IV. Islam among Us
A. European Islam or Islamized Europe?
66. After the attack on the World Trade Center “Twin Towers” buildings in New York City on September 11, 2001, it became apparent that a network of organizations; with many different strategies, had settled in various European countries. They were preparing violent attacks and enlisting people ready to accomplish them. Do you think that these are radical groups isolated from the larger Muslim communities, or are they a project of global Islamization that was announced long ago but was often ignored or minimized?
I believe that the discovery of logistic and operational bases for the preparation of attacks as well as the detection of people accused of belonging to terrorist groups in various European countries shed a sinister light and bring us up-to-date on what I call the current “violent” phase of Islamic expansion.
With respect to the international Islamic community, Muslims in the countries of the European Union number only twelve million adherents. From a numerical point of view, this is a very limited group. Some members may plan clandestine activity, and it is detached from the most significant Islamic organizations. Contacts with the organizations are not completely absent because of attendance at certain mosques and Islamic centers, especially in big cities. Many of these activists theorize about resorting to the use of force to affirm Islam in the whole world. These individuals appeal to jihad in its violent meaning.’
In recent years, these groups operated in Europe, sometimes conducting military actions or leading demonstrations. By way of example, I distinctly recall some episodes attributed to the Algerian GIA (Armed Islamic Group): a bomb exploded on February 3, 1986, in the Champs Elysées (three hours later, another bomb was defused on the third floor of the Eiffel Tower); on March 20, 1986, another explosion occurred in the Point Show Gallery in Paris, leaving 2 dead and 29 injured; an explosion in the subway of the French capital on July 25, 1995, killed 7 people and wounded another 117. The police in different European countries, but especially Italy, have long been investigating many plots for attacks that were organized but never carried out. The investigators have discovered logistic bases in different cities that were used to host the activists of “fighting groups” in transit to other countries or were related to terrorist organizations such as al-Qa’ida and the Algeria-based Salafiyyah Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).
It is correct, therefore, to talk of a real network that over the years has expanded into different European countries. This network has justifiably aroused worries because a limited number of fighters is sufficient to terrorize an entire country, as we see in Palestine, Algeria, Indonesia, and the Mindanao region in the Philippines. One must not forget that the radical groups that form the breeding ground of these clandestine organizations are growing strong and increasing their influence as well as their enlistment capacity within the Muslim “base”. 67. Some observers claim that, far a long time, the strength of the religious and cultural roots and the control exercised by the native countries will remain an influential force in the immigrant communities in Europe. This will constitute an obstacle for the real integration and the creation of a “European” Islam. Allow me to use a concise but telling sentence: Instead of a Westernization of Islam, the risk is the Islamization of the West. There are even those who denounce the danger of an Islamic “invasion” as a trend that, acting at the cultural and religious level, would also make use of the migratory currents as instruments for the propagation and the affirmation of Islam. Are these alarmist fears or well-grounded concerns?
First of all, one must bear in mind the nature of Islam. As we have already seen, Islam since its origin has affirmed itself as a universal message and project; namely, it has affirmed that Islam is good for all people and that the whole world is created to accept its proposal. How can the project of worldwide conversion, already announced in the Qur’an, be achieved? Historically, three tendencies have developed: the most extreme (about which we have already talked) contemplates the recourse to violence and to military action. In recent times, this method has increased in popularity.
The second trend is what we could define as “mystical-spiritual”. It has as its goal the Muslim return to the lost authenticity of Islam and the propagation of the message of the Qur’an among non-Muslim populations. Muslims depend on the thirst for sacredness that exists within many individuals in modern society, even though it is mostly disregarded by commentators. The Muslim “offering” of transcendental answers finds a fertile soil in Europe among atheists and agnostics as well as among many Christians who have been disappointed by the behavior of their church leaders, who seem less and less capable of dealing with basic human and spiritual needs. By way of this same perspective, one can readily understand the spread of Buddhism, the New Age movement, and other spiritual and religious phenomena in Western societies.
The third tendency, which we could describe as sociopolitical, intends to Islamize society as the premise for a growing political influence and for the eventual institution of Islamic governments. As we saw before, this tendency originates in Islamic countries but is also applied in many different contexts. When Muslim migration turned toward European countries, the strategists of the radical movements developed the theory of the Islamization of the Old Continent, which was expressed in books and fatawi issued on different occasions. This was part of a global plan devoted to the creation of a world dominated by Islam. This goal will ultimately be reached after many years (perhaps centuries will be needed), but it is considered an inevitable movement of history.
I offer three examples to help people understand the dynamics of the Islamization process currently afoot in the West.
Some time ago, the Lebanese Shiite sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, an authoritative Muslim representative, spoke on Beirut television during a meeting with some Christian representatives. He asserted that the European democratic system represents the best opportunity for the propagation of Islam on the Continent. He described it as the channel for the easiest spreading of the messenger’s message.
The second example comes from Abdul-Hadi Palazzi, spokesman for AMI, the Associazione Musulmani Italiani (the Italian Muslim Association), one of the Islamic organizations that sent a representative of the Islamic community, with regard to the organization’s candidacy, to the negotiations to reach an agreement with the Italian government.’ He claims that, along with the migration of Muslims from North Africa and Asia toward the end of the 1970s in Italy and Europe,
there is an international political project launched by the Muslim Brotherhood, … an extremist movement that, behind a pseudo-religious façade, hides its goal to create a controlling network capable of conditioning from inside the life of Islamic countries, exploiting religious sentiments toward a political radicalization. This organization has decided to extend its influence also to the communities of immigrants in western Europe. For this purpose, many activists are sent to Europe on scholarships to study, officially to obtain a degree, but in reality to establish the bases of the Muslim Brotherhood. For Italy the operational center is the University for Foreigners in Perugia, and in this city the Union of Muslim Students in Italy (USMI), the name under which the Muslim Brotherhood operated in the beginning, was founded.
Palazzi asserts that in the following years, with the support of enormous amounts of financial aid coming from abroad, a network of Islamic centers in different cities was created. This was the preliminary step toward what in the 1990s would become the Union of Islamic Communities and Organizations in Italy (UCOII), another association that is trying to negotiate an agreement with the Italian government.
