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Making Space For Islam In Catholic Italy

Competing Muslim groups are vying for official recognition from the Italian state — and a share of the country's "8 per 1,000" taxpayer pie.

Muslims devotees attend a morning street prayer in Rome
Muslims devotees attend a morning street prayer in Rome
Giacomo Galeazzi and Ilario Lombardo

ROME â€" For the most part they’re garages, shops, former warehouses, even basements or attics, all of them repurposed as prayer rooms and called mosques. Estimates vary, but there may be more than 700 such places across Italy.

A legislative loophole that prevents new institutional places of worship from appearing forces Muslims to pray where they can. What's clear is that when people feel the need to pray, they do it â€" with or without minarets.

On the north side of Rome, it’s Friday prayer at the Great Mosque, the only one of Italy's many mosques that is officially recognized as a religious facility. Outside, the chauffeured cars of ambassadors from various Islamic countries form a line.

Meanwhile, at Centocelle, on the southern outskirts of the city, a man who works with the imam collects donations from congregation members who are on their way home. A sign on the door of this mosque â€" set up inside the garage of a large building â€" instructs people to leave "5 per 1,000" to the Islamic association that is based here.

These parallel scenes of an ordinary weekly ritual shape the two contrasting sides of Italy’s second largest religion, as calculated by number of adherents (1.6 million). In requesting "5 per 1,000," there’s a need for zakat (charity), but also to fill the financial shortfall caused by the absence of an agreement between any of the country’s Islamic groups and the Italian government. Without this, mosques cannot benefit from Italy’s "8 per 1,000" law, which allows taxpayers to return 0.8% of their annual income to an organized religion recognized by the state, or to the state’s social assistance program.

A representation rift

A feud has now broken out within the Italian Muslim community over money and mosques, and several different Muslim groups are vying to be the dominant Islamic point of reference for the state.

On May 12, the Italian Islamic Confederation (CII) â€" which sprung from the local Moroccan community â€" formalized its request for recognition from the state. The Italian Islamic Religious Community (CO.RE.IS), led by Yahya Pallavicini, and the Union of Italian Islamic Communities (UCOII) had previously failed in similar attempts.

These three groups are the key players in a battle made more intense by the foreign Muslim governments that steer their political and religious leanings â€" to the tune of millions in funding.

Massimo Introvigne’s Istituto Cesnur, formed in 1988 to study new religions in Italy, has reported "a major representation problem" for Islam in Italy. The most visible groups â€" UCOII, CO.RE.IS and the CII â€" actually represent a minority of mosques, with most Islamic places of worship self-managed by national communities, notably from Bangladesh and Turkey.

Fear and misunderstandings

The unofficial status of Italian mosques feeds uncontrollable speculation and fear, leading to knee-jerk characterizations in the media as "terrorist dens," a definition that reflects neither reality nor the findings of the Ministry of the Interior. "Hate preaching really takes place online and in jail," says Filippo Bubbico, vice minister of the interior.

Though the monitoring of Italy’s mosques is constant, with special forces of the Italian police infiltrated and secret service agents regularly in contact with imams, the ubiquity of makeshift mosques promotes a feeling of fear and danger in many communities. The lack of national legislation concerning religious entities not formally recognized by the State â€" such as Italy’s Islamic associations â€" is to blame.

As things stand, individual regions and municipalities are left to legislate "unofficial" religious entities as they see fit, paving the way for Lombardy, for example, to pass an anti-mosque law that was ultimately ruled unconstitutional.

Italy’s lack of preparation for and understanding of these issues is glaringly evident: In general, Italians consider the imam equivalent to a parish priest, when in reality, he’s the one who leads prayer services. Among Sunnis, who have neither hierarchy nor clergy, the imam is the preacher, but also a kind of reference figure chosen by the community.

People also tend to speak of a mosque the way they speak of a parish, but it’s actually much more. On the rugs of the mosque people pray, sleep, and study; children learn languages; and people talk politics and settle disputes.

All of the people and institutions involved agree on the need to bring Italy’s mosques to light publicly, with more attractive, and visible buildings. Whether they have minarets or not remains to be seen.

Monitoring the mosques

Meanwhile, reports of mosques at a high risk of radicalization regularly reach Interior Ministry. The list includes some of the largest mosques, such as those of Piazza Mercato in Naples, Viale Jenner in Milan or Centocelle in Rome, all of which are under special surveillance on Friday prayer days.

In the southeastern outskirts of the capital, where Lazio and Rome football flags fly above halal butcher shops, we meet with Mohamed Ben Mohamed, who has just finished leading a prayer service in Arabic and then in Italian.

"We don’t all fit into a single service," he explains. Outside his office, men and women wait to speak with him, hoping to ask for advice. "We Muslims are the first not to want to stay in these places," he says. "In 2007, after they arrested one of the London attackers who had been here, they came to search us. We're in constant contact with men from the secret services. I have their numbers saved in my cell phone."

Like all imams, Ben Mohammed dreamed of a more dignified place than this garage, where each year the congregation grows. That's why a few months ago, amidst the protests of local residents, he signed for the purchase of an old furniture factory belonging to Stefano Gaggioli, former president of Sviluppo Italia. The four-story building near Piazza delle Camelie cost 4 million euros, paid for with a donation to UCOII from Qatar Charity.

