By Annalisa Merelli
Italy, home to the fourth largest Muslim population in Europe, has a mosque problem. Not because, as many a xenophobic politicians would claim, there are too many of them (link in Italian)—but for the opposite reason.
There are a total of eight mosques, intended as standalone structures, with an area solely dedicated to prayer, as well as recognizable architectural elements like a cupola dome or a minaret (the tower from which the muezzin calls to preyer).
By comparison, France, which has a Muslim population three to four times bigger than Italy’s, has 2,200 mosques, while the UK, with a Muslim population about twice the size of Italy’s, has 1,500.
Aside from these mosques, according to Maria Bombardieri, a social science researcher at the University of Padua and the author of Mosques of Italy, there are about 800 cultural centers and musalla, which are informal preyer rooms, often housed in garages, basements, and warehouses. They function as a place of worship, and a cultural and educational meeting place.
The scarcity of actual mosques is caused by several factors. First, Islam isn’t officially recognized by Italy as a religion (like the Roman Catholic Church pdf). State recognition affords protection to places of worship, access to opening schools, observance of religious holidays, and access to public funding through tax donations.
Even if there was an easier way to get public financing for mosques, permission to open mosques are hard to get from authorities, and construction is often opposed by local communities. When there is an opportunity to build one, Bombardieri said, Muslim communities tend to avoid distinctive architectural elements such as minarets and cupolas, so as not to generate tension with local communities.