Immigration, religious diversity and recognition of differences: the Italian way to multiculturalism

Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power

Volume 21, Issue 6, 2014

Special Issue: What Remains of the National Models of Integration? Ideal-typical constructions and social realities of immigrant incorporation in Europe


Migration entails, among other consequences, the presence of different cultures and religions. Italy, being a latecomer among immigration countries, has had specific difficulties in acknowledging the new cultural and religious pluralism brought by migrations, due to lack of knowledge and reflection in this sphere. In the more recent context of social and cultural change in Europe, Italian society is also going through a phase characterised by reactive identities and cultural conflicts. They are producing a diffused anti-multiculturalist opinion, even though multiculturalist policies have not been openly implemented. Thus, on the one hand, this situation has so far prevented a real recognition of cultural and religious differences, particularly concerning Islam. But on the other hand, positive actions in favour of migrants can also be observed, especially at the local level.


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Migration entails, among other consequences, the presence of different cultures and religions. Italy, being a latecomer among immigration countries, has had specific difficulties in acknowledging the new cultural and religious pluralism brought by migrations, due to lack of knowledge and reflection in this sphere. In the more recent context of social and cultural change in Europe, Italian society is also going through a phase characterised by reactive identities and cultural conflicts. They are producing a diffused anti-multiculturalist opinion, even though multiculturalist policies have not been openly implemented. Thus, on the one hand, this situation has so far prevented a real recognition of cultural and religious differences, particularly concerning Islam. But on the other hand, positive actions in favour of migrants can also be observed, especially at the local level.


Since the 1970s, Italy has developed into a new immigration and religiously pluralistic country. But Italy has largely avoided recognising the cultural and religious implications of the process of pluralisation, particularly concerning Islam. In this sense, Italy can be considered – in contrast to most of the other case studies in this special issue – as a country without an established model of integration or pluralism; different governments have only produced contradictory laws, depending on the respective political majorities. Nevertheless, the specificity of Islam has been taken into account, although not with the priority to include it into the religious landscape of Italy, but more for polemic reasons – to contrast Muslims with the majority of the non-Muslim population in Italy. In this context, the ‘Consulta’, then called ‘Comitato per l’islam italiano’, has been founded, a specific instrument to deal with Islam. Even when it was abandoned in recent times, Islam seems to have a central role in Italian society, particularly in public debates, where it represents – as discursive substitute – the challenge of cultural and religious pluralism; yet, the importance of this religion for both the Italian society and its political consequences, is not sufficiently debated.
In the following article, I will first give a short overview about Italy as emigration and immigration country. Second, the link between recent immigration and the production of laws will be explored. Then, I will focus on cultural pluralism and specifically on Islam, and the consequences of its presence in public debates and policies. Finally, I conclude with the relevance of Islam for the Italian religious landscape.
While most of the Central and Northern European countries were, due to their post-war reconstruction, already booming and well established economies importing labour migrants (see Barou, Borevi, Entzinger, Loch and Meer and Modood in this issue), Italy was still, along with other Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Greece and Portugal, a sending country with significant percentages of emigrants. Only since the 1970s, Italy has become an immigration country then increasingly characterised by a general cultural and religious pluralisation.1
In one century, from the unification of the country in 1861 until 1970, almost 27 million Italians were obliged to expatriate (Ascoli 1979), mainly in search of a job: an impressive number, considering that the entire population of Italy was, at the beginning of Italian history as a unified country, only 21 million (excluding the Veneto, not yet part of the country). Not all these migrations were definitive: the net emigration, the difference between the people who emigrated and the people who repatriated, is probably between 8 and 9 million (Birindelli 1989, Volpi 1989). Today, around 5 million Italians (holding an Italian passport) still live outside Italy, and the estimate of people of Italian descent (migrants and their descendants) is 50 to 60 millions; another Italy outside its borders.2
It is also only since the 1970s that Italy has started to become in statistical terms an immigration country. The symbolic turning point can be considered 1973, the first year in which data from ISTAT, the Italian Institute of Statistics, show that there were 1366 more repatriates (125,168) than expatriates (123,802).3 Furthermore, Italy had in 1973 officially 175,746 foreign residents coming from European countries, a number slightly higher than the Italians emigrating in a single year. Finally, this was not yet the new wave of immigration from the so-called Third World. But from that moment on, quickly, silently and initially unnoticed, the phenomenon was manifest.
