The shift in the Muslim migrants’ religious affiliation from the private sphere to the public one has been marked by an evolution in the meaning to be attributed to the word “community”, with the old one now being called into question by a new generation of Muslims

This article was published in Oasis 28. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:58:43

The religious affiliation of Muslim migrants arriving in Italy generally remained confined to the private sphere until the 1990s. Indeed, it has only been following a phase of family reunification that they have begun to get organized and live their religion publicly. This process has been marked by an evolution in the meaning to be attributed to the word “community,” with the old one now being called into question by a new generation of Muslims aspiring to take an active part in the society in which they live.


When it arrived in the migrants’ suitcases in the early 1980s, Islam—or, to be more precise, Islamic religious practice—was not central to defining Muslim immigrants.[1] The latter were seen and referred to on the basis of their national affiliation or their status as “foreigners in transit” or, again, “temporary workers.” Partly because the overwhelming majority of Muslim immigrants perceived their stay in Italy as merely temporary, Islam was confined to the private sphere during this first phase of the migration cycle. The opening of the first prayer halls in the early 1990s constituted the first faint testimony to Islam’s presence in the Italian public space and marked the beginning of the migration cycle’s second phase, namely, that of the immigrants’ consolidation and family reunification.[2] Beginning to realise that their presence was stabilizing, some of the Muslims residing in Italy began to get organized and live their religion publicly during the 1990s. This they did by making official requests to public institutions or simply becoming a subject-matter for reflection, debate and analysis.[3] It was during this period that, in the wake of developments in other European countries where Islam had been present for longer, migrants of Islamic origin began to see themselves (but also to be seen and referred to) according to their religious affiliation: this became the criterion for identifying their otherness. This process became more marked after September 11, in particular, when anti-Islamic discourses began to take hold throughout Europe and Italians discovered that the Muslims’ presence was no longer transitory and that Islam had become the country’s second religion. However, the 2000s primarily marked the appearance of a new generation, born and bred in Italy, that increasingly questioned the vision of its fathers; fathers who tended to reproduce the ways of living and the codes of behaviour found in their countries of origin, speaking Arabic rather than Italian and thinking more about returning home than about integrating into Italian life. When compared to their parents’ generation, the new generation is distinguishable not only because it grows up in Italian schools, frequents the universities and creates associations but, first and foremost, because it clearly aspires to participation in the social and political life of the country that it feels is its own, the cultural and linguistic codes of which it has mastered.


The emergence of this new generation (which nevertheless remains a relatively weak and marginal component of Italian Islam) has provoked a confrontation in practically every community or mosque in the Italian territory. Those who assert the need to maintain a certain degree of separateness from the “Italians” in order to protect an identity they feel to be under threat are being challenged by those who believe in the need to become an integral part of the society in which they live and in which their children are growing up.


This tension running through the mosques but also often through families, if not through individuals, is becoming particularly apparent in the difficult and equally contradictory redefinition of the meaning to be attributed to the word “community.” This redefinition involves the Muslims’ relationship with the rest of Italian society but also with their sense of belonging and with their individual and collective identity. What is at stake is what it actually means to be Muslim in a non-Islamic society.



God’s Laws and Man-made Laws


In order to understand the meaning Muslims attribute to the notion of “community,” we must first ask ourselves how Muslims see themselves in Italy and, consequently, how they conceive of their own organization and public presence. In order to do this, it is helpful to start with the question that Italian institutions and representatives of Islam have been asking themselves for years: how to reconcile observance of national legislation, a “man-made” legislation, with the religious obligation to respect the rules established by sharia, generally considered to be “divine” laws?


The responses from Islamic leaders in Italy during interviews over the years[4] reveal, first of all, that the majority of them share the idea that Muslims have a religious obligation to observe the laws of the country in which they live, on condition that the national laws do not prevent Muslims from practising their religion.[5] Looking beyond this generally shared criterion, three different approaches can be distinguished. These reflect three different ways of articulating the relationship between community and citizenship. First of all, there is the position of those who support the need to respect the Italian law always, in every case. Then there are those who aspire to the gradual achievement of a sharia for the Muslim minority (particularly in the area of family law). Lastly, there are those who assert sharia’s supremacy “always and everywhere” and who thus hope for the extensive and integral application of religious law.


