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Don Camillo and the Imam

In Italy since September 11, the dangers of radical Islam were addressed soley by right-wing rabble-rousers. Finally Reset magazine has kicked off a proper debate. By Franz Haas

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, the Italian media and popular imagination, like those of the rest of the Western world, were haunted by horror visions. Italians imagined rockets being fired at the Vatican, aeroplanes flying into Milan Cathedral or bombs being planted on the already rudimentary metro networks of the major cities. Following the attacks on trains in Madrid and London, Italians each time had the feeling that they had once again narrowly escaped being a target and began to fear that Italy might have its own home-made terrorism. The police and the secret services kept Muslim prayer houses under surveillance, people were arrested, brought to trial or deported, but concrete plans for a terrorist attack - like those discovered in Germany in Septembe - were never found. Recently an Iraqi was arrested at Venice airport for allegedly "planning attacks," but more precise details of the investigations never transpired.

By contrast, the more obvious problems of living together with more or less radical Muslims in their own country are a constant theme in the Italian public sphere. The issues include building new mosques, the dispute over headscarves, veils and burqas, the restrictive dress codes for women and the "honour killings" of Muslim girls determined to adopt Western lifestyles. The case of Hina Saleem, a young Pakistani woman living in Brescia, who had her throat cut by her father assisted by other male members of her family because she wore the latest fashions and had an Italian fiance caused a major sensation in summer 2006. A representative of a Muslim women's organization investigating the murder recently received death threats from Islamic extremists. Female circumcision is also a horrifyingly widespread secret practice – according to the newspaper Corriere della Sera, there are some 25,000 women with mutilated genitals living in Italy.

In view of such practices as "honour killings" and genital mutilation you don't need to be a pessimist to ask whether these horrific manifestations of an archaic way of life imposed by the dictates of theology will ever be rejected by all Muslims in the Western world or whether the principles of radical Islam are not fundamentally incompatible with those of the West today. As long as Europe is not even able to defend the principles of the Enlightenment (the basic tenets of which, despite all the reverses and negative sides in its dialectic, the West has done well to adhere to over the past two centuries) on its own territory, the discussion about anchoring "Christian values" in the constitution of the European Union will remain an idle luxury. An Islam that would be considered enlightened by European standards is still a far-off vision.

For too long warnings about the evils and dangers of radical Islam in Italy were the domain of the political Right and the xenophobic Lega Nord (Northern League) party. The alarm signals they issued were generally crude and simplistic and sometimes even dangerously tasteless. Recall, for example, the incident in February 2006 when a minister of the Berlusconi government had one of the controversial Danish Muhammad cartoons printed on a T-shirt and displayed it provocatively in front of television cameras (news story). This prompted protests in front of the Italian consulate in Libya that left eleven people dead. The appeals of journalist Oriana Fallaci, the figurehead of the anti-Islam movement in Italy who in her books "The Rage and Pride" (2001) and "The Force of Reason" (2004) made no bones about engaging in overt racism, were in a similar vein. In taking this approach she did this sensitive subject a disservice, for the result was that liberal and left-wing intellectuals distanced themselves still further from her, preferring to avoid the controversial issue altogether.

But not only did Oriana Fallaci manage to sell millions of copies of her aggressive books, she was also honoured on the first anniversary of her death with an exhibition in Milan and found a following. A woman who goes under the name of Babsi Jones and appears as the Dark Lady, and who was hitherto known as an author only in the world of blogs, has just had a book published by Fallaci's publisher Rizzoli bearing the gruesome title "Sappiano le mie parole di sangue" (Shall My Words Taste of Blood - Hamlet). The book is curious in more ways than one, for it takes pleasure in describing in detail the ethnic conflict in Kosovo, only in this version it is the Serbian minority that is brutally persecuted by Albanians and Bosnians. Practically all the victims are on the Serbian side, while the perpetrators are nearly always Muslim villains. A critic for La Stampa described the views of this author, who names Peter Handke and Oriana Fallaci as her intellectual role models, as "repulsive, anti-Islamic racism." Yet other, more serious authors have jumped on the Fallaci bandwagon as well. They include the historian Arrigo Petacco, whose recently published "L'ultima crociata" (The Last Crusade) is a fact-packed study of the "just wars" of the West against the Turks, from the sea battle of Lepanto in 1571 to the Pope's Regensburg speech in September 2006.

