Culture Politics

Lacking recognition, Italy’s Muslims face an uncertain future

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Sarwar Jahan, 26, a street souvenir merchant in Rome, is one of many Muslim immigrants to Italy. Photo courtesy Mustafa Hameed

ROME (RNS) Steps from the immense colonnade of St. Peter’s Square, Sarwar Jahan stood next to his souvenir stand. A dark, clean-shaven man wearing a navy blue jacket and a black knit cap, Jahan is one of the legions of peddlers selling trinkets of the new Pope Francis to tourists and pilgrims.

(RNS1-May 28) Sarwar Jahan, 26, a street souvenir merchant in Rome, is one of many Muslim immigrants to Italy. For use with RNS-ITALY-MUSLIMS, transmitted on May 28, 2013, Photo courtesy Mustafa Hameed.

Sarwar Jahan, 26, a street souvenir merchant in Rome, is one of many Muslim immigrants to Italy. Photo courtesy Mustafa Hameed

Like many of his fellow street merchants, Jahan is neither a Catholic nor a natural-born Italian. He’s a Muslim who moved to Rome from Bangladesh in search of work.

In a country dominated by Roman Catholics, Muslims make up Italy’s second-largest religious group. A Pew study estimated that more than 1.5 million Muslims live in Italy, a number projected to double by 2030.

Though it has more adherents than several faiths with official status — including Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism — Islam is not an officially recognized religion in Italy. Consequently, no Muslim organizations can receive funding through an Italian law that allows taxpayers to allocate a portion of their taxes to a religious group of their choice.

While negative views of Islam in this Catholic nation have played a part, the sheer size and diversity of Italy’s Muslim population may be among the biggest obstacles to the community’s recognition, said Mustafa Cenap Aydin, director of the Istituto Tevere in Rome, a group that promotes intercultural dialogue.

“The tiny Buddhist community, it’s not a challenge, you can recognize it,” Aydin said. “But (with Muslims) we’re talking about 1.5 million people.”

Aydin mentioned another hurdle to Muslim integration in Italy:  “Maybe 95 percent of Muslims are not citizens here,” he explained. That includes men like Jahan, who followed his brother to Rome two years ago in search of work.

“Muslims in Italy are facing the challenge of situating Islam in Italy,” said Abdel Latif Chalikandi, a lawyer and cultural mediator at the Mosque of Rome. “Are you a Muslim or an Italian?”

Chalikandi himself moved to Rome from Kerala, India, after meeting his wife, Sabrina Lei, a Catholic-born Italian convert to Islam who has translated the works of several Islamic writers into Italian. Together, the two are working to publish more books about Islam in Italy.

Making a new life in a new country is not easy. Besides new languages, there are new foods and new customs. Fulfilling Muslim religious requirements may also be difficult.

“Italian Muslims have complete religious freedom,” Chalikandi said. “They have the right to pray, they have the right to fast. But there are, having said that, some issues.”

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Sarwar Jahan, 26, sells souvenirs to a visitor in Rome. Jahan is one of many Muslim immigrants in the city who work as street vendors and peddlers. Photo courtesy Mustafa Hameed

He said religious obligations such as circumcision, Muslim-specific burial grounds and halal meats can pose problems for Italian Muslims. Food is a particularly sensitive issue among Italian Muslims who cannot eat pork or drink alcoholic beverages.

Still, the religious prohibition against eating pork has not deterred all Muslims. Sharif Ahmed is a waiter at a traditional Italian restaurant near Piazza Navona, across the Tiber River from the Vatican. A recent transplant from Delhi, India, he appeared at ease presenting plates of salami and prosciutto and pouring wine for customers. Ahmed said that he does not eat pork or drink alcohol.

But beyond dietary differences, darker sources of dissonance are often at work. Islamophobia is alive and well in the country, particularly among conservative politicians who blame the country’s economic woes on immigrants. In many circles, being Muslim is synonymous with being an immigrant.

But worse than brash politicians are forces within the Muslim community that put it at odds with Italian society, Aydin said. In 2009, a Moroccan immigrant murdered his 18-year-old daughter after he found her dating an older Italian man, reinforcing stereotypes of honor killings and misogyny.

“Weeks and weeks the Italian newspapers are talking about this tragic event,” Aydin said. “They’d pose questions in these terms: ‘What do you think about this Pakistani girl who was killed since she was dating an Italian guy?’”

Before Muslims can adopt an active role together, however, they must organize. “There is a crisis in Muslim leadership and knowledge,” said Chalikandi.