The first group constructs its discourse principally around practical considerations. Beginning with the observation that Italian legislation does not prevent Muslims from practising their religion, it emphasises the impossibility of guaranteeing social cohesion if every community were to demand its own particular legislation. Abdellah Redouane, secretary-general of the Grand Mosque of Rome, maintains that sharia for the Muslim minority will only be possible when European societies have reached a certain degree of maturity and social cohesion, thereby allowing the fear and mistrust currently characterizing them to be overcome:


I think that societies that have reached a certain level of maturity, societies in which there is a    certain social cohesion, societies that are not afraid, are able to reflect on certain issues,          particularly those regarding personal status, on the basis of specific laws, if these do not conflict with the laws of the country, obviously. We cannot claim to form states within states and jurisdictions within jurisdictions. Nor can we end up with ghettoization, with specific laws for each community: that would not be in the interests either of Muslims or of the others.


As these words demonstrate, those who do not hope for a sharia of the minority in the near future are nevertheless able to foresee such a solution in a more distant future. In this respect, they come closer to the far more extensive group of all those explicitly in favour of a sharia for the minority. According to this latter group (although the emphases often vary), this formula would allow Muslims to safeguard their Islamic identity and respect their creed without undermining social cohesion. To such end, the president of the An-Nour Islamic Centre in Bologna clearly distinguishes social laws from family law:


I think that social laws must be the same for everyone, whereas certain aspects must be specifically recognized for Muslims, since they need certain laws as far as marriage, inheritance etc. are concerned. These laws must comply with sharia, whereas for all the others, like those relating to trading and business, there is no problem at all.


In fact, almost all the Muslims interviewed hope for a sharia for the Muslim minority, particularly with regard to personal status and family law, as a Moroccan imam—an exponent of the so-called “Consular” or state Islam[6]—sums up:


I agree with a minority law reserved to Muslims, but only as far as family law is concerned. It’s normal, because we are different as far as marriage is concerned, just as we are as far as inheritance is concerned. So I am for a minority law but only in relation to family law, because it organizes social life. But it must not conflict with the law here in Italy. For example, here it is not possible to marry two or three women because, even if Islam permits it, it can cause many social problems.


These words demonstrate—not without contradictions—how the issue is understanding to what extent Muslims can demand the application of religious laws in a country that is, at least in principle, secular and in which no distinction between citizens on grounds of religious affiliation can be invoked.


For the third group, comprising those who accord an (almost) absolute primacy to sharia, Muslims are bound to apply Islamic law integrally. Separate legislation for the minority would therefore be absolutely necessary, as a leader belonging to the Tablighi Jamaat movement confirms:


We have no doubt that there must be specific laws for Muslims. We have other laws; not in order to cancel the Italian laws but in order to give other laws to Muslims, to guarantee the rights of Muslims living in Italy. Q. But there are Islamic laws that can contradict Italian legislation. Those regarding inheritance, for example. A. Yes, that’s true. But why? Because women don’t have half: they have double. Under the law here, they ought to have half but, in our system, they already have double, because they take a part from their parents and a part from their husband, whereas he has only one part. This law is written in the Qur’an. It’s not me who has made it, it’s God who has made it and therefore we can only accept it.


As can be inferred from these words, the case for an integral application of sharia is based on the latter’s alleged divine origin and thus its superiority in comparison with man-made law. According to this vision, sharia of minority is not meant to cancel the Italian law but would only apply to Muslims.


The idea of the Islamic laws being applied integrally is another cornerstone of the Salafi—and, more generally, fundamentalist[7]—vision according to which, in the countries that do not apply sharia and in which Islam is a minority religion, Muslims must build a type of community that can allow “that which Allah has given us” to be applied:


Here, we are in Italy, another country with another law and this law must be observed. If Italians have decided to live their lives in this manner and they really want to, I have no problem with that.But I have chosen to live my life and I want to live it. I have the freedom to do that. If we’re talking about freedom on both sides, we have decided what we are convinced about and we apply it. End of story!


