I am firm believer in the importance of Muslim communities in the West, especially in Europe, to fully integrate into the societies around them – without losing their identity as Muslims. I firmly believe that being fully American – or fully French, or fully Italian – and being fully Muslim are not mutually exclusive. I firmly believe that it does no one – neither the Muslim community nor their non-Muslim neighbors – any good if the Muslim community is isolated and alienated from the greater society in which it lives and works.
This requires the Muslim community to fully enter into and engage the non-Muslim society around it. Muslims should be full partners in the workings of society, and they should be in the vanguard of those who seek to improve society for all. This is an active effort that will take decades to fully achieve, but it is an effort that is not only noble but – I believe – sacred as well. As a result, the surrounding society will see Muslims for who they truly are: peaceful, law-abiding, patriotic citizens who should not be feared as “terrorists” bent on “killing all the infidels.”
Yet, integration is a two-way street. Not only does the integration of Muslim minorities into their non-Muslim majority societies require an active effort by Muslims, but it also requires the surrounding non-Muslim society to be a willing and accepting partner. It is essential that non-Muslim society makes their Muslim members feel welcome.
An article published by MSNBC.com illustrates how that non-Muslim society should not act. Reporter Jennifer Carlile wrote about the controversy over the planned construction of a mosque in the Italian town of Colle Di Val D’Elsa on May 25. The Muslims there are attempting to construct an Islamic cultural center in a park on the edge of town. Not only is the center to be a place for prayer, but it will also have a library, open-air courtyard, and a playground with basketball hoops. In addition, pedestrian and cycling paths will link the center with the town’s sporting grounds.
“We want it to be an Italian mosque, for Italian Muslims, that represents an Italian Islam,” says Feras Jebareen, imam of the Muslim community in Colle Di Val D’Elsa. What’s more, the mayor of the town, Paolo Brogioni, supports the project. About the mosque, he told MSNBC: “It’s not really a mosque, but an open structure for cultural activities as well as Islamic prayer.”
It sounds like a wonderful idea, and I believe such a cultural center would go a long way towards fostering understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims in Colle Di Val D’Elsa, and it would be shining example of how Muslims can successfully integrate into non-Muslim society.
Yet, as the article points out, there is bitter opposition to the mosque project. Lucia Prizzi, a resident who lives besides the area where the mosque will be built, told MSNBC: “Those of us who live here are really afraid.” Along a nearby wall, graffiti reads: “No Mosque,” “Christian Hill,” and “Thanks to the communists, the Arabs are in our house.”
The article also describes how:
Amidst the bitter counterclaims, anxiety over the unknown is apparent. One woman spoke of seeing Muslim youths train for jihad on television, and a man said that the only reason a park was being built alongside the mosque was to accommodate all the Muslim children.
“Well, when you have multiple wives, what do you expect,” he said, asking that his name not be used with that comment.
Lawyer Letizia Franceschetti, one of the leaders of the opposition to the mosque, even said, “I think that the people here are really afraid, whether their fears are right or wrong, either way it’s only human to be afraid if you’re on a bus or on a subway you’ll look around to see if there are any Muslims around you.”
Yet, as Franceschetti claims, “We are not against integration or the Islamic community.” She says that residents just don’t want to lose “the grassy parkland, vineyards, and views of Chianti’s hills in the distance.” The mayor does not buy their arguments, and the Muslim community has won full permission to begin construction. Opponents have vowed to continue their legal battle against it.
This opposition is wrong. Both the mayor and the imam told MSNBC that “the Muslim community was integrating well and that there had never been problems with the current Islamic center.” So, to my mind, there should be no reason why the Muslims of Colle Di Val D’Elsa should not be allowed to build the new mosque.
Vowing to continue fighting the mosque’s construction, despite the town council’s approval, sends the message that Muslims are not welcome in Colle Di Val D’Elsa, and this is precisely the wrong message to send. The mosque is an extremely important part of Muslim life, and to oppose the construction of a mosque – on flimsy grounds – is to oppose, and even reject, the Muslim community as a whole. This goes a long way at preventing the integration of Muslims into non-Muslim society, and no society benefits by actively isolating one of its minority groups.
Some may object to this by pointing out that – in some Muslim countries – new churches, synagogues, and temples are banned from ever being constructed. This is no excuse. It is, in fact, irrelevant to the discussion at hand. If it is important to have Muslims integrated into their larger society – which I believe it is – then, not only must the Muslims themselves be willing to extend their hands to their non-Muslim neighbors, but those non-Muslim neighbors must also be willing to extend their hands in return.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at godfaithpen.com.