Giacomo Galeazzi and Ilario Lombardo
May 30, 2016
ROME â€" For the most part theyâ€™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, itâ€™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 Italyâ€™s second largest religion, as calculated by number of adherents (1.6 million). In requesting "5 per 1,000," thereâ€™s a need for zakat (charity), but also to fill the financial shortfall caused by the absence of an agreement between any of the countryâ€™s Islamic groups and the Italian government. Without this, mosques cannot benefit from Italyâ€™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 stateâ€™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 Introvigneâ€™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 Italyâ€™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 Italyâ€™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.
Italyâ€™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, heâ€™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 itâ€™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 Italyâ€™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 donâ€™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.
â€œTwenty-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 â€˜8 per 1,000" Iâ€™ll accept funding from whomever. Of course, there are countries offering financial support that donâ€™t much care for the idea of an autonomous Italian Islam."
Some, however, such as Introvigne of the Istituto Cesnur, think that the â€œ8 per 1,000â€ status still wouldnâ€™t stem the flow of money from Islamic countries. The Italian government, for its part, says the lack of unified goals among the countryâ€™s various Islamic groups has prevented them from obtaining the coveted â€œ8 per 1,000â€ status.
"Thatâ€™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 canâ€™t they do it with us?" is the refrain.
Saudis and Moroccans
The CII â€" the de facto manager of Romeâ€™s Great Mosque through its control of Italyâ€™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, Romeâ€™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 Italyâ€™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 Rabatâ€™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 Italyâ€™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 Moroccoâ€™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 Italyâ€™s first Islamic university in a villa in San Giovanni Lupatoto, outside Verona. "The goal is to train imams who are well-versed in Italyâ€™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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A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
Eva Marie Kogel
October 24, 2021
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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Die Welt ("The World") is a German daily founded in Hamburg in 1946, and currently owned by the Axel Springer AG company, Europe's largest publishing house. Now based in Berlin, Die Welt is sold in more than 130 countries. A Sunday edition called Welt am Sonntag has been published since 1948.
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