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The Changing Face of Italy

Samia Nkrumah

Recent immigration statistics have put the integration of immigrants at the forefront of national debates in Italy. A recent report published by ISTAT, Italy's largest statistics body, showed that the country's population is increasing for the first time since 1992. According to the report, a longer life expectancy has contributed to this turnaround, along with a rise in the number of immigrants whose stay has been legalised.

According to the latest statistics, issued by CARITAS, the biggest Catholic relief organisation, Romanians represent the largest legal immigrant population at 239,781. In second and third place are Moroccans and Albanians at 227,055 and 224,001 respectively. Egypt is at 14th place with 45,000 immigrants.

Every new wave of immigrants in Italy heralds a change in the ethnic and religious composition of the country. So far, the greatest number of legal immigrants remain Christians, particularly from Eastern Europe. However, out of every three Christian immigrants whose stay has been legalised, two are Christian Orthodox and not Catholic. Islam, on the other hand, remains the second largest religion in the country after Catholicism, with a population of over 1.3 million. There are twice as many Muslims in Italy today than a decade ago.

The melting pot phenomenon is new to this country which, 30 years ago, saw immigrants trickle in. Immigrants and their status in Italy became politically visible in the early 1990s with the adoption of the first of four laws legalising immigrants' status.

For immigrants in Italy, the last few years have seen a heightened sense of vulnerability. In the aftermath of the 11 September attacks, dozens of suspects of Arab and Muslim origin have been arrested. Fear that Muslims are using prayer centres as venues to plan terrorist activities in Europe have prompted generalisations about Islam's incompatibility with Italian society. Images of ships overloaded with clandestine immigrants arriving at Italy's southern shores from North Africa have become increasingly more frequent.

Italian history differs from that of other European countries in the sense that the country has developed industrially without much dependence on foreign workers. Immigrants are seen as connected to problems in Italian society or as competing with local labour. They are associated with tensions between unions and employers; foreign labour being cheaper as immigrants are willing to accept lower pay.

Public opinion is split between those calling for integration and those who associate a higher and more visible immigrant population with increased crime or poverty. Various Italian politicians, from across the political spectrum, are also increasingly calling for dialogue and integration.

Darif Aziz, a Moroccan who was elected as one of four advisers in Rome's city council one year ago, as part of the municipality's efforts to integrate immigrants, said he and his colleagues are campaigning for immigrants to have the right to vote in elections, beginning with administrative elections.

Notwithstanding their historical and cultural connections to Catholicism, Italians are generally tolerant of their country's ethnic and religious minorities. This view is confirmed by different Muslim religious leaders in the country. Abdellah Redoune, the secretary-general of the Rome-based Islamic Cultural Centre, which houses the biggest mosque in Europe, told the Weekly that the Arab community would be strengthened by its greater integration into Italian political institutions.

Two years ago, in the summer of 2003, controversy erupted when a mosque imam was forced to quit his job and return to Egypt, his native country, after condoning suicide bombing in a sermon he delivered following Friday prayers. Redoune believes that they have moved beyond the crisis. "We are building bridges and harmonising relations between Muslims and Italian society," he said.

"The centre dealt with the matter swiftly. Our response was political. When the official statements called for his dismissal, we concluded that he could not remain in his post and he left in three days," Redoune said. He believes that the Islamic centre is now entering a new stage. Its board of directors which until now is comprised of ambassadors from Muslim and Arab countries is planning to include Italian Muslims as well. The ambassadors were chosen for historical reasons and therefore tend to represent countries who contributed the most to the construction of the centre, like Saudi Arabia, and those representing the largest Muslim immigrant populations in Italy, such as Morocco.

From a legal point of view, the Islamic centre is a recognised Italian institution, which maintains relations with the state, the Holy See and politicians. At present there are more Italians working in the centre than any other nationality. Out of 20 employees, six are Italians. The centre includes an impressive Islamic library, classrooms where Arabic language courses are offered, a conference hall that holds up to 400 people and an exhibition area.

The postmodern mosque, designed almost a quarter of a century ago by Italian architects Paolo Portoghesi and Vittorio Gigliotti, displays an impressive unity of oriental and occidental architecture. Its vaults and columns are decorated with hand-made mosaics imported from Morocco. As many as 3,000 worshipers fill the mosque on Fridays, and as many as 20,000 arrive from all over Italy on holidays.

On a regular Friday, following midday prayers, a small bazaar with an array of Middle Eastern and Asian foods and goods are on display. Quick ethnic favourites like shawerma and falafel attract an increasing number of Italians, especially the youth. The whole complex, the mosque and centre, are one of Rome's noted monuments.

Some commentators differentiate between society's tolerant attitude towards immigrants and policies that would contribute to greater integration of immigrants. Hamza Piccardo, secretary of the Union of Islamic Communities and Organisations in Italy (UCOII) told the Weekly that the Italian government confronts immigration from a purely political perspective, offering some resources to help new immigrants but not enough support. Moreover, according to Piccardo, legalising hundreds of thousands of immigrants in a few years is not sufficient, and will contribute to crime among illegal immigrants who go underground or work in the black market.

But on the whole, Piccardo remains optimistic. He said Muslims in Italy are hardworking and serious. "There have been no terrorist attacks in Italy," he noted. His organisation has undertaken many initiatives and dialogues to foster understanding between Muslims in Italy and society at large.

Samia Nkrumah, Changing Face of Italy, Ahram Weekly 14-20 July 2005


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