Italy Drives Muslims Underground

Romes plan to close hundreds of unofficial Muslim prayer centers could backfire badly.

ROME Every day around noon four or five men roll out a faded red prayer rug on the sidewalk about midway down the narrow one-way Via Aurelio Saffi that leads from the Janiculum Hill to the medieval district of Trastevere. They kneel in prayer, hidden behind a row of parked cars. A few minutes later, they get up and roll up their rug and tuck it behind a low stone fence and go their separate ways. The same scene plays out in supermarket parking lots, narrow alleys and garages all across the country as those who practice Islam answer their calls to prayer.

The reason they cant practice their faith in a mosque is because there are only four official mosques in the entire country to support an Islamic population of 1.6 million people. There are also 800 registered cultural centers and prayer rooms throughout the country, but many are only open sporadically.

Instead, the vast majority of Muslims in Italy gather at makeshift places of worship that Italys interior minister now vows to close down. In Italy, we have four mosques and over 800 places of Muslim worship, Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said last week at a counter-terrorism conference in the southern Italian town of Lecce. We are going to close the clandestine and unregulated spots, not to hamper the religion, but so that it can be practiced in a more orderly manner.

That, of course, can be assumed to mean under surveillance. According to a study commissioned by Alfano after the Paris attacks, the so-called garage mosques represent an opaque world and a security risk. Addressing regional leaders in Puglia last week, he said that the unregistered mosques constitute a grey zone. There are many moderate and traditional Muslims there, but this is where the inspiration to fundamentalism is born, he said. Then they communicate on the Internet and only in Arabic. Alfano says that 30 of the known mosques in Rome will be among those shut down.

But the problem with all this, argues Izzedin Elzir, president of the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy, is that many places of worship more likely are not known and closing those that are will push some Muslims on the verge of extremism even further underground.

Elzir, who disagrees with the plan to close the garage mosques, called for all imams to speak Italian and to open a dialogue with extremists and convince them they are wrong. He has also called upon moderate Muslims to report anyone who may be veering into radical Islam, even if they are family members. Elzir spoke at the state funeral of Valeria Solesin, a 28-year old Venetian who was killed at the Bataclan theater in Paris on Nov. 13. We need to walk together to defeat the fear of terrorism, he said.

At the end of last year, the interior ministry estimated that there were 1,613,000 Muslims in Italy, which makes up a total of 32.2 percent of all foreigners. Only 50,000 Italian citizens are Muslim even though Islam constitutes the second-largest religion after Catholicism. More than half of all Muslims live in the north of the country, according to the interior ministry study, which finds that the largest group of Muslimssome 120,000live in Milan.

Islam is not an officially recognized religion in Italy, even though other religions like Buddhism and Judaism, which have far fewer followers, are. That lack of recognition allows Italy to control the number of mosques and prayer facilities being built and registered, but it stops the Islamic community from fully integrating. It also allows authorities to more easily monitor the mosques. 

Many argue that the difficulty which members of the Muslim community have integrating and the near impossibility they face when trying to build legitimate places of worship is precisely what has led to the increase in so-called garage mosques, since it is virtually impossible for Muslims to pray legally.

In addition to closing the garage mosques, Alfano says Italy will dedicate more than $1 billion to enhance security, including hiring more Arab translators to help with telephone and Internet surveillance. The first garage mosques are to be shuttered up this week, but it is unlikely that will mean an increase in attendance at the registered facilities. More likely, it will just mean those who want to gather to worship will have to hide to practice their faith.

Read more: