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Milan’s Mobile Mosque

Milan’s Mobile Mosque

Milan city officials are grappling with a mosque so overgrown that hundreds of Muslims kneel on sidewalks to pray. The solution is igniting a game of NIMBY hot-potato as neighborhoods and politicians move services from one spot to another.

Last Friday, the ‘mobile mosque’ was around the corner from my house. On my way to a lunchtime piadina, a young man on a bike stopped to ask politely in a heavy foreign accent: “Scusi, signora (argh) how do I get to Vigorelli stadium from here?”

A few seconds later, I remembered the city had given worshipers use for prayer services — just for one week — there. After lunch, I went to check it out. The last time I’d been to the stadium, a Fascist-era bike racing track, Fiat had sponsored a faux-ski run in it. The venue is never particularly busy, it’s an odd size and not well served by public transport.

It’s safe to say there was no welcome mat: the main entrance, facing a supermarket, was closed. Participants walking from the main entrance around to the back had to get past a political stand that proclaimed “The Right Is Here,” then through a cluster of police in riot gear, journalists, frowning locals and a metal barrier festooned with red and white tape. A spray painted banner with the phrase: “OUR DIGNITY, YOUR SERENITY: A UNITED CITIZENRY ASKS FOR RESPECT” was the put up by the community.

Men, many of whom looked like they might have left off plastering Milanese penthouses to come, arrived a few at a time, heads down and walking quickly. The next day, papers lamented that “only 500” people had shown up, implying that maybe the community didn’t need a new mosque after all. The old makeshift mosque held 4,000 inside; the community is said to number 70,000 in Milan alone.

It’s unsurprising, given the location and general disapproval, that most people gave the services a miss.

No one seems to consider the basic right to pray, which, to my mind, doesn’t hinge on whether some of the citizenry approves or not of your religion. The Catholic Church should have such problems: so many of the houses of worship in Milan are empty that they’re closed most of the time or perhaps open on Saturday nights in a (vain) attempt to lure Italians back.

Milan isn’t the only city facing the conundrum of a mosque with growing pains, some are building super-sized venues, others (many in Europe) seem to think that the only way to handle the question is by pretending the need doesn’t exist. One thing is for sure: this ostrich approach won’t do much to foster understanding between religions and cultures.