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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 September, 2004, 11:56 GMT 12:56 UK
Italy's Muslims under pressure

By Tamsin Smith
BBC News reporter in northern Italy

There are growing fears the hostage situation in Iraq is taking its toll on Italy's relations with its large Muslim community.

Far-right politicians in northern Italy are trying to invoke an old law to ban Muslim women from wearing burkas, or the chador, in public.

Fatima Abdelhakem
People are linking our Muslim community and Islam with what's happening in the world, it's like we are constantly to blame
Fatima Abdelhakem
Muslim Women Association president
They say security is the reason, but critics accuse them of fanning the flames of intolerance.

Biassono is a sleepy commuter town on Milan's doorstep. It is rudely woken only when the Formula 1, at nearby Monza, thunders right past the end of the main road.

The quaint church with burgundy drapes over the door, and the lazy pace of pushchairs and cyclists point to white middle-class suburbia.

In August this year, the town's mayor dusted down and reinforced an old Italian law banning the wearing of veils in public places.

"We want to be able to look people in the eyes... Those kind of coverings like burkas are not right here," says Angelo de Biasio from the far-right Northern League Party.

He is one of several Northern League mayors in the area enforcing a ban on the burka by using a public security law passed under the fascist leader Mussolini and updated in the 1970s when Italy faced domestic political terrorism.

Italy 'under attack'

The law forbids the wearing of items that obscure a person's identity. So why apply it to Muslim women now?

"We are in a similar security situation with the threats from terrorists in Iraq," explains Mr de Biasio. "We are under attack from extreme Muslim people here. If you look at what happens in the world, in Chechnya, those women wearing the burka are a symbol of death."

In Biassono, there are just 40 Muslims in a population of 11,000. No-one wears a burka.

But amongst local Italians, there is widespread support for the mayor's idea.

"It's the best way to control potential terrorists especially at the moment," says one, Giuseppe. The small group of people standing outside a local cafe murmur their approval.

"I agree," 84-year-old Tilde nods vigorously.

"I just don't trust what's behind those veils. We need to see their faces for security and for cultural reasons."

Blame

Just half an hour's drive away from Biassono is the multicultural heart of Milan.

Matteo Salvini
MEP Matteo Salvini wants strict laws on the burka
This is Italy's most established Muslim community, numbering 100,000.

But the Northern League wants to introduce the burka ban here and has launched a campaign to gather support.

"We have been too tolerant with Muslims," says MEP Matteo Salvini. "Now is not the moment for tolerance, it's the moment for strict laws."

But wander along the streets dotted with halal butchers, specialist food stores and tea shops and even here its relatively rare to see women covering their faces - even at the only Islamic dress shop that actually sells burkas.

"Here we sell dress from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Pakistan, everything really... even the occasional burka," says the store's owner, Fatima Abdelhakem, who is also president of the Association of Muslim Women in Italy.

She is angry that the debate over the burka ban associates veiled Muslim women with terrorists and is increasing tensions post-11 September 2001.

"I know the few women here in Milan who wear the burka. And they are afraid to go out in case they or their children are insulted. For others the headscarf is now a barrier; we feel this in the streets, in shops, the way people look at us.

"It's a sickening feeling and it really wasn't like this before. Intolerance has increased. It's worse since the war in Iraq and worse still with the hostage situation. People are linking our Muslim community and Islam with what's happening in the world, it's like we are constantly to blame... either for the hostages, or for the killing of someone."

Dialogue

From the green curtained mosque in Via Padova, the voices of Milan's Islamic leaders have been reaching out in dialogue with the Catholic Church, the media and the wider community to condemn the hostage situation in Iraq.

Ordinary Muslims marched alongside ordinary Italians in anti-terrorism demonstrations.

Abdulwahhab Ciccarello
Mosque director Ciccarello says their efforts at dialogue are ignored
But one of the mosque's directors, Abdulwahhab Ciccarello, says their efforts are ignored.

"We tried everything to express our support and to intervene, but it seems as though everything we do is worth nothing," he says.

"The danger is today if our voices are not heard, tomorrow it will be even worse.

"We don't encourage people to wear burkas and we want to respect Italian laws," stresses Asta Mahmoud, the director of Milan's House of Islamic Culture.

"But this law isn't really about the burka, it's political, and very damaging to relations we have built with the community."

The prominence of the Northern League's anti-Muslim rhetoric points to an absence of mainstream political dialogue with the Islamic community.

It is something the Italian government realises must change.

This week, the interior ministry announced a series of workshops and debates at local level to improve integration and understanding.

Islamic leaders have given cautious welcome to the initiative, but say the situation needs more than good intentions.

As the situation in Iraq worsens, the danger is that Italy's traditionally tolerant relationship with its growing Muslim population could become a casualty.





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