Italy may soon say “basta” (enough!) to new mosques. The far-right Northern League party, allies of centre-right Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, wants to limit the growth of Islam in the centre of world Catholicism by blocking the construction of mosques through strict new regulations. My feature on this — “Italy’s right to curb Islam with mosque law” — outlines the proposed legislation.
One thing that struck me while researching the story was how much work the author of the draft law, Andrea Gibelli, seems to have done preparing this law. He quoted the Koran in Arabic, cited the legal systems of various Arab countries and said he had read “200 books” on the subject. He also gave a clue to some of the thinking behind the draft legislation when he told us that he had been helped in his understanding of Islam by friends from the Middle East. It turns out they were Lebanese Druze and Coptic Christians from Egypt, members of minorities whose opinions may be coloured by their long and not always harmonious relations with Muslims.
The Northern League does not mince words — for example, it once advised the use of gunboats to scare off would-be illegal immigrants. Roberto Calderoli, now a cabinet minister, once walked his pet pig on a proposed mosque site to defile the soil there and wore a T-shirt with a Danish caricature of the Prophet Mohammad, triggering riots in Libya. Gibelli’s bottom line was that building mosques in Italy at the current rate of expansion was a form of cultural colonisation. He said mosques “are often places of cultural indoctrination, sometimes linked to international terrorism.” They get in the way of Muslims integrating into Italy’s Catholic culture, he said. Anyway, he finally said, Muslims don’t really need them as the Koran states that they can “pray anywhere.”
Apart from Rome, whose Grand Mosque is a strong contender for the title of Europe’s biggest mosque, Muslims in Italy certainly do have to “pray anywhere” at the moment. Many local communities, and not just those with Northern League mayors, have found ways to block the construction of new places of Islamic worship. Even Italy’s business capital Milan has no proper mosque. Thousands of Muslims have been forced to pray on the pavement outside a converted garage known as the “Jenner Street mosque.” But local authorities have decided this was too disruptive and moved them to a velodrome, where local media say the Muslims are charged for entry as if they were going to watch a race.
The left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper asked last week if, with many Muslims in the League’s north-east strongholds forced to worship “in hiding” during the current Ramadan, the current centre-right government was respecting the constitutional right to freedom of worship. Il Giornale, the paper owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s brother, reported on a “revolt against the mosques” in the north east. In the Veneto and Friuli regions, it said, about 150,000 Muslims who already have 40 prayer halls are asking for more, to the consternation of local communities.