The fact that immigration in Italy is relatively recent can explain the weakness of politics and planning, and the initial lack of experience. But it is not enough to explain how even the legislative process concerning migration has been constructed without a reference model. It is a house designed without an architect, without a project and with little idea of the materials to use – with some good intentions, particularly in the beginning, and a lot of work done, but also with serious difficulties and obstacles. The Italian (missing) model of pluralism (Allievi 2010a) has been the result of changing majorities in government, that, as we will see, continually modified the principles underlying the different laws approved. But it was also the result of internal contradictions, of unclearness in purposes, of prevailing tactical positioning and – both on the left and on the right – rhetorical political arguments over the need to solve empirical problems, of missing field experience and references to real processes taking place, and of a total absence of pragmatism and experimentation. This is at least what has happened at the national level. By contrast, with less resources but with more interest to intervene in order to solve potential conflicts, much more has been done at the local, municipal level in terms of policies of integration (for the initial discrepancy between the national and the local level in the German case see also Loch in this issue), but sometimes, where xenophobic political actors were in power, also of ‘disintegration’ (see Guolo 2003).
The number of immigrants, in the beginning, was modest. In 1970, permits of stay issued to foreigners, many of which Europeans, numbered 146,989, in 1975 they were 185,715, by 1980 it reached 298,749. It is only in more recent years that migration from developing countries has become more visible and appeared in statistics: 1,549,373 is the totality of immigrants on 31 December 2002; 2.402.157 in 2004; 2,938,922 in 2006; 3,891,295 in 2008; and 4,570,317 in 2010 (or probably more, including regular presences of immigrants not yet registered, because of bureaucratic delays; and, of course, an irregular presence, by definition difficult to estimate).4 The initially modest numbers led the Italian government to fail to consider the new migration as an irreversible fact for a long time. And when they did, they seemed not to accept it, and they have not been able to learn any lesson from a century of emigration, its costs and its consequences.
The first immigration law approved in Italy, as a parliamentary initiative, and which ended an embarrassing legislative silence unparalleled in the receiving countries of Europe, was Law 943 (officially published on 30 December 1986), entitled ‘Legislation concerning the employment and treatment of extracommunitarian immigrants and against clandestine immigration’. This long title immediately reveals two things: (a) that immigrants from outside Europe form a specificity, called in the Italian bureaucratic jargon ‘extracommunitarian’; (b) that the law considers only the aspect of the presence in the labour market: the immigrant exists as a worker, and does not have any other specificity or need besides this role (Allievi 2010c).
The main purpose of the law was to make the foreign presence in the labour force visible, transforming a de facto presence in a de jure integration, shifting it out of the informal economy and the absence of rights, opening for immigrants equal rights and social citizenship. But in the process of drafting it, only the part of the law concerning employment remained, and only for wage and salaried work, not self-employment; laws on residence permits, students, refugees, citizenship and more generally on rights in the society, were announced but did not arrive. The immigrants were considered only as labour force: with a significant Italian expression ‘mano d’opera’ (literally ‘working hand’). Thanks to Law 943, about 118,700 foreign workers regularised their position – far fewer than expected.
