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

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

On the other hand, Western Europe, stretching from the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Spain, has been attacked on several occasions and has had trouble dealing with radicalization from some segments of the Muslim community. 

 

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, 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. Similarly, Italy’s less extended and marked colonial history in Muslim countries cannot fully explain this phenomenon, either.

While the United Kingdom and France have large colonial histories in Arab countries, fueling resentment from some of its Arab population, Spain and Germany have had a smaller modern colonial history than Italy, but have seen more terrorist attacks and issues with radicalization. Italy is thus a unique country in Europe with its relationship to 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 Italy has avoided jihadist terrorism is because of its security apparatus, which is used to dealing with past political terrorism and organized crime in the country. Other reasons include how Islam isn’t officially recognized as a religion in the country, so Italian Muslims are largely isolated in their faith, living within their own communities.

There is thus no forced attempt, neither by Italian society nor by Italian Muslims, for integration. Paradoxically, this has led to a less conflicted relationship, despite the less favorable views the majority Italian Catholic population has towards Muslims than other Europeans. 

A brief history of Islam in Italy

Before exploring why Italy has had fewer terrorist attacks, it is worth noting that Islam has had a marked imperial history in Italy. The presence of the religion has thus an important memory 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 region 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 its southern regions, but also in the center and towards the north of the country. 

Islam’s control over Sicily came to an end when the Normans conquered the island, expelling large parts of the Muslim population from the area. 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 southestern town of Otranto. Well-known 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 last 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 the Catholic Church as the official state religion, although freedom of faith is inscribed in the constitution. Security concerns in modern Italy have been particularly high with regards to political terrorism or mafia related cases.

For this reason, Italian authorities have dealt with internal security threats more closely than some of its European neighbors. Italy has suffered from domestic terrorism from the end of the1960s 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 remembered as national heroes in the country. Years of anti-terror and anti-mafia policies and intelligence work from the end of WW2 has made Italy particularly careful with matters related to its safety. 

While radicalized Muslims in Italy exist, they have so far failed to successfully commit a terror attack. Anis Amri, the Tunisian responsible for the 2016 Berlin Christmas market attack, was believed to have been radicalised in a Sicilian prison. He was also found and shot by 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, shows 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, but 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 scruples with regards to discrimination. According to the Italian interior ministry, at the height of terrorism 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 being 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 UK.

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 UK and US, sweeping data collection methods are not as common in Italy. Intercepting communication is considered a more useful form of surveillance in targeting jihadist, terror and mafia suspects. 

“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, said. He has lived in the country for more than twelve years. Asked on whether this bothered him in terms of discrimination, he said he accepted his looks could be seen in a negative light.

There is more tolerance from the Muslim community of Italian harsher security approaches, something which is more openly rejected in countries like the United Kingdom, where discrimination is treated more severely, and authorities fear repercussion for discriminating suspects on religious grounds. 

In the same way, people suspected of jihadist activities 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 isolation 

However, while Italy’s efficient intelligence system is largely the reason why there have been fewer jihadist attacks in Italy, there are other complex factors at play. While Judaism and Christianity are officially recognized as religions in Italy, 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 officially in Italy, they haven’t resulted in significant change 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 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 audience. 

The Italian population largely reflects its state, and 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.

“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 said he sometimes experiences a stare on the street and he is criticized by his co-workers, but replies with tolerance, attempting to explain his religion has nothing to do with terrorism or violence. 

“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 Islam faced in Italy. “We stand all together, there is no division between us,” he said. 

According to a report by the Brookings Institute, both the left and right-wing parties in Italy broadly agree in matters of law-and-order regarding security with the Muslim community, even if they diverge on 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 tenants of the religion, including its treatment of women. Such issues were discussed as inherent to Islam, rather than belonging to a particular community. This attitude shows that both in political and social life, Italians are very open about their disagreements with Muslims.  

A very high form of security on behalf of the Italian state, used to dealing with terrorism and organized crime, has largely spared the country from jihadist terrorism. However, other factors are also at play. Italian Muslims remains generally isolated from the political and social life of the country. While this may appear as a negative relationship, forcing integration from largely divergent communities may not always have its intended benefits.

In its own way, this has lead to a more authentic relationship, as there have also been almost no attacks on behalf of Italian natives towards Muslims, another factor which is less common in Western Europe.

Both the native Italian population and the Italian state largely exclude Islam from its society, but Muslims appear to accept this fate and live peacefully within their own communities. In its own way, this has lead to a more authentic relationship, as there have also been almost no attacks on behalf of Italian natives towards Muslims, another factor which is less common in Western Europe. This distant co-existence between native Italians and Italian Muslims has, until now, led to less tensions in real terms compared to other countries in Western Europe, which attempt integration at all costs. 

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

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