolerant of Italy's stricter security approaches than in countries like the United Kingdom, where authorities are more easily penalized for discrimination on religious grounds.

Furthermore, jihadists in Italy are invited to cooperate with Italian authorities, who use various tactics, including offering residency permits, to encourage them to provide information. Italy was criticized by the European court of human rights for holding terrorist defendants too long once they had been charged, but Italian authorities do not have the power to detain terror suspects without charge. For this reason, Italy manages a difficult balance of respecting civil liberties and guaranteeing national security. 

 

Italian Muslims live in blissful isolation

While the isolation of Italian Muslims from the public life of the country may appear as a form of discrimination, forcing integration from largely different communities may not have its intended benefits. The progressive kind of enforcement of tolerance has led countries like the United Kingdom with more clashes between its native and Muslim population. It is worth noting, however, that the progressive ideology is far less developed in Italy than in other countries in Western Europe, so Italian Catholics and Muslims also find more common ground, for example, on issues concerning the LGBTQ movement. In short, Italian Muslims and Catholics are different and appear to accept these differences, but they're also more similar than their progressive counterparts. Both factors make them have a less conflicted relationship.

While Judaism and Christianity are officially recognized as religions, Islam is not. As a result, Islamic weddings have no legal value, Muslim workers cannot take days off according to their religious holidays, and Mosques cannot receive public funds. Although efforts have been made to recognize Islam as an official religion in Italy, they haven’t resulted in significant changes for the Muslim community. 

Islamic weddings have no legal value, Muslim workers cannot take days off according to their religious holidays, and Mosques cannot receive public funds.

One example was how Italy’s Interior Ministry and the country’s nine major Islamic associations signed an unprecedented agreement in 2017 called the National Pact for an Italian Islam, where Imams were required to register and preach in Italian in exchange for facilitating Islam as being recognized as an official religion.

While this pact appeared as a sign of integration by making Islam compatible with the Italian language, in reality it lays bare how Islam is viewed as a mere foreign religion. No other religion is required to hold its sermons in Italian. The Catholic Church regularly offers mass in foreign languages to cater to its immigrant Catholic population. 

Italian society largely reflects the views of its government -- Islam, not surprisingly, doesn’t have much popularity in Italy. According to a recent Pew Research survey, 69 percent of Italians report a negative opinion of Muslims, the highest number in Western Europe, and second after Hungary. Despite the anoymisty, there have been far fewer clashes between the two groups.

“We largely live within our own isolated community, and that’s ok. I barely know anyone else outside of my job; that’s largely the case for devout Muslims like myself,” the Bangladeshi-Muslim immigrant said. He added how he sometimes experiences a stare on the street and is criticized by his co-workers for his religion, but he claims he replies with tolerance, attempting to explain how his faith has nothing to do with violence or terrorism. 

“We largely live within our own isolated community, and that’s ok. I barely know anyone else outside of my job; that’s largely the case for devout Muslims like myself,” the Bangladeshi-Muslim immigrant said.

When visiting the Great Mosque of Rome, the largest Mosque in the country, a meeting was held on the 25th of January called “Dialogues of Peace”, discussing the role of the Muslim community in Italy. The General Secretary of the Islamic Centre in Italy, Abdellah Redouane, was attempting to portray Islam in a positive light, as opposed to lamenting the discrimination the Islamic faith faced in Italy. “We stand all together, there is no division between us,” he said. 

Both the left and right-wing parties in Italy agree in matters of law-and-order regarding security with the Muslim community, even if they diverge on some attitudes towards Muslims.

With the rise of the right-wing populist League party under its leader Matteo Salvini, the question of Islam in Italy has become a contentious topic of debate. Unlike other populist politicians in Western Europe, Salvini and the League have openly called out key beliefs in the religion, including its treatment of women. Such issues were discussed as inherent in Islam, rather than belonging to a particular community. He said, without hesitation; "Islam is incompatible with our constitution." This attitude shows that both in political and social life, Italians are very open about their disagreements with Muslims.

Perhaps, unlike what is commonly understood, open criticism of a religion can lead to a more authentic relationship with its believers who can reply with honesty. Furthermore, enforcing integration can lead to conflict rather than peace. And a progressive environment festers more anymosity from Muslims than a Catholic one.

 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.

 


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