The third example comes from Archbishop Giuseppe Bernardini of Izmir, Turkey, who on the occasion of the European synod held in Rome in October 1999 reported the declarations that an authoritative Muslim representative released during an official Islamic-Christian meeting: “Thanks to your democratic laws, we shall invade you. Thanks to our religious laws, we shall dominate you.” Bernardini himself insisted that oil revenues accrued by Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries “are not used to create new jobs in the poor countries of North Africa and the Middle East but to build mosques and cultural centers in the Christian countries with Islamic immigration, Rome included. How can we not see in all this a clear program of expansion and reconquest?”‘
68. Mosques, Islamic centers, and qur’anic schools are multiplying in Europe. So also are the loudspeakers and sound systems that call Muslims to prayer. In their neighborhoods, Muslims maintain distinct ways of dressing and say their collective prayers in the streets and public squares. What does all this very public Muslim activity symbolize? It is becoming more and more widespread throughout Europe?
All the public activity expresses a strong Muslim desire to assert the Islamic presence in the public arena, out of all private and family environments. It represents the same logic of Islamization that I have just described. I have no intention of nurturing alarmism, but based on my knowledge of the history of Islam and on my personal experiences in numerous Muslim countries, I would like to highlight some issues that may not be noticed by Westerners but are very significant.
Consider the importance given by Muslims to outward appearance: dressing in a certain way, wearing the hijab, and having a long beard are much more than fashion (as we would think in Europe) or the respect for some tradition (as it is for some African and Asian populations). These are the visible means to emphasize an identity that is at the same time religious, cultural, and social. In Muslim countries, very real political disputes between those with liberal beliefs on the one side and followers of extremist and radical currents on the other side have developed around these public image issues.
During the 1980s, the Egyptian government prohibited males from growing a beard because it was considered a typical symbol of the Muslim Brotherhood organization. During Nasser‘s presidency (1952-1970), many posters were seen on the streets of Egyptian cities with the statement “Popular clothing is better than the jallabiyya [the traditional clothing of peasants].” Nasser was clearly conscious of how important it was to suppress the garment in order to overcome the peasant mentality and encourage openness to modernity. Starting from that premise, he organized a campaign to mold public opinion and limit the influence of the radical movements, which had made the wearing of a certain type of garment the mark that expressed the claims to Muslim tradition.
The most significant and obvious of all symbolic elements is the mosque with a dome and minaret, outfitted with loudspeakers and other amplification instruments for announcing the call to prayer as extensively and pervasively as possible. It is a very simple way of pursuing the Islamization of the whole space by means of auditory and visual signs.’
Each day, collective prayers are said in the squares and on sidewalks by Muslims. There are very public manifestations of religious belief on the occasions of feasts such as Eid al-Fitr al-Fir), which marks the end of the Ramadan fasting, that visibly highlight the Muslim presence in a city. It asserts the existence of a new protagonist on the public scene with qualities of radical otherness and nonconformity. However, I notice that the common, secularized, and disenchanted Western citizen considers all this as merely folkloric color. Westerners regard it as one of the many characteristics of a multicultural society and do not grasp its highly evocative significance. When many Muslims prostrate themselves in prayer on a Friday in Duomo Square in Milan, as has happened, they symbolically take possession of the most important square of the city. I am surprised that Westerners do not appreciate the sociopolitical dimension of all this. It would be sufficient for authorities to apply the laws equally for everybody. The city streets and public square are civic places, and nobody should occupy them for religious events if they do not have special permits to hold such gatherings for a specific circumstance. This principle should be applicable to both Friday prayers for Muslims as well as for Catholic processions.
69. One of the most controversial Muslim symbols is the traditional veil (hijäb) worn by young women. It has long been a cause of controversy, especially in French schools, where many principals have prohibited it because they considered the veil a display of the Muslims’ otherness and of their refusal to integrate into French society. Can you suggest any solution to this problem?
In order to understand what is taking place, we must start from what happens in many Muslim countries, where the veil is a symbol that for a long time has been used by the radical movements to symbolize an alternative position for Muslims with respect to the secular governments. It became the instrumental means for achieving political goals in Muslim countries. It is not by chance that some governments in secularized nations like Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey have expressively forbidden wearing the veil in schools and in public offices in order to slow the escalation of radical movements. However, Europeans must recognize that many young Muslim women wear the veil as an expression of personal religious conviction, even though this is sometimes done under the influence of adults (parents or an imam).
The result of this double reality is the ambiguity of the symbol, and this explains the difficulty of managing the problem in a pluralistic context like Europe. Therefore, it is the duty of the people in charge of the environments where the problem arises to consider the concrete circumstances they face, to evaluate the real intentions of those involved, and to base their decisions on the particular girls and their families. This is an issue that can be solved through a reasonable and purposeful dialogue more than through general measures that do not take into account all the different circumstances.
70. In light of the aforesaid considerations, can we say that a sort of “long march” of Islam in European societies is developing?
From the Muslim communities, there are different signs, which show diverse approaches. There are those who plan a penetration of Europe that uses the instruments of Western democracies, such as pluralism and freedom of expression. Yet there are also those Muslims who practice their faith privately and participate in its public manifestations without the goal of a religious, social, or political expansion of Islam.
What is happening among young people is very interesting. By the second or third generation of immigrants, there are those Muslims who have developed a position that reconciles the values of the West with those of their Muslim identity. They exhibit different behaviors from those practiced in their countries of origin or by their parents (or grandparents) of the first generation. Many young Moroccans are proud of being French citizens and Muslims and are able to elaborate a personal synthesis between Islam and secular society.
In evaluating the possibility of a “silent Islamization” of Europe, one must not underestimate the fact that emigration, especially that of young Muslims, is a sort of safety valve that allows governments in the developing countries to mitigate the widespread social tensions deriving from high unemployment rates, from poverty and anxiety over lack of opportunity in the population. The immigration of hundreds of thousands of “unsatisfied” people into Europe from nations along the southern coast of the Mediterranean may reproduce the same social tensions in Europe as in their homeland. Immigrants are always the first to suffer from economic downturns and employment crises. Among the immigrating Muslims, largely due to the influence of propaganda created by the radical organizations, is the very strong conviction that a return to a rigorous practice of Islam is the only true solution to their difficulties. This makes the immigrants more susceptible to the appeals of those who cultivate the dream of the Islamization of society, even in old Europe in places where religious convictions and cultural references are less solid, for that presents territory where a smooth expansion is possible.
