When, February 2006, Yahya Pallavicini, imam and vice-president of the CO.RE.IS., was invited to become a member of the Council for Italian Islam set up by the Ministry of the Interior, one of the main aims of the Comunità Religiosa Islamica Italiana was realized — that is, the provision of a face and official status for Islam in Italy. It is almost twenty years since Pope John Paul II invited the representatives of all the world religions to gather in Assisi. The Islamic authorities also included Shaykh ‘Abd al-Wahid Pallavicini, who was the inspirer and catalyst of the group of Muslim intellectuals who in 1993 founded the Associazione Internazionale per l’Informazione sull’Islam, which was transformed into the CO.RE.IS. Italiana in 1997.

When he converted to Islam in 1951, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Wahid Pallavicini was one of the first Europeans to embrace the religion, becoming the spiritual heir to the French metaphysician René Guénon and bringing the West into contact with the great spirituality of the Islamic East. From the outset, his actions were marked by the strengthening of the dialogue between the major religions, especially between the three branches of Abrahamic monotheism: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As a result of alternating long sojourns abroad with an intense activity in Italy and Europe, Shaykh Pallavicini became convinced of need to provide Westerners with a better knowledge of the Islamic religion in order to dispel prejudices and unjustified fears.

Following in his footsteps, the CO.RE.IS. has undertaken an activity of witness and information on the Islamic civilization in Italy and the West, thus representing the religious interests of Muslims present in Italy and Europe. In Islam, in fact, there is no clergy; rather there are the sages, ulama, who perform the function of representation and transmission of knowledge, a central aspect of a religious tradition that has an essentially intellectual character. The need to preserve the most authentic heritage of the Islamic tradition, safeguarding it from any ideological contamination, is felt to be of vital importance by Italian Muslims.

The CO.RE.IS. Italiana is, in fact, the organization comprising the largest number of Muslim Italian citizens, now totalling over 50,000. It has its national headquarters in Milan and ten branches in seven different regions of Italy. Over the last ten years it has tended to focus its activities on three distinct, yet complementary, areas. In the first place — in accordance with the ecumenical vocation that has characterized the CO.RE.IS. since its foundation — an intense interreligious dialogue has been initiated, especially with the Jewish community and the Catholic Church. In the second place, it has been felt necessary to meet the needs of teachers in state and private schools, faced with the rapidly changing nature of their pupils, by organizing training courses for the teaching of intercultural subjects. Finally, many public initiatives have been undertaken to make public opinion aware that the Islamic religion and an Italian identity are perfectly compatible, while cooperation with the World Islamic League and the World Islamic Call Society has been initiated on an international level.

Since 1995 a delegation from the CO.RE.IS. Italiana has been invited annually to Cairo to represent Italian Islam at the International Islamic Congress, organized by the Ministry of Islamic Religious Affairs of the Arab Republic of Egypt. In 1997 the CO.RE.IS. Italiana signed a bilateral collaboration agreement in Rabat (Morocco) with the ISESCO, the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which comprises over fifty member states. In 2006 Yahya Pallavicini was appointed president of the ISESCO’s Council for Education and Culture in the West. In 1998, the CO.RE.IS. Italiana promoted the official visit to Italy of Ali ‘Abd al Rahman al-Hashimi, the religious counsellor of the president of the United Arab Emirates, and organized his meeting with the Vatican foreign minister, Monsignor Toran. In the same year, members of the CO.RE.IS. Italiana were invited as exponents of Islam in Italy by the king of Morocco, Hassan II, on the occasion of the annual celebrations that bring together Muslim sages in Rabat during the month of Ramadan. Subsequently, we received a series of institutional invitations from the Islamic Republic of Iran, the ministers of religious affairs of Tunisia and Malaysia and the minister of education of the Sultanate of Brunei, which were intended to develop exchanges and cooperation with Muslims from Italy and other European countries.