The second law initiative on immigration has been the consequence of a quite different situation in the late 1980s. It was a period of mobilisation and activity by churches, trade unions and NGOs, and of relative sympathy towards migrants, also as a consequence of dramatic episodes of violence that victimised them – a sympathy that rapidly vanished in the following years. This led to the approval of the Decreto Legge 416, 30 December 1989, known as the ‘Martelli Decree’ (from the name of the vice-president of the Council that firmly wanted it), which became Law 39, on 28 February 1990, after Parliament approval with some modifications. The Martelli Decree reopened the debate about the presence of immigrants in Italy, and put it on different ground. Law 39/1990, with broader criteria for acceptance of regularisation applications (in Italian: sanatoria), led to 217,700 regularisations. Another sanatoria arrived 5 years later, with Decree 489 of 1995 (the so-called Dini Law, from the name of the minister who proposed it), that resulted in 246,000, and again 3 years later in 217,000 regularisations.5 As the numbers make it absolutely clear, the mass of these legislative initiatives were made under an emergency logic. There was no wider ambition to construct a full legislative system capable of governing immigration, prevent its negative consequences, predict its flows and help the integration of immigrants already present in the country. This logic characterised also the following years, with the sanatoria of 2002 which led to approximately 646,000 regularisations. Globally, Italy promoted regularisations, both with right-wing and left-wing governments, in 1977, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1995, 1998 and 2002, going from 5000 (1982) to 646,000 (2002) regularised foreigners (Einaudi 2007). A new sanatoria has been approved in 2009, limited to domestic workers, and a last one proposed in 2012 by the Government for economic reasons.
From mid-1990s started the first serious attempt to build a non-emergency legislative framework concerning immigration in Italy. This framework law has been the Legislative Decree 286 of 25 July 1998, widely known as the ‘Turco-Napolitano Law’, from the names of the two ministers of the centre-left government – the first government of Prodi, in power after the elections of 1996 – that promoted it (Napolitano is currently the President of the Republic, re-elected in 2013). The framework law aimed to set a comprehensive and complete text. But the period was unfavourable to a law based on rights: wide sectors of public opinion were much more sensitive to the logic of refusal of immigrants, openly promoted with evident success by political parties like the Lega Nord of Umberto Bossi, but sustained also by the traditional right of Gianfranco Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale and the so-called new right represented by Forza Italia, the party created by Silvio Berlusconi (for the impact of the populist radical right on migration issues see also particularly the Dutch case presented by Entzinger in this issue).6 It is in this period that the Italian right, cited in the past by foreign observers as a positive example of openness and respect towards migrants, moved towards religious intolerance and xenophobic aggression, with an explicit anti-immigrant language (Bolaffi 2001). Much irony was addressed by the Northern League to the law, explaining its inefficiencies through the ministers’ last names, Livia Turco and Giorgio Napolitano (‘How could a good law on immigration come from a Turk and a Neapolitan?’7).
Nevertheless, the law tried to reconcile the universalist (in terms of rights) and the solidarist approach (the law was sustained by the Catholic Church and the more active movements and organisations working on migrant issues) on the one hand, with the need for law, order and security, introducing centres for temporary detention (CPTs) and other measures, on the other. In the eyes of public opinion it was probably the failure of the repressive part – meant to include repatriation of irregulars but never effectively applied – that was the main target of critics, putting the more positive integrative aspects in the background.
