An interview with Imam Izzeddin Elzir

Jeff Poole
November 15, 2007

Originally from Hebron, Palestine, Izzeddin Elzir has been the imam of the Florence and Tuscany Islamic Community since 1991. The Florentine’s intern, Jeff Poole, sat down with Mr. Elzir at the Islamic cultural center on Borgo Allegri to discuss integration, immigration and the future of the Muslim community in Florence.


What has kept you in Florence all these years?


Primarily my business. I have a stand in Piazza San Lorenzo where I sell leather goods. I came to Florence from Palestine to study fashion design and from there I became one of the founding members of the Islamic community in Tuscany. My work is in San Lorenzo. The mosque, the community, is volunteer. I do it because I believe in this kind of work. I have found a good life here, I am married and have a seven-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son. This is where I have made my life.


Tell us about your position as imam. Is the work focused only on faith or do you deal with cultural issues as well?


Both. In 1991, the community consisted of a group of about 10 students and now there are about 30,000 Muslims in Tuscany. The community has elected me as its leader since 1991 and the experience has been religious and cultural at the same time. Being in charge of the community, I am continuously learning. The more I teach, the more I learn and the more I can share with others.


Is this center considered a mosque?


A mosque is a place of prayer, but inside a mosque one does more than just pray. This is a cultural center and a place of worship. We host numerous meetings, including ones with civic institutions and interfaith meetings. Traditionally, a mosque should have a minaret and a cupola, but we don’t have either.


Why not?


For many reasons. The Italian community is not used to these types of structures and this type of architecture.  They see it as a strange thing that is trying to get into their society. And there is a part of me that understands this type of thinking because immigration is a new phenomenon. Italians are used to immigrating to other places, but not to people coming here. But I believe that with patience and time we can have a multicultural society.


How do you think we can move towards more social acceptance?


It has been very difficult since September 11th. But we believe that working together we can change the image and make people see a different reality than the idea they already have of us. We hope that by working with the religious authorities, the faithful will see this type of cooperation and the authorities can explain to them that this is part of living together. On the other hand, we have to be honest about the fact that the majority of Italians are not religious. We have to be realistic and confront this situation very delicately. 


What is the Islamic community’s relationship with the Florentine government and Mayor Domenici, in particular?


We have an excellent relationship with the City of Florence, the mayor, the superintendents and the city council. We have great relationships with all political parties—center left and center right. During one of our meetings here at the center, we invited both sides for a debate about the importance of having a mosque in Florence. It was a very positive debate. There is an environment of welcoming and respect here.


However, there are several groups in Italy that seem opposed to integration, in particular the Northern League, which is hailing the delayed construction of the Bologna mosque as a victory. What is your take on this?


I was very sorry for the whole situation. It was shameful for all of Italy. However, the mayor of Bologna said that the mosque is going to be built, although we have to change the methodology and consult others in the community. We are very happy about this because we want to live in peace with our neighbors. What I truly hope is that the law is equal for all. It is a difficult road, though, because many see the mosque as an evil place. Our response is: ‘Come talk to us’. Ignorance is the world’s biggest enemy.

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