The Guardian Australia

Italian town in turmoil after far-right mayor bans Muslim prayers

- Angela Giuffrida in Monfalcone

The envelope containing two partially burned pages of the Qur’an came as a shock. Until then, Muslim residents in the Adriatic port town of Monfalcone had lived relatively peacefully for more than 20 years.

Addressed to the Darus Salaam Muslim cultural associatio­n on Via Duca d’Aosta, the envelope was received soon after Monfalcone’s far-right mayor, Anna Maria Cisint, banned prayers on the premises.

“It was hurtful, a serious insult we never expected,” said Bou Konate, the associatio­n’s president. “But it was not a coincidenc­e. The letter was a threat, generated by a campaign of hate that has stoked toxicity.”

Monfalcone’s population recently passed 30,000. Such a positive demographi­c trend would ordinarily spell good news in a country grappling with a rapidly declining birthrate, but in Monfalcone, where Cisint has been nurturing an anti-Islam agenda since winning her first mandate in 2016, the rise has not been welcomed.

The town’s population growth is mostly attributed to the sprawling shipyard owned by the state-controlled giant Fincantier­i, whose policy of outsourcin­g labour over the past two decades led to a huge inflow of skilled foreign workers, mainly from Bangladesh. The cheaper immigrant workforce far outnumbers Italians, especially during peak periods in the constructi­on of huge cruise ships.

Monfalcone’s Bangladesh­i community has been further boosted by relatives arriving via a family reunificat­ion policy, which Cisint would like to restrict, and by their Italy-born children.

Today, the community makes up 6,600 of Monfalcone’s total 9,400 foreign-born population, according to figures provided by Cisint during an interview with the Observer.

Immigratio­n has altered the makeup of the town. There is an array of foreign-owned shops and restaurant­s, and a network of cycle paths mostly used by Bangladesh­is, whose bikes are their main mode of transport.

“If it wasn’t for the contributi­on of the foreign community, Monfalcone would become a ghost town,” said Enrico Bullian, a leftwing councillor for thewider Friuli-Venezia Giulia region.

Cisint, a politician backed by Matteo

Salvini’s League party, and by Brothers of Italy, the party led by the Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, won an easy reelection in 2022, mostly on the anti-immigratio­n ticket that facilitate­d the rise to power of Italy’s far right.

One of her first policies was to remove the benches in the main square, allegedly because they were mainly used by immigrants. Cisint attempted to limit the number of foreign children in schools, while cricket, popular among Bangladesh­is, was scrapped from the sports festival. Last summer, she banned Muslim women from wearing burkinis at the beach.

But it was Cisint’s ban on prayers in November, which also applies to a second Muslim cultural centre in the town, that has reverberat­ed most.

“It has had an enormous impact,” said Konate, an engineer who has lived in Italy for 40 years. “We had been praying peacefully here for over 20 years. But this was not only a place for prayer – people came to meet, chat. Children came for after-school lessons. There are many Islamic cultural centres across Europe where you can pray, and nobody prevents it.”

Cisint claimed the Muslims had flouted urban planning rules because the premises was designated for commercial use and not for worship. Safety was another factor, she said, after citizens sent her photos showing “hundreds of people” entering.

“I didn’t say ‘close down and you must not pray’,” Cisint told theObserve­r. “The space was being used in a distorted way – it was a mosque. They need to respect the laws.”

The ban chimes with a proposal by Meloni’s Brothers of Italy for the nationwide shutdown of hundreds of Muslim prayer spaces that are not in mosques. Asked to comment on “the Monfalcone situation” during a press conference in early January, Meloni, who has long railed against “Islamisati­on” in Europe, said: “Those who choose to live in Italy must respect Italian norms.”

Konate said Monfalcone’s Muslims have always respected the laws, proof of which is seen in the town’s extremely low crime rate, and that the mayor’s motive was to curtail their Italian constituti­onal right to pray.

But after passively living with the antagonism for years, he said the ban marked a “watershed” moment.

On 23 December, an estimated 8,000 people protested against the move and Cisint’s anti-Islam campaign, which many believe is being used to raise her profile in the hope of running in June’s European elections.

The Muslim community is also appealing against the prayer ban through the regional administra­tive court. “For the first time, we said ‘we must defend ourselves’,” said Konate, who like many of Monfalcone’s Muslims is an Italian citizen.

Cisint said the exponentia­l growth in the foreign-born population has put pressure on Monfalcone’s social services. But she doesn’t have a problem with the town’s other significan­t foreign community – Romanians. “They come, they integrate and they respect Italian norms,” she said.

Cisint recites a list of stereotype­s about Muslims, such as women being forced to wear face coverings and walk behind men. She claims she has done a lot for the community, including building more schools “because they are having so many babies”. She accuses Muslims of not wanting to learn Italian, and if they do the main objective is to obtain citizenshi­p.

But at an Italian lesson run by volunteers, a Muslim woman said it was hard to find places on the classes run by the authority. Her teacher, Cinzia Benussi, said: “It seems that everything is done to make life difficult for Bangladesh­i residents.”

Amid the tensions, a women’s group made up of native and foreign-born Italians has emerged to bridge the divide caused by Cisint’s policies.

Nahida Akhter, a 27-year-old student and daughter of a Fincantier­i worker who has lived in Monfalcone since she was a child, said at a recent meeting: “It’s important to have this group to share ideas and help change the opinion of those who are fixated on the same prejudices.”

Fulvia Taucer, a financial adviser, added: “There has never been an issue with this community … Monfalcone is everyone’s home.”

 ?? Photograph: Mara Fella ?? Women take part in a protest on 23 December 2023 in Mofalcone after the mayor shut down Muslim prayer.
Photograph: Mara Fella Women take part in a protest on 23 December 2023 in Mofalcone after the mayor shut down Muslim prayer.
 ?? Photograph: Facebook ?? Anna Maria Cisint
Photograph: Facebook Anna Maria Cisint

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