Turin leads the way for integrating Islam in Italy

TURIN — Islam is the second-largest faith in Italy, after Catholicism. Yet it is not among the current list of 11 religions that are officially recognized by the state.

The debate about how to incorporate Islam into Italy’s religious landscape has been going on for decades, but it has become even more heated in recent years as an ever-increasing number of Muslim refugees from the Middle East and Africa have been arriving on Italy’s shores. But a ground-breaking agreement in the northern Italian city of Turin between the government and its growing Muslim population might point the way for the rest of the nation.

On February 9 of this year, representatives from over 20 Islamic organizations in Turin and the city’s government officials signed the “Patto di Condivisione,” or “Pact of Sharing.” The document, which establishes an institutional relationship with the estimated 35,000 Muslims now living in Turin, “comes from a collaboration that has lasted years between the administration [in Turin] and the Muslims and Islamic centers, and makes formal that collaboration,” says Brahim Baya, spokesman of the Islamic Association of the Alps and one of the Muslim leaders who signed the document.

This collaboration consists of various laws Turin has passed in the past few decades establishing greater integration and protection of practicing Muslims – greater, most leaders and officials say, than what is present at the national level. The pact’s primary purpose is to affirm these efforts, and promote future acts toward integration and equality. To this end, the agreement establishes a message board and newsletter in which young Muslim Italians will write articles and share interviews with those inside and outside of the mosque. The pact also promotes an initiative “Open Mosques, Space for All,” which encourages non-Muslim Italians to visit mosques and learn more about Islam.

Turin’s Deputy Mayor Ilda Curti, who was instrumental in the creation and signing of the pact, says that the agreement serves two purposes: (1) to fight Islamophobia against Muslim Italians and (2) to work against the kind of radicalism that has produced acts of terror like those seen in Paris, Tunis, Brussels, and other cities around the globe in the past 12 months.

“I think that the institution has an important role, to give positive messages and to say we are a community, we are all together, we respect each other, and if there are some risks of radicalism, we are all together engaged to reject it,” Curti says.

Muslim leaders say even before the recent pact, Turin has been leading the way for how Islam is legislatively protected in Italy.

“Turin is better in this sense,” says Dr. Younis Tawfika, a prominent Muslim leader and writer in Turin. “That our deputy mayor, Ilda Curti, got together all of the mosques around a table, and signed the document, is very important. This Turinese experience is the first of its kind, very beautiful, very important, and it should be repeated.”

“It’s true that Turin is better than other cities in Italy. In Turin we do things that in other places they don’t do,” agrees Baya, who helped found Moschea Taiba, one of the most-frequented Muslim prayer rooms in the Piedmont region, in 2006. These “concrete but important things,” as Baya describes it, represent local legislation in the absence of an official national accord, the intesa, which different groups and organizations of Italian Muslims have tried to establish over the last 20 years.

If adopted on the national level, the intesa would recognize Islam as an official religion of Italy, allowing Muslims to join 10 other religious denominations – including Judaism, Waldensian, Assembly of God, Buddhism, Seventh Day Adventists, Baptist, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox, and, of course, Catholics – in having a stake in the state’s “otto per mille” religious tax, which would in turn provide Muslims with additional funding for the construction of mosques. The accord would also give permission to teach Islam for one hour per week in the time allotted to religious education in the Italian public school system, along with a host of other benefits, such as representation in hospitals and prisons, as well as burial and cemetery rights.

To date, Turin has passed individual pieces of legislation covering many of the benefits attached to national recognition for the city’s Muslim community. Most recently, on April 14 the main prison in Turin, Lorusso Cotugno, and the Islamic Association of the Alps, along with the Afaq Association, announced an agreement which will allow imams to serve the needs of prisoners of Muslim faith, as well as their families. In addition, a prayer room for Muslims was established at Turin’s national airport in October 2015, with plans currently in the works for one at the city’s public university. And in 2013, the city passed legislation that guaranteed cemetery requests and burial rights for all religious faiths, including those like Islam, which are not officially recognized.

It is also notable that Turin has also made great strides in accommodating religious dietary restrictions for Muslim residents. Since 1995, Halal meals have been available to Muslim students in Turin’s public schools, and in 1990, Turin was the first city in Italy to establish public space for the slaughter of animals in accordance with Muslim dietary laws.

“We have done public policies to respect the plurality on one side, and on the other side to include the Muslim community inside the public life of the city,” says Curti.

Nowhere is this cooperation more publicly apparent than in the city’s involvement in celebrations of Eid al-Fitr. In 2008, Turin was one of the first Italian cities to work with the Muslim community in establishing a public setting for this important holiday. At the time, Curti and her colleague, Luca Cianfriglia, director of development at Urban Barriera di Milano, began working with Muslim leaders to set aside public space to accommodate the upwards of 20,000 Muslim residents of the city who would attend holiday celebrations. These have included prayers and speeches from prominent city officials such as Curti and the mayor, Piero Fassino, as well as other leaders in the faith community. The peaceful, public demonstrations which have taken place in Turin are in stark contrast to the situation for Muslims in other nearby cities, notes Cianfriglia, where non-Muslim Italians, among them government officials, actively disrupted Eid celebrations.

Curti, along with Cianfriglia, cites Turin’s traditional respect for religious minorities as a reason why Turin has been more adept at integrating the Italian Muslim community than in other parts of Italy. They point to the fact that prior to the unification of Italy, Turin, thanks to the Piedmont-Savoy kingdom’s 1848 constitution, was among the first to free Jewish and Waldensian Italians from living inside the ghetto.

