MILAN — At least 1.4 million Muslims are living in Italy, making Islam the country’s de facto second-largest religion. But as far as Italian authorities are concerned, Islam doesn’t exist.
Unlike Christianity and Judaism, Islam isn’t formally recognized in Italy. This means that mosques cannot receive public funds, Islamic weddings have no legal value and Muslim workers aren’t entitled to take days off for religious holidays.
Now that lack of recognition may change — but not without a cost.
This month, Italy’s Interior Ministry and the country’s nine major Islamic associations signed an unprecedented agreement. Muslim organizations agreed to create a registry of their imams and to require them to preach in Italian. In return, the government vowed to “facilitate the path” toward the official recognition of Islam in Italy.
The “National Pact for an Italian Islam” has been hailed as a first step toward the normalization of Islam in Italy. But it has also been criticized for creating a double standard: no other religious group has been asked by authorities to hold sermons in Italian. The Roman Catholic Church regularly offers masses in foreign languages to cater to an international audience.
“It’s a document that Muslims had to sign in order to prove we’re good citizens and not bad people,” said Yahya Pallavicini, a Milan-based Muslim scholar, in an interview with the conservative magazine Tempi.
Islam doesn’t enjoy much popularity in Italy. According to a recent Pew survey, 69 percent of Italians report a negative opinion of Muslims, the highest proportion among the European countries polled. Local media also often conflates Islam as a whole with terrorism.
Looking ahead to elections next year, the government is also treating the agreement as a security issue. In a statement to the news media, Interior Minister Marco Minniti presented the document as a safeguard “against any form of violence and terrorism.”
Sumaya Abdel Qader, a Muslim sociologist in Milan who is a member of the city council, called the agreement “a positive step,” during a telephone interview. “It's very important that there’s a dialogue between the government and Muslim institutions,” she said. But she noted that some of the requirements “have made some Muslims feel like they’re being treated unequally.”
She argued that it is “unfair” that a specific faith be singled out and required to hold sermons in Italian — but recognized the reality of widespread distrust of Muslims. “I understand we’re living in a unique historical context, so we’ll have to accept this,” she said.
Abdel Qader also claims it is unusual that a religious group was asked to sign a “preliminary pact” as a requirement to start negotiations for an official recognition. The Italian Constitution formally grants freedom of religion for all, but reserves a special position for the Catholic Church and requires other faiths to sign a specific treaty — called an “intesa,” or “understanding” — to fully operate. Muslim associations have been applying for an intesa since 2000, but still haven’t received one.
But Izzedin Elzir, an imam in Florence and the president of the UCOII, the country’s largest Muslim association, believes that the benefits of the agreement outweigh the downside. “Most of the things we vowed to do, we are already doing,” he said in a telephone interview. “We're already encouraging imams to preach in Italian. And, if their Italian is not fluent, we are already providing interpreters. If having this written down in a document is making non-Muslim Italians feel a bit safer, I don’t see anything wrong with it.”