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GNOSIS 2/2010

Islam in Italy: in search of a balance between integration and tradition

Professor of Geopolitics of the Islamic world, at the European University of Rome

Born in Cameri (NO) in 1964, she is professor of Geopolitics of the Islamic world, at the European University of Rome. She has taught at the University of Bologna, the Sapienza’, University of Rome, the Tuscia of Viterbo, the Sacro Cuore of Milan and at the School of Higher Studies at Lucca.
Journalist, columnist and editorial writer for the Hudson Center of New York, she collaborates regularly with the Tempi Review and is author of numerous publications and papers dedicated to Islam literature and poetry, among which: Vietato in nome di Allah, (Forbidden in the name of Allah), Publisher, Lindau, 2010, Islam. Istruzioni per l’uso, (Instruction for Use) Publisher, Mondadori, 2009, Basta! Musulmani contro l’estremismo Islamico, (Enough! Moslems against Islamic extremism – an anthology of liberal intellectuals, Publisher, Mondadori, 2007, L’altro Mediterraneo, (The Other Mediterranean) – an anthology of Arab writers of the 20th Century, Publisher, Mondadori, 2004.
She is a thorough scholar of the evolution of the female figure within the ‘Islam planet’ and in the ambit of the migration of the Islamic peoples in Europe and America.

Each body is a living being. Every poem is feminine…
Hamada Khamis

… the dichotomy in the relations between the Western world and the Moslem world is not a clash of civilizations …. but a strong and diffused fear deriving from a profound lack of reciprocal knowledge …
Valentina Colombo

In our global and globalized world, now composed of truly variegated, multicultural and ethnically mixed groups, where in the schools, homes, shops, on the streets, different languages are spoken and where, above all, the young people are in search of an identity which is not only the product of different cultural fragments or an undefined puzzle composed of mad weavings, the diffusion of a new sentiment of belonging is important, which does not deny the roots with the past, but which is the precious experience of a serene growth towards a conscious future.
The risk of ‘homegrown’ terrorism could become the desperate response to the search for unobtainable values and beliefs in everyday life, made up of dissimilarities and the sensation of being ‘out of place’.
The religious longing perceived as the only source of truth to reach and impose also through martyrdom and the extreme sacrifice of self, risks being the only possible way to change life in a Western hemisphere, which is frequently based on consumerism, without ideologies and, apparently, devoted to the ephemeral.
We have spoken of these identity crises and risks tied to the cultural uncertainties – inevitable brought with the immigration phenomena – with Valentina Colombo, professor of Geopolitics of the Islamic world, at the European University of Rome, a great expert on Islam, a lover of contemporary and classic oriental literature and author of books of an extraordinary sensitivity, true keys of interpretation indispensable for the decryption of phenomena and evolutions of a multicultural reality which is now the common heritage of each one of us, independent of origin, language or skin colour.

What still fascinates you and what has attracted you about Islam during the course of your studies and experience as researcher and writer?
My encounter with Islam came about through the Arabic language and literature. More than twenty years ago, I translated the short novel “Our Neighbourhood” by the Nobel Prize winner, Naghib Mahfuz.
For this reason, the first Islam I met was the secular one, of those people born Moslems, but who live in a more Mediterranean world than an Islamic one. Subsequently, my interest in the classical Arab literature of the Abbasside period, led me to study one of the most important authors of Arabic literature, Jahiz.
He belonged to the first school of Islam free thinkers; supporters, from a theological viewpoint, of an absolute monotheism, which led them to elaborate the so-called theory of the “created Koran”, which consisted in considering the Koran as a text co-eternal with God, although considering it created over time. The profound significance of the interpretation consisted, above all, in limiting the importance of the men of religion – to simply the interpreters of the word of God – and increasing, in this way, human freedom. I have always been fascinated by the multiplicity of Islam and the polyhedral explicitness of the religion: the fact that if one billion, three hundred million Moslems exist, then one billion, three hundred million Islams could exist. With the passage of time and an always deeper knowledge of the single Countries – Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait – but principally from the real persons, in flesh and blood, I came to understand that notwithstanding the spreading of the Islamic extremism, if one creates relationships with real people, that is, with persons who are simply Moslem, there is the possibility of constructing authentic dialogue based on the sharing of universal values. And it is for this reason that for the last five years, I have dedicated my studies to the commonly called ‘liberal Moslems’ to those intellectuals who are opposed to Islamic extremism and support the universal declaration of the rights of man.

