Integration of Muslim Students in Italian Schools

The integration of Islamic immigrants into Italian society raises thorny problems. A Milan high school has announced that this fall it will have a first-year class composed only of Muslim students, at the request of their parents. These students have completed eight years at a private Islamic school in Milan. (This school is not accredited by the Italian education authorities, so why are 400 students allowed to attend it? By law, all children resident in Italy must attend regularly-licensed state or private institutions.)

In the past, students of this Islamic school would either stop at 8th grade (also illegal in Italy, which currently requires school through age 15), return to their countries of origin, or continue their studies with private tutors. Their parents asked a local social organization to help create a special section in a regular Italian high school where the kids could continue their studies, be kept together as a group, and the girls (17 of the group of 20) could wear the veil. The principal of a social sciences high school and the Italian social workers saw this as a step towards integration for these kids, who come from rigidly religious families that will not allow them to mingle with Italians.

Protests were immediately raised by both political extremes, the left denouncing the initiative as racist, while the real racists of the Lega Nord thundered that this was: “A very dangerous step towards the Islamization of our society, and a deep wound to the profoundly Christian roots of our collective religious and cultural identity.”

The educational authority for the region of Lombardy has now decided that separating students on the basis of religion is unconstitutional, and the project must be halted. The Italian constitution (modeled on the American one) insists on the separation of church and state, and especially the secularity of public schools.

It’s a difficult issue. I can sympathize with the idea that it would be better to take a step, however small, towards the social integration of these kids – although segregated in the classroom (by their parents’ insistence), they would surely still manage some contact with other students in the school. Following a standard Italian curriculum with Italian teachers and in Italian would also help them to integrate. And ensuring that they continue their education is preferable to letting them drop out, especially the girls. For women, the best road out of oppression is education: educated women are far more able to stand up for themselves.

On the other hand, I don’t like the precedent that would be set. “Separate but equal” was proven a failure in the US 50 years ago, and separation of Islamic students has already been tried and abandoned in other parts of Italy. The Milanese experiment would seem to be a step in the wrong direction.

One thing I am sure of in this situation: The Italian education system is very good at social integration. If anything, it sometimes goes too far in keeping all children in the same classroom, no matter their language handicaps (e.g., brand-new immigrants) or learning disabilities. These kids don’t always get the help they need to truly integrate, and some simply get left behind. But most of the time integration works. The schools place particular emphasis on the class functioning smoothly as a social unit, which forces the kids to rub along together. And they do. Violence in schools is rare.

The students in Milan’s Islamic school, however, are being allowed to study in an apparently illegal situation which is handicapping them for life in mainstream Italy, and bypassing the social integration function of a normal (public, or properly-licensed private) Italian school. This is just plain wrong. The parents, whatever their religious beliefs, have made a choice to immigrate to Italy, and are therefore obliged to live by Italy’s laws, including those regarding their children’s schooling. Allowing them to form Islamic ghettos creates misunderstanding and conflict, and allows them to avoid truly coming to terms with the country they have chosen to live in. It’s up to the Italian government to enforce the law and get these kids into regular schools, to the long-term benefit of all.

Corriere della Sera articles (also see links on the right of that page)

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