What emerges from these statements is not so much outright opposition to Italian society and law as the aspiration to live a community life, remaining isolated or distant from those who do not share sharia’s rules (including those Muslims who do not apply them integrally), if necessary.


The relationship between sharia and Italian legislation is directly linked to the second problem: that of how Muslims ought to get organized and present themselves in the public space. In other words, there is a need to understand what meaning to attribute to the category of “community.” This is a complex question that only a few Muslim leaders have been capable of answering on the basis of a personal reflection. One of these is Izzeddin Elzir, the imam of Florence and the ex-president of the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy. According to him,


The Islamic community is a community because it shares a single God and a single Prophet. It also shares the foundations of the faith, the pillars of the faith. Then there are the different traditions and customs but they are more an enrichment. But please note: if we are talking about community, it is not in order to distinguish ourselves from the other communities in a negative way but, rather, in order to stand with them. But then again, another, larger community is our Italian community, which is then part of the world community, humankind. This is our vision of community. It’s not a demarcation line but a bridge. If there is a strong Muslim community, it can make a greater contribution to our society, to our other community, Italy.


In contrast to the Salafi vision of the community (generally centred on isolation and self-management), for a significant number of the Muslims interviewed, building the Muslim community should not mean the ghettoization of Muslims but, on the contrary, their active and collective participation in the social, economic and political life of the country in which they live. In this sense, the words of the President of the Islamic Centre in Pisa are emblematic:


I do not want the Muslim community to live in isolation. I’ve even told the local councillor responsible for housing to see to it that immigrants are not all concentrated in the same building, otherwise we talk about integration and then go and do something totally different. I live here and I do loads of things that lots of Italians do. I’m not contradicting my faith; I meet other people and maintain my culture and my faith. But without isolating myself.


The evolution under way is well described by an imam in Latina, who is another member of the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy. He considers that the main task for Muslims is to let their self-perception evolve: to stop considering themselves a community (a notion that would refer to the idea of their social exteriority) in order to see themselves, rather, as a minority or as an integral part of Italian society:


Muslims should stop being just consumers of goods, culture, art etc. and become producers as well. That is to say, they must assume social, economic and political positions that can serve the society to which they belong.[8] This is why one shouldn’t talk about the “Islamic community” any more, since that expresses a sense of non-belonging: we need to talk about an “Islamic minority,” which is what we are nowadays. Minority gives the sense of belonging to the place, to the society in which one lives, even if one is of a different religion.


These words certainly express the nature of the transformations that Italian Islam is undergoing and the change in self-perception occurring in some of the Muslims living in Italy. They also reveal the contradictions and ambiguities accompanying these processes, however. If we are to grasp the scope of these processes, it is doubtless helpful to take account both of the sources inspiring Italian Muslims as they construct their discourse and of the meaning they are attributing to the words “community” and “minority.”



Building the Minority


In their (simultaneously imaginary and real) construction of the Muslim community in Italy, the representatives of organized Islam make reference to two quite different, but at the same time converging, sources. First of all, there are the contemporary models coming from the other European countries where Islam’s presence is longer standing and therefore more structured. Particular reference is made to the English multicultural model, which is the one most appreciated by the Italian Muslim leaders. They often contrast it to the French “universalistic” model so accused of preventing Muslims from practising their religion. In reality little known but no less idealized for that, the English model is appreciated because it reportedly allows both the structuring of society in a community sense and differentiated legislation, thereby coming close to the Islamic model of minority management. A reference to the reintroduction of such model in the European countries in which Islam is a minority religion comes from the same imam in Latina. Talking about the application of a sharia for the Muslim minority, he states


It would be a civilized, intelligent and wise step forward. Were it to happen, the Islamic minority would feel protected by the state, as has always been the case with the non-Muslims in the Islamic countries, where they had their own courts with their own judges who issued judgments in accordance with their own religion.