European countries cannot simply renounce the principles of democracy, pluralism, and freedom that characterize their juridical and legislative systems out of the fear of a cultural and religious invasion by Muslims. Freedom of worship and of social expression can be accorded to Muslims, provided that their requests made in the name of the Muslim faith are not accompanied by claims to change the rules of civil life.
However, it would be shortsighted to limit ourselves to a defensive attitude. For Europeans, both the immigration and the growth of Muslim communities represent a historical challenge. This is an event that in the Christian terms may be defined as “providential”. In fact, this new situation obliges Europeans to examine in depth what gives substance to their societies as well as the models for possible coexistence, and the rules that must govern it.
71. Approximately twelve million Muslims live in the countries of the European Union. Some of these Muslims even hold citizenship in the country where they are living. It is therefore inaccurate to identify them as immigrants or as Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians, or Turks since they are citizens. Slowly, but inexorably, the DNA of the Old Continent is transforming. Europe is fast becoming more multicultural and multireligious. What dynamics-can be expected in the further construction of modern Europe, given the presence of all these new inhabitants asking for citizenship and rights?
It is certainly correct to acknowledge the present transformations. However, it is necessary to clarify certain reference points; otherwise one risks being overcome by emotions and perhaps by the political opportunities of the present moment.
First, let us not forget the simple fact that the twelve million Muslims represent only 3 percent of the total resident European population and that the Muslims who hold citizenship in their countries of residence are still a minority in the total population of those nations. But they are a very visible minority. This fact is often amplified and emphasized by the mass media. In Italy, for instance, Italian citizens of Muslim faith number in the thousands but represent less than 0.1 percent of the total Italian population.
We must ask who comprises the majority population in any nation, and what holds that majority together? Only then can we know on what foundation the new Europe is being constructed.
Although it may not be considered politically correct, history teaches us that the roots of the European civilization are almost exclusively Christian. It is Christianity itself that in the course of the centuries was able to combine with other cultural and religious traditions to give life to a pluralistic civilization. So, despite its pluralistic nature, Europe is not some indefinite entity. Europe has a Christian foundation and core values.
This means that when one talks about a multi-religious Europe, one cannot think of making a clean sweep of centuries of history. The new cultural and religious groups that arrive on the Continent must harmonize themselves in the house already established. They must enter the common house that is being renovated and not demand to have a separate one built expressly for them. The thesis expounded by some Muslim representatives (for example, Tariq Ramadan, the nephew of Hassan al-Banna, who was founder of the Muslim Brotherhood) is that Europe is multireligious and that Christians must be aware that they are no longer the majority. I think that this point of view is doubly wrong, first at the statistical level and then at the cultural one. Any agnostic Italian is as culturally Christian as I, an Arab Christian, am culturally Muslim. In other words, even if Italians in general are no longer practicing Christians, the majority will declare or perceive themselves as being Christian in faith.
72. During the difficult construction of the European Union, all discussion of the economic-financial and political-institutional aspects has generally ignored any considerations of topics connected with ‘foundations”. In the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, approved in Nice, France, in December 2000, all references to the religious roots of the Continent were discarded and a more generic formulation was chosen, which was limited to remembering the “spiritual and moral heritage” of the European peoples. Now that the representatives of the different countries of the [European] Convention are dealing with the drafting of the first European constitution, the basic questions concerning Europe‘s historical foundations are emerging again, but the Christian tradition seems doomed to play the role of Cinderella by being there but ignored and forgotten.
I have the impression that for the sake of pursuing modernity, Europeans are at risk of losing their historical memory For those who study history with intellectual honesty, as well as those observers of individual and collective behaviors, it is clear that the values and ideals that characterize the European continent are nearly impossible to explain without reconnecting them to the Christian tradition, which, assimilated with the Greco-Roman and the Jewish traditions, constitutes Europe’s foundation. When I, a Christian Arab permeated with Muslim culture, discovered the Europe of the 1950s and particularly the Italy of the 1970s, I realized how incomprehensible this civilization was without reference to the Christian tradition. And the changes that occurred later in the habits of these countries did not cancel this footprint, which is rooted in centuries of history.
Even the values that for a long time were contrasted with that tradition, such as tolerance and freedom of thought—that is, the rights proclaimed in the secular institutions of the West—are not fully comprehensible without referring to their Judeo-Christian origins. And, despite the efforts of some secular thinkers who claim the exclusive paternity of freedom and maintain that there is absolute disparity between personal freedom and religious thought, the contribution of Christianity remains a decisive factor.
It is not by accident that the secular idea for the separation of church and state, the separation of faith and politics, developed in the West and seems inconceivable in the Muslim world. It is no accident that the clearest formulation of human rights was born in the West and now encounters difficulties in expanding into the Muslim world. The fundamental reason for all this is the Christian inspiration of Western civilization that, over the centuries, was capable of integrating also the secular values of Hellenism and of other cultures.
In secular France, when one speaks of Muslims, they are considered a radically different component of society apart from the Christian culture on which the nation was founded. Formally, and in the name of secularism, the sociocultural dimension of Christianity is denied by the French; however, when dealing with Muslims, they cannot avoid considering them the “others”. But “other” as compared to what, if not to what historically constitutes the foundation of that trans-alpine nation that has such strong roots in Christianity?
The risk that I see is that the European Union will give itself a constitution without a soul. Hence it will be a building with fragile foundations, a giant with feet of clay.
B. The Role of Converts
73. Inside the Muslim community in Europe, there is a numerically insignificant minority who enjoy a certain visibility, especially in the mass media. These are the European converts to Islam.What in your opinion are the reasons that lead a European to approach the Qur’an?
Each conversion belongs to the mystery of each person’s freedom, and any attempt to explain it is approximate. However, one can make some general observations.
In Europe, there exists a widespread interest in strong existential positions that are more appealing than living a watered-down version of Christianity. For many people in search of meaning in life, Christianity seems made up of halfway compromises, doubts, and fears, too many “perhaps” and “I do not knows” than convictions and certainties. Islam conveys security, a sense of belonging, and proposes a series of laws that regulate the whole of a believer’s life. Muslims know in what way one must pray, behave, and eat. There are those who can be easily attracted by a life regulated according to precise rules. Such a life seems a reassuring refuge from the widespread relativism of European culture.