 In parallel with this activity, the foundations were laid for the representation of Italian Islam free from fundamentalist infiltration or political interference from abroad. In 1998 the CO.RE.IS. Italiana promoted the constitution of a legal committee to draft an agreement between the Italian Republic and the Islamic Community in Italy; this committee comprised experts on Islamic law and authoritative jurists from the La Sapienza University of Rome and the Federico II University of Naples. The draft of this agreement, which, after its publication, was presented to the Italian institutions, was well received in academic and political circles.

In this respect, the CO.RE.IS. is also the only Italian Islamic organization that has presented an application for legal recognition as a non-profit association concerned with the Islamic religion in Italy (it did so in 1998), obtaining the favourable opinions of the Ministry of the Interior and the Council of State in 2001, but we are still awaiting the final decree. Because, as we have already said, Islam is a religion without clergy, it is the interpreters of its fundamental values who constitute the main nucleus of the confessional representation. Thus it was that a charter of the ‘Foundations of the Islamic Religion’ was drawn up in 1998 and sent to the Ministry of the Interior, followed by a letter regarding the ‘Principles of the Islamic Tradition’, which was sent in 2006.

Regarding the opening of Islamic places of worship — another major problem in Italy — in 2000 the CO.RE.IS. Italiana was authorized by the Milan City Council, with the unanimous approval of all the political parties in the city, for the building of the al-Wahid Mosque, the Mosque of the One, inside the national headquarters in Via Giuseppe Meda 9, Milan. In the same year, Sergio Yahya Pallavicini, vice-president of the CO.RE.IS., was appointed a member of the board of governors of the Islamic Cultural Centre of the Rome Mosque, thus establishing a relationship with the only other official mosque in Italy. After completion of the design stage, the construction of the al-Wahid Mosque began in 2002, but work proceeded slowly due to the lack of funds, a another structural problem afflicting European Islam.

The education of the new generations is of vital importance for the development of an intercultural society and to prevent the damage caused by ghettoization and fundamentalist propaganda. It is necessary, therefore, to invest in the training of Italian imams capable of combining a deep understanding of Islamic doctrine with constructive participation. This is why one of the main projects undertaken by the CO.RE.IS. in recent years has been the establishment of an Academy of Islamic Studies in Milan, administered by Italian Muslims, which would be the most important intellectual point of reference for the institutions, the media and the public at large. Together with the al-Wahid Mosque, the Academy would complete a large complex — comprising offices, conference and lecture halls, library and guest accommodation — which would finally be sufficient to meet the needs of Islam in Italy and Europe. This scheme has, in fact, been prepared in collaboration with the Institut des Hautes Études Islamiques (IHEI), active in France since 1986, with vast experience in the scientific and academic fields, thanks especially to the dedication of its director-general ‘Abd al-Haqq Ismail Guiderdoni, who is also director of the Lyons observatory. In parallel with the first steps taken by the European Union towards the definition of a European model of Islam compatible with EU requirements, the opening in Milan of the al-Wahid mosque and the Academy of Islamic Studies would constitute a visible example of authentic, integrated Islam, making an important contribution towards allowing Italy to resume its historical role as a bridge between West and East, thus helping to avert the much-feared clash between civilizations.

The Academy of Islamic Studies could also base its activities on an already existing body of qualified lecturers. Since its foundation, in fact, the CO.RE.IS. has set up a group of lecturers capable of training teachers, allowing them to acquire an in-depth knowledge of the Islamic tradition as part of a system of education incorporating civic, cultural and interreligious values and based on mutual respect and understanding. In 1997 this acknowledged capacity led to the organization’s inclusion in the National Committee for Intercultural Education of the Ministry of Education, Universities and Research.

Over the years an intense academic and cultural activity has involved conferences, meetings, seminars, exhibitions and book launchings. In 1998 the CO.RE.IS. Italiana became part, as an organization representing Italian Muslims, of the executive board of the Committee for the Heritage and Memory of the Culture of the Mediterranean, promoted by the Ministry for Cultural and Environmental Assets. The following year it signed an agreement with the Federico II University of Naples for the organization of a series of lectures on the ‘History of Islamic law and civilization’, which were given by Ahmed Vincenzo and collected in the book Islam, l’altra civiltà, published by Mondadori in 2001. At the same time, also at the Federico II University, a course for teachers was held on the theme of ‘Islam and democracy’; promoted by the CO.RE.IS., it was financed by the Campania Region.