Repeated either directly or indirectly by other Muslim leaders in mosques of differing ideological inspiration or affiliation, these words allow us to grasp more precisely the political, legal and social meaning that is attributed to the frequently ambiguous concept of “minority.” It is precisely the Islamic model to which some of the leaders interviewed refer when they talk of “minority” in the European context. This can be understood quite clearly from the answer given by the president of the Al-Huda Islamic Centre in Rome, when asked how non-Muslims should be treated:


In an Islamic state, i.e. one governed by Islamic law, [non-Muslims] must be treated as minorities, whereas in a society like this one [the Italian one], at the personal level, one has to act without taking religion into account. In an Islamic state, on the other hand, every person is considered a citizen with his/her own rights. In this respect, we must remember the Constitution that the Prophet himself established in the city of Medina and we can also cite the document drawn up by the caliph Umar in Jerusalem, which established the relationship between the Islamic state and the various components of society. Unfortunately, we, as an Islamic community in Italy, a democratic state, cannot even enjoy the rights guaranteed by the document that Umar gave the city of Jerusalem, or the rights established by the Prophet for the city of Medina. We cannot even open a mosque.


References to two great paradigms of difference-management within the Islamic polity are woven into these words of the Al-Huda Centre president. The first is that of the so-called Constitution of Medina. This is the document drawn up shortly after Muhammad’s arrival in Medina in 622. It regulated co-existence between the Muslims and certain Jewish tribes of the city, recognising the latter as part of a single community. The second is symbolized by the Pact of Umar that, according to Islamic tradition, records the conditions agreed between Islam’s second caliph and the Christian population of Jerusalem when the city was taken in 637. The Pact of Umar subsequently became the model for the charter governing the protection (dhimma) that Islamic jurisprudence prescribed for the “Peoples of Scripture” (ahl al-kitāb, mainly Jews and Christians). In addition to the public protection it afforded, this charter allowed its beneficiaries (the dhimmīs) to live, conduct business and practise their own religion within Islamic territory in exchange for payment of a tax and respect for Muslim authority. Save in particular cases, the dhimmī enjoyed the same legal protection as Muslims and were subject to the same legal sanctions, unless the latter related directly to religious practice. Indeed, in relation to everything regarding religious practice, personal status and family law, the dhimmī enjoyed legal and administrative autonomy.[9]


For a significant number of the leaders interviewed, the Islamic model of minority management, with its two variants, is the preferred solution in the context of the European democracies. According to the president of the Islamic Centre in Pisa, it is thanks to sharia that the minorities have continued to exist in the Dār al-Islām:


The Islamic religion recognizes the freedom of minorities more than the other religions do. I am glad that Islam has imposed these rules because were it to have been people who made the laws, they would probably have limited the freedom. Sharia defends the rights of everyone, the minorities included. Luckily, sharia has defended these rights, because otherwise people would have swept all the Christians away. The churches would have been turned into mosques but, thanks to God, the churches carry on being churches.


For his part, a Moroccan imam gives the historic example of Spain to emphasize the Islamic model’s strength and universality:


In a Muslim society, Jews and Christians live undisturbed. They can eat and drink what they like. We have nothing against them. I’m telling you: the best situation that the Jews have experienced is with us. In Spain, above all.


These examples reveal a mythicized vision of a past that has become “Islamic:” one purified of every contradiction and instance of conflict, in which a sacred memory is superimposed on the historical one or simply takes its place. If we apply Joël Candau’s analysis of memory,[10] such examples seem to express nostalgia for an often mythicized or imaginary past that has the function of criticizing society or today’s world. In fact, historical reality and an “Islamized” collective imagination are woven together—in a process that has been described by Olivier Roy,[11] amongst others—to create a religious model of minority management that is outside time or space; that is to say, applicable and desirable always and everywhere and therefore also in a context such as the Italian one.


 It should nevertheless be stated that the idea of diversification in legislation is not something requested exclusively by Muslims; it corresponds to a broader fragmentation of society. As Michel Wieviorka illustrates, the transition to the post-industrial era is actually characterized by the fact that culture is ceasing to be a unifying principle, “so that it is, by now, becoming increasingly thought of and experienced as a cause of greater conflict within the social body.”[12] As Wieviorka explains, cultural fragmentation is manifesting in the emergence of new social actors who mobilize cultural resources, a tradition, a memory or an identity for the purposes of reducing a state of domination or inferiority; this in order to establish themselves in the public space as social actors with specific rights. In this sense, the hope of those public Muslims to be able to introduce Islamic family law into the Italian legislation for the members of their community (now or in the future) is part of a broader movement that contests the universality principle.