One particular category of converts is those who approach Islam for reasons of marriage. A Muslim woman cannot marry a man of another faith. From the Muslim religious point of view, prior conversion of the future husband, which must be certified by an Islamic authority, is necessary for the marriage to be valid. There are also some women who convert to Islam before, or after, marrying a Muslim male.
Other people are charmed by Islam during a journey abroad, by spiritual readings, or by developing a friendship with some Muslim immigrant living in Europe. Some individuals decide to convert because they are disenchanted with politics; many of these are former militants, who often have years of experience in groups of the extreme left or right and who revise their civil involvement in the light of the cultural categories of Islam. They identify with Islam as an alternative system in which their motivations to assist oppressed people in their struggle against neocolonialism, to resist consumerism and Western values, and to resist what is considered the Western religion par excellence, Christianity, are sublimated.
Apart from the conversions to Islam connected to the so-called marriage obligations, the most powerful impulse for conversion is substantially the strong mystical and spiritual dimension of man, which leads to the search for the sacred. This is a very widespread phenomenon now in European societies. Islam has the appeal of a religion with a strong all-absorbing drive that displays itself on the public scene with no inferiority complex and claims a way of life that requires social visibility.
The convert’s imagination tends to make an association between the West and its weakened culture and Islam with its strong culture. In an increasingly secular society, people are fascinated by the claim that the religious element is an integral part of the individual and the community, by the call of a religion that does not pursue people by supporting and justifying their weaknesses. Rather, by presenting itself as a global and pervasive alternative, Islam depicts itself and is perceived as an integrated and compelling way of life. It is like a dish with strong flavors when compared to the “tasteless soups” normally served on Western tables. Ultimately, it is seen by the convert as a convincing answer to a search for meaning that was left unanswered by watered-down Christianity.
Finally, we must not forget that the very possibility of adhering to a different religion and of professing it in public is granted by the free environment that developed in Europe, thanks to the Christian vision of the human being and of society. A similar situation is practically impossible to achieve or at least very difficult to find in Islamic countries because of the general intolerance of Muslims toward others.
74. Can the European convert act as a bridge between Muslim immigrants and the countries that receive them?
I am skeptical about this hypothesis, although it is fascinating for the possibilities it offers. As a matter of fact, the converts enjoy many advantages. They speak the language of the country in which they live, and they know the traditions, habits, and mentality of the population. However, over the years, having known many such converts, I have found that, generally (apart from some significant exceptions), they have a limited knowledge of Islam and of its traditions, or they have an idea of Islam that does not correspond much to reality.
Moreover, based on my personal experiences in several countries, I must say that, unfortunately, many of the converts do not stand out for their commitment toward a real integration of Muslims with Westerners. On the contrary, they tend to underline the irreconcilable differences between Islam and the host country. This position, perhaps, is influenced by the fact that their encounter with Islam arrived after an intellectual or spiritual quest marked by personal rejection of Western values.
Many converts assume radical positions (and this happens in all religions), perhaps to justify to themselves their change of direction. Strong equilibrium is needed for one successfully to change his lifestyle and religious belief. A convert needs to be balanced in order to integrate both the person he was and the person he has become. Certainly the majority of Muslim immigrants have as their primary goal a decent life for themselves and their families, and they have neither time nor the inclination to deal with politics. Converts, however, often make the sociopolitical arena their battle horse and will fight in order to obtain a particular statute or some exceptions to general rules and in the process become the spokespersons of the whole community. Some converts, by their manner of dress or the behavior they adopt, stand out as having an “exotic” attitude that emphasizes their difference from mainstream society, while immigrants, in general, tend to maintain a low profile or in any case do not dress and act in such a way as to be readily identified as Muslims. In short, converts often seem to strive to be more Muslim than the Muslims.
75. Do you think that young people, the second- and third-generation descendants of immigrants, are the protagonists of a desirable process of integration of Islam in the European societies?
Every instance of immigration is an occasion to meet diversity, and it therefore offers opportunities for exchange, for reciprocal enrichment, resulting in changes that can be set in motion especially by those who arrive but also by the societies who receive them.
If one takes a superficial look, one would agree that those who were born in a foreign land, or those who spent their childhood and adolescence there during the time their personality was being formed, have the instruments to understand better the mechanisms and values that regulate coexistence. They can appreciate their adopted country’s advantages as compared to those available in their ancestral homeland. Quite often the young people become the spokespersons for a less conflicted relationship than what characterized the first-generation immigrants.
Young people everywhere have a strong desire for identification with friends of the same age. They are prompted to assimilate and acquire the attitudes, trends, and values of their friends to avoid feeling excluded. They want to become “one of them”. If there is a conflict between the values of tradition and the values encountered in school or in the group of friends, it is very likely that the latter will prevail over the former. This is especially evident among Muslim girls, for whom contrasts are more evident and stronger.
All of this alters the way in which one perceives and expresses one’s own cultural and religious identity. Some conflicts may also arise in the immigrant family that normally tends to remain tied to traditional values. Such generational conflicts have become the object of books, films, theater plays, and songs. All this has convinced some analysts to infer that the young Muslims represent the new frontier of a gradual movement toward a European Islam that is more open to the values of secularism and modernity.
However, a careful analysis of the current situation allows us to see a very different process. I am referring, for instance, to what happens in some Parisian banlieues or in the Arab-Muslim neighborhoods of other large European cities. There the young immigrants are the protagonists of what is called “the return to Islam”, that is, an appropriation, assimilation, and application of their own religiously rooted radical and anti-Western positions against any form of integration into European society. It is based on strict discipline and intransigence. It interprets religious belonging as a conflict. They aim for Muslim superimposition on the society in which they live more than toward any integration with it.
And in these matters, it is often the children who accuse their parents of betraying their original Muslim heritage and of having moved away from true Islam. This conflict within the Muslim community is sometimes fueled by the radical organizations that try to push young people toward positions that are far from integration and toward everything that tends to be in opposition to the West.
76. What elements do you think might encourage a process of integration of Islam into Europe?
I believe that coexistence within a society must be based on fundamental principles such as the respect of human rights, the equality between men and women, democracy and pluralism, religious freedom, and separation between religion and state. In the long run, these may positively influence the Islamic communities. However, this is not an automatic process, and to promote it, some conditions are required.
