Islam in Italy

Speaking in Arabic. Torino, April 2018.

In December 2009, the city of Genoa authorised the building of a mosque on a piece of land provided by local authorities. On 23 January, the Northern League organised a referendum for consultation at the city level, and allegedly, 99 percent of the 5,300 voters voted against allowing the new mosque. On 27 April, the spokesperson of the local Islamic community resigned after receiving threats from local citizens.

Other than a debate among local architects about the design of the proposed mosque and the local imam’s appeal for a decision to be made before the end of 2010, nothing substantive had transpired by the end of the reporting period. City of Turin officials approved plans for a mosque that can accommodate up to seven hundred worshipers. Finalised building permits were approved in December and work is expected to commence in January 201 1.

Consistent with the city’s ban on the construction of any tower-like structures, the plans did not include a minaret. Milan, home to an estimated 100,000 Muslims, has several small “cultural centres,” but there is no true mosque within the city. The attempts by the Islamic Centre of Via Padova, an organisation of several thousand Muslims that has tried for several years to build a mosque with a minaret in Milan, continued to be unsuccessful. On 2 October, the mayor of Milan stated that no mosque can be built in Milan in the absence of a national law on mosques or at least security guarantees from the national government.

The continuing presence of Catholic symbols, such as crucifixes, in courtrooms, schools, and other public buildings continued to draw criticism and led to a number of lawsuits. The one with most visibility originated in 2002, when a mother argued that the presence of crucifixes in her children’s public school classrooms ran counter to the principle of secularism, and referred to a Court of Cassation judgment in 2000 that had found the presence of crucifixes in polling stations to be contrary to the principle of secularism of the state.

Pro-migrant graffiti. Torino, April 2013.

The case continued through all levels of the justice system but lost because crucifixes were not only religious symbols but also considered to be symbols of the country’s history, culture, and identity, and considered to represent the democratic principles of equality, liberty, and tolerance. In 2006, the country’s highest administrative court dismissed the mother’s appeal, arguing that in the country the crucifix represented the secular values of the constitution and of civic life. The mother took the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which in November 2009 determined that the display of crucifixes in public schools violated the separation of church and state. The ruling condemned the country for violating freedom of religion and the right to education.

On 2 March, the ECHR agreed to hear the government’s appeal, and on June 30, the ECHR Grand Chamber heard the government’s case. On 25 September, Foreign Affairs Minister Franco Frattini said that the principle expressed by the ECHR in its ruling, according to which the crucifix is a symbol of division between believers and nonbelievers, is offensive and unacceptable. The Grand Chamber had not announced its decision by the end of the reporting period.

On 10 February, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni established a Committee for Italian Islam made up of 19 Muslim and non-Muslim experts organized into four working groups on imam training, mosques, burqa law, and mixed marriages. They will submit recommendations to the government on new rules that might facilitate religious practices and integration. The committee received criticism for its mainly Italian, non-Muslim constitution. In April one member of the committee, a convert to Islam and member of the board of the mosque of Rome, resigned, stating that “only two out of eight working group rapporteurs are Muslims” and only a few of the members are “practising Muslims recognised by their own communities”.

On 14 July, the committee expressed a favourable opinion of a draft law submitted by the Northern League to the Chamber of Deputies in September that bans the burqa and niqab. The committee suggested removing a specific reference to Islam from the text, noting that the two garments are worn by only a few ethnic minorities and are not mandatory under Islamic doctrine. If approved, the law would punish those who force persons to hide their face with one year in prison and a 30,000 euro ($40,200) fine.

Adapted from a State Department report (2010) courtesy of Photographs by Joel Schalit. Published under a Creative Commons license.