Muslims Stand Against Terror In Italy

By Ian Fisher CREMONA, Italy After the bombs in London in July, the first offer from the new Muslim leadership here was to form posses to keep an eye on possible militants. This city, gentle and refined, the home of Stradivarius, declined. Another idea that did not work was a possible service by both Muslims and Christians in the treasure of a cathedral here – which, prosecutors say, Muslim militants considered blowing up three years ago. But Sadiq el-Hassan, a leader at Cremona’s mosque, insisted that because the London bombings made future attacks in Europe a near certainty, something long overdue had to happen: Muslims, finally, needed to take a stand. “Our mistake is that we were quiet,” said Hassan, 40, a Tunisian who in dress and speech seems nearly Italian. “After all that happened after Sept. 11, we never came out and said, ‘These things are bad.’ But it’s not too late.” It may not be too late, but Muslim leaders here worry that time is nonetheless running out on Italy’s patience with them – and that worry has set off an unusual degree of self-criticism among Muslims like Hassan. It has not happened much in Europe, but Hassan is planning for the Muslims of Cremona to show publicly that they are as much against terrorism and violence as Italians are. In coming weeks, Muslims will march against extremism carried out in the name of Islam. “If the million Muslims who live in Italy don’t say anything, it means we are giving a green light to the terrorists,” he said. To optimists, like Mayor Gian Carlo Corada, the decision for the march is a welcome sign, the possible beginning of a model for how the uneasy relationship between Muslim immigrants and Europeans can be redefined. Muslims, he said, could begin aligning themselves more clearly against terrorism and for values that are more European; Europeans, in turn, would be more open to communication and true integration. Already for more than a decade, Cremona, a quiet city of 70,000 in the Po Valley, famous for violin making, has been an unlikely laboratory in Italy for relations with immigrants, nurturing both amity and extremism. And that history seems to show both the need for a new start to relations, and the difficulties of new beginnings. The area’s farms and factories – and the aging population of Italians, which has created a need for younger workers – have attracted a far higher percentage of immigrants here than to Italy as a whole. According to the mayor, about 20 percent of people in this area are immigrants compared with less than 5 percent for the whole of Italy. North Africans, mainly Muslims, began coming in the 1980s, and there are now some 10,000 around Cremona, Hassan said. The city’s political and religious authorities have largely been supportive of immigrants, and many immigrants have worked to integrate themselves and their families. City leaders praise an open dialogue with Muslims particularly. But given the rapidity of the change, it has been unsurprisingly imperfect on both sides. “Cremona is a racist city,” said Tamsir Ousmane, 44, from Senegal, who speaks a sackful of languages, including Italian, French, Russian and English, and runs a call center. “If I want to rent a house, I can’t. They won’t rent to me. Unfortunately, it is like this. But we are here. We work here. And we pay taxes.” Maria Anselmi, 64, sitting on a park bench downtown with five other older women, spoke of her fear of a terrorist attack and anxieties about immigrants in general. “In a while there will be more of them than of us,” she said. “They are going to squash us.” But relations with Muslims have been especially difficult. Nearly a dozen members of a former mosque were arrested in recent years, and two were convicted in July for belonging to an extremist cell plotting to carry out terror attacks. The plots uncovered here included bombing the subway in Milan and blowing up the cathedral here, which dates from 1107. “The city found itself at the heart of a series of investigations that suggested it was a crossroads of international terrorism,” said Andrea Gibelli, a parliamentarian for the Northern League party, which has advocated a hard line on immigration. “It was very uncomfortable.” The Northern League has been instrumental in closing down several mosques. While it has not moved against the new and more moderate mosque here, where Hassan is a leader, Gibelli is skeptical – and not only because of the specific terrorist threats here. Muslims, he said, have been reluctant to integrate into Italy. Mosques, he said, “are not places of prayer – they are for politics.” “They want to create areas where they can hide behind the protection of religious freedom, completely detached from the rest of the city,” Gibelli said. While the Northern League is on the far right, there seems to be a broader and growing opinion that Muslims, in fact, need to do more. One priest who is highly supportive of the Muslim community here conceded that in joint prayer groups against violence, perhaps only 10 percent of participants were Muslim. There has been talk for more than a year about a Muslim march against violence, but it has not yet happened. Hassan concedes the criticism is valid. “Integration is difficult,” he said, “because when you integrate, that is when you have identity crises. But we have to try.”