Laura Cesaretti

Freelance Journalist, Middle East and South Asia

When in Rome, do as the Muslims do

Jul
03

June 2017,  The New Arab Fair Observer

 

It is 33 degrees in Rome. The beaches are full and the bars are playing loud music, serving cold beers.

“The problem is not fasting,” Youssef, a young Moroccan barman, tells The New Arab on a hot Ramadan afternoon, “the problem is the environment. It is extremely difficult remaining in the Ramadan mood while working on a beach.”

Being a Muslim in Italy is not an easy task. It is not only the hot weather, the 17 hours of daily fasting during Ramadan, or the infamous temptations of la dolce vita which make it difficult to remain devoted. Strangely enough, in largely Catholic but secular Italy, Islam is not yet recognised as an official religion.

This is an undeniable political embarrassment for a European country with almost two million Muslims.

“The first official request was made the early 1990s,” says Mohammed Ben Mohammed, a Tunisian who has lived in Italy for more than 20 years. “It has been over 25 years that we are still waiting.”

Meanwhile, the Muslim community has been working to integrate with the local society. Ben Mohammed is imam and president of one of the oldest Islamic association centres in Rome. In a little over than a decade, the working-class eastern corner of the city home to the centre – previously known mainly for its high crime levels – has become an important hub for commercial and social life, and not only of Rome’s Arab community.

Although the gentrification process has many influences, it is significant that the mosque did not lead to the creation of a “foreign ghetto”, as many feared at the time it was launched.

“We are perfectly integrated with the local society,” Ben Mohammed says proudly. “Even after 9/11 we never had a negative reaction from our neighbours. The only problems come from media and politics.”

The public debate surounding Islam in Italy could at best be described as “shallow”. When major network channels visit local mosques, it is usually to ask about the latest terrorist attacks in Europe, or questioning building violations of informal mosques.

Newspaper articles and intellectual commentaries about Islam also are mainly relegated to terrorism and women’s issues.

Many Muslims here avoid commenting to media, fearing being misunderstood due to their lack of Italian fluency. Others, however, are quite outspoken.

In Tor Pignattara, a multi-ethnic area of Rome known for its Bangladeshi community, public events about Islam are not rare – especially during Ramadan. One event organised by the Dhuumcatu Association aimed to teach other Italians about Muslim practices by offering an Iftar dinner to their neighbours.

It did not go unnoticed that some of the Italian commari began to eat before sunset, while their Muslim hosts were still waiting to eat, their full plates in front of them.

“We know it is more out of naiveté than rudeness,” was one person’s reaction.

“Events like this are extremely important,” said Paola, an Italian woman who brought her family to eat the basmati rice on offer. “Unfortunately, they receive little support or publicity from local institutions.”

The official recognition of Islam would certainly be an important sign of a different approach. Back in the 1920s, Benito Mussolini is reported to have said “absolutely no” to the building of a mosque in Rome. It was eventually built in 1996, and in a very fashionable area.

Certainly, Italy has changed a lot since Mussolini’s time. But even now, the largest mosque in Europe is not recognised as such.

“In the 10 months that I have been here, I realised that Italians have very little knowledge of Islam,” notes Salah Ramadan Elsayed, an Egyptian Imam who graduated from Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

He studied at Sapienza University of Rome during his youth, and felt in love with the city’s beauty. Now he is back in the Italian capital with the difficult task of defeating the widespread prejudice in Italy toward Islam:

“Many Italians and Europeans are actually very interested in knowing the reality of Islam – I think they perceive there is something wrong about the image they receive in the media, so they come to this Islamic centre to know the truth.”

The Islamic Centre is the main reference point for the Muslim community in Italy. With its new extension, and the only minaret in the city, it is the symbol of Islamic culture, integration and prosperity in the heart of Catholicism. It has become also part of city life. Not only do people interested in Islam come here, but also those who fancy the exotic sweets and smells of the spices of the Friday market outside.

But even this monument is in a state of decay. For long the complex was supported and maintained by wealthy Arab donors. Now, the price of Middle Eastern wars, growing international prejudice, and the local economic crisis have all hit also this idyllic religious crossroads.

“I believe is up to us make now Italians understand a bit more about Islam,” says Mousumi Mridha, who works at the Dhuumcatu Association. “Sometimes when I wear the niqab I see that people got scared, so I often stop to explain why they should not.”