With the change in government and the triumph of the right-wing coalition at the following elections in April 2001 – heavily using the argument of immigration, and the need to regulate it or, better, to fight it, as an electoral tool – ideology triumphed completely. Law 189, of 30 July 2002, bears the names of the two right-wing leaders that in that period were the least tolerant on immigration, the leaders of the Lega Nord and of Alleanza Nazionale, and the Bossi-Fini law was presented as the tool to regulate immigration and eliminate irregularity. Ironically (and dramatically for the conditions and quality of life of migrants), because of its logic linking directly and exclusively the residence permit to a regular job, so that losing the latter was the condition for losing the former, the Bossi-Fini law increased the number of irregulars in the country, with the paradox of producing irregularity via the legislation. This has been defined as the Italian immigration schizophrenia (Pastore 2004a, 2004b), paired with an ‘invasion paranoia’ (Pastore 2009).8 It also produced a specific foreign presence in Italian prisons, with thousands of persons imprisoned because of crimes linked to clandestine immigration, that in itself became a crime with this law, due to non-compliance with expulsion orders, probably more than 10,000 people, according to widely published estimates. The Bossi-Fini law, widely considered inappropriate for the regulation of migration, has been from a certain point of view the perfect law to obtain the political support to implement so-called law and order policies, building social fears and exploiting them for political purposes (Bonini and D’Avanzo 2006). As we have already said, the purpose of the law was mainly ideological. There were no considerations of individual rights, pragmatism and realpolitik (attempts to regulate the phenomenon, at least at the economic level), emerging social problems and, obviously, least of all, cultural ones – not to mention multiculturalism. It has been in this period that the anti-Islamic discourses have emerged dramatically in the public space, particularly in the media and in politics, reinforcing each other, making Italy one of the countries in Europe where Islamophobic discourses have been more openly promoted by media and politicians, particularly because xenophobic parties and leading figures have been in power for long, until the fall of Berlusconi’s government in 2011.
In 2006 elections, the centre-left majority came back to power with a tiny and very weak majority, for what turned out to be a short parenthesis. The Minister of Social Affairs, Paolo Ferrero, a leftist from the Rifondazione Comunista Party, wanted to introduce a significant change in immigration law, even though the Minister of the Interior, Giuliano Amato, intended to follow a more pragmatic approach, a sort of return to rationality. With work proceeding in parallel on draft laws on immigration, citizenship and religious rights, a more open debate also on cultures seemed to become possible. On 24 April 2007, a new set of draft laws came under discussion, presented by the two ministers of the centre-left coalition and bearing their names (Amato-Ferrero). The draft bill, meant to become a definitive law within 12 months, represented a spectacular 180 degrees reversal in respect to the previous philosophy, and was probably too much of a change for general public opinion. The starting point was the failure of the Bossi-Fini law, which favoured a disproportionate weight of the clandestine presence compared to legal immigration. The main objectives concerned common sense goals, such as the control of illegal immigration, its legalisation, repression of human trafficking and policies of integration. But it bore an accentuated progressive view, much in counter-tendency when compared to what was happening in most countries of Europe, and also among the Italian public opinion. One example of a turnaround was the draft law on citizenship, presented in August 2006, which promoted a passage from a particularly strict jus sanguinis policy to a more generous almost jus soli approach.9 Yet, with the internal crisis of the centre-left government headed by Romano Prodi and its resignation, that forced the President of the Republic to call new elections in April 2008, the centre-right coalition returned to power, with a larger majority than before, and turned the clock back to the Bossi-Fini law.
After Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation in November 2011, due to a dramatic economic crisis and the complete international discredit of the coalition in power and its leader, the government led by Mario Monti10 stated the will to change the laws on immigration, granting more rights to immigrants and a larger access to Italian citizenship, particularly for the second generations. Only educative messages in this direction were addressed to the Italian public opinion from different institutional authorities – insistently by President Napolitano, who in various occasions pleaded for the quick approval of a jus soli law for second generations – but no concrete projects of law were presented.
Finally, the coalition government of Enrico Letta (April 2013), that includes both centre-right (Popolo della Libertà, Berlusconi’s party) and the Democratic Party as well as Scelta Civica, the former prime minister Monti’s new party, has not yet assumed any initiative, even though it took the strongly symbolic decision – not without opposition – to appoint Cécile Kyenge as the Minister for Integration, a doctor born in Congo, who succeeded in this office to Andrea Riccardi. Both these personalities represent a symbolic will to change integration policies compared to the previous governments of Berlusconi, in which a Minister for Integration simply did not exist.