Mosques in the Polis


The contradictions and ambiguities accompanying the evolution in the meaning of “community,” as in that of “minority,” are a sign of the complex, non-linear passage from an Islam in Italy to an Italian Islam. Returning to the statements made by the imam in Latina, this passage from a community understood as a separate, relatively closed group to an active minority claiming its own space within Italian society is symbolized, above all, by the role that the mosque plays in the public space and even more so by its physical location in the urban territory.[13] It is precisely by tracking the mosque’s movements within the polis over the last thirty years that we can grasp how the Islamic presence in Italy is evolving, what transformations are currently under way and, more specifically, how the meaning that Muslims attribute to being a community is evolving.


Generally opened from the end of the 1980s onwards by university students from the Middle East,[14] the first prayer rooms were often situated in the city centres. Their social impact was limited because of their reduced dimensions but also because Islam’s public presence in Italy was tenuous at that stage. It was with the increasing number of Muslims (workers, rather than students, and Maghrebi, rather than Middle Eastern) and their greater visibility in the public space that the prayer rooms began a gradual movement—and the symbolic significance of this should not be underestimated—towards the city suburbs. Indeed, in Italian cities (which have historically seen a central positioning of the spiritual and temporal powers), the physical and symbolic distance from the centre reflects the distance from power or, in other words, the distance separating the other from us.[15] This is demonstrated by the numerous attempts to expel Islam from both the real and the symbolic centre by closing the mosques present inside the city walls and transferring them to the suburbs or industrial areas.[16] During the 1990s and the early 2000s, one can thus observe a gradual and inexorable movement beyond the borders of the polis. Such movement is generally the result of two opposing but converging forces: on the one hand, the growing Islamophobia and the desire to expel an increasingly visible and increasingly demanding Islam and, on the other, the public Muslims’ will and/or need to shape a community i.e. to isolate themselves outside the polis’ boundaries in order to differentiate themselves and present themselves as a specific community. Various studies conducted between the 1990s and 2000s have highlighted this journey towards community-building:[17] a phenomenon also evidenced by the words of an important Islamic leader in Rome, who is of Tunisian origin and linked to the Islamist movement Ennahda:


The work that we are doing serves to awaken the Muslim religious identity as a cultural identity. It is what unites us that is important and it is the Islamic identity. For this reason, we seek to educate people and to make known this identity that we obviously consider a very deep-running identity and one that offers so many solutions to the problems of humankind, not just those of individuals or some countries.


According to this approach, it is thanks to participation in community life that the “good Muslim” is formed. More specifically, as was often repeated in the prayer halls I visited, it is the mosque that allows people to “avoid Satan’s path” and “choose God’s path” or “avoid acting like an Italian” and “maintain one’s identity.”


This idea of a rather closed and sometimes separate community was thus, for a long time, central to the definition of public Islam in Italy. Originally symbolized by this movement towards the area outside the polis, but also by the passage from small to large and from hidden to visible (but still marginal and external), this idea began to evolve during the course of the last decade, in particular, when the propelling force of a new generation, born and bred in Italy, obliged a growing proportion of Muslims to realize that their future lay in Italy and that their bond with the new generation would inevitably pass through a real inclusion within Italian society rather than through isolation or separation. What changed was the self-perception of a growing proportion of Muslim migrants. In this sense, the words of the president of the Islamic centre in Sassuolo are emblematic:


My hope is that my son becomes a Muslim Italian, someone who can help, who can be important in the quarter, but at the same time remain a Muslim. My hope is that people see that he was born here and raised here and that, at the same time, he has not lost his identity and has not abandoned his town, Sassuolo. This is my dream.


Although it still remains rather ambivalent, this new approach is reflected in the desire (and sometimes in the explicit request) for a repositioning of the mosque within the urban territory: this time the movement desired is from the suburbs to the centre, from the hidden to the visible, symbolizing the definitive legitimacy of the presence both of Islam and of Muslims in the city’s social and political fabric.


