When in Rome, do as the Muslims do

When in Rome, do as the Muslims do
5 min read
04 July, 2017
In-depth: Grassroots Islamic groups are leading the way in community relations and outreach, many steps ahead of Italy's political and media figures, reports Laura Cesaretti.
Many Italians are interested in learning more about Islam, says Salah Ramadan Elsayed [Getty]

It is 33 degrees in Rome. The beaches are full and the bars are playing loud music, serving cold beers.

"The problem is not fasting," Youssef, a young Moroccan barman, tells The New Arab on a hot Ramadan afternoon, "the problem is the environment. It is extremely difficult remaining in the Ramadan mood while working on a beach."

Being a Muslim in Italy is not an easy task. It is not only the hot weather, the 17 hours of daily fasting during Ramadan, or the infamous temptations of la dolce vita which make it difficult to remain devoted. Strangely enough, in largely Catholic but secular Italy, Islam is not yet recognised as an official religion.

This is an undeniable political embarrassment for a European country with almost two million Muslims.

"The first official request was made the early 1990s," says Mohammed Ben Mohammed, a Tunisian who has lived in Italy for more than 20 years. "It has been over 25 years that we are still waiting."

Meanwhile, the Muslim community has been working to integrate with the local society. Ben Mohammed is imam and president of one of the oldest Islamic association centres in Rome. In a little over than a decade, the working-class eastern corner of the city home to the centre - previously known mainly for its high crime levels - has become an important hub for commercial and social life, and not only of Rome's Arab community.

Even after 9/11 we never had a negative reaction from our neighbours. The only problems come from media and politics

Although the gentrification process has many influences, it is significant that the mosque did not lead to the creation of a "foreign ghetto", as many feared at the time it was launched.

"We are perfectly integrated with the local society," Ben Mohammed says proudly. "Even after 9/11 we never had a negative reaction from our neighbours. The only problems come from media and politics."

The public debate surounding Islam in Italy could at best be described as "shallow". When major network channels visit local mosques, it is usually to ask about the latest terrorist attacks in Europe, or questioning building violations of informal mosques.  

Newspaper articles and intellectual commentaries about Islam also are mainly relegated to terrorism and women's issues.

Many Muslims here avoid commenting to media, fearing being misunderstood due to their lack of Italian fluency. Others, however, are quite outspoken.

In Tor Pignattara, a multi-ethnic area of Rome known for its Bangladeshi community, public events about Islam are not rare - especially during Ramadan. One event organised by the Dhuumcatu Association aimed to teach other Italians about Muslim practices by offering an Iftar dinner to their neighbours.

It did not go unnoticed that some of the Italian commari began to eat before sunset, while their Muslim hosts were still waiting to eat, their full plates in front of them.

"We know it is more out of naiveté than rudeness," was one person's reaction.

"Events like this are extremely important," said Paola, an Italian woman who brought her family to eat the basmati rice on offer. "Unfortunately, they receive little support or publicity from local institutions."

The official recognition of Islam would certainly be an important sign of a different approach. Back in the 1920s, Benito Mussolini is reported to have said "absolutely no" to the building of a mosque in Rome. It was eventually built in 1996, and in a very fashionable area.

Certainly, Italy has changed a lot since Mussolini's time. But even now, the largest mosque in Europe is not recognised as such.

"In the 10 months that I have been here, I realised that Italians have very little knowledge of Islam," notes Salah Ramadan Elsayed, an Egyptian Imam who graduated from Cairo's prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

He studied at Sapienza University of Rome during his youth, and felt in love with the city's beauty. Now he is back in the Italian capital with the difficult task of defeating the widespread prejudice in Italy toward Islam:

"Many Italians and Europeans are actually very interested in knowing the reality of Islam - I think they perceive there is something wrong about the image they receive in the media, so they come to this Islamic centre to know the truth."

The Islamic Centre is the main reference point for the Muslim community in Italy. With its new extension, and the only minaret in the city, it is the symbol of Islamic culture, integration and prosperity in the heart of Catholicism. It has become also part of city life. Not only do people interested in Islam come here, but also those who fancy the exotic sweets and smells of the spices of the Friday market outside.

I believe is up to us make now Italians understand a bit more about Islam. Sometimes when I wear the niqab I see that people got scared, so I often stop to explain why they should not

But even this monument is in a state of decay. For long the complex was supported and maintained by wealthy Arab donors. Now, the price of Middle Eastern wars, growing international prejudice, and the local economic crisis have all hit also this idyllic religious crossroads.

"I believe is up to us make now Italians understand a bit more about Islam," says Mousumi Mridha, who works at the Dhuumcatu Association. "Sometimes when I wear the niqab I see that people got scared, so I often stop to explain why they should not."

As such, many Islamic Centres opened their doors during Ramadan to invite community representatives to share Iftar moment with their local Muslim community. They also offered donations and meals to the many refugees that find themselves in a foreign country without family support.

Imam Elsayed says, on behalf of the Italian Muslim community: "We certainly need to do more."

There is little interest in the Italian political scene inproviding more support to the Muslim community here. Many Muslims, although born in Italy, do not have Italian citizenship due to the frequent delay in introducing jus soli law - that citizenship depends on place of birth, not the nationality of parents.

This means there is also little political representation of Muslims. The Italian political system is thus at an impasse with how to deal with Islam. This is not the case in grassroots society, though.

As the Islamic Centre shows, every day, amid the city blocks there are Italians - Muslim and not Muslim - who are proving themselves many steps ahead of their political and media representatives.

Laura Cesaretti is a freelance journalist based in Rome. Follow her on Twitter: @laucesaretti

This article was previously published by Fair Observer