Then, what is it that baffles you to the point of dedicating your last book to the harder observations, synthesizing them in the axiom “Forbidden in the name of Allah”?
I am worried about the frightening spread of Islamic Fundamentalism, represented essentially by the Moslem Brotherhood Movement and the Wahhabita ideology. Both claim to be the only true representatives and interpreters of Islam – of an “Islam”, with the capital ‘I’. An Islam, therefore, which has the right, better still, the duty to claim and defend their own religious interpretation as the authentic one.
The interpretation makes them the fiercest advocates of takfir, that is, the condemnation of apostasy against other Moslems not considered true believers, and even traitors of the spirit of Islam.
Therefore, the absurd situation is created whereby a writer, a journalist, a poet can be defined by a mufti, by a sheikh or by a self-styled imam, as an “enemy of Islam”, an apostate and, consequently, a target of a death sentence. Once again, my interest in Islam is closely tied to the passion for the literature. The idea for writing “Forbidden in the name of Allah: books and intellectuals banned in the Islamic world” The idea for writing “Forbidden in the name of Allah: books and intellectuals banned in the Islamic world” came from the ascertainment of the existence of numerous cases of writers whose lives are at risk in the Islamic world for having created poetry, novels or essays defined as “heretical”.
The case which led to the novel is that of the young Jordanian poet, Islam Samhan who, in September, 2008, who sees his collection of poems “Harmony as a shadow”, stigmatized as “an obscene insult to God”. A judgment, also confirmed by the Grand mufti of Jordan, who defines the poet “an apostate and an enemy of the religion” and since the Article 37 of the Law on the laws of the Jordanian press provides that nothing can be published that insults a religion, Samhan is imprisoned and brought to trial.
The matter is further exacerbated by a statement by the local Moslem Brothers in which the poet is compared to the Danish designers of the cartoons allegedly blasphemous towards Mohammed. The statement, in fact, represents a kind of “green light” for the most radical fringes of Islam, who begin a daily threat on the life of the Jordanian poet.
The case of Samhan was not the first nor will it be the last, neither in Jordan nor in the context of the Islamic world.
The situation is even changing for the worse, so that in Turkey where, until a few years ago, the intellectuals were brought to court for insult to the Nation, today – as the case of the writer, Nedim Gursel demonstrates – they are accused of insult to Islam.
It is, therefore, our duty to defend the free voices because only by participating in the defence of their liberty, will we be able to protect ourselves. It is not by accident that in the novel, I dedicate a chapter to “Forbidden in the name of Allah”, setting it in the West with the so-called “Jihad in Court”, which sees Western and Moslem intellectuals brought into Court under the accusation of Islamphobia or simply for having “offended” a representative of the Islamic extremism.

The West is seeing the decline of ideologies, while the Islamic world is witnessing the religious extremism of their own theosophies …. If we look ahead, are there any prospects of rebalancing the two universes?
I am firmly convinced that to stem the Islamic religious extremism and also to defeat the fear which, in the West, insinuates itself into everything that is Islamic, it is necessary to get closer to Islam and try to better understand its world, convincing oneself, in primis, that no-one can really stand as a representative of Islam because by vocational definition, there is no Islamic authority comparable, for example, to the Catholic Pope.
A deeper knowledge of the “Islam planet” in its many facets and in the substantial diversity could, without a doubt, help in reaching an equilibrium. Only a better knowledge of what happens in the Islamic world will make it understood that sometimes, in the West, an abstract prejudice takes root and spreads with extreme facility, due to certain “na´ve” interpretations of the Islamic belief.
An example of this is constituted by the debate on the appropriateness of the use of the full veil. Well, not everyone knows that also in the Islamic world the full veil is looked upon with diffidence and is considered “an obstacle to security”: those who habitually wear the full veil must take it off in the work place and before the Forces of law and order, to permit adequate controls. All this comes quite naturally in the Islamic world, while in the West, the debate rails, bordering on what, in the Land of Islam, constitutes an absurdity.
Recently, I happened to hear the affirmation that also the occupation of public ground for Islamic prayer in our Country should be understood, since, in Italy, we are educated to tolerance. Also in this case contradictions are created: in Morocco and in Egypt the Moslems pray in mosques because elsewhere is forbidden. The lack of knowledge of the rules leads to the creation of non-existent problems (equivocal interpretations), which end in increasing fear, intolerance and diffidence towards Islam.

