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


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

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.”

jahan

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


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

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.”

KRE/AMB END HAMEED

18 Comments

  1. 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.

    • 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Multi-culturalism does not work. That’s why there are nations folks. I love Italy and keeping Italy …Italy…means keeping it the same as it is all the time. When I visit Rome I wanna see Romans and experience Italian culture and language …not some hodge podge mix of Muslim / African ethnic community that is not native to the country. Think about it. We in North America are faced with seeing our values and traditions muzzled to keep the minority muslims accommodated. We have laws these people love to exploit for their own selfish agenda and disrespect us in the process. I say these immigrants should convert to Christianity and assimilate into our traditions or if they don’t like it we immediately send them back to where they came from.

    • 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.

  4. 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…..

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    • “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!

  1. [...] Lacking recognition, Italy’s Muslims face an uncertain future (Religion News Service) In a country dominated by Roman Catholics, Muslims make up Italy’s second-largest religious group.  However, having more adherents than several faiths with official status — including Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism — Islam is not an officially recognized religion in Italy. [...]

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