1. The government authorities must support the aforementioned principles, which allowed Europe to become a lighthouse of civilization and a land of welcome and freedom. Also, governments must be willing to accept that form of Islam that is not at odds with the juridical and legislative organization of Western countries and their integrated practice in other countries. A very significant discussion of this matter recently took place in Great Britain. The British home secretary proposed a campaign to encourage integration among the different foreign communities. Immigrants were encouraged to adopt British rules of behavior. The secretary stated, “We cannot tolerate the intolerable just because it is masked as a cultural difference.” He warned against the potential explosion of conflicts that British society already knew from its long experience as a land of immigration. The conflicts usually grow out of the fact that some foreign community representatives insist on declaring themselves British and simultaneously claim the right to retain habits and practices connected to their traditional cultures.’
Significant as well is the German controversy over the so-called Leitkultur, the reference culture, for all those who live in Germany. It is interesting to notice that the word Leitkultur was coined by Bassam Tibi, a German political scientist of Syrian origin and of Muslim faith who declares himself “in favor of cultural diversity but firmly against multiculturalism”. He opposed the attempts of the radical Muslim organizations that, “in the name of the rights of the community and of the right to the preservation of the cultural identity, demand that shari’a be applied to Muslim immigrants in Germany.” As a liberal Muslim, he opposed this position because “shari’a would collide with the secularism prevailing in Europe and would be against the European constitutions.
2. It is necessary for the desire of Muslim immigrants to become full citizens of the societies that receive them to grow, without any ambiguity or nostalgia for the past. There can be no pretense that only the introductionof Muslim juridical models, in force in their countries of origin, can allow the full expression of the immigrants’ religious faith. On the contrary, religious freedom for all people is already granted by the constitutions of the European countries.
3. Lastly, at an elementary level, in daily life, the process of school integration can play a fundamental role in the dynamics of cultural integration, leading to the insertion of Muslim women into the working world. This can augment the process of female emancipation from a situation of inferiority and submission. Day-to-day relations with neighbors, coexistence in the workplace, and whatever encourages reciprocal knowledge and dialogue rather than what emphasizes differences is fundamental for the promotion of integration and communal solidarity. The authorities must make the effort to establish clear rules to govern coexistence and allow no margin of ambiguity for those who, in the name of “respect for differences”, want to build Muslim ghettos within European societies.
C. Minarets in Italy: Requests for Recognition
77. The number of resident Muslims in Italy is estimated at around seven hundred thousand people. This population will probably increase because of new arrivals seeking jobs and family reunification and because of the high Muslim birthrate, which is much higher than the Italian average. We are faced with the second-largest religious community in Italy demanding the acknowledgment of its prerogatives from the civil authorities. What would you recommend be done about the situation?
The phrase “the second-largest religion professed in Italy” might lead a person to think in terms of millions of people. The reality is a community of seven hundred thousand persons, which is 1.2 percent of those who live in Italy.
Defining Italy as a “multireligious” country is ambiguous: the presence of practitioners of faiths apart from Christianity (in its different confessions), such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, does not mean that in the Italian society all faiths have the same weight. Christianity, in Italy, cannot be downgraded to one minor reality among the others, forgetting the contribution that it gave to the creation of Western civilization. This is obvious. The rhetoric of “multi-” (as in “multicultural” or “multireligious”) tends to level everything within it to an undifferentiated, unqualified, and anonymous equality. I am aware that what I am saying is not politically correct, but it is certainly closer to the reality and the history of Italy than certain sociological analyses, which in the name of tolerance and a misunderstood solidarity distort the perspective and lead to wrong conclusions about the juridical and cultural profile.
78. Article 8 of the Italian Constitution establishes that the state can enter into agreements with representatives of various religious confessions. For a long time, Islamic organizations have been demanding the opening of negotiations with government officials in order to obtain certain rights. Do you think that these agreements can work?
The first consideration is a question of method: Who has the right to represent Muslims in Italy? This is a very difficult problem because Islam does not acknowledge any one authority from the juridical point of view. The organizations working in Italy are divided, and each claims the right of representing the needs of the Muslims. Presently, four different Muslim organizations are vying to negotiate an agreement.
The main problem is that, in Italy, Islam is still in an early stage of settlement and community organization that has not developed any popular leadership yet. Therefore, it does not seem wise to me to insist on beginning official negotiations with organizations whose real representative role is uncertain and is sometimes the object of disapproval and criticism. It would perhaps be better to deal unilaterally with the most urgent requests and wait for the emergence of representative leaders of the entire Muslim community before initiating discussions. Any agreement between the Italian state and a religious confession is something very binding for both parties, and it risks becoming more of an obstacle than a help to solve specific problems. Many problems could be faced in a pragmatic way by simply turning to already-existing laws and local agreements that demand neither the intervention of the state nor that of religious representatives.
79. Different Muslim organizations have proposed land grants and public financing for the construction of worship places and mosques; the establishment of autonomous areas for burial inside already-existing cemeteries or for independent Islamic cemeteries; permission to butcher halal meat according to qur’anic prescriptions; Islamic-compatible menus in schools and workplaces; the teaching of the Muslim religion in the schools; the hiring of Muslim religious staff in hospitals, prisons, and military barracks; excused absences from work or school on the main Muslim holidays and suspension of work for ritual prayer; and civil acknowledgment of marriages celebrated according to the Islamic rite. How should these requests be treated?
Each request should be dealt with in accord with its compatibility with the Italian juridical system. Key principles, such as the secular state and the distinction between temporal and spiritual order, equality between men and women, and freedom of conscience, must be maintained. These principles are very important preliminary specifications for avoiding an ambiguous approach made in the name of an equally ambiguous multicultural perspective, according to which every social or religious group can claim rights in the name of the defense of minorities and of the respect for different identities.
Some requests made by the Islamic organizations can be accommodated on the basis of the regulations already existing in Italy. The ritual butchering of animals according to Islamic custom prescribes throat slitting to allow the outflow of blood from the flesh. This is already practiced by butchers in some Italian cities because of hygienic regulations and sanitary laws. Because of the requests made by numerically large groups of Muslim students, the cafeterias of some schools offer menu items compatible with their dietary laws.
The legality of Muslim women having their identity-document photographs taken while wearing the traditional Islamic foulard is acknowledged by a circular letter of the Ministry of the Interior, and it is already a standard procedure. The only government condition on the practice is that the features of the face are easily and clearly recognizable. Personally, I have some reservations about this practice. Until the 1970s, in the majority of Islamic countries, women appeared bareheaded in their identity photographs. It is the Islamist radical tendency of the last three decades that imposed the foulard requirement. If the government continues to surrender to such demands, it risks strengthening the radicals, who claim to be the only authentic Muslims.