So many different laws have dealt with immigration, but practically none with the cultural and religious impact of the presence of immigrant populations. There is not even a serious understanding of their cultural origins. The main countries of immigration to Italy at the end of 2010, that count for two-thirds of the total immigrant population, are Romania (968,576 residents), followed by Albania (482,627), Morocco (452,424), China (209,934), Ukraine (200,730), the Philippines (134,154), Moldova (130,948), India (121,036), Poland (109,018) and Tunisia (106,291). As both the figures and the percentages show, the more recent flows are mainly from Eastern Europe and other non-Muslim countries, and are much more intense than the flows from Northern Africa and the Middle East, with a constant increase that has also changed the cultural and religious landscape of migration. Immigrants from Muslim countries have never represented more than one-third of the total number of immigrants. Nevertheless, even though local protests and xenophobic attitudes have been occasionally manifested also towards other targeted groups (such as, in different periods, Albanians, Romanians, Black Africans, Chinese and notably the Roma populations), Muslim populations, and Arab Muslims in particular, remain at the centre of the cultural debates over immigration (Allievi 2005a, 2005b).
The legislative process concerning migration has not really raised – much less solved – the problem of the ongoing process of cultural pluralisation of Italy, usually interpreted in the media arena with the slightly negative connotation of the term multiculturalism diffused in the political language in recent years. The laws on migration simply did not contain any reference to cultural integration, and the European and Western debate on multiculturalism (see Meer and Modood and also Wieviorka in this issue) has not been seriously taken into account. This is even more surprising since the debate on cultures, and on Islam particularly, has been violently raised, overtly exploited politically and widely covered, if not fuelled, by the media (Allievi 2009, 2010b; on its consequences also Marranci 2004 and Frisina 2010). The (anti-)Muslim debate started in fact from what we can call the Black September of Islam in Italy. It was not September 11, 2001, but 1 year before, September 2000, when three important events occurred at three different levels and demonstrated that Islamophobia is not only an effect of Islamic terrorism. At the political level, the Northern League started, from a mosque project in the city of Lodi in Lombardy, an aggressive anti-Muslim campaign, that still continues with local closures of mosques and national law projects against Islam. On the religious plan, Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, Archbishop of Bologna and linked to the powerful movement of Comunione e Liberazione, gave voice to Catholic anti-Muslim opinion with a letter addressed to his parishioners but intended for national readership, that has achieved significant popularity. At the cultural level, a popular academic expert in politics, Giovanni Sartori, with no specific expertise on the subject, published a very successful pamphlet against multiculturalism (Sartori 2000); and even if it was a superficial, polemic and poorly informed text, it was treated as if it were scientific by the media, for whom the author was already a well-known figure.11 Obviously this debate, once started, was fuelled by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which in Italy led, on the cultural level, as the most noteworthy example, to the extraordinary and unprecedented success of Oriana Fallaci’s books against Islam. Fallaci’s famous ‘trilogy’ became a popular and durable bestseller, with over one million copies of each sold (see Fallaci 2001, 2004a, 2004b; see also my comments in Bosetti 2005, Allievi 2006b). Since its publication, it has set the agenda of the debate on Islam in Italy, with surprisingly little criticism, both in the media and in politics: and still are successful longsellers. However, it is possible to note here a slight change in very recent times, following a more general and surprisingly quick change in the political and cultural climate of the country, after government Berlusconi’s resignation and the passage of the Lega Nord to the opposition: even in cultural terms, we might say. But, this change is too recent, even if spectacular, to allow us to examine its effects.
