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L’islam en Italie

"The return of Islam" is the title of a book - practically the first of its kind - on the spread of Islam in Italy, published in 1993 by S. Allievi and F. Dassetto (Il ritorno dell’islam, ed. Lavoro, Rome 1993). The word "return" clearly refers to the historic presence of Islam in the Italian Peninsula, from as early as the 8th century. It is well known that Sicily was Muslim for several centuries, and the South of Italy in particular was often the theatre of operations and raids. There were the Bari and Taranto emirates which appeared at the end of the 9th century and later on (16th – 17th century), with the expansion of the Ottoman empire, contact with Islam once more became frequent. The people of the Mediterranean were brought together – willingly or unwillingly – by the colonial adventures of the 20th century. Today, this "Islamic past" is all but forgotten, which with the new – and certainly different – presence of Muslims in Italy, re-opens the issue of the knowledge of Islam in Italy and by Italians.

It appears difficult to give precise estimations as to the number of Muslims living in Italy, firstly due to the inherent complexity of the very notion of who a Muslim, or simply a believer, is. According to the last (2005) Caritas report on migrants, (prepared on the basis of residence permits valid at the end of 2003) immigrant Muslims would be around 730,000, that is to say 33% of the total foreign population. If minors and yet-to-be-registered permits holders are added, as well as those who newly arrived or were born during the year, the number comes to 919, 492 Muslims as at 31 December 2004.
In the estimations on Muslim identity, the country of origin and indeed geo-cultural factors, play a decisive role. These however are not always precise factors in defining Muslims, both in quantitative and qualitative terms. For example, Albanians are often considered as Muslims (which does not necessarily follow given that until recently, their Communist Government had imposed atheism).

The current existence of Muslims in Italy must be seen in relation to the migratory cycles which, starting from the 1950s, have affected Western Europe. It was however only in the 80s that Italy witnessed a real migratory trend, which would continue to grow during the 1990s, following the fall of Communist regimes and the massive exodus from the Balkans towards Italy.

One particularity of the immigrant population in Italy is the diversity in the countries of origin (notably countries that are predominantly Muslim) – from Morocco to Albania, from Senegal to Egypt, from Bangladesh to Iran, from Tunisia to China, etc. This tendency towards plurality has been maintained over the years. The African continent alone illustrates this situation. According to the Caritas report, at the beginning of 2004, Africans who were legally resident in Italy numbered 516,424 (figures from the Italian Ministry of the Interior), that is 23.5% of the total immigrant population in Italy. The majority (68.2%) come from North Africa - Morocco takes the lead with 227,940 persons, Tunisia 60,572 and Algeria 16,835, thereby accounting for 59.1% of foreigners legally resident in Italy. The Egyptian community is the fourth largest community with 44,798 people. The Muslim community is essentially made up of men although there are 96,000 women of North African origin.
While analysing this data, it is interesting to note that more than one third of immigrants come from several countries which have Islamic cultures. This translates into an Islam that is multifaceted in appearance and belonging, be it along national, ethnic, cultural, ideological or personal lines.

The process by which Islam became more visible in the public sphere was slower in Italy than in other European countries. The condition of foreigners was nevertheless quickly stabilised, and this has given rise, in a relatively short period of time, to diversified forms of collective belonging to the Muslim faith.
Actors and means of action have been, and still are, diverse : they range from "the State Islam" (with initiatives coming from the Muslim home countries, or claiming to be related to the official Islam of the home countries), to the Sufi Islam, usually organised in brotherhoods, not ommitting the action of the groups of religiouse, ideologic or political origin. As early as the 1990s, the rapid increase of the number of Islamic associations and places of worship displays the strong will for organization of various groups, of different types.

The most active and well-known groups in Italy are the Unione delle comunità islamiche d’Italia (UCOII), meant to represent the majority of mosques in Italy and often labelled as fundamentalist, and the Islamic Cultural Centre of Italy, linked to the big mosque in Rome and ran by diplomats from different Muslim countries. The Comunità Religiosa Islamica (COREIS), an association made up of Italian Muslims, is very active in promoting the knowledge of Islam, but is not often regarded as being representative of Muslim immigrants. The organisations mentioned have made proposals on a draft agreement with the Italian Government that would lead to the recognition of Islam as an official religion. This issue however, has remained for many years at the heart of a thorny debate.
The brotherhood-based Sufi Islam is a form of Muslim belonging which is not well-known and certainly not so visible, even if traditional Muslim brotherhoods exist in several regions in Italy. The number of Sufi followers is still quite small. The assumption can easily be made that all these different levels of religious belonging often coincide and are intermixed, particularly among Muslim immigrants who are frequently find themselves having to re-negotiate their belonging in the face of new and different processes and conditions.

Several mosques and prayer rooms in Italy have been built sometimes as a result of voluntary initiatives and are relatively independent. In general however, attendance at these places is often closely related to one’s country of origin – national and/or cultural ties remain very strong and constitute a key factor in bringing people together. There are not enough mosques and prayers rooms given the number and needs of worshippers, although more are being built.

If the Muslim community as a group did not appear interested in participating in politics, the international geo-political situation and the heightened importance of international terrorism has, in some measure, changed the position of Muslims in foreign lands. It has also changed observers’ perspectives on terrorism and the links – more presumed than real – between Islam and politics. As is the case in other places, Islamic terrorism is excessively reported in the media and this has the risk of encouraging a negative and dangerous appreciation of Islam.

Among the political authorities, the official recognition of Islam by the State is still at the early stages, due to resistance either on the Italian side, or within the Muslim groups themselves. In fact, several groups have set out to be the special dialogue partners with the Government, in the name of the community, which they would represent through a legal agreement (intesa). When it comes to the negotiations, the crux of the matter is and will probably be for some time yet, the lack of agreement between the representation and representativeness (rappresentanza e rappresentatività) of a diverse and fragmented Muslim community.

D 2 septembre 2013    AAlessandra Marchi

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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