Posted on September 26, 2006

Muslims Offered Italian Values

Federico Bordonaro, IPS, September 25, 2006

Rome — Interior Minister Giuliano Amato proposed in August that Muslim organisations in Italy will need to subscribe to a Charter of Values to signal their readiness to be fully integrated into Italian society and its political culture.

Rome is facing a huge challenge: it cannot fail to integrate its increasingly numerous Muslim immigrant population, but since integration policies in Europe are regarded as less than successful, it is forced to seek new solutions.

Pope Benedict’s controversial speech in Regensburg in Germany (Sep. 12) added to Italy’s concerns about its integration policy towards Muslim minorities. Muslim leaders in Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Kuwait, but even in France and Germany sharply criticised the pontiff’s choice to quote a harsh critique of Islam and Jihad issued by Byzantine Christian Emperor Manuel II Paleologos back in 1391.

Efforts have been made to placate Muslim concerns in the aftermath of the diplomatic incident. On Sep. 22, sources from the Islamic Council in Italy confirmed that the Pope is going to meet diplomats from Muslim countries, members of Italian Muslim organisations and Muslim religious leaders in Castelgandolfo near Rome on Sep. 25. The goal of the meeting, sources say, is to give the Catholic-Muslim dialogue a fresh start.

After the Madrid and London terror attacks in 2004 and 2005, the Danish cartoon controversy, and last summer’s so-called honour killing in northern Italy where a Pakistani immigrant killed his daughter, worries about Muslim integration in Italy have increased.

In particular, public debate among Italian intellectuals and specialists highlights the worry that in Muslim countries only a minority of intellectuals have criticised the call for retaliation issued by religious and extremist political leaders, while conciliatory words pronounced by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the Pope explained that his speech was “not intended to hurt Muslim feelings” have been cautiously received.

One thing is sure, though, and it is the heart of the matter: Rome cannot afford to fail to integrate Italian Muslims and to enhance their attachment to national democratic and constitutional values if it is to avoid a bitter political and social conflict..

Since both assimilation-oriented policies and multiculturalism are considered unsatisfying models for effective integration strategies, Italy faces inner divisions among policy-makers and within the public about the right way to address the question. Muslim communities are rapidly becoming necessary interlocutors for shaping new political courses.

Compared with Britain, the Netherlands or Germany, Italy still has a relatively small Muslim population (less than one million in a total of 57 million) and, furthermore, its Muslim communities are politically less integrated than in these other European countries.

In late August, after an anti-Israel advertisement by the Union of Italian Islamic Communities (UCOII), which was widely condemned for being anti-Semitic (it compared Israel’s military actions to Nazi brutalities), Amato proposed the draft of a Charter of Values whose details are now being studied. The Charter would set out Italy’s basic democratic, constitutional rights and obligations, and provide for acceptance among Muslim communities of republican, liberal-democratic values.

Members of the right-of-centre opposition have sharply criticised the government for “too soft” an approach, and vociferously called for the ban of UCOII. Former ministers like Maurizio Gasparri and Roberto Castelli said Rome should disband and outlaw UCOII, or at least suspend it from the recognised Muslim organisations. The government has said such a move would be unrealistic since UCOII is by far the most important Muslim association, although it is rapidly becoming the most controversial as well.

More importantly, UCOII leaders themselves have adopted a flexible approach to the government’s proposal. “Our organisation unanimously recognised the mistake made in the communication form (chosen for the advertisement), which was used by many to lambaste us”, UCOII said in a statement Sep. 3. “Our religion forbids us to express any racial discrimination and obliges us to respect Christians and Jews alike.”

In past centuries, UCOII added, “Islamic jurisprudence provided the framework for religious tolerance and harmony in the East, in Sicily, in North Africa and Turkey.”

UCOII then agreed to openly discuss Amato’s proposal. Such a choice appears in line with recent attempts made both by Rome and by Muslim communities to define a broad framework for the creation of an Italian Islam, an issue considered particularly delicate and important.

Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s right-of-centre majority government had proposed the establishment of an Italian Islamic Council [Consulta Islamica] in December 2005. Then interior minister Giuseppe Pisanu nominated UCOII president Mohamed Nour Dachan as a member of the Council, and was criticised for that by some fellow ministers, parts of public opinion and some well-known journalists.

In fact, few observers have noted that Pisanu’s and Amato’s proposals are not very different in nature, nor that they reflect a growing sentiment among European decision-makers about the urgency of a new immigration policy. On Mar. 23 this year French Interior Minister and presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy proposed that immigrants must learn the language of their adopted country, and to fully subscribe to required social norms if they are to avoid expulsion.

UCOII also officially accepted Pope Ratzinger’s invitation to an open dialogue on faith and reason between Islam and Christendom, with the clear aim to propose itself as an indispensable partner for both the religious and political sides of Italy’s efforts to launch an effective integration policy.

As a consequence, UCOII seems to have good chances of improving its image in Italian society, and in spite of many suspicions about its real commitment to full respect for republican and secular values, it is also emerging as a political protagonist. Those who maintain a negative view of the organisation will likely have little chance to exclude it from public life.

Current political events, though, are not sufficient indications to grasp the fundamental reality of the Muslim presence in Italy. Demographics, citizenship, religious identity and political participation of Muslim minorities in public policy are all decisive aspects in the integration issue. Since Italy is a land of immigration, and its birth rate (around 1.2 children per woman) is amongst the lowest in the Western world, its political and economic elite have often signalled the need for qualified immigrant manpower.

However, such needs are difficult to harmonise with the population’s perceived security risk arising from a large Muslim population. Identity and religious issues locally, combined with the current international crises in the Middle East conjure fears of a potentially explosive cultural clash. Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s government thus launched an ambitious plan to revolutionise immigrants’ access to citizenship, which could also pave the way to better political participation of new Italians of foreign origin.

Because the government has first chosen to privilege a quantitative approach (citizenship should be given to those who have lived in Italy for at least five years and to every child born on Italian territory), Amato’s Charter of Values appears like a qualitative input into that programme. This notwithstanding, the lack of a universally recognised success story in European efforts to integrate Muslim minorities continues to worry decision-makers and public opinion alike.

Franco Frattini, former Italian foreign minister and now vice-president of the EU commission, told Il Sole-24 Ore newspaper Sep. 14 that “asymmetric and individual policies in Europe aren’t the right strategy”, referring to Italy’s decision to regularise thousands of immigrants while Spain took the opposite path of expelling 800,000 “clandestine” foreigners.

Frattini criticised Prodi’s proposal for automatic citizenship after five years because that way “the Pakistani man who killed his daughter on our territory last summer would be given Italian citizenship, which is absurd since he broke our laws.”

He also praised Nicolas Sarkozy’s tough view on a common European assimilation strategy and said that “all current immigration policies in Europe are unsuccessful, thus forcing us to change strategy.”

The biggest challenge for Rome is to rapidly find a just and effective solution, combining adequate education offers, political participation, and rules to be respected — a goal that will be reached only if extremist factions on both sides are successfully marginalised.