It was quiet this week in Piazza della Repubblica.
In the streets around Republic Square, the center of the growing Arab neighborhood in this city playing host to the Winter Olympics for two weeks, commerce reigned. In the winding alleys, in the warrens of an open-air market, in front of halal food stores and Arabic travel agencies, flocks of bundled-up tourists, some wearing distinctive blue-and-white Israeli warmup jackets, vied for space with TV crews.
Everywhere the tourists walked, groups of Italian police in black berets and black uniforms watched.
With the Games in the public eye, its million spectators making an inviting target for terrorists, and with parts of Europe exploding in recent weeks after several prominent newspapers around the continent printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that many Muslims consider offensive to Islam, security officials had one concern: Would Turin explode, too?
Turin, known here as "the Detroit of Italy," was considered especially vulnerable. The industrial city of some million residents is home to the largest Arab community (about a tenth of the overall population) of any major Italian city. Most of Turin’s Arabs are from northern Africa, many of them are unemployed as the city’s industrial base falters, and many are here illegally, observers said.
In September, Italy deported Bouriki Bouchta, the radical head of a small Turin mosque, a self-proclaimed imam who had publicly praised the work of al-Qaeda.
Local Arab resentment over Bouchta’s deportation seems at first glance to have dissipated. There are no signs or graffiti on his behalf in Republic Square. Nor are there notices about the controversial cartoons.
The only thing a visitor sees here are the ubiquitous red-and-white Olympic pennants hung from lampposts bearing the Olympic logo, or "Torino 2006," or the declaration that "Passion lives here."
Turin, say city natives, including representatives of the 1,000-member Jewish community, is safe. But Turinese warn that Italy, like other European countries, is home to a fast-growing Arab community that is receptive to radical Islamic beliefs and may shed its till-now docile behavior.
So far, the situation in Italy has largely remained off the U.S. radar screen.
"We’re focused on France because France is the largest Jewish community in Europe," said Yehudit Barsky, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Division on Middle East and International Terrorism.
Italian police have warned of terrorism cells operating clandestinely in Turin and in nearby Milan, home to an active Muslim community, as well as in other cities.
"The [potential terrorist] cells are hibernating," said journalist Massimo Numa, quoting Italian police officials.
Because of the government’s support for the American military action in Iraq, Italy is seen as a prime target of Islamic terrorists. The government has pledged to withdraw its 4,000 troops within a year.
"Italy has been on heightened alert since the London attacks in July , as information available to the intelligence community points to the country as one of the most probable targets for al-Qaeda’s next attack," security analyst Lorenzo Vidino wrote in the online Terrorism Monitor last year.
In the short term, Italy may become a more likely target for Islamic terrorists as the country approaches its national elections next month, said Vidino, author of "Al Qaeda in Europe" (2006, Prometheus Press).
Long term, the country will have to stay on guard, he added.
Vidino said radical Islam is "a growing problem" in Italy, finding support among young second- and third-generation Arab emigres, many of them unemployed and living apart from the majority population.
"They’re not growing up as Italians," he said. "They don’t want to be integrated into Italian political life. They are at the fringes of political and social life."
Italy, said Numa, a political reporter for Turin’s La Stampa newspaper who covers Islamic terrorism, is the "next France." In other words, it is on the verge of becoming a major Arab population center and a problem for the West. "Today the threat is growing."
Sheik Abdul Hadi Palazzi, a moderate, pro-Israel Islamic leader who lives in Rome, predicts an increasing radicalization of the country’s Muslim community.
"Those who attend mosques, who attend Islamic schools" in the country, he said, "will be exposed to extremist propaganda."
Numa predicts that the country’s Arab population, now about 1 million, may reach 3 million to 4 million within a few years because of immigration and natural growth.
"I’m quite certain of it," she said. "In a few years they can express themselves" as in other European lands.
Turin, whose mosques have reportedly served since the mid-1990s as recruiting centers for Bosnia- and Chechnya-bound mujahadeen fighters, has remained peaceful, Numa said, because the city’s major imams, or Islamic leaders, "asked the community to calm down," and because the overwhelming police presence has prevented outside terrorists from gaining a foothold.
Inside The Jewish CommunityEverywhere in Turin this week, one sees police. A mile and a half from Republic Square, down the block from the Porta Nuova train station, officers are posted around the clock along the street where the Jewish community compound is housed. The compound includes the synagogue, religious school and other community institutions.
The Jewish community also maintains is own discrete, private security force at the site.
It’s been that way since 1982, the year Arab terrorists attacked synagogues in Rome and Vienna, said retiree Stephen Hirsch. The German-born, one-time Israeli lived in New York City for 27 years before moving here in 1967.