Politico-institutional initiatives on religion have been the only attempt to include immigrant cultures as an issue in the legislative framework of the country, leading to a peculiar way of addressing cultural integration. In other crucial fields like school, health, bioethics, etc., the legislative production to integrate immigrants has been very poor: nothing more than an encouragement, for instance in the school system, to deal with cultural and religious pluralism. In October 2005, the Minister of Interior of the right wing coalition then in power, Giuseppe Pisanu, set-up a consultative body for Muslims in Italy, the ‘Consulta per l’islam italiano’ composed of members nominated by the minister, with strong oppositions from other members of the coalition, the Lega Nord in particular. The Consulta has been confirmed by Minister Giuliano Amato, of the following left-wing coalition. When the right wing went back to power, Minister Roberto Maroni, representative of the Lega Nord, suspended the ‘Consulta’ and changed it in a ‘Comitato per l’islam italiano’, again nominated by the minister, including not only Muslim representatives but also non-Muslim academic experts on Islam and even anti-Muslim prominent figures in journalism, with no particular expertise on Islam. This choice was clearly intended to soften the vague attempt of representativeness of the previous Consulta; the aim was also to balance it with an ideological ‘fallacian’ approach, driving it to a substantially useless role. The ‘Comitato’ has in its turn unofficially suspended its activities with the following governments Monti and Letta. For them, given the dramatic priorities imposed by the economic crisis, Islam was not clearly a priority; but also Islamophobia has become a less useful tool.
On the legislative level things have been more problematic. The Italian legal system concerning religions is based on a privileged status offered, in the Constitution, to the Catholic church with the Concordato, and in a system of Intese (agreements) with religious minorities who apply for it. Some Muslim associations already started to lobby for an Intesa in the early 1990s, even if in recent times they have been much less enthusiastic and active in this field (Ferrari 2005, 2008). But, the political and cultural climate has been far from receptive to this solution. In fact, besides the first Protestant minority recognised in 1985, the Waldensians, and the later Intese with the Jewish community and with other Protestant reformed churches, the system in itself has been stopped by political will. Only in April 2007, six new Intese were signed, including with religious communities that represent important parts of the immigrant population, the Orthodox Church and Hindus. Parliament was expected to debate the new and old Intese, signed but awaiting ratification from the Parliament itself to become effective. But this has not yet occurred.
A law on religious freedom of minorities has also been proposed, granting most important significant rights to religious communities in general, with or without an Intesa. But after more than a decade it is still a project. It is patently clear that the hidden agenda of the law is to solve most of the practical problems that Muslim communities might have while avoiding any direct and specific recognition of Islam, particularly the symbolic recognition of an Intesa, possibly for a long time. This could be a way to escape, in practice, the ‘clash of civilizations syndrome’ – the trivialisation of the Huntingtonian approach that has been the mainstream cultural and journalistic approach to Islam for a decade in the Italian debate – without openly criticising it – and on the contrary continuously using it as an interpretative tool on which it is always possible to rely on whenever politically useful and exploitable. But even this path has not been seriously taken into consideration, up to now, and discussions have not led to any result.
As in other European countries, political decisions concerning Islam have tended to ‘exceptionalise’ Islam, not treating this religion on the same grounds, including legal grounds, as other religious minorities. A significant example of exceptionalisation concerns mosques, particularly in the Northern area of the country, where the Lega Nord is more often in power, locally (see the comparative researches in Allievi 2009, 2010b). But this has not been the only example.
Many debates on immigration, particularly the cultural ones and particularly those concerning Islam, have been imported even before the Islamic presence was visible and organised: the debate on the veil before veils appeared in Italian cities; that on mosques and minarets before visible mosques and minarets were built; that on genital mutilations before concrete significant cases have been discussed; that on freedom of expression through foreign cases (like the Theo Van Gogh killing or the Danish cartoons affairs, and, before, the Rushdie affair); that on internal terrorism through 9/11 or Madrid and London bombings (even if, differently from other countries, internal significant terrorist acts never occurred); and, finally, that on the burqa with the proposition of a law banning it from schools, even before it had appeared in any school of the country. All these debates have been imported from the countries in which they became hot political issues, and where the presence of Islam was more mature and visible. Even the debate on – or against – multiculturalism has been imported, and locally reproduced, before multiculturalist politics and policies were really implemented.