The religious assistance provided by Muslim chaplains in prisons, barracks, or hospitals meets the understandable spiritual needs of the Muslims and can be managed without difficulties, provided that the criteria of selection and authorization of the religious staff are clearly defined and that its activity does not exceed the spiritual field.
I am puzzled, however, by the request for separate Islamic cemeteries. If the final goal is complete social integration, and if we are trying to learn the difficult task of living together, why seek separation when life is over? Would not it be a prophetical sign to pray together side by side in a cemetery that welcomes all the dead and where everyone is honored according to his religious tradition?
My responses are not offered from a strictly juridical point of view but are ideas intended to help build up a society of coexistence between different groups instead of a society where every group lives on its own isolated island.
80. Among the requests advanced by the Islamic organizations is that Friday, the Muslim day of weekly rest, be observed. On Friday, Muslim students would be allowed an absence from school in order to participate in common prayer. There is a similar request that Islamic holidays be observed. How should the authorities proceed in these matters?
Although it seems paradoxical, in the Islamic tradition the weekly day of rest has no specific religious significance. The belief that God rested on the seventh day of creation, which is the origin of the concept of a weekly day of rest, comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is considered by Muslims an anthropomorphism to be condemned. God never rests, and the Qur’an does not prescribe rest on Friday. The day of rest in Islamic countries resulted not from religious precepts but from the need to adapt to international work standards, namely to provide for at least one day of rest during the week. The only religious obligation for Friday is for attendance and participation at the public prayer that is held at midday. The service lasts half an hour and normally takes place during lunchtime and is therefore compatible with normal working activities.
As far as the request for the Friday day of rest is concerned, I must mention some recent research conducted by the Fondazione Agnelli in Turin, which verified that in the nations of origin of the majority of Muslims living in Italy, Friday is not the weekly day of rest. Albania, Senegal, Tunisia, and Turkey observe Sunday, while Morocco allows freedom of choice among Friday, Saturday, Sunday, or the market day.
Since the weekly day of rest on Friday has no foundation Islamic doctrine or is practiced in the countries from which the majority of Muslims living in Italy come, there no reason for Italy to adjust its calendar to accommodate is request.
81. What do you think of the request for interrupting work order to perform ritual prayer?
The Islamic tradition allows the grouping of the five prayers any time of the day, especially the first with the second le (which can be done at home, before going to work), d the fourth with the fifth one (which can be done after turning home after work), while during lunchtime it is ossible to recite the third one. This is how the majority of uslims pray each day.
In fact, the Fondazione Agnelli researchers found that Muslim country, except Saudi Arabia, had legislated on is topic. Almost everywhere, the times for prayer are left the free initiative of individuals and most often are Duped together so that they can be performed outside of ork time. In Italy, some places allow Muslim workers to )p work briefly for their ritual prayer. Such allowances ve been granted in the Ragusa province, where non-European immigrants are in some cases 30 percent of the rkforce. In other provinces, some employers offer small ildings for Muslim prayer. I think that where there is a meaningful presence of Muslims and a sincere request by Muslim workers, agreements of this kind can work, even in the company’s labor negotiations, without appealing to legislative bodies and involving religious authorities. In any case, such permission should be periodically reviewed on the basis of real needs.
Specific agreements between workers and employers regarding work schedule flexibility could be established. This is a topic that needs to be dealt with in a nonconfessional way, in order to help avoid conflicts based on religious principles. It seems better for business owners and workers to look for secular, realistic, and pragmatic solutions that have the purpose of achieving the maximum possible integration.
82. What is your response to Muslim requests for the teaching of the Islamic religion in schools?
It will be necessary to rely on the Italian legal system in order to reach an agreement. The teaching of Islam in the schools requires a series of preliminary steps associated with program content, textbooks, and choice of teachers, which must, in all cases, be under government control and supervision.
Common sense suggests that a minimum number of students be present in a school before organizing a class. Teaching should start only when an explicit request has been made by interested students and their families. It is obvious that the lessons should be given in the Italian language to encourage teacher accountability as well as the process of student integration into the social fabric of the nation. Any requests for teaching classes in Arabic (because it is the language of the Qur’an and the qur’anic schools) should be denied.
When Germany permitted the teaching of Islam in its schools, it raised serious problems. In some cases, the appointment of religious teachers was delegated to the government of Turkey because of the preponderance of Turkish students in some schools. This practice implied foreign interference and discrimination against young Muslims of other nationalities in the schools. There also arose the fear that the schools were being infiltrated by teachers connected with the most radical organizations that transform religion lessons into anti-Western exercises.
83. Another very controversial request is for civil acknowledgment of the shari’a marriage, which is celebrated according to the Islamic rite. In your opinion, how should this matter be handled?
Here we are not facing a question of religious ritual but a substantial civil problem. The Islamic tradition rests on some principles that are in contradiction with the Italian constitution. Islam allows polygamy, with the possibility for Muslim males to contract simultaneously up to four marriages. Problems such as issues of divorce, child custody, inheritance, and the religion of the children also arise. All of these are incompatible with Italian law.
In Islam, the religious and the civil domains are not easily separated. The risk is that of multiplying anomalous situations, which already exist, whereby a Muslim man, already married to a woman from a civil point of view, enters a shari’atic marriage with another woman. Although shariatic marriages have no juridical value in Italy, they contribute to the creation of ambiguous situations that can be the sources of abuse and injustice.
According to the rules of international private law, as followed in Italy, the personal and proprietary relations between spouses are regulated by the national law of their native country, and this principle also applies to the relations between parents and children. Therefore, the foreign-born Muslims living in Italian territory are subject to the Islamic law by which they were married in their respective countries of origin.
Here arises an important question, which I think will recur even more frequently with increasing immigration from Islamic countries: Is it appropriate for an Italian judge to apply, always and in every case, the laws that derive from shari’a, even when they clearly establish the supremacy of man over woman and put clear limitations on the rights of women? Ought not the shari’a be rejected when it conflicts with the principle of equality between the sexes and therefore is contrary to public order?
It seems wise that even in family matters, we should not encourage the creation of a sort of parallel “community law” in accord with the religious confession of various citizen groups.