Among the various publications produced by the Muslim intellectuals of the CO.RE.IS., one of the most notable has been the book L’Islam in Europa. Riflessioni di un imam italiano (Islam in Europe. The reflections of an Italian imam), by Yahya Pallavicini, published by Il Saggiatore in 2004, with forewords by the minister for community policy, Rocco Buttiglione, and the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Amos Luzzatto. The volume won the World Competition for Islamic Studies and, on 30 October 2005, the author received the prize from the president of the Republic of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben ‘Ali. In the text stating the grounds for their decision, the jury stated that they decided to award the prize to Yahya Pallavicini ‘because he has distinguished himself as a person and as a representative of a religious body that that has helped to consolidate a positive image of Islam in the world, bearing witness to its principles of moderation, solidarity and cooperation, with the aim of enhancing the renewal of Islamic thought through dialogue and open-mindedness, eschewing immobilism and exclusivism.’

The commitment of Italian citizens of Western origin, but of Islamic faith and having an ecumenical sensibility, assumed an even more significant role after 11 September 2001, when the importance of isolating the dangerous deviations of the fundamentalists and the need, on the part of the political institutions and the civil society, to identify reliable and competent and interlocutors with whom to conduct a serious dialogue became even more evident.

The common interest is, in fact, that of guaranteeing the development of confessional pluralism in a multiethnic society, where everyone can practise their faith in the One God with dignity and total respect for the judicial system of the state, the national culture and all the different religious identities. Indeed, the necessary respect for the state in which one lives ensues from the correct application of the principles of the Islamic tradition, since true Muslims defend the culture of life and the inviolable dignity of men and women — whether they be believers or unbelievers — which are the fundamental principles of every religion and culture. Consequently Muslims cannot perform commit acts contrary to social order, stability and cohesion, but must contribute to the material and spiritual welfare, as well as the orderly and harmonious development, of the world in which they live.

Following the 9/11 attacks, the CO.RE.IS. Italiana was invited to a meeting with the president of the Region of Lombardy, Roberto Formigoni, in order to reassure public opinion with a gesture of dialogue and peace. At the same time, the president of the CO.RE.IS. Italiana was received by the deputy prime minister, Gianfranco Fini, and the ministers Franco Frattini, Carlo Giovanardi and Giovanni Alemanno. These meetings were followed by joint press releases condemning terrorism and supporting the Islamic minority in Europe. In September 2004, Vice-President Yahya Pallavicini was received by the president of the republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, at the Quirinal, and by the president of the Senate Marcello Pera, as a representative of moderate Italian Islam, together with the other signatories of the Manifesto contro il terrorismo e per la vita (Manifesto against terrorism and for life).

In view of the dramatic events characterizing the present international situation, it is important to participate in interreligious dialogue and cultivate true fellowship with other religious communities. In this respect, the members of the CO.RE.IS. welcomed the invitation to participate — they are the only organization representing Italian Muslims to have this honour — in the first world conference of Rabbis and Imams for Peace, which took place in Brussels in January 2005, and in the second conference with this title, which was held in Seville in March of the following year. Also in 2006, members of the Jewish community were received at the national headquarters of the CO.RE.IS., where a mosque and an academy will also be located in the future; this was the first time the community had accepted such an invitation on the part of an Islamic organization.

Finally, in September 2006, Yahya Pallavicini formed part of the Islamic delegation received by Pope Benedict XVI at Castel Gandolfo, during which the Pope reasserted the commitment of the Church to continuing along the path of dialogue. These meetings attest to the importance of mutual recognition between believers and constitute an example of true peace within Abrahamic monotheism, in order that the three traditions may always be aware of their common spiritual origin.