Florence offers an example of this. During the period 2011–2012, it was the theatre of a participatory process in response to the Muslims’ request to build a mosque in the city.[18] Unlike what happens in other debates on the subject, the method adopted in Florence has helped to legitimate the presence of Islam in the civic public space and has fostered the community’s opening out to the city. This process began with the observation that Islam had already been present in the city for more than twenty years and that any construction of a new mosque could only have improved an already existing situation that was unanimously considered to be unacceptable. This resulted in the mosque’s adoption by the citizens taking part in the process. These ended up integrating the idea of the mosque into their civic history, along with the synagogue and the Orthodox Church. Thus the future mosque was imagined to be “Florence’s mosque,” rather than a mosque belonging only to the Muslims. So a mosque that was imagined to be “visible,” “central” and “big” insofar as it was the “place of encounter between the city and its Islamic minority,” as stated in the final report on the itinerary. But it was not only the city that changed. The Islamic community did, too: it reinforced its position and finally felt it was an integral part of the city of Florence. In addition to the collective empowerment, the Florentine experience permitted a personal empowerment, since individuals who had previously felt marginalised within their community and outside it gradually assumed a new consciousness and consequently a new role within the community and in their relations with the city. We could say that the participatory itinerary permitted a process of “citizenization:” the acquiring, above all, of an awareness of being fully entitled citizens and, therefore, of being able to interact on a level of equality with the other citizens and social actors.



Italian Citizens of Islamic Faith


Italian Islam is riddled with obvious contradictions. On the one hand, it is driven to shut itself off and isolate itself for fear of losing its own identity and, on the other, it has the desire to open up and reinvent itself in a country in which Muslims who feel themselves to be citizens, first and foremost,[19] are ever more numerous. This ambivalence, which is in some ways inevitable, finds its expression in a combining of the meaning attributed to the word “community” (which is undergoing a slow but constant evolution) and the meaning of citizenship. What emerges in particular is how the transition from the idea of a closed and separate community to that of an integrated and active minority depends partly, if not primarily, on the recognition that Islam’s presence in the public sphere is fully legitimate, as is the migrants’ full citizenship, including in their capacity as Muslim believers. In this sense and unlike their parents (generally Muslims looking over their shoulders at their country of origin and fearful of abandoning the protective enclosure of a collective identity), the young Muslims born and bred in Italy are presenting themselves as the authors of a reinterpretation of the meaning of community: they are citizens demanding equal rights and duties but also equal access to the opportunities that citizenship offers or ought to offer. It is precisely this (sometimes hesitant and uncertain) desire to be at the same time both Italians and Muslims that distinguishes Italian Islam from that of the other European countries. In the latter, a number of second-generation and third-generation young Muslims are now refusing to feel a part of the society in which they were born and have grown up. They no longer feel this society to be their own because it has allegedly—and often truly—excluded, marginalized and stigmatized them quite irremediably. In Italy, the children born of migrants during the 1990s are asking to be recognised as an integral part of the society in which they are living and, more precisely, to be recognised as Italian citizens of Islamic faith. This generation has been producing the most important transformation since Islam made its appearance in Italy at the beginning of the 1980s. This is precisely because the sense of belonging that these young people have is calling into question their parents’ way of thinking, on the one hand, and Italian society, beginning with the institutions, on the other. They are asking the latter to undergo an equally important transformation: that of including Islam amongst the actors engaged in building society and considering Muslims citizens like the others.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] By “Muslim” I mean not only the practising Muslims but also all those for whom Islam constitutes an identity reference point they have consciously accepted or had been assigned to them. Regarding the use of the term “Muslim” to denote a neo-ethnic category, see Oliver Roy, Globalized Islam. The Search for a New Umma. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

[2] Regarding the meaning of the migration-cycle concept and the cycle’s different phases, see Alberto Bastenier and Felice Dassetto, Immigration et espace public. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1993.

[3] In 1993, with Il ritorno dell’Islam. I musulmani in Italia, Stefano Allievi and Felice Dassetto carried out the first study devoted to the phenomenon. They called it a “return” in order to emphasize the history of a relationship lasting fourteen centuries and involving both mutual exchanges and bloody conflict. A return, however, that has not occurred “at sword point,” as in a past, but, rather, in the suitcases of the migrants who began arriving on the peninsula between the late 1970s and early 1980s.