85. Taking into account the specific requests that we have examined so far, what is the general rule that should be applied?
It is absolutely necessary to promote the maximum possible integration of Muslim immigrants into Italian society. Freedom of religious expression must be granted; it is already guaranteed by the Italian Constitution. Italy, however, must avoid imposing special laws and regulations to control Muslims, as often happens to non-Muslims in Islamic countries where the sole reference point is Islam.
Secularism is an achievement that modern society and the nation-state cannot lose. Secularism may represent an opportunity to encourage a process of modernization in the Muslim world that is slowly taking place in the immigrants’ nations of origin.
D. The Mosque: A Muslim Church?
85. The topic of the mosque in Italy periodically inflames discussions and sparks controversies. Italian public opinion commonly holds that the mosque is the Muslim place of worship, and therefore the criteria for the concession of pieces of land or buildings must be similar to those followed for churches. Many people believe that the mosque is simply a “Muslim church”. What does the mosque actually represent for a Muslim?
The statement that “the mosque is a Muslim church” is erroneous. The mosque represents something absolutely and radically different. To understand its meaning and function, one must start, not from the Christian tradition or even from a Western mentality, but from Islam’s nature and history.
In the Arabic tradition, there exist two terms to define the mosque: masjid (passed into Spanish through the word mezquita and from there to the different European languages) and jami-. This latter word is the more widespread in the Arab-Islamic world. The first word derives from the root s-j-d, which means “to prostrate oneself”, while the second word derives from the root j-m-‘, which means “to gather”. The mosque is the place where the community gathers for prayer but also to face whatever is before it, including social, cultural, and political issues. All the decisions of the community are made in the mosque; trying to limit it to a place for prayer represents a complete misunderstanding of Muslim tradition.
Friday (yawm al-jumu’a) is the day when the community gathers at midday for public prayer, which is followed by the khutba, that is, the speech. The khutba cannot be likened to the homily pronounced by the Catholic priest during the Mass, for the khutba deals with the most relevant issues of the moment, going beyond the spiritual aspects. In many Muslim countries, such as Egypt (the most populated Arab country), the mosques are monitored by the police on Friday. There is a simple reason for this: many political decisions start from the mosque, during the Friday khutba. Historians of Islam know that many riots and revolutions were launched from the mosques and that jihad is often proclaimed during the khutba. For this reason, many Muslim countries require that the text of the speech must be previously submitted to the civil authorities for approval.
87. Do you think it is incorrect to consider the mosque as a place of worship?
The prevailing view among Muslims must be taken into account. Considering the mosque to be only a place of worship is wrong and restrictive; it is also misleading to talk of the construction of mosques in the name of religious freedom because they are not just religious buildings but are community places that also have a cultural, social, and political function.
One cannot forget that the place consecrated to the prayer on Friday is considered a holy space of Islam and that it is forever the privilege of the community to decide who has permission to be admitted and who would profane it.
In Muslim towns, there are often some small rooms, called musalla, that are places for prayer (salat). These are “chapels” of a sort that can contain a few dozen faithful and are often located on the ground floor of a house, instead of a flat. These places are more discreet than a mosque and are almost always used solely for the noontime prayer of people who arrive from the street or from nearby houses.
Mosques normally have a minaret tower (manara), where the muezzin (mu’adhdhin) calls people to prayer (adhan). These minarets have a practical function and are slightly higher than the surrounding houses. Historically, they have the symbolic value of signifying the Muslim presence: the minaret suggests the superiority of Islam over other religions. But the minarets’ most essential purpose is allowing the voice of the muezzin to reach those who live in the neighborhood. As of the twentieth century, megaphones or loudspeakers have begun to be installed on the minarets (especially if there is a church or a Christian neighborhood nearby), and the muezzin have added other sentences to the call to prayer, prolonging it. These innovations are contrary to the Muslim tradition, and the most orthodox Islamic countries (e.g., Saudi Arabia) condemn them even though the condemnation does not change well-established habits. In other countries (e.g., Egypt), the use of loudspeakers is exclusively limited to the call to prayer (which lasts about two minutes), but the use of a loudspeaker is forbidden for the call at dawn, a prohibition that is often not observed. The use of recordings for the call to prayer, which is frequent in Europe, is considered contrary to tradition in most Muslim countries.
Apart from all the Muslim historical and “liturgical” considerations about which I have just expounded, it is also good to ask who finances the construction and the maintenance of the mosques. This inquiry is not intended to intrude into somebody else’s affairs but is motivated by the principle that states that “those who pay, rule.” It is not a secret that the majority of mosques and Islamic centers in Europe are financed by foreign governments, particularly by Saudi Arabia, which also imposes a trustworthy imam. It is a well-known fact that in the Sunni Islamic world, Saudi Arabia represents the most rigid tendency, called Wahhabi. I do not think these A’Fma will help the immigrants either to integrate into Western society or to assimilate modernity, which are necessary preconditions for peaceful coexistence with the native populations.
88. What should we do, then? How should we respond to the increasing number of Muslim requests for plots of land on which to build mosques?
Provided that the legal rules and traditions of the Western societies are respected, “allow Muslims to pray” is the obvious answer. Streets, sidewalks, or squares should not be taken over for prayer, which unfortunately happens in some Muslim countries. This practice is fast becoming widespread in Italy too and is often justified by the fact that there is insufficient room in the mosques for all who are seeking to pray. The non-Muslim residents of a neighborhood ought not to be disturbed at five in the morning or at ten in the evening by the call to prayer through a loudspeaker. Moreover, we must remember that, according to Islamic precepts, one can pray anywhere: at home, in the streets, at work, in the fields. In fact, even for common prayers, it is not necessary to go to the mosque because “the entire world is the big mosque”, as Muhammad states in a hadith.
In Italy, where Muslim communities are scattered in small towns as well, the best solution seems to be that of musalla: “chapels” where the faithful can comfortably meet to pray. Musalla would also be less expensive to construct as compared to large mosque buildings, which need financing from foreign governments or from international Islamic organizations. The only risk with this approach of small prayer centers is that it will be more difficult for the authorities to control the teachings given in them.