This sensitivity is partly due to the diffused interpretative framework in terms of cultural clashes that has been the dominant paradigm during more than a decade in most Western countries in intellectual debates, in public debates – with the use of Islam as a political tool for the different ‘political entrepreneurs of fear’ (see e.g. Entzinger for the Netherlands in this issue) – and in the perception of Islam in the media characterised by increasing Islamophobia.12
But there are also the cultural specificities of Italy which need to be taken into account. The fact that Italy does not have a colonial memory of racism and cultural plurality management included in legislative terms, is part of the problem (Andall and Duncan 2005). This leads to underestimate the racist attitudes manifested in that period, i.e. the popular myth of ‘Italiani brava gente’, which is still the mainstream idea of the colonial role of Italy (Del Boca 2005, see also Duncan and Andall 2010). This has also prevented reading immigration in post-colonial terms (Grillo 2002) like in France and Britain or The Netherlands, where it is so important in debates on immigration and in those concerning the relations with Muslims and Islam (see Barou, Meer and Modood and Entzinger in this issue).
In these relations, Italy has had some difficulties in acknowledging its internal religious plurality, even before international migration brought important religious differences, including Islam. These difficulties derive from its history and its substantial monopolistic self-perception in religious terms, due to its Catholic tradition and to the presence of the Vatican in its borders and its influence in the cultural and the political landscape of the country. To put it simplistically but significantly, Italy is a country where journalists who specialise in religious issues are still called ‘Vaticanists’. This perspective is shared by foreign observers, who too quickly identify Italy as a Catholic and only Catholic country. This happens regularly at different levels: in popular knowledge diffused even through tourist guides, in the media, but also among scholars and serious researchers in sociology of religion, who often forget to take into account the increasing pluralistic religious dimension of the country (Naso and Salvarani 2012).
Nevertheless, it is also true that the social and religious role played by the Catholic Church has had important positive effects on the integration of immigrants, exactly as it has had during the period of internal migrations, and in general concerning the traditional North–South cleavage: often the same Catholic organisations have been activated in both periods and situations. And faced with the religious sensibility of immigrant communities, it is as if a common religious grammar has been discovered in people practising different faiths. Given the key role played by Catholic organisations such as Caritas, Comunità di Sant’Egidio and ACLI (Associazioni Cristiane Lavoratori Italiani), by several missionary orders, and by local parishes in the institutions helping migrants at all levels, and given the importance of the Catholic vote for both the centre-left and the centre-right coalitions, Catholic positions have in part mitigated the effects of the differences in the legislative frames we have described in the previous paragraphs. The fact that some high media-visibility figures in the Catholic hierarchy are more openly expressing critical opinions about immigrants in general and Muslims specifically – as it has happened in the Regensburg lecture of Pope Benedict XVI in September 2006, but not in his following positions on Islam – does not contradict this historic role. It only shows that the Catholic Church, just like secular opinion, is deeply divided over cultural and religious diversity, particularly when discussing Islam, even though, with present Pope Franciscus I, the Catholic church seems more prone to dialogue with other religions.
The traditional left-wing culture of solidarity has also played, at least for a long initial period, an important role in helping foreign workers integrate. This is particularly true for trade unions which, in contrast to other countries in Europe, have always approved an interpretative frame based on migrant rights and policies of integration, even though not necessarily when Muslims are concerned. The traditional mistrust of the secular opinion – and left-wing organisations are traditionally more secular – towards religious issues is frequently aggravated when Muslims are concerned.
Finally, the school system has played a key role in the making of the potential Italian multicultural citizen, devoting attention to cultural and religious diversity, promoting self-reflection among teachers, specific training and local initiatives. The school system and politics of massive literacy played a similar role for the making of the Italian citizen, when Italy, in the century following the unification of the country, became with its plurality of divided populations and regions, different cultures and even languages a unified and united nation. Thus, as an unforeseen and unexpected effect, the emerging discussions on Islam – even when going through phases of reactive identities and cultural conflicts (Allievi 2006a) – have helped Italians acknowledge that they were becoming, from the cultural and religious point of view, a plural country.