As such, many Islamic Centres opened their doors during Ramadan to invite community representatives to share Iftar moment with their local Muslim community. They also offered donations and meals to the many refugees that find themselves in a foreign country without family support.

Imam Elsayed says, on behalf of the Italian Muslim community: “We certainly need to do more.”

There is little interest in the Italian political scene inproviding more support to the Muslim community here. Many Muslims, although born in Italy, do not have Italian citizenship due to the frequent delay in introducing jus soli law – that citizenship depends on place of birth, not the nationality of parents.

This means there is also little political representation of Muslims. The Italian political system is thus at an impasse with how to deal with Islam. This is not the case in grassroots society, though.

As the Islamic Centre shows, every day, amid the city blocks there are Italians – Muslim and not Muslim – who are proving themselves many steps ahead of their political and media representatives.

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The Continuing Struggle for Religious Freedom by Italy’s Sikh Community

Jun
19

June 2017, The Wire.in

In Rome’s south end, every Sunday, Sonny wears a colourful turban and enters the gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship. “My name is actually Gurjeet,” he says, “but Italians find difficult to pronounce it, so they nicknamed me Sonny”.

Gurjeet, like many Sikhs, is from Punjab. He moved to Italy in 2008, joining Europe’s second largest Sikh community. Unlike many others from India, Gurjeet decided to stay in Rome, near the gurdwara, where he often helped prepare the free food offered to visitors.

It is estimated that there are around 220,000 Sikh migrants in Italy. The community, however, has been largely invisible to native Italians. The majority of Sikhs are dairy workers, living far from the cities, and settled mainly in the farms of north and central Italy.

Now and then, their religion and culture hit the headlines of Italian media. The main reason for the controversy is the kirpan, a traditional knife that Sikhs are obliged to wear for religious reasons.

 

The latest controversial case came in mid-May. A Sikh man, caught leaving his home with a 20-cm kirpan, was arrested and had to pay a penalty of 2000 euros. He appealed arguing that the knife is a religious symbol, but the Italian Supreme Court rejected his reasons, “Migrants who live in the western society” – says the sentence – “are obliged to adapt to the value of the society they choose to settle”.

Indeed, the words of the Italian Supreme Court come as a surprise. “What is worrying is the statement that a religious community needs to conform to Italian culture. This undermines religious freedom and the expression of other religious symbols, such as the hijab for Muslim women, or the Kippah for Jewish,” says Katiuscia Carna’ who holds a doctorate in religious studies and was formerly an advisor on cultural mediation to the Italian government.

“Today there are around 5 million foreigners in Italy. What does it mean ‘adapt to Italian culture’? Would it mean losing their religious identity? This is something we need to ask and publicly debate about,” says Carna’.

The Sikh community is not ready to lose the battle for their religious recognition, and have appealed to the sense of justice and religious freedom of the Italian institutions. “We are sorry the Italian government misunderstood this Kirpan issue,” says Gurdeep Singh, head of the gurdwara located in the south of Rome. “The real problem is that our religion is not officially recognised yet. We are working to find a solution as soon as possible”.

In Italy, for a religious authority to be officially recognised it needs to submit details of its foundation to the department of civil rights and religious freedom at the interior ministry. The request for Sikhism to be officially recognised was made over a decade ago, but the use of the kirpan as a religious symbol is seen as an obstacle to the full approval.

Italian law does not permit carrying a knife, unless you can prove it is for a valid reason. Religion, unlike for work or sport, is not considered by Italian authorities.

“The difference between a knife and a kirpan needs to be understood,” says Harbinder Singh, chief editor of the Punjab Express, the newspaper of the Sikh community in Italy, “A knife that can be used on the farm, in the kitchen, or at work, and can be used for violent reasons. A kirpan cannot because it is a religious symbol”.

In the last few years, Italian institutions have proved the willingness to commit to these new challenges. “Italy has to show openness to dialogues, although in its own Italian style,” Carna’ says.The lack of recognition as an official religion, however, does not concern only Sikhism, but also Islam, with over a million Muslims living in the country. “In Italy integration has always corresponded to an ‘emergency response’, therefore it never provided long-term answers to the migrant demands. But immigration cannot be faced only as an emergency. In a globalised and postmodern era, we should have expected that the phenomenon would increase,” says Carna’.

