Italy: Muslims not getting Christian treatment

25 August 2009
La Repubblica Rome

We once wore headscarves too. Neighbours in Como, Northern Italy (MAEDios)

We once wore headscarves too. Neighbours in Como, Northern Italy (MAEDios)

With moves to ban kebab shops, burkinis, and public prayers, town councils throughout Italy are increasingly resorting to measures that are perceived as discriminatory by Muslims, who are now beginning to respond with court actions.

In Varallo Sesia, a small town not far from the Swiss border, the mayor, who is also a Northern League MP, has decided to impose a fine of €500 on swimmers wearing burkinis – swimsuits that cover the whole body in compliance with an ultra-strict Muslim interpretation of modesty – in public pools, and also in rivers and streams. Hamza Piccardo, of the Union of Islamic communities (UCOII), is convinced that "the anti-burkini fine won't stand up to a court action."

Muslims seek legal defence

The expression "court action" has well and truly entered the vocabulary of migrants who are increasingly aware of Italian laws and customs. Hot on the heels of the affair of the young Moroccan who plunged into a pool in Verona wearing a burkini, members of the Muslim minority are increasingly engaged in community defence. The Islamic community has opened up a new front in an attempt to exert more control over its "image as a religious minority." The courts have ruled in favour of community groups and ordered retractions in several cases of slander, and the idea of using administrative tribunals to oppose municipal orders that are perceived as "racist" is gaining in popularity.

Luca Bauccio, a Milanese lawyer who has represented the UCOII and the interests of "Italian Islam" in close to 100 slander and libel cases, has also written to Milan's prosecutor's office to complain of anti-Muslim bye laws. His letter was forwarded to the anti-terrorism department, which acknowledged that Muslims were "often victims of defamation." Although it is relatively low-key, this attempt to regulate community relations via litigation has created a significant precedent.

Kebabs non grata

In the meantime, on the eve of Ramadan, the town of Nervesa della Battaglia, in the north-eastern province of Treviso, decided that local buildings used as mosques did not comply with planning regulations. In April, the region of Lombardy declared war on kebab shops, with extra-rigorous health and and hygiene checks, an order forcing them to close at 1 AM, and a ban on serving food that will be eaten in the street. In the same month in Milan, the mayor considered banning demonstrations in the cathedral square, in the wake of one incident where a few hundred Muslims assembled there to pray. In the northern province of Bergamo, in the villages of Capriate, San Gervasio and Crespi D´Adda which have a combined population of less than 8,000, the Northern League dominated local council has decided to refuse any further licenses to businesses selling "kebabs or similar foods." The local mayor insists that the measure "is not racist," but simply aims to preserve the architectural heritage of the historic centre. A similar initiative, which has been in force inside the magnificent city walls of Lucca in Tuscany, since the beginning of the year, is perhaps more understandable, although in this case the ban on new licenses specifically targets non-Italian ethnic foods and outlaws the selling of couscous as well as kebabs and slices of pizza. And even if its charms cannot compare with the splendours of Lucca, the town of Cittadella, in the northeastern region of Veneto, has followed suit and sent kebab vendors packing

No burqas in Alassio

But kebabs are not the only taboo in Italy, which is also menaced by burkas – no doubt this is why the mayor of Alassio, a resort on the Genoese coast, issued an ordinance last year to ban burkas from the municipal area, even though they have hardly ever been seen in the town. In Fermignano in the Marche region, the new Northern League mayor, is also attempting to enforce an identical order. So it is not surprising that groups like the UCOII have opted to counter attack. In September, the advertising standards commission will be called on to rule on an image used to advertise pepper spray, which shows the hand of white woman dousing a dark-skinned attacker. You might be forgiven for wondering if Italy is becoming like the Alabama of the 1960s?