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Islam. In a mass demonstration this weekend, Italian Muslims vowed to fight extremism and intolerance.

Italy’s Muslims: ‘I defend Italy’

Manel has a megaphone in her hand. Her dark eyes are set against a blazing blue hijab, wrapped tight against her face. When she arrives, at the helm of a group of protesters chanting slogans, Piazza Santi Apostoli throbs.

Beneath the stage of the first national demonstration of Muslims in Italy, against terrorism and in solidarity with the families of the victims of Paris, it’s difficult to hear the words. And because of the many umbrellas, you can’t see who is coming on stage. The speaker is preparing to deliver a message from Italian President Sergio Mattarella. “It is a great honor that the president of the republic wanted to send this message,” the orator says calmly. Then comes a statement from the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini.

But reporters and cameras are lured to the back to see what’s happening. No, wait, it’s only the arrival of a small procession of noisy, young Muslims from Centocelle and Torpignattara, as their banners state. Others come from as far as Frosinone, where Manel and her sister Zeineb are from. Zeineb, too, has her head veiled, as do the other girls around them.

Manel and Zeineb, of Tunisian origin, studied biology at the University of Tor Vergata. Zeineb is two years younger and says only: “Turn up the chorus,” “No to terrorism.” Her cries are followed by male voices like those of Abdel and Kais, who have wives and children.

Manel’s voice is the one that speaks. Her voice is on the verge of tears, but she doesn’t pause. What she says is a story in itself. It’s the story of a girl of Generation Bataclan, a 25-year-old woman so starkly different from Hasna Ait Boulahcen, her peer who was perhaps detonated, or perhaps killed by special forces, during the police raid on the Islamist den in Saint Denis.

“I wear the veil, yes. I am a Muslim. I do it by choice,” Manel says in a stream, almost like a rap. “I attend university, take buses, trains, metros and everyone holds their breath and looks at me as if I were going to blow myself up. Then I smile, I laugh and they breathe. No, I’m not with ISIS.

“I’m Italian, I love Italy, I like pizza. If ISIS wants to attack somebody, come and strike me. I’m ready. I defend Italy, and I am ready to die for it. We are Muslim and Italian. They come for me. It’s not that we are in solidarity with Syria or Mali, it’s that they strike here, near here. They want to lock us in the house, and I say that this is my country and I’m staying here.”

Mimoun el Hachim, born in Melilla, Morocco, looks about 50 and is going to have a third child. Above his white skullcap, he flies the blue flag of Europe, and around his neck is a red keffiyeh that he says he got during the hajj to Mecca, the pilgrimage that all Muslims must try do once in their lives.

Hachim is an imam in Terni, where he leads the only prison mosque in Italy, at the Umbrian Sabbione penitentiary. “In prison, I help Muslims but also others. We are all children of Abraham,” he says. “And these condemned men: Do not call them jihadists. They are only murderers and criminals. They do not even know what color the Koran is. They are just ignorant.” From his view, “In Italy, terrorists don’t have any space. We don’t let them sleep, we don’t give them room at the cultural center. Every cultural center has close relations with the authorities. As soon as we see someone even a little suspicious, we report it.”

The Bangladeshi community in Rome arrived at the demonstration in force, with flyers and bilingual signs in English asking the international community to respond against the “barbarism” in Syria as well as in Paris, Iraq, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Which response — war? “No,” answers spokesman Mohamed Shah. “He who kills is a barbarian. We are all responsible. Who sells the weapons? We call upon all governments to meet their responsibilities.”

Muslims from Torpignattara, a populous Roman neighborhood with four mosques and about 3,000 faithful, did not have any women with them. “A little because it’s raining, but also out of fear,” admits one of them named Mohamed.

But there are other women, like Hayat, a caregiver, who is here with her daughter, a friend and the friend’s daughter. Hayat is convinced Italians are “very good people,” she says. If their perceptions have changed against Muslims, the fault, to her, belongs to the journalists “who spread messages of war against everyone.”

When Khalid Chaouki of the Democratic Party, the first Islamic deputy in Italian history, delivers the final speech of what he calls “a historic event,” he exhorts the crowd to “fight against the exploitation of religion, which resents the climate of trust and coexistence in our country.” Everyone cheers.