Indeed this means making slow and small efficient bureaucratic advances. On the other hand, communities such as Sikhs have show flexibility in their demands. For instance, regarding the kirpan, the majority of Sikhs seem open to reduce the length of the blade from 16-17 cm to less than 4 cm, thus eliminating the concern regarding the public order.

“For us, it is extremely important to find a solution with the Italian government. We have all our families here, our sons and daughters are going to Italian schools and we want to respect Italian laws,” says Harbinder. Sikhs also proudly carry the heritage of being one of the first foreign communities to arrive in Europe and want to maintain their reputation in Italian society.

Over 10,000 Sikhs helped Italy during the First World War as part of the Indian army of the British Empire. Many cities in Italy have monuments celebrating this contribution. Even now, their role is fundamental to the Italian economy. Sikhs are in fact indispensable to the dairy industry and cheese manufacturers producing Italian parmesan and mozzarella.

Italy, however, remains a unique case of a secular state, where the Catholic religion still plays a predominant role. “Italy is not a Catholic but a secular country, therefore we need to recognise all religions in the public space. Freedom of religion needs to be guaranteed, with the only limit to negative influence toward the local society,” says Carna’.

Steady progress is being made, although slow and insufficient where migrants’ demands are concerned. Certainly, long-term resident communities, such as the Sikhs, making important contributions to Italian society will speed up the process.

For instance, the Sikhi Sewa Society, composed mainly of young, second generation Sikhs, print around 30,000 booklets in the Italian language every year, explaining the different aspects of Sikhism. The aim of these booklets is to increase integration and do away with misunderstandings.

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Malalai Joya: One woman standing against warlords

Jun
19

May 2017, The New Arab

“The resistance of the people is the real hope,” says Malalai Joya, a fearless human rights activist and a former member of the Afghan parliament.

She was speaking in Rome about the threat faced by human rights defenders around the world. But she hardly spoke about her struggle, and more about that of all Afghans fighting discrimination and oppression.

“The European countries are deporting Afghans back,” she says. “But many of them have only two ways in front of them: to became drug addicted, or to join the Islamic State group or Taliban who pay $600 per month for their fighters.

“Millions of Afghans are suffering from insecurity, corruption and unemployment. When they leave Afghanistan and they come to Western countries they face enormous risks, and finally, when they arrive, they have also to deal with discrimination. But I believe the US and NATO – including Italy – have a huge responsibility for the current economic situation of Afghanistan.”

Joya, who shares a forename with Afghan national hero Malalai of Maiwand, is today as passionate and fearless as she was under the Taliban regime, when she used to run underground schools for girls.

She has become a global symbol of resistance against corruption and oppression, and an inspiration for women around the world. Today, she continues to be outspoken against what she calls “the warlord system”, accusing western countries of betraying the values of democracy and human rights in Afghanistan.

“Somehow, things for activists like me have become even worse,” she said. “Under the Taliban, we had only one enemy – now we have Taliban, warlords, Islamic State, occupation forces that keep dropping bombs, and the so-called technocrats, who have compromised in exchange for money and power.”

Laura Cesaretti was in Rome, and spoke to Malalai Joya on behalf of The New Arab.

Laura Cesaretti: ‘Malalai, in 2007 you publicly confronted the Afghan parliament, denouncing the warlords’ system in Afghan politics. What has changed since then?’

Malalai Joya: “Unfortunately, the situation has become even more of a disaster. Still, our country is considered on the top of the list of drug producers, corruption, unhappy [citizens], misogynists and war-affected.

“The reason is because, after 9/11, US and NATO forces replaced the Taliban regime with fundamentalist warlords who had caused a civil war in 1992 to 1996. In Kabul alone, more than 65,000 innocent people were killed – 20-year-old mothers raped, as well as young girls. Many of the crimes they committed were not different from those committed later by the Taliban.

“The change was only physical, and their bloody hands were imposed on the Afghan people.”

LC: ‘A few days ago, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the notorious Afghan warlord, returned to Kabul after nearly two decades in exile. For many, it was a shock, but others welcomed it as an important step toward peace. What do you think?’

MJ: “The result of this so-called ‘peace’ will be more bloodshed and more human rights violations. We have experienced that already, 15 years ago, with the so-called ‘peace of the warlords’. The only demand of the people is justice – Hekmatyar should at least apologise to the Afghan people.

“Instead, the first day he arrived in Kabul, he attacked the media – and we have freedom of media written into our constitution.”

