The enemy within

A look at immigration, Islamophobia and cultural collision in Italy.

    Last year Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing government passed new, tougher anti-immigration laws

    Italy is a popular destination, but not just for tourists. Each year thousands of illegal immigrants arrive on Italy's shores, mostly via boats from Libya and Tunisia.

    Italy's conservative government has responded by passing tougher anti-immigration laws, but the situation is turning explosive.

    Roberto Calderoli, a minister in Silvio Berlusconi's government, says: "When they reach our shores, we should send them back to where they came from. Not accept them from Libya's coast."

    Some accuse the government of racism and Islamophobia, others believe the immigrants are an "enemy within". 

    "When we first arrived, Perugia was the city that attracted the most students. All those coming to Italy were students. No-one came for work because back then Italy did not offer job opportunities to foreigners," says Altonji Ridwan, the director of the Islamic Centre in Bologna.

    "We were all university students, mostly of medicine, engineering or pharmacology. These attracted the most university students."

    Ridwan says that at the end of the 1980s, and in the early and mid 1990s, the purpose of immigration changed from studying to job-hunting due to the poor economic situation in Arab and third world countries.

    "This has caused a problem. Along with the good Muslims came some elements whose behaviour damaged the image of the good Muslims here. We are not responsible for the behaviour of these people who act in a non-Islamic way. But their incorrect behaviour was exploited and focused upon in order to brand all Muslims as violent, terrorists and drug dealers," Ridwan says.


    The Italian media has stirred up anti-Muslim sentiments

    Ridwan remembers that the Italians used to have a good impression of Islam and Muslims, but says that changed after the September 11 attacks.

    "The biased media launched a comprehensive campaign against Islam and Muslims in various countries, including Italy. The current enmity felt by Italians towards Islam and Muslims is not a result of their ill intentions towards Muslims. It comes instead from the Islamophobic misinformation and prejudice of the media."

    Neva Cucchi, a member of a centre that supports immigrants, says that since the 1990s political discourse has linked the presence of immigrants to security issues. Along with this discourse came all sorts of European Union meetings and internal agreements to justify and support the closure of Europe's borders, she says.

    "Islamophobia is a part of the vision being created about an enemy within, threatening our security and our cultural identity. That is how a Muslim immigrant is described by our media and in politics. As a religious extremist and terrorist. And as someone who refuses to integrate and who threatens the Christian identity of our country."

    'Destroying our culture'

    Yassin Lefrim, a member of the Union of Islamic Organisations in Italy, says that the residents of Bologna used to be keen to help Muslims find a place to worship, but that the city's view on mosques has changed now.

    "In a country like Italy, and in Italian cities, a mosque should be an ordinary place. It should be accepted by people in the city. Because a mosque is a place of worship," he says.

    But, many Italians are opposed to having mosques in their neighbourhoods because they fear extremism, crime and violence.

    Irma Taroli from the Union for the Defence of Christianity is opposed to the building of large mosques and feels that they stop immigrants from integrating fully.

    "We are trying to prevent any repeat of what is being reported by the media each day. The other day they were burning Valentine's Day flags and banners. They hate the West. And they show this hatred every day in the streets when they refuse to look us in the eyes. It's a bad sign when someone refuses to look at the other," Taroli explains.

    Giancarlo Gentilini, Treviso's mayor, goes further: "Mosques are business centres where terrorists hide, where plans are hatched to destroy our culture, to destroy our heritage, to destroy our religion. We will never tolerate this."

    Angelo Alessandri, the president of the right-wing Northern League party, says there is a gulf that separates the West from the Islamic world.

    "We need to understand this today, before we lose all our social and legislative values [...] The problem is clear: if it's not possible to integrate all these people, because they don't respect our rules, then should we allow them to come, or should we keep them in their country? The answer is: keep them in their country."

    A new generation

    Some second generation Italians feel that their rights are still denied

    TV writer Adel Ridwani came to Italy with his family when he was nine years old but is now beginning to wonder if they made the right move.

    "I came to Italy in 1990. I was the son of a middle class Moroccan family. My father wanted to try his fortune in Europe. This was a dream for many people back then," he says.

