Immigrants Keep Islam -- Italian Style
'Modern Muslims' Forge Hybrid Culture
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 24, 2004; Page A15
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.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company