Italian Magazine Tries to Narrow Gap With Muslims


April 5, 2009

MILAN — On one side of a drab street in working-class Milan, a squat structure houses a conservative mosque that was once believed to be a hub of radical Islam in Italy. Even now, after a government crackdown drove off extremists, the mosque’s deeply conservative members remain mostly aloof from Italian society.

Across the street, the newsroom of Yalla Italia (Let’s Go, Italy) churns out a magazine written by “2Gs” — or second-generation immigrants — that tries to introduce Italians to the cultures of its new residents and to help young Muslim immigrants navigate their dual identities.

The message behind articles and blog posts like “To wear or not to wear a burkini?” and “How to match kaftans with jeans” is clear: it is possible to assimilate without losing a Muslim identity.

“We’re separated by 10 meters, but culturally we’re centuries apart,” said Martino Pillitteri, Yalla Italia’s chief editor. He said he saw the differences between his mission and that of Muslim conservatives as symbolic of the divide in Italy’s Muslim population — “one vision driving toward the past, the other driving toward the future,” he said.

Mr. Pillitteri said he decided to start the magazine because he believed that the Italian media presented a very one-dimensional view of Muslims: one that was often negative and too frequently focused on radicals and suspected terrorists.

The magazine’s articles are rarely political, although it has taken on some causes, including championing changes in laws to make the children of immigrants citizens automatically if they are born in Italy, rather than requiring them to apply for citizenship after 18 years of residence.

Most of the articles focus on how Italy’s Muslims live and interact with non-Muslim Italians, covering such topics as mixed marriages and the conflict between the older, less assimilated generation of immigrants and their often more open children.

Mr. Pillitteri likes to say that Yalla Italia’s staff is the medium as well as the message. Most of the reporters are women, some of them traditional enough to wear head scarves, and nearly all work during the few hours a week they snatch from their university studies or day jobs. Some came to Italy as children, others were born here of mixed marriages, still others came to study and married.

Lubna Ammoune, 20, who blogs for Yalla Italia and for the online edition of the Turin daily La Stampa, said she thought that second-generation immigrants could be vital to integration.

“I like to think of us as a bridge,” said Ms. Ammoune, who is Milanese by birth but of Syrian origin.

Yalla Italia’s attempts to narrow the cultural divide come as Italians have grown more resentful of immigrants and as the government has taken an increasingly tough stand on immigration.

Under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the government has tightened immigration laws and increased security in cities as Italians’ fear of violent crimes by immigrants has risen.

The tough tone of the government and its allies was apparent in January when Italians reacted to protests by hundreds of Muslims in several Italian cities against the war in Gaza by praying in central squares (and therefore in front of cathedrals).

Giuseppe Pisanu, a former interior minister with Mr. Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party, said the protests were “a fundamentalist operation, the preliminaries of terrorism,” the ANSA news agency reported.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni of the anti-immigrant Northern League Party, warned that Italy risked “a situation like the Parisian banlieues,” the heavily immigrant, disaffected suburbs where rioting erupted in 2005.

Italy’s immigrants are relative newcomers, compared with those elsewhere in Europe, and the country is still struggling with how to deal with its growing foreign population. After the Italian Senate passed a bill toughening immigration policies in February, Famiglia Cristiana, an influential Roman Catholic magazine, accused Italy of plunging “into the abyss of racial laws,” a series of anti-Semitic measures that were passed by the Fascist government in 1938. The lower house still has to approve the bill, which would be one of the strictest in Europe.

“Italy hasn’t chosen a specific model yet for how it wants to deal with Islam,” said Farian Sabahi, a professor of history of Islamic countries at the University of Turin. “It hasn’t been a priority of the government, and that is embarrassing, because it goes against what other European countries are trying to do.”

Yalla Italia, first published in May 2007, appears as a monthly insert of Vita, a magazine geared to the nonprofit sector that has a circulation of 36,000. Vita’s Web site averages 250,000 visitors a month, magazine statistics showed.

For the most part, the articles in Yalla Italia do not try to preach change. Instead, they aim to encourage mutual understanding. One article, for instance, acknowledged how awkward it can be for young immigrants to watch Italian television, which features many scantily clad women, with their parents.

And in an issue on mixed marriages last year, couples shared their efforts at balancing cultures. “We live our cultural and religious differences like an enrichment for each other,” wrote Ali Hassoun, a citizen of Lebanese descent who is married to an Italian. He said their daughter “recites the Sura in the Koran, but asks Jesus for a baby sister.”

Yalla Italia hopes “to show Italians a constructive reality they don’t expect,” said Ouejdane Mejri, 32, a magazine contributor who came from Tunisia to study in Italy and now teaches information technology at Milan Polytechnic. “Immigrants are not just people who wash ashore on a beach. We pay taxes, participate in society, strive to integrate.

“We are the future of Italy,” she said, “and we want to be protagonists of that future.”

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