[4] For a comprehensive study of the vision of mosque leaders in Italy, see Bartolomeo Conti, L’islam en Italie. Les leaders musulmans entre intégration et séparation. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2014.

[5] The influence of Muslim thinkers such as Tariq Ramadan is fairly evident here. Often cited by the people interviewed, he argues that respecting sharia means respecting the constitutional and legal framework of the European country of which one is a citizen precisely because, in Europe, Muslims are generally free to practise their religion (Tariq Ramadan, Essere musulmano europeo. Troina: Città Aperta Edizioni, 2002, p. 238).

[6] Despite its plurality, two guiding factors seem to be driving the structuring of public Islam in Italy; politico-ideological affiliation, on the one hand, and ethno-national affiliation, on the other. The Union of Islamic Communities in Italy (UCOII) is certainly to be associated with the first category. It is the most important Islamic organization in terms of the number of mosques participating, the volume of Muslims frequenting them and the influence that it exercises in defining Islam in Italy. A member of the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe (the organization representing Islamist movements and the Muslim Brothers, in particular, in Europe), UCOII has been—and still is, partly—the organization that is working for a re-Islamization and a community-based introduction of Muslim immigrants into Italy. Islam’s other big player in Italy is the Islamic Cultural Centre of Italy, which also runs the Grand Mosque of Rome, the biggest in Europe and a fundamental factor for Islamic aggregation and visibility in Italy. The centre embodies the so-called “state Islam” on account of its close ties with various Sunni Muslim states. In addition to Saudi Arabia, Morocco plays a central role, being the country that has the largest “Muslim” community in Italy and, therefore, particularly committed to keeping a certain control over its expatriate citizens. The Centre has been working on the construction of the Italian Islamic Confederation for some years now. Linked to the Grand Mosque, this is a network of Islamic centres that is seeking to propose itself as an alternative to UCOII. For a more detailed study of the various Islamic factions and organizations in Italy, see Bartolomeo Conti, “Les musulmans en Italie, entre crise identitaire et réponses islamistes,” Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales, vol. 27, no. 2 (2011), pp. 183–201 and Id., “L’émergence de l’islam dans l’espace public italien,” Archives de sciences sociales des religions, no. 158 (April–June 2012), pp. 119–136.

[7] As regards the meaning of the term “fundamentalist,” see Enzo Pace, “L’ideal-tipo fondamentalismo,” Critica sociologica, no. 152 (2005), pp. 1–12.

[8] Tariq Ramadan’s influence is evident here. According to him, it is fundamental that every citizen understands that contributing to society constitutes the highest level of integration. See Tariq Ramadan, Noi musulmani europei. Rome: Datanews Editrice, 2008, pp. 23–25.

[9] This approach derives from the Islamic vision of the human being as God’s deputy on earth and from the obligations deriving from such fact: it is these duties that define the quality of a believer. Predisposed to Islam by nature (fitra), humankind has the freedom to choose whether or not to follow Allah’s religion. By following, a person acquires a new moral, social and legal status: insofar as he/she is a witness and believer, a person has rights and duties deriving from this status. Humankind is therefore divided into categories of people who, participating in divine truth to a greater or lesser extent, have different duties and rights. According to the orthodox Islamic conception, if men are equal by nature (fitra), they are at the same time different according to the distance separating them from God: the socio-juridical translation of this vision is a differentiation of the rights that the various categories enjoy. See Bartolomeo Conti, “Universality of Rights tested by cultures: Islamic and Arab Declarations on Human Rights,” Mediterranean Journal of Human Rights, vol. 6 (2002), pp. 143–182.

[10] Joël Candau, Mémoire et identité. Paris: Puf, 1998.

[11] Olivier Roy, Globalized Islam. The Search for a New Umma.

[12] Michel Wieviorka (ed.), Une société fragmentée? Le multiculturalisme en débat. Paris: La Découverte, 1996, p. 12.