The central mosque of Rome â€" Photo: Lalupa

Money and affiliations

The Qatari charity branch is a constant, controversial presence in European Islamic communities. Israeli and U.S. security services suspect that its humanitarian aid contributions mask activities sympathetic to terrorist fringe-groups. Regardless, the group's investments in Italy show no sign of slowing down.

“Twenty-five million euros arrived from Qatar," Elzir Izzedin, the imam of Florence and president of UCOII, explains. "We need money. Mosques are forced to finance themselves. Without the ‘8 per 1,000" I’ll accept funding from whomever. Of course, there are countries offering financial support that don’t much care for the idea of an autonomous Italian Islam."

Some, however, such as Introvigne of the Istituto Cesnur, think that the “8 per 1,000” status still wouldn’t stem the flow of money from Islamic countries. The Italian government, for its part, says the lack of unified goals among the country’s various Islamic groups has prevented them from obtaining the coveted “8 per 1,000” status.

"That’s the usual excuse," both Izzedin and Pallavicini respond, though they are part of competing associations. There's no love lost between UCOII and CO.RE.IS. The former is accused of an excessive closeness with the Muslim Brotherhood, while the latter is often dismissed as a group of Italian converts who have little in common with immigrant Muslims.

In spite of these differences, both groups are proposing the same solution: Two separate agreements with the state, leading to their official recognition. "They did it with the Buddhists, with those who follow the Tibetan school of thought and the Soka Gakkai. So why can’t they do it with us?" is the refrain.

Saudis and Moroccans

The CII â€" the de facto manager of Rome’s Great Mosque through its control of Italy’s Islamic Cultural Center â€" has positioned itself as the third contender for national dominance. But even it is experiencing inner conflict, between the Saudis, who by statute choose its president, and the Moroccans, who nominate its secretary general.

Abdellah Redouane has been secretary general for the past 18 years â€" too long, according to some, who believe his administration lacks transparency and is disconnected from the needs of the community. For many, Rome’s Great Mosque is more of a diplomatic branch, a place for power relations, than a local hub for popular Islam.

Rabat is backing the CII with a clear goal in mind: to prevent Moroccans, who make up Italy’s second largest Islamic community after the Albanians, from radicalizing and committing violent acts.

Six recent arrests in Lombardy and Piedmont â€" almost all of Moroccans â€" support the need for such efforts. In exchange for official recognition from the state, the CII is offering Italy the support of a moderate Islam, one that follows the model of Rabat’s institute for imams, which trains religious leaders and women to combat false interpretations of the Koran propagated by ISIS and Al Qaeda. The idea is to replicate this teaching with university courses offered in Italy.

In short, Moroccans are positioning themselves as the institutional partners of the government, led by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who will be in Morocco in July and will need to be careful not to displease Italy’s economic partners in the Gulf region.

Planning an Islamic university

The CII, however, feels squeezed. In northern Italy, part of the Moroccan community belongs to the Muslim Participation and Spirituality Association (PSM), which, together with the Islamic Association of the Alps Onlus, constitutes the Italian branch of Morocco’s never-formally-recognized Justice and Charity party.

Then there are the Saudis who, through the worldwide Muslim League, are bestowing lavish sums on new mosques without having a real popular following. Their strength lies with the imams sent specially for religious ceremonies during Ramadan: As state preachers, they follow Wahhabism, the most traditionalist of Sunni branches.

Aboulkheir Breigheche, an imam in Trentino and president of the Italian Association of Imams and Religious Guides, has refused to accept Saudi funding. He's busy building Italy’s first Islamic university in a villa in San Giovanni Lupatoto, outside Verona. "The goal is to train imams who are well-versed in Italy’s culture, laws and language, and who will appear in an official roster," he says.

Previously, a similar initiative in Lecce, Apulia, failed to pan out. For Pallavicini of CO.RE.IS, the idea of an Islamic university is a "farce" because it would place the entire network of Italian mosques under the influence of a single school of thought, namely that of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"We said no to money from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates," Breigheche replies. "Because then we would have had to accept very specific theological leanings, such as Wahhabism and Salafism."

Ultimately, though, funding for the university will still come from the Gulf region: through the UCOII â€" from Qatar, as usual.

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The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Asham!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.

[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

How China flipped from tech copycat to tech leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.

Emmanuel Grasland / Les Echos

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.

• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.

• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.

• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.

• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease

• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.


💬  LEXICON

Jashn-e Riwaaz

Indian retailer Fabindia's naming its new collection Jashn-e Riwaaz, an Urdu term meaning "celebration of tradition," has been met with severe backlash and calls for boycott from right-wing Hindu groups. They are accusing the brand of false appropriation by promoting a collection of clothes designed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but giving it a name in Urdu, a language spoken by many Muslims.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I'm worried for my Afghan sisters."

— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece. The flame will be transported by relay to Beijing, China, which will host the 2022 Winter Olympics next February — Photo: Eurokinissi/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more yay or yeesh about the artist currently known as Ye? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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