Wars in the Middle East not about Islam: Alfredo Maiolese

BANGALORE: From being a devout Catholic, Alfredo Maiolese, an Italian from Genoa, embraced Islam 22 years ago in 1993. But he doesn’t call himself a ‘convert’. For him, one religion is an extension of the other, because at the age 27, he discovered “Jesus Christ and Mary” in a book on ‘Knowing Islam’. “I was shocked. How is Jesus Christ a prophet of Islam”, he says. “I was very confused, because, I was Christian” at the time. That was during his maiden visit to Saudi Arabia on an invitation from Prince Abdullah, whom he had befriended in London earlier. “Then I found out that it is logical. Because Allah, (is) one God and (there are) lot of prophets who are relatives, cousins. With books, Revelations, it was logical for me”, he says thinking back. Within a week, which he describes as a period of spiritual churning, he says he received “suddenly from the sky, Hidayat, the guidance, the light. And I was crying of happiness. First time I cry of happiness. I said ‘Oh, he’s calling me’! He had prayed “please God, give me some sign” he says, and that is when he felt “something that I never felt in my life.” He returned to Genoa, and continued to practice Islam, shocking his mother one day, as she happened to enter his room while he was performing namaz on the floor. She thought he was looking for something under his bed. When the rest of his conservative family found out, there was shock and disbelief. 

Today, Alfredo Maiolese is the President of the European Muslim League which is a non-governmental entity registered with the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and part of the European Parliament. He is also the Ambassador of the International Parliament for Safety & Peace and General Secretary of a new organisation called World Organisation of States, based in New York and Rome. The functions of these organisations range from defence of Human Rights, protection of minorities, to the promotion of security and peace, building focus on the Middle East & environment and also the ongoing conflicts between religions in the world. 

Mr Maiolese, who served as a minister in the Italian government earlier as well,  is in a unique position to offer a viewpoint on the discourse of a clash of civilisations in the context of the raging war in Syria and its spillover effect on terrorist incidents across the world, given the trajectory of his own journey between two world-views. 

In an exclusive conversation with Elizabeth Jane for Trans Asia News Service, Alfredo Maiolese offers his candid views on the real nature of current conflicts, the behind the scenes players involved, the complex web of conflicting geopolitical and economic interests at play, its disastrous effects mostly on Muslim populations and the lack of political will to find simple and obvious solutions to end these conflicts. He was in Bangalore recently to participate in an international conference.


“It wasn’t  easy for me to change. Of course Christians say Jesus is ‘Son of God’, we say Prophet of God. It’s more what’s in common between Christians and Muslims than what is different. People today, they are fighting but we get to reach this point” says Alfredo Maiolese explaining his transition from conservative Catholicism to Islam. 

This is why he says, when people talk about the “clash of civilisations… I think they want clash of religion. But this is only by name because people are not fighting. This is a problem of governments, that have some interests- political. Today they take the ideology and they ‘Islamicise' that ideology of being terrorist. But in the gospel, the Bible they don’t say, in the name of God, you kill. So, this is a very affirmative instruction… So, some people they are very bad inside. No clean heart. No contact with God, Allah. Take innocent people and brainwash them. Who are they?” 

According to Mr Maiolese, the violent manifestations of conflicts in West Asia really began with “people who wanted a revolution. Normal people.” But then he says, the situation turned vicious when “some clerics with very bad intentions, they used this opportunity for their interests and now, we have two wars- the government’s wars and the group’s wars.”

He admits that there is a sectarian aspect involved. “There’s a war between Sunni, Shias. It’s a shame for us that we are fighting Muslims against Muslims. There’s no human rights. They’re raping the women and killing children. It’s really a disaster. Its not humanity. These are not human beings,” he says.