The Muslim community, Chalikandi added, badly needs thinkers familiar with Islamic jurisprudence as well as Italian cultural norms and practices.

The Italian government has taken a number of steps in recent years to assimilate Muslims. In 2005, the Ministry of the Interior established the Council for Italian Islam to foster dialogue between the government and the Italian Muslim community. The council was meant to be an umbrella body coordinating the country’s various Islamic organizations. That would have provided the structure for Islam to be legally recognized as a religion eligible to receive tax money.

“The Italian state wanted to recognize the religion,” Chalikandi lamented, “but unfortunately, the Muslim organizations and leaders couldn’t get a consensus and they couldn’t sign that accord with the government.”

Despite the divisions, the Council for Italian Islam is still intact and could yet serve as a useful forum for the country’s various Islamic organizations.

Still, both Chalikandi and Aydin said efforts to organize the different groups representing the Islamic community of Italy may be a long-term project.

“Muslims are learning,” Chalikandi said. “And still for Islam there is no second or third generation here yet.”

Such endeavors to educate and coordinate the Muslim community would take time, but Chalikandi said he believed that the outlook was positive. Aydin was less upbeat about the Muslim community’s efforts to organize effectively anytime soon.

“The main challenge for Muslims is, of course, they have to change their mentality,” he said. “The parents should be much more conscious and aware of the importance of education for the next generation. And actually I don’t see enough of that kind of consciousness about this.”

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Mustafa Hameed

25 Comments

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  • A sad situation for Italy’s Muslims. I personally, feel Islam (and Judaism) has a much better understanding of G-d than Christians do. There is no G-d but G-d. The Trinity was made up at the Council of Nicene.

  • If only your statement had any historical merit about the Council of Nicene. The council primarily condemned Arius and his followers for making up new teaching that was not found in scripture or the early fathers. People already expressed Trinitarian views earlier before the council.

  • It seems that the main issue here is that Islam does not get its fair share of tax breaks and special privileges in Italy. The obvious solution is not to give tax breaks or special privileges to ANY religion.

    Why does the government need to officially recognize religions at all? People should be free to follow any religion, or no religion, without any need for recognition by the government.

  • Even if you feel the Trinity is an invention, it would historically inaccurate to say it was invented at the Council of Nicaea. You might say it was defended, clarified, or defined by the Council of Nicaea but it was already believed by the majority of Christians at that time. It was the fact that Arius and his followers held a minority view, that the Arians were expelled from the Church as a result of the Councils decision. But the Trinity was certainly not invented at Nicaea.

  • Italy or in fact rome is a religious destination to christians n Catholics…..just like Mecca to Muslims…the Muslims wants recognition and rights in Italy…[expletive deleted]…..what if christians build a church in Mecca….it will start the armegeddon……to hell wit U…..

  • actually the first christians made their first appearance in Armenia, then the argument should be valid for Armenia not Italy. ahahahah!!!

  • well being a non muslim and an asian. I will support italy . Italy is a catholic state so it will be right on the part of italy to outlaw islam. All those who have solidarity with islam should be deported. These islamists should go to middle east. Islam is a threat to italy.

  • Islam is a supremacist, intolerant ideology which seeks special status in non-Muslim lands before pushing further, subverting the indigenous culture with the aid of the politically correct multiculturalists.

    Islam demands rights that it does not extend to non-Muslim minorities in Muslims lands. When there is a cathedral and synagogue in Mecca then we can talk, not before.

  • Suggesting that America goes overboard in accommodating minorities, especially Muslims is baseless and downright ignorant. America was founded on the beliefs of pluralism and diversity. It’s just taken us a few centuries to get it right. Do us a favor and return to whatever cave you ancestors came from. Take your whole family and we’ll pay for the costs.

  • “Islam is a supremacist, intolerant ideology which seeks special status in non-Muslim lands before pushing further, subverting the indigenous culture with the aid of the politically correct multiculturalists. “
    Which would explain why Muslims destroyed the native civilization and culture of 3 continents: North America, South America, and Australia. Christopher Columbus by your logic was a crypto-Muslim!

  • The thing is Muslim want to change America value and prevent free speech. They want to change America first amendment to become syariah. Why do they want to go back and live like it’s in the 7th century? Sadiq please do yourself a favour, buy a plan ticket with your own money (not with the taxpayer money) and go to some Muslim country the place that you all share the same beliefs

  • Yup just like they destroy Mecca from the Pagan, Spain, North Africa, India, Egypt, Armenian, Aceh the list will go on cause they will not stop till all the unbelievers either convert, pay jiziyh or die. It’s in the quran read it!

