Islam and Italy

Looking at the integration of Muslims in Europe is an interesting subject, and when one peers closely at most European countries with large Islamic populations, one can see a dangerous trend of marginalisation of Muslim communities, despite the received wisdom that this really is not a good idea. Marginalisation, after all, breeds terrorism.

One of my last meetings in Sudan, before I returned to Europe, was with a Western educated lady who had a old male school friend studying in London. She confessed that she was extremely worried about this friend, who had broken off ties with most of his family and now refused to speak to her, since she was a woman and non-family member. She found this behaviour bizarre, since at school he had been the most level-headed and pleasant fellow she could have imagined. The reason she gave was that, alone and away from home, in a strange and foreign country, he had fallen in with a group of hard-line Pakistanis, who had immediately accepted him. The British had not. This is why marginalisation is so dangerous.

Back to Italy.

The right-wing Northern League Party is certainly very worried about extremism in Italy. It should escape no one’s attention that Italy is the only major country to have supported the Iraq invasion that has not yet suffered its own terrorist attack. The US, the UK and Spain all have.

But, rather than address the main causes of the terrorist attacks in the above-mentioned countries (i.e., that the perpetrators were, largely, disenfranchised youths who had drifted towards extremist groups because they felt isolated in the countries that they called home), they have decided to try and step in and break up Muslim communities. This is only going to make the problem worse.

Last year Roberto Cota, head of the Northern League in the Chamber of Deputies, proposed stopping mosque-building in the country. Not that any mosques are actually built, since this is already prohibited. Rather, the “mosques” in question are converted garages or other such areas where Muslims can gather to pray.

Here are a few selected excerpts from his proposal, which I have translated from the Italian:

“The Muslim community lives a contraction between respecting Qur’anic law on the one hand and the law of the Italian State on the other. For example, the translation of the word ‘family’ in Arabic coincides with the term ‘haram’, a famous word in the West that defines a different relationship between a man and a woman, underlined by the fact that the man has pre-eminence over the woman.”

“The Mosque is a place where the community gathers and cannot be compared to the concept of the church as is understood by Christian tradition. For Islam, ‘the gathering’ is a massive expression of faith and the head of the community that is referred to in a mosque represents, in parallel, that which for is the bishop, the mayor at the headmaster of a school. In our tradition of culture, justice and society, this does not have any connection with the truth, apart from a past that we have overcome.”

“The fact remains that, within numerous Italian mosques, dangerous international Al-Qaeda terrorists have been worshipping. We can not delay, in fact, something that is so important for the security of Italian citizens.”

In other words, what he seems to be proposing is rather akin to what took place in Communist Russia and China: communities that could be against the state should not be allowed to congregate. After all, it’s why they got rid of so many squares in China.

(Of course, there is an important counter-argument that I must, in fairness, mention. And that is the words of Roberto Cota, although he may have failed to grasp the cultural problems facing Europe at the moment, are not totally devoid of truth. In Muslim communities throughout the world, the spiritual leader (the Imam) is a powerful force and can, when so moved, control the behaviour of the people that he leads in prayer. Remember when Muslims in Sudan took to the streets and demanded the death of Gillian Gibbons, the British teacher who was accused of blasphemy because she named a teddy bear Mohamed. That was the work of a select few Imams, pushing the devout out on to the streets as a warning to the West. But, if this is what happens, wouldn’t it make much more sense for people like Signor Cota and other xenophobic Northern League politicians to embrace the Imams in the country as brothers, rather than push them away. That really is going to cause problems.)

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