Alfredo Maiolese compares the present situation in Syria to an Italian minestrone soup. “Minestrone is a mix of combination. Some enemies now they are friends. First, there is a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. A proxy war, through Yemen and through Syria. It is a Shia-Sunni conflict on one side. But the beginning was not that. Because the beginning, we forget, the people after Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, they were saying, we want elections. We want freedom. And what did Bashar al-Assad do? Boom, he killed. The army was on the streets for two years, many people died. In the beginning, it was not religion. People, they wanted to have democracy. And then sectarian element came then Iran, Russia..” 


Alfredo Maiolese does not save his barbs about the role of Saudi monarchy in Syria either. “Saudi Arabia is making war against Iran, obviously. They want leadership. America has supported KSA for many years. Now, it has changed policy. The dynamic of relations between US, KSA and Iran is, KSA and Iran want to be the leader in the Middle East. But Iran, it says we have history of 1000 years, how these people of the last 100 years, they came from the desert, they want to be the leader? So, they are fighting. They cannot fight directly because they’ll create the third world war, so they’re using people, they give support, there is Hezbollah and Mossad and they are fighting. And it’s a war. There are no three or four kinds of different wars. There’s a war between KSA and Iran, through their allies, then there is a war with Russia and Syria against these people who have support from some other countries. It’s a very big mess. In the beginning it might have been a genuine revolution. Now, its only interests. But who’s losing? Populations. Then there’s another problem- Turkey and Russia. This is a very complicated issue, but at the end, we are the losers”, he said regretfully. 


As outside parties piled on the build-up in Syria, they drew young fighters in from regions unconnected to the conflict. Throughout Europe, jihadism is a fringe phenomenon, much debated but affecting only a few isolated individuals within largely peaceful Muslim communities. A study on Home-Grown Jihadism in Italy, by Lorenzo Vidino, mentions an important case study, he calls the Delnevo case. Genovese convert Ibrahim Giuliano Delnevo, was killed in Syria while fighting with a jihadist militia. He was the first Italian known to have died in Syria in June 2013. In the summer of 2012, Delnevo attempted to fulfil his desires to fight in jihad by travelling to Turkey, and from there seeking to cross into Syria. His attempt failed and he returned to Italy. Alfredo Maiolese, one of the leaders of Genoa’s Muslim community, spoke with Delnevo shortly thereafter. “He had been in two refugee camps, but he could not find the right contact, he could not get in”, recounted Maiolese. He describes Delnevo as “a really nice person.” However, “his ideology was White and Black.” He was drawn to the Syrian conflict out of concern to help those in need. “He said, why are they killing our Muslim bother. So he went there to defend the oppression of the regime of Syria. And he was really innocent at the beginning. But afterwards they make politics, many groups, they are receiving money from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, America, Israel, Russia… Its a big mess. You want to talk about the protection of a human being, but, in the name of Allah, they are fighting, Muslim against Muslim. Don’t forget, who are the first dying? Muslim”, he said.  


Asked why the battle in Syria that started in March 2011 is still ongoing, adding newer twists and turns, whether this has to do with geopolitical priorities or mineral and oil supplies, Mr Maiolese says, “The situation of Syria is very complicated. It’s the position (strategic location) not petrol. I mean it doesn’t have much fuel, not like Saudi Arabia, or Iraq. This ‘Crocevia’ in Italian, or Crossroads, this land, there’s too much interest in this land. It’s position (placement). Israel’s position, Syria has interests, Russia has interests, Hezbollah is fighting for religion. Al Qaeda is  fighting for religion- Sunni sect, but it is small level. Sometimes, the countries, they’re fighting together and they use these people.”


Mr Maiolese does not consider members of the so called Islamic State group or Daesh as Muslims. “Technically, when you say, I witness, ‘there is no God than God’, he is a Muslim, but he should have purity in his intention and link with God, but I’m not God to judge. So he could be Muslim, but he is using Islam. Some of them are not Muslim because what they’re doing, its not acting as Muslim. Because our prophet did not say you have to kill people, apart from to protect family, to protect something else. Protection is something else, but to kill people in the name of Allah. In Europe they say Holy War. What holy? there is horrible, there’s no holy at all,” he says. 