LC: ‘How can Afghanistan put a difficult past behind it, and work towards a better future?’

MJ: “Since the Soviet invasion until now, war has been ongoing. People, especially the most uneducated, have lost everything. But we do have one thing: political consciousness. That is why my message around the world is always ‘please, empower our people with education’.

“But the system is corrupt. It is true that some schools have been built, especially in the big cities, but it was just a justification for the occupation.”

LC: ‘The NATO coalition said that women rights in Afghanistan were one of the most important achievements reached with the intervention. Do you agree with that?’

MJ: “This is propaganda of the US and NATO to the mainstream media. They were not the first to bring women’s rights to Afghanistan. This is a lie. Even mainstream media in the 1960s used to report Afghanistan with women dressing more or less like western people. They were playing a role in the society.

“Only when these fundamentalist warlords came to power and these extremists who mix Islam with politics arrived, the situation of women became a disaster… The story of Farkhunda and how she was killed in daylight, just a few kilometres away from the palace offices is one example.

“What has happened? The small fish went to jail while sharks are still free. We are very far away from values such as peace and democracy – as long as fundamentalists remain in power, as long as the occupation will be in the country, it is will be still a prolonged struggle.”

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The Curious, Quiet Success of Italian Counter-Terrorism

Jun
19

April, 2017, War is Boring

After a wave of recent terrorist attacks, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Belgium have all debated their existing security strategies. The duty of politics is to answer public fears—however this always comes with the risk that fears will guide reactive counter-terrorism policies that ultimately fail.

Italy, however, has taken a different approach. “Let sleeping dogs lie,” appears to be the strategy, as if largely avoiding the discussion will take away the threat.

Partly, this is because Italy has been “immune” to jihadist terrorist attacks, although not from terrorist threats. Days after the March 22 vehicle attack on pedestrians walking on London’s Westminster Bridge, Italian police nabbed four alleged jihadi terrorists for plotting to blow up Venice’s 16th-century Rialto Bridge.

Incompetence appears to have undone these would-be terrorists, as police had wiretapped their phones. Indeed, threats from jihadist groups directed at Italy are “quite naïve” and unsophisticated, according to Marco Arnaboldi, a researcher at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

“Italian jihadists are still on Facebook, while the others are using Twitter or Telegram.”

However, this doesn’t mean that the threat isn’t real. Italy has participated in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the military intervention against the Islamic State—meaning the country is a potential target for retaliation. Although the Italian military has kept a relatively low profile overseas.

Since the 1980s, Italy has functioned as a logistical base for various radical Islamic movements from North Africa and South Asia. Cities such as Milan and Como, as well as other northern provinces, have long served as hubs of the jihadist network operating in Europe.

Above—Italian police in Venice. Dalbera photo via Flickr. At top—a Carabinieri during a training exercise. Allied Joint Force Command photo

These hubs still exist to some extent, despite police counter-terrorism operations. Yet, many Italians have little knowledge of their own state’s counter-terrorism policies.

Public debate is largely confined to the margins of a consensus assumed by both left-wing and right-wing governments. Since the early 2000s, Italy has closed many unregulated mosques to the widespread silence of the Italian population, who opposed building new ones.

Italy’s official commitment to freedom of religion is at odds with anti-migration policies and rhetoric, and some MPs have relegated the issue to a “security matter.” With a population of more than 1.6 million Muslims, Italy has only four registered mosques. The reasons for this are also bureaucratic, according to Arnaboldi.

Opening a mosque requires burdensome documentation, while creating an Islamic cultural center—there are hundreds in Italy—is more straightforward. Yet, the issue remains.

Furthermore, the government has applied counter-terrorism measures, such as the systematic deportation of suspects, without much public inquiry. In 2015, then-Interior Minister Angelino Alfano proudly announced that the number of deportations for security reasons tripled compared to 2014. To date, that number has risen to 153.

The motivations behind deportations can vary from less to more serious accusations. It is not unusual, however, for Italy to deport immigrants for showing even basic signs of sympathy for extremist ideas, such as naming one’s daughter “Jihad,” in the case of a Salafi preacher.

From a democratic perspective, the Italian approach raises doubts as to whether it balances security and respect for fundamental rights—such as religion, even fundamentalist forms of it.