With reference to the debate on the veil, the woman has a particular role which, at times, seems to us, as emancipated Westerners, constricted, if not humiliating …
The woman in the contemporary Islamic world performs a fundamental role. In the first instance, being the principal victim of terrorism and of the Islamic extremism (remains a widow or without children – shahid – voted for martyrdom), she is the most bitter enemy. It is not pure coincidence that among the contemporary intellectuals, the most courageous writers are female, committed in the front line, not only to favour and promote the emancipation of women, but also to fight the radical ideas, enemies of freedom of thought and liberty of the individual.
Some names among the always more numerous free and strong female voices coming from the Islamic world are the Saudi activist, Wajeha al-Huwaider, who for years has fought against the ideologies that weigh on the Arab mind, and to help the Saudi women to become all round “persons”; the lawyer of the Bahrein Ghada Jamsheer, who is fighting to obtain the promulgation of the Code of Personal Status in one’s own Country; Rola Dashti, one of the first three women elected in the Kuwaiti Parliament, who repeats and underlines continually, the importance of the woman in the social and political sphere, since real democracy cannot exist if the woman remains on the margins of the key-roles of a Country.
A further example comes from Morocco, on how the emancipation of the woman is a privileged arm to defeat terrorism. Well, in this Country the much desired reform of the Family Code, the Moudawana – with greater attention to women’s rights – was practically imposed by King Muhammad VI, in 2003, after the terrorist attacks at Casablanca. The decision had been taken, confirmed by the same sovereign, as an answer to Islamic Integralism and to the Integralist interpretation of the Koranic text. It can be rightly affirmed that in the Islamic world today, the “woman is the solution” to the needs of old and new problems.

In the ambit of Fundamentalism, the woman can choose to become kamikaze (… choice of extreme self-devaluation of the “black widows” …) in Islamism SHE IS THE MOTHER (… silent educator who can be mediator …)
In Fundamentalism, the woman becomes a means of achieving the ultimate goal, whatever it is. The woman, in general, has the “cultural privilege” to stay at home because she is physiologically a creator and is responsible for taking care of the household, while the man must carry the burden of work for the maintenance of the family.
It is patently clear that it is a cultural heritage that reveals a subtle and implicit way to avoid the emancipation of the woman. To realize this, it is sufficient to analyze the Statute of Hamas. In fact, Article 17 reads as follows: “The Moslem woman has a role not inferior to that of the Moslem man in the war of liberation; she is a forger of men and has a role among the most important in the guidance and education of the new generations. The enemy has understood her role; and believes that if it is able to guide her and educate her as it wishes, distancing her from Islam, it will have won the war.[…]
The woman, by definition, is wife, mother and educator, therefore, apparently, is the hub of the family and the society. Article 18 again takes up the role of the woman: “The woman in the home and in the fighting family, whether a mother or a sister, has her most important role in taking care of the home and in raising the children according to the Islamic concepts and values, and in educating the children to observe the religious precepts preparing them for the duty of the Jihad which awaits them. Therefore, it is necessary to pay attention to the schools and programmes for the Moslem girls; thus preparing them to become good mothers, aware of their role in the war of liberation. The women must have the awareness and knowledge necessary to manage their homes. The frugality and the capacity to avoid waste in the domestic expenses are necessary requisites so that it is possible to continue the fight in the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves. The women must always remember that money is equivalent to blood, which must not run unless in the veins, to assure the continuity of life both young and old”.
Also the entrance of women into politics among the ranks of the Moslem Brotherhood Movement in Egypt should be interpreted as a way of showing an apparent openness and moderation, but to date, the women have never occupied any dominant roles. In the same context, we can see the change of directors within the Italian UCOII, which wanted a woman as Vice-President, among other things, a convert, but always, however, placed beside another Vice-President, who is male.
Also within al-Qaeda recently, a greater space of action has been reserved for women: if before, they performed a marginal role, today, according to the satellite television al Arabiya, recently, they are reaching the highest ranks of the organization.