[13] As Stefano Allievi maintains in Maria Bombardieri, Moschee d’Italia: il diritto al luogo di culto, il dibattito sociale e politico. Bologna: Emi, 2011, p. 16, “Mosques constitute a form of symbolic appropriation of the territory and, at the same time, resistance to them becomes a sign of a very concrete, material control of territory. It is therefore clear that the conflict around the mosques is, first and foremost, a genuine power conflict.” In fact, the mosque constitutes a tangible, visible sign of the other’s presence and of the fact that “the Muslims are here to stay” and are consequently demanding legitimacy for their public presence. The mosque has therefore been—and continues to be—the most important testimony to Islam’s emergence in the Italian public space.

[14] The history of the mosques in Italy is linked to the kind of immigration that has occurred and, consequently, the vision of the people running them. Places of worship for Muslims were first opened by young people coming to Italy to study, whereas over the last ten to fifteen years the prayer rooms opened by Muslim workers have become increasingly numerous. With a few rare exceptions, most of the prayer rooms were brought into being from the end of the 1980s onwards by students from the Middle East. These often passed through the University for Foreigners of Perugia, which can be called the city that mothered Islam in Italy (for further details, see Conti, L’islam en Italie).

[15] Alessandro Dal Lago, Non-persone: l’esclusione dei migranti in una società globale. Milan: Feltrinelli, 1999.

[16] As stated by Chantal Saint-Blancat and Ottavia Schmidt di Friedberg (“Why are Mosques a Problem? Local Politics and Fear of Islam in Northern Italy,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, vol. 31, no. 6 (November 2005), pp. 1083–1104), the mosque seems to be the symbol around which the social construction of otherness is converging in Italian society. The presence and nature of the conflict surrounding mosque-building in European cities largely depend on the way in which Muslims are or are not seen to be “legitimate” occupants of the public space. The building of a mosque means, first and foremost, visibility in the public space. As regards the conflict surrounding the opening of mosques, see, also, Stefano Allievi, La guerra delle moschee: L’Europa e la sfida del pluralismo religioso. Venice: Marsilio, 2010. For an analysis of the mosque’s functions and activities in Italy, see Conti, L’Islam en Italie.

[17] Regarding public Islam’s drive towards community-building, Renzo Guolo has talked of a “neo-traditionalist hijra” i.e. “the social construction of a community that, rather than the integration of its individual members, is aiming at negotiating, on a collective basis, a citizen status created by way of derogation; a status that defines the degree of self-exclusion required to reproduce its own separateness” (Renzo Guolo, “Sociologia degli attori musulmani: leadership islamiste in Italia,” Religioni e società. Rivista di scienze sociali delle religioni, no. 50 (2004), p. 9.

[18] For an in-depth analysis of the Florentine case, see Bartolomeo Conti, “S’approprier l’espace public: Les musulmans en Italie, de la marginalisation à la citoyenneté,” Cahiers d’EMAM, no. 27 (Spring 2016), and Id. “Islam as a new social actor in Italian cities: between inclusion and separation,” Religion, State, and Society, no. 44 (2016), in which Florence’s case is compared with that of Bologna, another city that has been the theatre of an important debate about Islam’s presence in the public space and the possibility of building a mosque, in particular. Although there has been no prediction of the building of any mosque in either of the two cities to date, the results of the two processes have been very different (if not positively conflicting), thereby providing direct evidence of the transformations and contradictions described here.

[19] Taking the work of Georg Simmel and Norbert Elias as her starting point, Simonetta Tabboni emphasizes how every relationship with otherness carries spontaneously ambivalent feelings. More specifically, in Simmel’s wake, Tabboni highlights how “the relationships between foreigners and natives are dominated by ambivalence: the foreigner is at the same time close and distant, mobile and stable, marginalised on emotional grounds and integrated on grounds of interest.” See Simonetta Tabboni, Le multiculturalisme et l’ambivalence de l’étranger, in Michel Wieviorka (ed.), Une société fragmentée?, p. 245. In Tabboni’s opinion, the ambivalence is not only an ineliminable element of the relationship between the foreigner and the group but also “a method, a resource and a tool for knowing.”

To cite this article

Printed version:
Bartolomeo Conti, “Islam in Italy: from Community to Citizenship”, Oasis, year XIV, n. 28, December 2018, pp. 54-69.

Online version:
Bartolomeo Conti, “Islam in Italy: from Community to Citizenship”, Oasis [online], published on 27th March 2019, URL: