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Muslims seek to build future in Italy

MILAN – On one side of a drab street in working-class Milan, a squat structure houses a conservative mosque linked in the past to suspected Islamic terrorists.


On the other, an office building houses the budding newsroom of “Yalla Italia” (Let's Go, Italy), a monthly magazine written by 2Gs – the name here for second-generation immigrants – for young Muslims juggling identities and for Italians curious about a religion and a way of life barely extant just 20 years ago here.

The two buildings symbolize the different worlds inhabited by Italy's Muslims, a burgeoning community of more than a million that increasingly demands to be heard.

"We're separated by 10 meters, but culturally we're centuries apart," said Martino Pillitteri, the magazine's chief editor. In this Milanese microcosm, Pillitteri sees what he said he believes is the cultural clash taking place within Italy's Muslim community – "one vision driving towards the past, the other driving towards the future."

At a long conference table, a group of 20 somethings clustered for a weekly meeting. Most were women, several wearing head scarves, and nearly all were snatching a few hours from their university studies or day jobs. Some came to Italy as children, others were born here of mixed marriages, and still others came to study and stayed for love. They are at once Italian, European and Muslim.

“Yalla Italia” is a window onto their lives, covering a range of concerns that Muslims living in a non-Muslim society face on a daily basis. Rassmea Salah, a 25-year-old Italian-Egyptian, mused in a blog entry on the Web site of Vita, a nonprofit magazine that hosts the eight-page “Yalla Italia” insert once a month, about issues like: “To wear or not to wear a burkini? How to best match kaftans with jeans. To eat pork or halal? To pray five times a day or to personalize all these precepts? ”

"Second-generation immigrants are a huge resource because they live in the middle" and can straddle both cultures, "said Luca Visconti, a professor at Bocconi University in Milan who this year published a study on cross-generational marketing focused on Italy's second- generation immigrants. "It's a critical resource in which to invest."

The positive message sent by “Yalla Italia” also serves as an antidote to more-sensationalist reports in the mainstream Italian media that tend to fuel insecurity – or resentment – about Islamic immigration.

When hundreds of Muslims in several Italian cities protested against the recent war in Gaza by praying in front of cathedrals and monuments, the conservative newspaper Il Giornale warned of "an occupation." Beppe Pisanu, a former interior minister with Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, said the protests were "a fundamentalist operation, the preliminaries of terrorism," the ANSA news agency reported.

The interior minister, Roberto Maroni of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, expressed concerns about "second-generation radical immigrant groups," warning that Italy risked "a situation like the Parisian banlieues," the heavily immigrant, disaffected suburbs of the French capital where rioting erupted in 2005.

The speaker of the lower house, Gianfranco Fini, has called on imams in Italy to use Italian as the lingua franca for sermons and commentary.

"Islam is many different things – it is not monolithic – and 'Yalla Italia' allows many realities to be known," said Rufaida Hamid, 20, who moved to Italy from Kashmir in 2001 and is studying to become a pharmacist. “I will be part of the future of Italians. I do not want to be isolated. ”

Compared with other European countries, Italy's immigrants are relative newcomers, and the country is still struggling to deal with its growing foreign population. If the French model has been to integrate through citizenship, and Britain has opted for multiculturalism, both with mixed results, Italy has still seemed unable to make up its mind.

Government policies have tended to favor repression over integration. After the Italian Senate passed a law toughening immigration policies last month, "Famiglia Cristiana," an influential Roman Catholic magazine, accused Italy of plunging "into the abyss of racial laws," a series of anti-Semitic measures that were passed by the Fascist government in 1938. The lower house still has to approve the law.

"Italy has not chosen a specific model yet for how it wants to deal with Islam," said Farian Sabahi, a professor of history of Islamic countries at the University of Turin and an editorialist for the Milan daily Corriere della Sera who has written books on Muslims in Europe. "It has not been a priority of the government, and that is embarrassing, because it goes against what other European countries are trying to do."

"Muslims frighten Italians" because many of them are poor, Sabahi said. And of course, she added, because of the association in recent years between Islam and terrorism. "There is an implication that Muslims are potential terrorists, just like Romanians are seen as potential rapists, because of the spate of rape cases allegedly involving them in Italy in the past few weeks."

She doubts that Italy will see the sort of unrest that swept France's suburbs, but thinks it is critical to defuse potential areas of discontent, for example by allowing Muslims to build mosques. In several Italian cities, particularly in the north, politicians have exploited anti-immigrant sentiment to block the construction of new places of Islamic worship.

Second-generation immigrants – of which there are about 700,000 in Italy – can be vital to integration, said Lubna Ammoune, 20, who is Milanese by birth but of Syrian origin. "I like to think of us as a bridge," said Ammoune, who blogs for "Yalla Italia" and for the online version of the Turin daily La Stampa.

"Yalla Italia," which was started in May 2007, hopes "to show Italians a constructive reality they do not expect," said Ouejdane Mejri, 32, who came from Tunisia to study in Italy and now teaches information technology at Milan Polytechnic. “Immigrants are not just people who wash ashore on a beach. We pay taxes, participate in society, strive to integrate.

"We are the future of Italy, and we want to be protagonists of that future."

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