The girls who try to live in an integrated manner and who, perhaps, clash with the “traditionalist” vision of their parents, in what kind of anomic situation do they live?
Unfortunately, a recent study on honour killings in the world revealed that almost 80% of these homicides are committed in the West, demonstrating the fact that in territories of emigration the ties to tradition are accentuated. The behaviour towards the women of the family becomes even more rigid and conservative than in the Countries of origin. The recent cases of homicides of honour in Italy, Hina Salem and Sana Dafani, are only the tip of the iceberg, which sees the immigrants as victims of their own tradition and, often, of the naivety of the West. It is not admissible that Christa Datz-Winter, German Judge, prohibits a summary divorce to a Moslem German woman, beaten by her husband, sustaining that both spouses come from “a Moroccan cultural ambit where it is not unusual for a man to exercise his right to use corporal punishment against the wife”, and giving ground for proof, a verse from the Koran which allows the husband to beat the wife. It is not conceivable that the extenuating culture be used to justify such a serious crime.
As the recent United Nations special report for the Liberty of religion and belief affirms, by Asma Jahangir, it is necessary to begin to speak of universal rights of the woman, regardless of the creed of origin. Only by spreading this idea among the male and female immigrants in our Country can we favour a true and healthy integration, which will be to the total advantage of the new generations.

The recovery of the roots of the children “immigrants of second generation” who are not able to find an identity in the Western values, what role and existential space do they find? What prospects do they have?
I believe that the second generations are victims of the schizophrenia of the parents, who still feel tied to the Country of origin and, at the same time, do not want to be part of the host Country.
These second generation children are also victims bound by a law of ancient inspiration on citizenship which, for those born in Italy, see themselves more Italian than the Italian, but sadly, citizens of second category tied to a residency permit. I am convinced that also the schools must carry out a more trenchant role in the process of integration. The learning of the Italian language is fundamental while maintain a deep tie with their own roots and their own language of origin.
Once again, I believe that literature, in particular, can perform a key role. I will make an example. The reading in class of a story by the Nobel Prize winner, Nagib Mahfuz can become a marvellous bridge. An instrument to give the Italian children knowledge of the Arab world and to make the children from the Arab world proud, given the fact that one presents a work of an Arab Nobel Prize winner.

Is there a real risk of’ homegrown’ terrorism in Italy? At times one hears of the “Islamic hypertrophic ego” which suggests a fundamentalist interpretation of the sense of belonging to Islam..
I am of the convinced opinion that in Italy the ‘terrorism risk’ from the second generation is limited, unlike Countries like France and Great Britain, also due to the absence of a real colonial past of our Country.I see a major risk of terrorism among the ranks of the neo-converts, who are often tied to an integralist environment and are pushed by the sharing of the ideology of the Islamic integralism – which is clearly anti-Western and anti- Semite – with the fury of the neophyte and the enthusiasm of the new initiate.

The children of the popularly termed “mixed-marriages”, especially in the more advanced areas, in Switzerland, England or North Italy, what prospects of integration have they and what place has the religion on the priorities of the construction of their identity?
We cannot generalize when we speak of children of mixed marriages. Every situation is different: one thing is if the mother is Moslem and the father Italian, or vice versa, if the father is Moslem and the mother Italian.
If the marriage is lived in a secular way by both the spouses, leaving the freedom of choice to the children, then there is, of course, no problem. The recent approval of a law by the Italian Parliament which provides for the possibility for a Moslem woman to marry a non-Moslem, without the conversion of the latter, represents – in my opinion – an enormous step forward in the integration process.
For example, to date, we have seen cases in which many Moroccan women have had to exhibit the consent of the father in order to contract a marriage (which for some years, with the new Family Code, approved under the reign of Mohammed VI, is no longer necessary) and the certificate of conversion of the future husband. One of these women said: “It was a pure formality”. “They asked him to pronounce the shahada (the profession of the Islamic faith) and to enunciate the five pillars of the Moslem faith; the whole thing was concluded in a few minutes. After the marriage, celebrated in Morocco, we registered it in Italy”.
The Tunisian Consulate even required the conversion of the future husband in Tunisia. All this could not but influence the education of the children. However, I believe that to favour a better upbringing for children of a mixed marriage – fortunate custodians of two cultures and two languages – one must diffuse, in the first place, the idea that those born in Italy are fully fledged Italian citizens, and in the second place, they can choose to be a follower of one religious belief rather than another.
Once again, the absolute necessity of a new law for citizenship is very much in evidence, one which meets the needs of the new generations of immigrants born in our Country, unquestionably Italian citizens, whatever their origin.