“I think that historical roots help the work that we have done now when the Muslim community arose as the [primary religious minority group],” Curti says.

Now, the government is working with Islamic leaders to implement some elements of the new pact such as a monthly online newsletter, written by young people from the different mosques, which feature articles – in Italian and Arabic – about cultural and social life, as well as interviews with prominent Islamic leaders.

Curti says this is another way to develop civic leadership among young Italian Muslims, which is essential for ultimately achieving full integration and equality. One of the best ways to accomplish this will be to change Italy’s “de sangre” citizenship law. Currently, a person born in Italy to non-Italian parents cannot realistically obtain citizenship until they are nearly 30 years old.

In 2007, Curti and other Turinese officials led the way in correcting at least one barrier to Italian civic life that Italian Muslims and children of other immigrants faced. They decided to ensure that all residents of Turin would be able to participate in the national civil service program, an opportunity for young Italians to work for the government or be involved in civic life for a year or more.

Until Turin’s 2007 agreement on national service, only citizens could participate in the program, but Curti, Cianfriglia, and other members of the local government found funding to provide for extending the program to Turin residents who were not citizens. Ultimately, the national government followed Turin’s lead, extending the civil service program to permanent residents regardless of citizenship standing in 2014.

Curti, who is not Muslim herself, hopes that the recent change in the civil service law, and an eventual change in the citizenship law, will allow for more Muslims in politics.

“My goal is that I want to do the electoral campaign for you,” Curti says she told the 28-year-old Houda, a Moroccan Muslim woman who worked in her office. “I want that you go in the city council and my goal is to have a young lady with the hijab inside the city council. Because they are in the society so it’s absolutely normal that they are in the elective assemblies.”

“The next step is [on] one side to have a spokesman and on the other side to bring forth and to support this group of young [people] to be the face of the community outside,” Curti adds.

But finding a spokesperson for the Muslim community, or Muslim “communities,” as Curti takes care to specify, is not an easy task, say Turin officials and Muslim leaders alike.

“It’s the government…but also because the Muslim community is very divided,” Baya says, explaining that Italian Muslims tend to group together according to their country of origin, political affiliations, and their mother tongue. Islamic leaders, including Baya, and government officials consider these divisions when forming an official collaboration that will best meet the needs of all Italian Muslims.

“This [division] is obviously very, very dangerous. For society and also for the future,” Tawfik, the Turin leader and member of the Islamic Consultation in Rome, a council of Muslim politicians and religious leaders established by Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu in 2003, agrees. “They should be Italian, with Italian allegiance,” Tawfik says of Muslim Italians who remain tied to their home countries and politics. He explains that many immigrants often maintain their national affiliations and political affiliations with and within their homeland, which complicates full involvement in Italian civic society.

Since 2000, Tawfik has served as the president of the Centro Dar Al-Hikam of Turin, a three-story building that includes a traditional hammam, a conference center, a restaurant, and a seating area, filled with natural light and decorated with intricate patterns on the tiled walls. The center is conveniently close to the market of Porto Palazzo, an international out-door market, one of the largest in Europe, which has traditionally been a home for immigrants since it was established by Southern Italians in the early twentieth century. Today, spoken Arabic can be heard in the aisles and khobz, or Moroccan traditional round, flat bread, is sold by women at stands throughout the market. Butcher shops and dress stores with signs written in Italian and Arabic line the streets throughout the neighborhood. These visible signs announce in part the new face of Turin’s immigrant population, co-existing harmoniously with the non-Muslim citizens of Turin.

From the national perspective, Abdellah Redouane, the secretary general of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Rome and a member of the Islamic Consultation along with Tawfik, says that the intesa would be a matter of legislatively catching up with the reality of integration in everyday life for most Italian Muslims, of the sort seen in Turin’s Porto Palazzo.

“I think in Italy the society is more advanced than the government of Italy. So our community feels very well in Italy, it has a very good relationship with other communities, other religions. [But] we have some problems with the government for the last 20 years, we have some difficulties that Islam as the second religion in Italy has to be recognized,” Redouane says.

Despite the changes seen in Turin, the lack of national recognition through the intesa – and the subsequent lack of funding for construction of mosques – remains a roadblock to full assimilation of Muslim immigrants into Italian society.

“You will find mosques that are in an apartment, in a bar, in places that aren’t so beautiful. Not by choice, but because there isn’t an alternative,” Baya says. Moschea Taiba is one of 17 mosques or designated prayer halls in Turin which serve the city’s Muslims, most of whom come from Morocco, like Baya himself, born in a small town close to Casablanca on Morocco’s western coast.

According to Redouane, the Islamic Center of Italy in Rome is preparing for an imminent visit from the Pope. Leaders of the Islamic Consultation expect to make the case for official recognition before Italy’s parliament soon after this gesture of allegiance from the Vatican.

“The intesa is very important because it makes clear to the majority of the Islamic community that a majority is accepted and recognized,” Tawfik says. “Because if you live in a country that doesn’t accept you, that doesn’t recognize you, [you don’t have a way] to present yourself and speak with the prime minister, or the minister. How do you have a dialogue with the state? If you’re two or three million practicing Muslims in Italy, the second religion after Christianity, how do you do with not having someone that represents you?”

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