Finally, I would like to stress again the fact that the mosque cannot simply be categorized as a place of worship because in the Islamic conception, it is a meeting center with cultural, social, and political aspects. Governments have the duty and the right to monitor carefully the activities that are going on in the rooms that are designated generically as mosques: authorities need to know who are the persons in charge and ask who manages, who controls, and who finances the mosque. Here I am speaking about going beyond the legally required guarantees that must be given to the city, to its inhabitants, and also to those who will attend that place of worship. It is a good antidote to those people who tend to identify any place meant for Muslim prayer as a potential terrorist base or, in any case, as a place to be treated with suspicion more than with due respect.
E. Models of Integration
89. Almost all the industrialized countries of Europe have in recent years been receiving large numbers of immigrants from the Third World. What do you think about the models that have so far been adopted in the West for integrating foreigners into national society?
Three models have been adopted up to this time.
Assimilation. According to this scheme, the foreigner must conform not only to the laws and to the language of the host country but also to its culture and behavior. The immigrant must renounce all of his peculiarities. Basically, it is the French prescription, proposed in the name of the secular society that makes everybody theoretically equal before the state. This proposition has many limits because it implies and requires a complete identification of citizens with the state. This is in fact impossible to realize or to manage in reality.
The melting pot. This is the American model, in which immigrants blend with the local population, maintaining some prerogatives of their culture. This model has the quality of strengthening the newly arrived minorities’ sense of belonging to the greatest nation in the world, giving them a legitimate pride in the flag and the national anthem and participation in the collective achievements of the country.
However, the melting pot is manifesting its limits right now because of the new migratory waves and the different rates of demographic growth among the various ethnic communities. This is creating a problem with the commonly shared values of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) culture that formed the core of American society. Those that were once minority groups are fast ascending to be majorities and are claiming their rights and power. This phenomenon is upsetting the traditional well-established social balance.
The multicultural society. Great attention is paid in Europe to the third model, multiculturalism, which is based on the principles that all cultures have equal dignity and can easily coexist and that the plurality of expressions is a sign of the richness and a guarantee of improvement of society.
This position can be summarized with a slogan: “Different is beautiful.” It originates from cultural relativism, which generates juridical relativism, which is the attempt to give legitimacy to the diversities that characterize the minorities recently arrived in Europe. Everything seems to work well as long as we remain on the theoretical plane. However, if we think of the logical and practical consequences of the multicultural position, many incongruities arise.
If I say to an Egyptian immigrant, Your culture is very beautiful, you have a background of centuries of civilization, preserve your Egyptian identity and do not worry about integrating because the Italians will be enriched by your diversity, it is logical that the Egyptian immigrant will do his best to congregate with his fellow countrymen, talk to them in his native language, and in general attempt to live as if he were still in Egypt. All immigrant groups across the globe attempt to recreate a microcosm of their native country in their neighborhoods or ghettos. For the young, the problem is the tension that develops between the native culture—maintained in the family home and neighborhood—and the host country culture, with which young people tend to identify. At school, they learn to become Italians, but at home they speak, eat, and live as if they were back in Cairo. This creates a destabilizing situation for social coexistence. It risks increasing conflicts and making the negotiation of differences even more difficult. I am convinced that the multicultural model resembles more a dangerous utopia than an ideal to be pursued.
90. What do you mean by the phrase “a multicultural utopia”? From what does the idea derive?
At its origin, there is a series of concomitant factors often connected by cause-and-effect relationships. There is the very human desire that aspires to the new, to the novel and fresh, which is indicative of a thirst for knowledge of reality in all of its multiplicity. Unfortunately, this can easily degenerate into cheap exoticism, into the admiration of everything that is different and new. This tendency is growing increasingly pronounced in the West.
There also exists a relativistic attitude that derives from the crisis of the ideological and religious uncertainties characterizing the contemporary age and leading to a tendency to blame whatever is “traditional”.
Finally, there is a guilt complex (which I prefer to call “mea-culpism”) that is very widespread in the West regarding the colonial experiences of the Third World nations. This complex goes so far as to justify the acceptance of any cultural “import” in the name of relativism or simply because “in their country this is the way they behave.” Promoters of this position claim that extra-European cultures, which were subjugated in the past, must not be discriminated against today. Neither should Europeans oppose those people who want to transplant their cultures to the West today.
These are some of the premises of multiculturalism, and the results are evident for the entire world to see. In particular, these premises penalize the Christian host culture. In the name of respect for religious differences and of the defense of minorities, Christians are required to take the crucifix off hospital walls, to give up building the manger in classrooms at Christmastime, and to choose nonreligious poems or songs for the school Christmas pageant performance. In addition to this discrimination against a great majority of the students, in the name of multiculturalism Muslims and those students of other faiths are also prevented from knowing fundamental elements of Western history and civilization that are more cultural in nature than confessional. These forms of self-censorship are harmful and nourish conflicts instead of controlling them and indicate very real identity problems in those who promote them.
91. What is the most adequate model for realizing an authentic integration of immigrants into Italy?
Only when an initial “solid core” (a reference background at the anthropological level) is attained can foreign communities amalgamate, that is to say, integrate with the founding elements. With a strong core, we can prevent civil coexistence from wildly evolving according to an undifferentiated egalitarianism or according to the soulless relativism advanced by the supporters of the multicultural society.
If I had to give a name to this model of coexistence, I would call it the “model of the enriched identity”. It derives from the awareness that in each individual there is a cultural and anthropological element that grew over centuries and that produces a certain way of considering the human being and of organizing coexistence, work, play, and worship. It is a background identity that we cannot forget or abandon if we want to plan and attain a new form of society. This identity is not something fixed and immutable in time but is a developing reality that, while preserving its constitutive characteristics, is capable of integrating elements from other cultures that are compatible with it and of receiving and amalgamating the new elements that it encounters along the way and being enriched by them. It takes a long time to realize an authentic integration.
Clear acceptance of the rules by those who arrive from abroad is certainly necessary. If the host society does not have a clear idea of its own identity, it will not be able to integrate others into itself easily. In fact, it will become overly anxious with the new and see in it a threat to its safety.
Xenophobia originates from the fear that what is “different” puts at risk an already-fragile coexistence simply because the “other” is not founded on sound values and certainties. Xenophobia operates on emotion in a vacuum of values and is a real indicator of the fragility, weakness, and insecurity of the host culture. For this reason, the migratory waves and the growth of the Islamic communities represent a true and difficult challenge not only for Italian society but for all of Europe, which is obliged to wonder about its cultural-historical makeup and the ideals and values that define it as a group, as a nation, and as a unique part of the human community.