Talking about the extraordinary display of barbarism by the Islamic State group, he points out that “in the Quran, it says, if you are in war, take your prisoner and first you feed them, even you don’t have food. But respect the women, children, respect the environment. What kind of Islam they are doing? This is not Islam. This is nothing. This is only bad action. Its used in the name of Islam but in reality its  brutality, its genocide. Everybody (is to blame) when the West gives the army, use their planes, everybody is responsible. Not only the people who start but the people who are supporting them.”

According to Mr Maiolese, the ISIS group is essentially a Western prop. An invention, created to serve an ulterior motive. “This is the ex-secret service of Saddam Hussain. What is the IS? The Caliph is a person who has been chosen from the population to be the ruler because of their behaviour, because of their good Islam. So, this is a creation. Even Hillary Clinton said, a few months ago, it’s a creation of America, but now it has escaped from our hands! Hillary Clinton said it. I can’t believe that. Of course, this IS, the head, is only doing it for money. They are doing it for want of interests. They are like mafia. You enter, you can walk out”, he said without mincing words.  


Most experts tend to agree that radicalisation is a highly complex and individualised process, often shaped by a poorly understood interaction of structural and personal factors. Several theories have been formulated to specifically explain the radicalisation of European Muslims, ranging from a search for identity to anger over discrimination and relative economic deprivation. In 2008 the European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation argued that radicalisation takes place “at the intersection of an enabling environment and a personal trajectory.” Alfredo Maiolese said, the Conference- Peace for Economy, was an attempt to explore ways and means to identify and reverse the process of radicalisation. “we have to have a link in the world, because it is high level. Ambassadors, institutions, society, members of government. If we shut up, we cannot do anything. But, because there are member of govt that we report, of course we think, what we can do to get a solution. This is the starting. Of course when we have a boat, we need a captain but we also need a rope. So this is a beginning to take the boat in the right direction and to say, there’s a wave now, we have to report it. This is important but not only words but action. Not just to give interviews but to build pressure”, he said. 

Asked about the much publicised view that murders secure a place in paradise for suicide attackers apart from earning them the prize of 72 virgins in heaven, Mr Maiolese denied this entirely. “No. In the Quran it doesn’t say that you have to kill yourself or someone else to go to paradise. What is paradise? According to Christianity and Islam, you have to work hard to enter paradise. Its only in the hands of God. Not that if you kill more people you get in. In the war between the Zionist and the Palestinians, because the balance of the army was stones against helicopters and weapons, the fighters said, ok, there’s nothing left. They started to blow up, some 20 years ago… the people they think, I kill myself I go to paradise! What paradise?” he wondered.  


Asked about the incredible refugee crisis involving millions of displaced Syrians including children left to fend for themselves and find places to hide, Mr Maiolese said, “first of all they have to remind themselves that they are Muslim. They have to ask Allah, why this test? Is there an explanation.” Describing the help extended by the European Muslims League (EML), he said “of course, we’re giving monetary support and education. We are sending containers, all these material things. But they need more support, spiritual support. That’s what we are doing. Because if you are a Muslim, according to our religion, Allah has created us to worship him, with Iman and Yakeen. So if you have to have Iman, or faith, you have to have Yakeen. We are teaching them that even though they are in this bad situation, they don’t have to lose their faith. Most of the people are waiting to go back to their country. They don’t want to stay in Germany, Italy or Switzerland, Sweden or Spain. They want to go back to Syria. But there is a problem with Syria. That problem is the government. Like there is a problem between Pakistan and India for Kashmir- that’s not a problem between Muslims or Hindus. It’s not religion. The problem is that the country has its own interests. So of course the European Muslim League, we are like an NGO. We’re not a government organisation. We’re registered with the UNSC, we are in the European Parliament. Our role is to defend them. When a person arrives at a refugee station, Subhan Allah, we all gather- even the Christian Italians, when they see all the Syrians at the stations, they go shopping and they get food for them. Each one has a responsibility. Each human being has love, pain.”  