All the issues and debates on Islam we have mentioned (veils, terrorism, mosques, etc.) seem to be the symptom; the illness is the European imaginary of Islam, and in parallel the Islamic imaginary of the West, and the relations between one and the other. But this is only the first half of the argument, the most immediate. The second is that Islam is in its turn a discursive substitute and a transitional object, which represents, indicates and signifies the pluralisation of society, and in particular, religious pluralism. In this sense, Islam has become the discursive substitute for religious and cultural pluralism, that implies other issues often discussed as correlated to Islam only: gender roles, clothing codes, family models, parental authority, ideas of modesty, purity and sacredness, the relationship between religion and politics, religion and democracy, religion and state and other debated issues.
Islam – rightly or wrongly – has become the most extreme example of otherness and the changes that otherness brings to European societies. Just that the problem is much more profound, the change even more traumatic and the issues to face even more decisive, because they do not involve only Islam and Muslims, but European societies themselves. However Islam, given its symbolic overload and the problematic history that joins it to Europe, its striking aspect of some of its contemporary manifestations among which obviously the emergence of transnational Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, but also its significant statistical presence, is inevitably at the centre of political and social debate in Italy, as across Europe. And it will be for a long time.


1. A process that is due, on one side, to the discovery of its own internal religious pluralism, rarely acknowledged in a country still considered, originally, as ‘Catholic’ (Garelli et al. 2003, Allievi and Diotallevi 2004), and on the other, to the presence of new immigrant populations; on both aspects see Introvigne and Zoccatelli (2006) and Naso and Salvarani (2012).
2. For an extraordinary collection of information and data, see the two very complete collections of essays dedicated to the history of Italian migration by Bevilacqua et al. (2001, 2002). See also Gabaccia (2000).
3. All the data in
4. For all these data, see Caritas 2011, and the previous editions of the Caritas annual report. For an analysis of past trends and data see Colombo and Sciortino 2004.
5. These numbers cannot be summed, because many beneficiaries have used more than one regularisation, losing their residence permit, becoming irregular – often due to bureaucratic problems connected to the issuance of the permits – and re-regularising.
6. Alleanza Nazionale (AN) has more recently tried to take, particularly in personal initiatives of its leader Fini, a more nuanced position, with declarations in favour of the right of vote for immigrants, campaigning for a less strict law on citizenship, or against the mainstream Islamophobia of the right-wing coalition. These declarations, important as principle stances, have never led to political initiatives.
7. In the Northern League’s logic, the two worst features are ‘coming from abroad’ and ‘being from the South of Italy’.
8. Part of this schizophrenia is that in the same period particularly the North of Italy (voting massively for the right-wing coalition) and the entrepreneurs’ organisations of the Northern regions were asking for a larger contingent of immigrants in the labour market of their regions. Yet, this met with the contradictions of particularly the North-eastern regions of Italy, where immigration is highest and integration most successful, but where xenophobic reactions and Northern League votes are strongest, see Diamanti and Porcellato (2007).
9. On citizenship issues in Italy see Zincone (2010).
10. This government had as Minister for International Cooperation and Integration Andrea Riccardi, leader of the Comunità di Sant’Egidio, which is traditionally sympathetic to immigrants. This example stands for a spectacular change of persons and intentions, starting from the name of the Ministry, previously inexistent as such.
11. On the three cases, see Allievi (2003); on Sartori specifically Allievi (2001), whose arguments are echoed in Sciortino (2002).
12. See among others Geisser (2003) and Allen (2010).


  • 1. Allen, C., 2010. Islamophobia. Aldershot: Ashgate.
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