The salvation of the West is portrayed quite differently in the populist newspapers of right-wing parties. It is reminscent, despite the gravity of the situation, of a provincial farce a la Don Camillo and Peppone. Only here the villain to be thwarted is no longer the communist mayor but the foreign Imam. The provocative Lega Nord politician -now ex-minister - mentioned above recently threatened to take a pig for a walk on the land allocated for the new Bologna mosque in order to deconsecrate this piece of Italian soil for Muslims. Crude popular gestures of this kind poison the atmosphere just as much as incidents like the arbitrary treatment of an Egyptian by the name of Abu Omar. A prayer house factotum, erroneously described by the media as an Imam, he was kidnapped by CIA agents in Milan in May 2003, taken to Egypt, where he was allegedly tortured, and then released. Although there was no proof that he had done anything wrong, this was not taken to mean that there were no agents of terrorist networks operating in Islamic religious centres in Italy.

Italian television has repeatedly broadcast authentic film-clips and recordings of "hate preachers" calling on gatherings of Muslims to wage a holy war against the infidels. In March of this year the programme "Annozero," moderated by the popular journalist Michele Santoro, showed film footage shot with a hidden camera in which – in the same spine-chilling manner of the new German film "Hamburger Lektionen" (see our feature) – an Imam was shown preaching in Turin that there could be no dialogue with the infidels: "You have to kill them, basta." Connections have also been proven to exist between Islamic centres in Italy and the Hamburg cell that harboured the terrorists responsible for the 11 September attacks – which makes the silence of leading intellectuals on the subject all the more puzzling. The writer Umberto Eco, for example, found even the "heroic appeals for press freedom" in the dispute about the Danish cartoons "excessive," while in his column in the weekly L'Espresso an enlightened shrug of the shoulders was all he could muster up in response to the phenomenon of fanatical Islam in his own country.

Compared with the rest of the world the Italian debate on radical Islam has begun rather late. While there is no shortage of alarmist commentaries, most of them are imports penned by Anglo-Saxon authors. An exception and a key figure in the discussion is the deputy chief editor of Corriere della Sera Magdi Allam. Born in Cairo, where he grew up under Western influences, Allam came to Italy to study and stayed. He began his successful career as a journalist with the communist newspaper Manifesto. He describes himself as a secular Muslim and has become the most important voice to speak out against Islam fundamentalism in his adopted country in a series of articles and books. Both his style and his sentiments are a far cry from the strident agitation of Oriana Fallaci, and his criticism is directed mainly at the intolerance of Islam and the uncontrolled activities of self-appointed Imams. But Allam also criticises the sleepy "Islamic correctness" of leading Italian thinkers who close their eyes to an obviously bad state of affairs.

With quiet determination he has conducted many a polemic in his column in Corriere della Sera on such issues as corruption in the building of mosques or the veiling of women. On the subject of headscarves, veils and burqas he has challenged the view of Interior Minister Giuliano Amato, who advocates individual freedom, pointing out that "Christian nuns cover their heads as well." Allam argues, however, that for Muslim women the veil is "not a right, but a mandatory requirement." In legal terms the situation has even become unintentionally rather comical. In 1975, in a bid to combat the terrorist activities of the Red Brigades, face coverings were made illegal, a provision that would clearly apply to the burqa as well. Ironically it was the police chief in the provincial city of Treviso, a stronghold of the Lega Nord, who in 2004 issued a circular for the whole of Italy expressly permitting the burqa to be worn "on religious grounds." While the clamour over this issue has not entirely died down, to this day it is possible to see completely veiled women at Treviso's farmers' market.