“Apologia [for terrorism] may be the prelude to a crime,” explains Riccardo Noury, spokesperson of Amnesty International Italy. “But in that case, we need to assess whether or not it is legitimate to intervene at that stage. In some case probably it is, but without a specific body of law, there is the risk to confuse apologia with an actual act of crime.”

Nonetheless, some analysts such Edward Luttwak argue that Italy’s tough enforcement is the real reason behind Italy’s success at preventing terrorist attacks.

A long history of combating domestic left- and right-wing terrorist groups, as well as the fight against the Mafia, have prepared local intelligence and police forces to be more effective, albeit questionable from a humanitarian point of view. But this theory is perhaps too neat to explain the whole story.

“Indeed, Italy has a history of prevention and counter-terrorism …. But this is not the reason why Italy have been immune until now to the attacks,” says Arturo Varvelli, a research fellow at ISPI, a leading Italian think tank.

“I believe the main reason is strictly related to numbers,” he adds. “We have a generation of migrants who are growing [up] now, so we haven’t seen the second or third generation who appear to be more sensitive to the propaganda of the Islamic State in [the] last two years in parts of Europe.”

Statistics support this point. The Interior Ministry estimates that 110 people from Italy traveled to Syria or Iraq with the intention of joining militant groups, among whom only 12 to 15 hold an Italian citizenship. It’s a paltry number compared to the 1,200 militants believed to have traveled from France and might return to Europe with terroristic intent.

According to this theory, Italy is relying on its demographic structure rather than on a comprehensive formula to confront threats. The result is a reduction of potential threats through hard security measures and by controlling migration. “In this context, deportation is working well,” Arnaboldi said. “Certainly, a suspect can always come back, but for now these type of measures prove to be effective.”

But there is another peculiarity of the Italian model, strictly related to structural obstacles rather than the government’s measures. The most important obstacle is the monopolistic role of Italian organized crime groups in the black market weapons trade.

“The Italian market for illegal arms is saturated by the Mafia organizations” Arnaboldi explains. “In the case a jihadist want to organize a terrorist attack, there is the possibility that he will face these endemic obstructions.”

However, if Italian jihadists have simply not caught up with their French, British, Belgian or German counterparts, then it might just be a matter of time before Italy’s security services fail to react to new, unpredictable threats.

“The government is working on an Italian approach of countering radicalization,” says Varvelli, explaining that a commission to define the guidelines for a more comprehensive strategy has been set up.

Perhaps the most infamous recent episode is the case of Imam Abu Omar. The Egyptian Imam arrived in Italy in 2001, obtaining a regular asylum passport. However, security authorities soon put Abu Omar under surveillance for suspected ties to Al Qaeda networks. Abu Omar was an alleged member of Gamaat Islamiya, which had engaged in a bloody insurgency in Egypt during the 1990s.

In 2003, the Italian and American intelligence services abducted him from the center of Milan, moving him to Egypt, where he was imprisoned without charges, and allegedly tortured, until 2007.

Armando Spataro, the public prosecutor who followed the case, denounced the impunity around this extraordinary rendition, warning that the Italian justice system was under threat.

On several occasions, including during closing proceedings in a 2009 case—in which 22 CIA operatives and a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel were convicted in absentia for kidnapping—Spataro stressed the importance for anti-terrorism policies to not undermine legal principles, the basic fabric of any democracy.

But it is not only the critical balance between security and liberty that challenges Italy’s democracy. There are also serious concerns about the long-term consequences of a hard-line approach. Academics might debate on whether or not jihadist groups represent a new form of terrorism, but they seem to agree that terrorists are exploiting growing social divisions in Europe.

In this context, an anti-Muslim attitude will prove to be counter-productive. A sense of persecution and grievance is likely to increase, especially among extremist sympathizers, who may then go on to commit violent acts. The Islamic State knows this well, and have already used these feelings as powerful tool for recruitment.

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Afghanistan’s Militias: The Enemy Within?

Feb
19

The Diplomat, January 4 2017

KABUL — It has been over 15 years since U.S.-led international troops arrived in Afghanistan. Today, beauty salons fill the streets of Kabul and Indian music plays loudly during traffic jams. Yet the news from the provinces is distressing. Afghan security forces are currently engaged in active battle across at least 26 of the country’s 34 provinces. Occasional attacks interrupt the normal daily routine of the chaotic capital, once the center of the secular Afghan aristocracy, now an architectural landmark of the war business.

(more…)

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