Odd School Ties: Islamic University Creates Backlash in Italy

Italian lawyer Giampiero Paladini, right, wants to build an Islamic University in Lecce, Italy, despite opposition both from Muslims and from government officials in the country. The university’s secretary, Raffaello Villani, joined him in February to advocate for the idea. Winston Ross for Newsweek

Perched on the heel of Italy's "boot," the town of Lecce has long been known for its comely churches and intricate Baroque buildings. Today, however, the "Florence of the South" has made headlines for a much different reason: a controversial plan to open an Islamic university.

The plan's architect is a bearded, 53-year-old Muslim convert named Giampiero Paladini, whom I met recently at a local hotel. Minutes into our conversation, a man stopped by our table to say hello. He took Paladini's hand, leaned in a bit closer and whispered, "Il sindaco è un coglione." Translation: "The mayor is a dick."

The mayor, Paolo Perrone—who didn't respond to an interview request—has criticized Paladini's effort, saying, "It's not the right time for the project." Yet for many of Lecce's residents, it's not the mayor but Paladini who's the real coglione. Several city councilors and politicians have denounced his project as a Trojan horse of radical Islam, and some fellow Muslims say he's nothing more than a charlatan. Today, Paladini's plan is about as popular in Italy as the now-defunct effort to build a mosque near New York City's Ground Zero, and observers say his university has a zero chance of being built.

A former attorney, Paladini remains undeterred. He has tried to convince this town of 95,000 that he's a champion of tolerance and enlightenment. And he insists no one will stop him from bringing a dozen professors, 5,000 students and some $55 million, give or take, to the Salentine Peninsula. In interviews, Paladini has described his plans for a "beautiful, Arab-style villa" where professors will teach classes in the arts, science, agriculture, medicine, Arabic language and theology.

"Instead of studying the Bible, we will study the Koran," he told me. "Instead of a church, we will have a mosque, and we will study subjects that are influenced by Sharia [Islamic law]." The school, he added, will bridge the philosophical divide between the Western and Islamic worlds, at a time when a growing number of Muslim migrants are arriving in Italy from Africa and the Middle East. "This will allow these worlds to speak to each other, to fight against terrorism," Paladini said.

That is, if he ever breaks ground. Muslims in Lecce allege that Paladini has never attended the local mosque, has never met the local imam, and, over the past decade, has put together a series of proposals for big projects, from a college in Salemi, Italy, to an expo center in Abu Dhabi, none of which ever materialized.

"This project is nothing but words written on the Internet," Saifeddine Maaroufi, the imam of the town's mosque, told me last month. "He's using this to have some fame, to be known by people, to sell the books he writes. This...project has created a negative reaction from everybody: the mayor, the municipalities and the citizens of Lecce. They see us like the conquerors and settlers, because he's saying, 'Even if you don't accept me, I will create my university.' It feels like an attack."

Paladini refutes these charges. He calls the imam "a stranger and Tunisian slanderer." He said a small group of students has already begun Arabic classes, though he declined to introduce me to them, citing "safety" concerns. He also won't talk about his funding sources. "Would Obama tell you where he finds the funds for his election campaign?" he asked. (Well, that's public information, so yes.)

While in Italy in February, I visited the grounds where Paladini wants to build his campus, a 10-minute drive from Lecce along a highway dotted with abandoned buildings and olive groves. The land is vacant now, save for a collection of buildings belonging to a former tobacco factory. Paladini said he's secured an agreement from the land's owner to acquire the property once he's secured funding from his undisclosed sources. (I asked Paladini to put me in touch with the landowner, but he ignored my request).

Cristian Benvenuto is convinced the whole thing is a shell game. An Italian Muslim who works for a company that makes certified halal food, Benvenuto first met with Paladini roughly a year ago. The lawyer introduced himself as the president of a confederation of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean entrepreneurs, but had no office. Paladini described the school he wanted to build and said he had acquired 50 million euros for the project. He just needed a "clean face," someone well known in the community to be the president of the association.

Benvenuto declined the offer, he told me, but agreed to join a foundation of four members who would spearhead the project. Then he started asking questions. "The first one for me was, 'Where is the 50 million euros?'" he said. "Paladini said [it was] coming from the Qatar Foundation and a Qatar charity. At the second meeting...I also asked about the money. He changed the origin. Now it's Kuwait and Saudi Arabia."

Each time they met, Benvenuto grilled Paladini about the school's funding, he said. But, he alleged, the lawyer always demurred. At the third meeting, Benvenuto brought a newspaper article, in which Paladini had yet again changed his story. "He said OPEC would be the funding source, but it's well known that these countries producing oil are not all Muslim," Benvenuto alleges. "Venezuela would never fund an Islamic university, and Iran, a Shiite country, would never finance a [Sunni] university. So this idea didn't seem credible."

When I asked Paladini about Benvenuto's charges in a series of emails, he didn't respond to them directly. Instead, he provided me with a list of teachers who have joined his "scientific committee"—a group of advisers who are helping get the project off the ground.

Today, Benvenuto has parted ways with the outspoken lawyer and believes the project's funding doesn't exist. Others say if it's real, it's dangerous. Souad Sbai, a Moroccan immigrant and former member of the Italian parliament who now speaks out against the so-called "Islamification" of Italy, told me she intends to file a complaint with the local prosecutor if Paladini keeps at it. She's also concerned about the project's "opaque" funding and is convinced the purpose is pure "proselytism and extremism." The school, she adds, would be "one of the first steps towards the colonization of the radical wing of Islam in these European countries, an infiltration through culture and indoctrination" where the risk of "extremists disguised as simple teachers is very high."

Paladini is convinced his university will rise above hatred, despite what he calls his intolerant opponents. He was raised Catholic but prefers Islam, he said, because the religion lets him talk directly to God. When he converted three years ago, he took the name "Khaled," which means invincible. He insists his project will prevail, whether anyone likes it or not, because the Italian constitution grants anyone the right to start a university, though he would require approval from the federal Ministry of Education, Universities and Research for the school to be accredited. Once that happens, he said, it will be "the biggest Islamic university in all of Europe."

The last time I saw Paladini, in Lecce, I asked what he thought was the biggest obstacle preventing him from building his school. He confessed it was financing. "The Islamic world doesn't believe we're going to make this university happen. 'They won't ever let you,' they tell me. But I already made it. I already did it. The money won't be a problem."

Correction: This article originally incorrectly phrased the sentence "Il sindaco è un coglione."