Lampedusa, the southernmost part of Italy is a prime transit point for illegal immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia wanting to enter Europe. Here, Mr Maiolese says “Italian marines send a lot of boats to rescue these people coming by sea. Some people they say, what we can do? We don’t even have work (employment) for ourselves. But this is not about work. It is part of humanity to help people when they are dying in the sea. So, what they have to do. But what they understand is, they found out, different types of migration. All the migration from Libya, from the Sahara- they are not educated. But these Syrians, they have high level of education. The people who welcome them say, they have good mobile phones, speak English, they are doctors and engineers. They come because they want to improve their way of life. They are forced. I know because I know many Syrians. I’ve been there many times. One of my friends, he has a villa with a swimming pool and the government took his villa. He has nowhere to live.”

But the recent attacks in Paris and California by outsiders claiming inspiration from outfits like the IS have added extra hurdles to the problem of migration. Now there’s fear and xenophobia to deal with. Mr Maiolese says, “now they confuse migration, terrorism and Islam. Actually Italy is not a destination. It is a transit route. They come, but they don’t want to stay in Italy. They want to move on to places like Sweden or Holland or in the North, Norway, or in Germany. These are the main countries. But now, the politicians a small percentage of them, they hold on to this ‘We’re Christian, you’re Muslim (rhetoric)’ It makes no sense,” he says. “They are forced to live in Europe because Europe sends their army to drop bombs and bombards them. What solution do they have? he asks. 

“There is a persecution, Islamophobia all over the world. When you kill a person in Iraq or Syria, you kill them physically. But you are killing us when they consider us Daesh or whatever else. When a person does a terrorist act, you don’t judge me by my intention but by my action. So what do you do? We start with events like this conference”, he said about the think tank meeting he was attending.  


Bombing is no way to end the Syrian conflict, Mr Maiolese believes. “If you kill three terrorists, they’ll kill 1 million Syrians. That’s no solution. War against war, is not a solution”, he insists. According to him, there is a clear lack of political will to end the fighting because each player is pursuing their own end. “We can say that the interest of the government is different from interests of the population. We can speak about love and peace continuously, but this is not at our level. The level is at the top. Russia’s interest is to have a base in Syria. It doesn’t care about Syrian people. I spoke to one Colonel of Rome in NATO, I asked what do you think about 100,000 people dying in Syria? “Nothing”, he said. I was shocked. America is the first country for human rights. But if the country has different interests, if France wants to attack Libya, it’s not for or against Gaddafi. The country has interests. And the interests of countries are above human rights. That’s the defect.” Using a regional analogy, he said, “We have to realise, if India has a problem with Pakistan, for Kashmir, it’s not religion. It’s a fight for land, or for petrol for example or power, or something that is national interest.”

The solution to the seemingly intractable Syrian crisis is democracy, Mr Maiolese says. “The solution is that the government has to say we’ll renounce, to give some opportunity to respect the civilian population. Bring them back, because I think most of the people, they want to go back to Syria. But now, its how many years? Even if they go back, it takes them 10 yrs to rebuild. Its really not easy. If they say, tomorrow there’s peace. You take 12 million people to where? Where’s their house? Where’s their university? Where’s their work? Nothing. 

So, until now, its a disaster. We lost. Everybody we lost. We lost humanity, we lost the peace, we lost the government, we lost the Sunni, the Shia, everybody.”  

If they really want to, world powers can solve the Syrian crisis “in one minute” says Alfredo Maiolese. “We can solve this problem. Don’t give the army. Don’t bombard with Russian weapons…and make a political solution. What we have to do, is have elections. This Bashar al-Assad has to go, because he’s a state terrorist. Putin is accusing of what? Putin has interests, and other countries have interests. But logically, we have to help the population, so they are not killed. So if you want  to speak about democracy, we have to arrange for fresh elections and elect a new parliament and new President who is not an Alawite, not a Sunni, Ikhwani or whatever. The population of Syria, Christian, Muslim or whatever, they have to, elect their own representative and not to split into two and tree part like Libya”, he says.  

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