Debate over Muslims' Veil Erupts in Italian Media

The argument over Muslim women wearing the veil, which has recently polarized opinion in Britain, has also spread to Italy. A discussion on a TV talk show ended with one participant being offered police protection after being described as "an infidel."

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Europe is in the midst of a debate about the wearing of Islamic veils. In Britain, a former government minister called the full face veil socially divisive and a mark of separation.

Now in Italy, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports the debate has become enmeshed in questions about freedom of speech, widening a gulf between two cultures.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The veil row exploded on a TV talk show last week.

(Soundbite of arguing)

POGGIOLI: Right wing MP, Daniela Santanche, said the veil is not a religious symbol and the Koran does not require that women wear it. This prompted a furious outburst from the other show guest, Ali Abu Shwaima, imam of a mosque near Milan.

Mr. ALI ABU SHWAIMA: (Speaking foreign language)

POGGIOLI: And he called Santanche an infidel who sows hatred. The incident made front page headlines. One commentator suggested the imam's outburst was like a death sentence. The right wing MP was provided with police protection and she received unprecedented solidarity from center left government ministers.

Last night Santanche appeared on another talk show with the minister for equality, Barbara Pollastrini, who said threats and intimidation have no place in Democratic Italy.

Ms. BARBARA POLLASTRINI (Minister for Equality, Italy): (Through translator) The burqa - the full face covering - is oppressive, unjust, incomprehensible and therefore inadmissible in a democracy. I also believe that Muslim women should be free to decide for themselves if they want to wear Islamic head scarves.

POGGIOLI: Discussion of women's rights became heated after the arrival of a young Muslim woman wearing a head scarf. Eighteen-year-old Sara Obrami(ph), a medical student, rejected suggestions that Muslim women have fewer rights than men. She said the fact that contrary to men a Muslim woman is not allowed to marry a Christian is for the woman's good. She was then asked how she felt about the recent alleged stoning of an Iraqi women accused of adultery.

Ms. SARA OBRAMI: (Through translator) It's the law of God. We cannot interfere.

POGGIOLI: The statement prompted another guest, Haled Fuadalam(ph), a Muslim professor of sociology and an MP in the Italian Parliament, to urge European Muslims to bring Islamic theology in line with the contemporary world.

Professor HALED FUADALAM: (Through translator) We need to help young Muslim men and women not to be afraid of equality and freedom because they do not conflict with the spirit of Islam. Fundamentalism will not help Muslims integrate. It will lock them behind permanent barriers.

POGGIOLI: The veil debate comes on the heels of an event that sparked a national debate on tolerance and women's rights. It was the case of a young Pakistani woman who had embraced a Western lifestyle and left her conservative family to live with an Italian man.

In August, Hina Saleem(ph) was found buried, her throat slit, in the garden of her family home. Her father, uncle and a brother-in-law have been charged with murder.

In a sign of increasing frustration over the perceived reluctance of some Muslims to be part of mainstream society, the Italian government plans to require that new citizens sign a Charter of Values that includes a recognition of equal rights of women and men. A draft was submitted to the country's main Muslim organizations. But the biggest group, linked to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood rejected the charter and walked out of the meeting in protest.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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