    "They say the current economic growth in Morocco is better than in Italy. There is great dynamism there. We feel as if we've chosen the wrong place."

    Radwani believes the situation in Italy is unique because Islam arrived with huge waves of immigration, and immigration is something that causes big changes in a society.

    "People are always afraid of change. Each day, in the street, when you get on a bus with a beard or with an Arab-looking face, you can feel the tension rise. Everybody seems to look at you as if you're a terrorist. We are not only the first to be blamed, but immigrants are also believed to suck the country's wealth."

    Radwani believes it is no coincidence that the current rise of the right-wing is happening during an economic crisis.

    "Despite all this, statistics show that immigrants, who represent around five per cent of society, produce around nine per cent of the country's wealth. This means that an immigrant produces 50 per cent more than a middle class Italian. Also, without the immigrants' children, the country's demographic development will be negatively affected."

    "We should not forget that in 20 years these children will pay for the Italians' retirement pensions. We have been here in Italy for a long time. We feel we are Italians. I have spent two-thirds of my life here in Italy. I learnt about life here.
    I'm fed up with being looked upon as a foreigner. When I am outside my country, I feel the centre of my world is Italy, and Bologna," Radwani says.

    Second generation Italians are struggling for recognition of their rights. For years, immigrants and anti-racism associations have campaigned for foreign citizens to have the right to vote. When the Council of Foreign Citizens in Bologna met for the first time many believed the organisation could help the city's officials.

    "I want to create a real dialogue between Italian culture and the various cultures of immigrants. I think about the role of women and the new generation in creating a multi-cultural country where foreigners do not feel they are the "other", Hayat al-Yusfi, a 22-year-old Moroccan student, says.

    Ethnic ghettos

    The Bologna 2 residence has a reputation for crime, drugs and prostitution

    Most of the residents of the 198 flats in the Bologna 2 residence are Moroccan, Pakistani, Tunisian or Egyptian.

    The neighbourhood has a reputation for crime, drugs and prostitution.

    Bruno Boccaglioni is a social worker who says that some of those living in the Bologna 2 residence occupy flats and obtain electricity illegally.

    "You feel a group of bad people harm the reputation of 198 families.

    "That's why this place is linked to prostitution and crime. But nobody mentions the majority of families living here who work and educate their children and pay taxes in very difficult conditions," Boccaglioni says.

    Aysha Bac, a resident in Bologna 2, says she did not want to buy a flat there because everyone in Italy knows how bad the neighbourhood is.

    "We hear and read about the problems here. It's too much. When my mother visited me here in Italy and saw the place she said: 'Is this Italy? Isn't there any other place to live?' In Morocco it's very important to live in a clean place, no matter what the conditions are. But this dirt outside is the worst."

    Boccaglioni says many of the young residents end up in criminal gangs.

    "Most of the residents have lived here for a long time. Their children go to school and they see Italians dressed in stylish clothes and riding scooters. Families here work and save like crazy to provide good clothes and other things for their children. They want their children to live at the same level as other Italians, so they don't resort to illegal ways of earning money."

    Special prisons

    Immigrants have protested against Italy's immigration laws

    Cucchi explains that those caught without legal residence permits are placed in temporary detention centres. But many immigrants cannot understand why they are held as prisoners for an indefinite period of time and there are subsequently high rates of mental disorders, self-harming and suicide among the detained immigrants.

    "When they left their countries and came here legally or illegally, they thought that they would return home rich, driving cars," explains Pier Cesare Bori, a professor of philosophy at Bologna University who works with immigrants in Bologna prison.

    "For them, prison is a huge failure. In most cases, their families don't even know that they are in jail. We don't ask them why they are jailed. It's none of our business. But mostly they are young drug dealers. And most of them were drug addicts.

    "When I started in 1998, one of the teachers told me that Arabs are the most forgotten here, partially because of the language and because they themselves want to hide. They tell us various different names. We don't even know their real names."

    The enemy within can be seen from Wednesday, July 7, at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 1900; Thursday: 0300, 1400; Friday: 0600; Saturday: 1900; Sunday: 0300.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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