  • The muslims are completelly free to worship their religion and convert other people in Italy.

    The fact that the islamic community hasn’t yet made an agreement with the italian state ins’t the blame of the state or of the Catholic church, but of the islamic community which is divided and which hasn’t so far designated representatives able to speack on behalf of the whole islamic community in Italy.
    Yet, the italian Constitution alone garantees fredom of religion for everybody, and muslims are not an axception.
    For example, the biggest mosque of the western world is in Rome, not far away from Saint Peter’s Cathedral, and has been visited by the Pope himself. It would be as if a christian cathedral was built near Mecca, in Saudi Arabia.

    Instead, countries with muslim majority do not garantee the same complete freedom of religion, most of them forbidding the conversion of muslims to other religions, the construction of new chirches, making laws meant to subdue believers of other religions and tollerating or promoting their persecution, erpsecially christians.

    Constitution of the Republic of Italy
    Art. 3
    All citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law, without distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinions, personal and social conditions.
    It is the duty of the Republic to remove those obstacles of an economic and social nature which, really limiting the freedom and equality of citizens, impede the full development of the human person and the effective participation of all workers in the political, economic and social organization of the country.
    Art. 8
    All religious confessions are equally free before the law.
    Religious confessions other than Catholic have the right to organize in accordance with their own statutes, in so far as they are not in conflict with Italian laws.
    Their relations with the State are regulated by law on the basis of an accord between the respective representatives.

  • The christians did not make their first appearance in armenia.

    armenia was the first nation or state or country or whatever title you care to use which, if memory servers, accepted christianity in 301 ade (or ad for you christians) as their official religion,and they still practice the rituals pretty much as they did back then.

    i guess you might say that lord krishna and his religion was the original moroccan leather bound first edition,,judaism was the hard copy, christianity was the paper back, and muhammadanism is a xerox copy…and you can forget about all the rest since then….just fakirs….

    If I can simplify it, muhammad showed up back then and did yet another of the many “Jesus” type plays, speaking lines about peace and good will, which had been played out a few times over the previous 3,000 years….same play, different characters….

    evidently, the inhabitants of other lands decided that, seeing as they already had seen a “jesus play”, why bother.

    so, mohammed and the 3 caliphs after him decided to preach another tune entitled, “covert or die, infidel!”.

    over the next 100 years or so, those 3 caliphs stole more turf than alexander the great, and murdered more people than attila the hun, primarily it seems because everything that non-moslems said, or did, or wore, or ate, or practiced offended their god…go figure….and it “ain’t changed” much at all…

    give them an inch and they’ll take a mile…and then behead you!

    as one of the biblical sayings goes, “do unto other before they do unto you”….capisci?

    end

  • What is this? One rule for muslims and one for others.. Do you allow any other religious people in saudi or other gulf countries to be a citizen? Then why do you want to be in other countries

  • As my consern Italy shout keep its culture safely from muslim invaders or they will swallo the ital in next 100 years. They dont want pease they just want jihad or jisya

  • The thing is, Catholics haven’t done that for ages. You guys have brought it into the 21rst century. There is no place in Rome for It, And Italian catholics are not people to have things taken from them.

    Do you really want to wake up that sleeping beast that had you people running scared for hundreds of years? If you threaten the sanctity of Italian Catholicism you are going to regret that very sorely.

    Go to America, you have a chance there.

  • You clearly are ignorant and have absolutely no knowledge of judeo-christianity to make that ridiculous comment. neither you have an ability to reason

  • They also intend to behead the Pope according to the statement of some Imam. Let Italy’s Muslimin find somewhere else to go. India? HELL NO!!!!!
    They simply DON’T belong in a Christian Country! They arrive with the mentality that they will have the right to take over the host country and violent crime will grow and then Islam will be instituted as the Official ” Religion”.. The threshold of tolerance will soon reach Critical Mass and the mental reactor of the so called “INFIDEL”natives will Melt Down.
    Manchester was another lesson to follow the London pedestrian mow down.
    Killing and wounding scores of innocent little girls.
    “ISLAM is the Religion of Peace” said George D. Bush (What a friggin’ joke) at the rubble of the Towers and then went to the nearest Mosque to kiss ass.

  • But…but…but…the current Pope is open to a Mosque, being created within the Vatican! Surely, such a gesture will bring about peace between Catholics and Muslims.

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