"We’re already on a high level of security," said Eduardo Segre, a Jewish community board member who works as a financial planner.
Turin Jews don’t feel especially threatened in the wake of the Bouchta and cartoon controversies, Segre said, adding that most kipa-wearing men have already taken the precaution of wearing non-distinctive caps when walking in the Arab area of the city.
Segre said the precaution is a safety measure (Jews have not been attacked or threatened here) and that the situation is different than in France. Waves of attacks against French society in recent years were conducted against Jewish buildings and against people easily identifiable as Jews.
"Here, most of the Muslims are illegal [immigrants]," living for years as temporary residents because of the country’s restrictive citizenship laws and keeping a low profile for fear of being deported, he said. "They are strangers here. They themselves are afraid" of the mounting anti-Arab feelings that many Italians express. "They don’t want problems."
Turin’s estimated 100,000 Muslims feel the pressure of tightened security for the Olympics, with many staying away from mosques until the current police spotlight dims, according to Imam Abdelazaz Khounati, who preaches at the Peace Mosque that Bouchta, a part-time butcher, used as his base.
"There are more controls than usual because of the Olympics," Khounati told Reuters. "I see it in a positive light as long as our rights are respected."
As part of a worldwide crackdown on radical Islamists after the 9-11 terrorist attacks against the United States, Italy conducted scores of raids of suspected terrorist recruiting centers, stiffened its anti-terrorism legislation and deported at least a half-dozen imams, including Bouchta, whom the government called "a serious disturbance to public order and a danger to national security."
Italy’s small Jewish community, with some 45,000 members, does not make an inviting target, and Jews have built up good relations over the centuries with their non-Jewish neighbors, who tend to resent the Arab newcomers, observers said.
"Italy is not a country that is used to having immigrants, to having non-Catholics, to having non-Italians," said Maurizio Molinari, U.S. correspondent for La Stampa. "The only outsiders are Jews, and they came 2,000 years ago."
Turin’s Jews arrived 600 years ago, fleeing persecution in France and Spain.
During a recent meeting of the Conference of European Rabbis, a delegation of participants thanked Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for opposing anti-Semitism and Islamic fundamentalism.
Bouchta’s deportation followed the bombings in London subways last July.
"The move of the Italian government was reflective of the realization that they need to deal with the problem of radical preachers using the mosques to indoctrinate people," said Barsky of the AJCommittee. "He was one of the more recognizable faces of the Muslim community."
While the Morocco-born Bouchta had praised Osama bin Laden and anti-Western jihad during a 2003 "peace rally" here and called on Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to "strike Tel Aviv," he confined his incendiary public remarks to the actions of Israel and did not speak against the Italian Jewish community, Numa said.
Bouchta’s controversial remarks and his subsequent expulsion "are not [exclusively] our problem: it was a conflict between Bouchta and the community at large," said Alberto Somekh, chief rabbi of Turin. "We didn’t have any relations" with Bouchta.
Turin Jewry, living in different neighborhoods than the city’s Arab population and traveling in different social circles, has maintained arm’s-length relations with the Muslim community, Rabbi Somekh said.
"We don’t have any relations: not for good, not for bad," he said.
Rabbi Somekh served on an interfaith Olympic committee with a prominent imam, the rabbi’s first official contact with a local Islamic leader.
"I have more relations with the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church," the rabbi said, adding that he never met Bouchta.
Police have reported only infrequent anti-Semitic graffiti in Turin, Numa said, and no signs of support for Bouchta are visible these days on the walls of Republic Square buildings.
"Mr. Bouchta was not in any meaning of the word an imam," Sheik Palazzi said. "He was a butcher. Bouchta was considered too extreme even by some extremist groups."
Bouchta’s notoriety brought unwanted attention to the Muslim community, Palazzi said, adding that the decision to expel him "was welcomed by nearly everyone" in that community.
"For most people it’s yesterday’s news," Vidino said.
He said the well-publicized Bouchta attracted a fringe following. More problematic for Italy’s future, Vidino said, are the Muslim leaders here who share Bouchta’s anti-Western, anti-Israeli views but avoid the headlines.
"Bouchta became the official face, the guy who goes on TV and says crazy things," Vidino said. "The real dangerous people are those who don’t show up on TV."
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Courtesy of Jim Joseph Foundation
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Courtesy of Jim Joseph Foundation
Radical Turin imam Bouriki Bouchta, who praised al-Qaeda, was deported in the fall.
An industrial city known as the "Detroit of Italy," Turin is home to the largest Arab community in the country.