A more serious problem is the opposition of some Italians to the construction of new mosques, currently planned for Genoa and Bologna. Yet to reduce the polemic to the formula "church steeple versus minaret" would be to couch it in too simple terms. In Genoa the interior minister was asked to step in to resolve the dispute, while in Bologna the left-wing city administration has decided to hold a local referendum on the issue following an attempt by the Berlusconi-owned newspaper Il Giornale, among others, to mobilise public opinion against the mosque by publishing an article bearing the headline "Mayor Gives Extremists a Mosque." The left-wing liberal magazine Reset finally entered the debate in its online version a few weeks ago, providing a summary of the international debate, encouraged in Germany above all by Perlentaucher, and taking up some of the issues with contributions of its own. This included the useful clarification that there are not 735 mosques in Italy but actually only three: in Rome, in Catani and in the Milan suburb of Segrate. All the rest are more or less makeshift places of worship located mainly in basements, garages or old factory buildings, and hence out of the control of the local authorities or official Muslim associations – places where dubious preachers find open ears.

According to the official figures, there are three million foreigners in Italy, a third of whom are Muslims. Of those, 5 percent are considered to be practising believers. In European terms those figures are extremely low, but since in Italy the unofficial figures and the general level of illegality are much higher than elsewhere there is cause for scepticism. The debate staged by Reset included statements by the respected Muslim representative Mario Scialoja. A member of Italy's Islamic Council and a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and UN representative, Scialoja converted to Islam in 1987. He is particularly worried about the uncontrolled increase in pseudo-mosques, where inflammatory speakers of every stripe can pose as Imams and preach in backyards.

Scialoja warns expressly about questionable sources of financing for the construction of new mosques and welcomes the planned referendum in Bologna (saying "I'm a bit Swiss in that respect") on the grounds that it would guarantee the Muslims greater legality. He is also sceptical about the alliance between the radical Italian Left and Islam. He believes the Left is deceiving itself: "They regard certain Islamic movements as representative of the grass roots, of the real proleteriat," he says, adding that they see in Islam "an anti-imperialist and anti-American movement." This assessment would seem to confirm that the two fronts from which critical thinkers like Mario Scialoja and Magdi Allam are being attacked are the extreme Left and radical Islam, as anyone prepared to sort through the tangle of blogospheres would discover.

This curious embrace between communism and Islam is also addressed in the Reset debate by the sociologist and Islam expert Stefano Allievi, who regards it as a continuation of the old anti-clerical reflex of the extreme Left which simply wants to get its own back at the "parson" – so that even the Imam is a welcome ally against Don Camillo. Allievi, however, is strongly opposed to the Bologna referendum, because he believes that even a majority should not have the power to decide about the religious rights of a minority. In his book "Islam italiano" (2003) the professor from Padua has shown himself not only to have a profound knowledge of Islam but also to be a friend of Islam. Yet this stance has made him enemies as well. Allievi was sentenced to six months in prison after a Muslim fanatic sued him for denigration of Islam in a trial for which, at least for the first hearing, a strangely "Islamically correct" judge was found. (Read Allievi's open letter written in response to his sentence.)

In early September, about a month before the Italian debate in Reset began to get off the ground, a controversy involving mainly foreigners arose at a literature festival in Mantua. It centred on a polemic between the British author Christopher Hitchens, who introduced his book "God Is Not Great" (read excerpts) at the festival alongside a book about the prophet Mohammed, written by the theologically-inclined political scientist Tariq Ramadan. The contrast between the rabid atheist and controversial Muslim scholar couldn't have been greater. Italian newspapers devoted whole pages to the dispute and also made it the subject of editorials. While the Catholic newspaper L'Avvenire accused Ramadan of "double standards," Unita trotted out the usual left-wing reaction – when in doubt the Imam is always preferable to Don Camillo.


This article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 19 November, 2007.

Franz Haas is a literary critic for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. He lives in Rome.

Translation: Melanie Newton - let's talk european