Italy’s Muslims uneasy after election of far-right government

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has threatened to shut mosques and said Islam is ‘incompatible with the constitution’.

Italy Muslims
There are 2.6 million Muslims in Italy, making Islam the country's largest religious minority [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

Rome, Italy – On Friday after midday, on a tree-lined residential street in southeastern Rome, people speak an assortment of languages and dialects, from north African Arabic to the local Roman slang.

The bottom floor of a peeling post-war building hosts a “prayer home”.

On the Muslim holy day, worshippers lay out their prayer rugs as far as the pavement and listen to a sermon.

Officially recognised mosques in Italy can be counted on one hand, but there are many unofficial “prayer homes” like this – more than 50 in Rome.

Islam isn’t formally recognised in Italy, despite being the country’s largest religious minority.

While other religions have underwritten an accord with the Italian state, attempts to reach one for Islam have been inconclusive. As a result, mosques cannot receive public funds, religious holidays and weddings are not recognised, and there’s no law governing the establishment of places of worship.

There are 2.6 million Muslims in Italy, just over four percent of the population. While the majority are foreign citizens, nearly a million are Italian either by birth or naturalisation.

I don't think Italy is a racist country. I think there are statements that some politicians could avoid, but instead they are used relentlessly to exploit a certain type of propaganda.

by Yassine Lafram, president of the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy

The basement prayer home in Centocelle, a traditionally working-class neighbourhood and today one of the most multicultural in the city, has been here since 1993. 

For more than two years, it has faced uncertainty regarding its future, after local authorities asked the community to address building regulation breaches. 

Similar administrative reasons were given to justify the closure of at least eight other prayer homes and Islamic cultural centres in the city, sparking prayer-protests near, the Coliseum, Rome’s famous landmark in October 2016. 

Local media often calls such establishments “illegal mosques”, referring to their unregulated status but simultaneously feed a narrative of fear and mistrust towards the Muslim community. Most of the prayer homes closed in Rome at the time were re-opened.

There is also now an increasing sense of insecurity among Muslim communities across Italy with the instalment of the new government, led by the anti-Islam, anti-migration League and the populist Five Star Movement.

“There is more uncertainty as we have no idea what this government is going to do towards the Islamic community,” said Mohamed Ben Mohamed, the imam of the Centocelle mosque, sitting at his desk with a photograph of Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque behind him.

“During the election campaign, Salvini said he would close mosques, not allow any new ones to open. It may be propaganda, but there’s a mentality behind that,” Ben Mohamed added. “There’s no regulation for places of worship, the law remains vague, and every municipality interprets it its own way.”

A “government contract” that led to the governing deal between the two parties promised stricter controls and closure of “irregular” mosques, as well as the establishment of a registry of imams and checks on funding sources.

During his election campaign, Matteo Salvini, interior minister and deputy prime minister, stated that “Islam is incompatible with the constitution.”

When Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz closed seven mosques last June, Salvini hailed the decision and called for a meeting to discuss common strategies.

‘We are concerned’

Three months into his role, Salvini launched a campaign against sea rescue, preventing boats from docking in Italian ports or rescued refugees from descending, sparking a diplomatic crisis among EU states over migration.

Between 2014 and 2017, more than 623,000 people arrived in Italy via the central Mediterranean route. But arrivals had already dropped by the end of 2017, following a EU-supported Italian agreement with Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord.

Racism watchdogs have warned of the links between the proliferation of a stigmatising rhetoric towards migration and a series of racially-motivated violent attacks which have often been carried out in a copycat fashion in the past months, including at least a dozen BB gun shootings.

The UN’s new high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet said in her maiden speech on Monday that she intended to send teams to Italy as well as Austria to assess the situation.

“On social media, messages, Facebook pages and groups are increasingly aggressive against migration and Islamic culture,” Yassine Lafram, the 32-year-old recently appointed president of the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy (UCOII), told Al Jazeera.

“We are concerned about that and that words may turn into the actions of a few people. Let’s not forget there have been violent episodes against migrants in general, as well as some homophobic incidents, even if they’ve not been recognised as such.” 

Lafram was born in Morocco but grew up in Italy, where he was recently naturalised as a citizen.

“I don’t think Italy is a racist country,” he said. “I think there are statements that some politicians could avoid, but instead they are used relentlessly to exploit a certain type of propaganda.”

As elsewhere in Europe, violent attacks on European soil in recent years, claimed to have been carried out in the name of Islam, have affected Italians’ perception of the country’s Muslim communities even if none were carried out in Italy. 

According to the Pew research centre, Italy is second only to Hungary in negative perceptions of Muslims in Europe, with as many as 69 percent saying they viewed Muslims unfavourably.

Opinions about an alleged “Islamisation” of Italy may also be shaped by a misperception of the migratory phenomenon. As independent research Institute Eurispes points out, however, out of Italy’s five million foreign residents just over 30 percent are Muslim.

This often translates into right-wing opposition to projects aimed at Muslim communities by local groups.

In an ongoing debate in Bologna, politicians belonging to the League and Berlusconi’s party Go Italy are opposed to a deal between the Islamic community and the local administration for a land exchange that they say would allow Muslims to build the first official mosque in the city. 

A similar controversy surrounds the opening of two mosques and the regularisation of four informal ones in the Milan area.

“I want to know who pays, who prays, in what language, who goes in and who goes out,” Salvini said about the issue, adding that mosques were “not a priority,” but he intended to create a commission to regulate new places of worship.

“We are waiting to see how things will develop, what role this commission will have,” said Ben Mohamed back in eastern Rome. “Whether or not it will involve the community.”

In the nearby neighbourhood of Torpignattara, home to a large Bangladeshi community, the sign of one of the local prayer homes has been blanked out. Locals say it has been like that for three years.

In Torpignattara, home to a large Bangladeshi community, the sign of a local prayer home has been blanked out [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
In Torpignattara, home to a large Bangladeshi community, the sign of a local prayer home has been blanked out [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera