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Immigrants Keep Islam — Italian Style

Washington Post, USA
July 24, 2004
Daniel Williams, Washington Post Foreign Service
www.washingtonpost.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Monday July 26, 2004

‘Modern Muslims’ Forge Hybrid Culture

ROME — One recent evening, the band at the Thousand and One Nights Restaurant played hand-held drums and stringed instruments on a platform ringed with Oriental rugs and pillows, and a singer warbled Arabic love songs. It could have been a festive scene in Damascus, Cairo or Rabat.

In fact the brightly lit establishment was in the Italian capital, and many of its customers were sipping glasses of wine and beer, beverages forbidden in the Islamic countries from which they or their forbears came.

Italy’s Muslim population recently passed the 700,000 mark, and as it has grown, so have Muslim voices expressing a desire to fit in with the host society. Some Muslims stick rigidly to the ways of the old country, yet at places like this restaurant, others are creating a hybrid culture of tolerance and experimentation.

These people may skip Friday prayers at the local mosque, but they continue to crave sentimental Arab love songs; they may stay away from beaches where string bikinis are common, but they have no problem with the Italian tradition of enjoying a glass of wine.

“Even if there is racism among some Italians and stupidity among some Arabs, there is more in common than everybody seems to think,” said Hosein Ataa, who immigrated from Tunisia four years ago and is the singer in the band at Thousand and One Nights. “I feel at home here.”

The evening at the restaurant contrasted markedly with the usual picture of Arab life in Italy in particular, and Europe generally. A large Arab influx in recent years has been widely perceived by the news media and Europeans as creating tension and conflict, especially after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

Radical Muslim activists in Italy have expressed sympathy for anti-Western violence and lobbied to remove crucifixes from public schools. In recent months, police have arrested scores of suspected Islamic terrorists, although few have been convicted. Officials in a high school in Milan have proposed separate classes for Muslims in response to their parents’ demands for what they’ve termed a “safe zone” from the secular atmosphere of the school.

But many younger Muslims say that stories like these depict an Italy that they don’t know. “I find that Italians accept you as an individual,” said the band’s drummer, Sabhe Ayoub, a young Palestinian refugee from Gaza, “They accept us more than we would if they migrated to our countries. The hostility after Sept. 11? Some of it is understandable. But some of it is a political game of people trying to win votes at our expense. We just want to get along.”

Ataa and Ayoub are examples of adaptability. They are both non-practicing Muslims, which means they can share the Italian zest for wine and dancing. “Okay, so sometimes I drink rivers of wine,” Ataa quipped. “Better than doing it in secret back home.”

For the past 15 years, migrants from Islamic countries as diverse as Albania, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Pakistan and Egypt have come to Italy, attracted by money and opportunity. The country’s Muslim population is well below the estimated 5 million in France, 3.5 million in Germany and 1.5 million in Britain, but far outstrips the size of its Jewish and Protestant communities.

Stefano Allievi, a researcher on Islam at Padova University, said contact with Italian society has prompted young Muslims to investigate and question their traditional habits. An individual approach to religion is emerging, he suggested.

“In the Middle East, Islamic practices are dictated by tradition,” he said. “Here, the context is more individual. The immigrants discuss the reasons for doing things. If a girl chooses the veil, it is not just because everyone else does it. It has to be explained.

“Also, the Muslims in Italy come from different places. A Pakistani may practice Islam differently from an Albanian, who is different from a Moroccan. They not only have to confront differences with non-Muslim Italians, but among themselves. There is no single way.”

Muslims in Italy are divided over just what it means to follow Islam. According to Italian surveys, only 50 percent regularly attend services at mosques and 30 percent identify themselves as non-practicing.

“I believe in live and let live,” said Ayoub, who has also taken to Italian clothing styles, in his case a sheer white shirt with matching white-rimmed sunglasses.

In Milan, members of a group called the Muslim Youth of Italy recently grappled with a pressing summertime question: What is the proper way to have fun in Italy? Their religious beliefs directed them to modesty and restraint. On the other hand, Italian summers offer a juicy menu of carefree days at the beach and nights at the disco.

“We are looking for a way to fit in, yet not give up our principles. We’re in Italy and feel Italian, but we are Muslim and feel Muslim,” said Abdallah Kabakebbji, another member of the group, most of whose members are Italian-born and college-educated . “In the end we don’t want flatly to forbid everything,”

A recent group discussion of the topic “Summer and Sin” produced a proposal that a vacation gathering of Muslim youths be held in the mountains to avoid mixed-sex beaches and their landscape of skimpy bikinis. “We can meet at the beach in winter,” said Kabakebbji, whose parents fled Syria 30 years ago to avoid political persecution.

He said some Muslims criticize him for being too soft in his views and for meeting with Italian Jews to discuss divisive issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Italy comes closer to being what we want in terms of democracy and human rights,” he said. “We feel at home.”

Dress among the group’s members varies. Some women wear head scarves; some don’t. Some of the men have beards, a sign of piety for many Muslims; some don’t. Jeans are worn universally.

Members of the group have also had to deal with the ubiquity of shapely women in Italian popular culture. “My father wouldn’t have been able to glance at this billboard,” Kabakebbji said as he walked beneath a giant poster featuring a buxom brunette and her cell phone. But “I am not shocked,” he said. “This is Italy.”

At an April meeting over whether discos should be off-limits, group members recalled, some participants felt that refusing to go would alienate their non-Muslim friends. Others said the temptations were exaggerated. Still others suggested that they should organize a Muslim club that would allow them to listen to Arabic hip-hop but not be exposed to alcohol and provocative dancing. In the end, the group decided to leave discoing to each individual’s conscience.

Nura Ghrewati, a medical student, sighed and said, “We have different ideas, and these things have to be worked out.” Ghrewati said she resists going to discos, a major form of entertainment for Italians in their twenties . Alcohol is out of the question for her, as is dancing with boys. “There are too many temptations at the disco. It is a provocation,” she said. “I prefer to meet friends at outdoor places, to talk. There is plenty of that in Italy, too.”

Ghrewati wears a head scarf. The practice is far less controversial here than in France, where a head scarf ban in state schools will take effect this fall.

She said she thinks that Italy’s Roman Catholic religious traditions, though decayed, contribute to understanding. “Here, people wear crucifixes, so in a way they relate better,” she said. “In fact, I have an easier time explaining myself to practicing Catholics than to people without belief. Catholics used to fast, so they understand if I say I am fasting at Ramadan,” the Muslim holy month.

Outside the organized confines of the youth group, attitudes toward mores and traditions seem equally diverse. Iman Maalin, a Somali waitress, said she abided by Muslim taboos on eating pork and drinking alcohol but did not feel the need to wear a head scarf.

“I don’t think I am being immodest,” she said. “I feel modest inside. I am not a prostitute or anything. Italian girls lead perfectly moral lives without covering their head. I see Albanians without veils. They are Muslim, too. Why do I have to cover up? It’s uncomfortable and makes me feel I have something to hide.”

Mohammed Reeves, an American from the Bronx, describes himself and his Italian wife, who converted to Islam, as “modern Muslims.” He avoids alcohol, but goes to discos and is a fan of Muslim rap. He studied Islam in Sudan, became a model in New York, and moved to Milan, where he opened a hip-hop clothing store. His wife wears no scarf.

“There are all kinds of Muslims here, and most of them are modern,” he said. “We don’t have to print Islam on our T-shirts.”

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