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Turin’s Muslims Try to Keep a Low Profile

Times Staff Writer

Like Muslims in many parts of the world, members of the Islamic community here in the host city of the Winter Olympics would gladly hit the streets to protest cartoons satirizing the prophet Muhammad.

But Muslims here say they have been under such fierce surveillance lately by Italian police that they don’t dare.

“Either you shut up or you are sent away,” said Abramo Haj, a Moroccan restaurateur who has lived in Italy for 26 years. He was standing on the sidewalk here outside a makeshift mosque whose vocal imam was expelled by Italian authorities in September.

Instead of protests by Muslims, Turin, in the run-up to the Olympics, has seen daily demonstrations by a diverse assortment of activists, environmentalists and leftists.

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The largest demonstration yet came Friday, hours before the opening ceremonies of the Games. Hundreds of people gathered outside the University of Turin humanities building and along streets where runners bearing the Olympic flame were expected to pass. Repeatedly in recent days, protesters have managed to force the torchbearers to take detours en route to Turin.

Demonstrators sang protest songs, played drums that have come to symbolize the worldwide anti-globalization movement, waved Palestinian and Iraqi flags and burned a paper American flag. A huge red banner hung from the facade of the six-story university building proclaiming “Conflict lives here” -- a play on the Olympics 2006 motto, “Passion lives here.” Another banner declared: “Laura Bush, go home!” The first lady, who is heading the U.S. delegation to Turin, is scheduled to visit another part of the university today.

Still, the protests have remained relatively low-key. There have been no clashes with the police, who on Friday stood single file in riot gear with shields to block streets and prevent access to the flame’s route.

And when Alberto Re, a famed Italian mountaineer, rappelled from the dome of Turin’s landmark 500-foot-tall Mole Antonelliana carrying the flame in one hand, even some of the protesters paused and craned their necks to watch.

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The demonstrators have a host of complaints: unemployment, a high-speed train that they say will ruin the environment, expensive Olympic venues that they say will become white elephants, corruption, the war in Iraq. Not every cause has an obvious Olympic link, but no matter.

“We are not against the concept of the Olympics; this is not a refusal of sports,” said Mateo De Marchi, 19, who was handing out leaflets for the No-Olympics Committee. “It’s against the structure of these Olympics ... and the corruption,” he said, referring to the way the Games have become dominated by big-spending multinational sponsors.

As he spoke, his comrades were lighting their own torch, made of aluminum foil, and using it to burn a Samsung banner.

“The Olympics will be a nice party,” said Pino Larobina, 46, a worker at a Fiat-owned truck factory who was carrying an enormous red flag representing his labor union.

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“But the fact is Turin is becoming a ghost town because of all the factories closing. When the Games are over, what will they have given the people of Turin, who each month cannot make ends meet?”

Protesters and other critics are especially incensed that Turin has spent $1.4 billion on the Games, which have a price tag of more than $4 billion. They believe that such extravagance will not translate into new jobs in an industrial city that relied so heavily on the now declining Fiat automaker.

“We want to show the contradictions of the city,” said university researcher Gippo Mukendi, 33, a communist who is helping organize the demonstrations. “On the one hand they have the Olympics, which makes the city look rich, but only a few people will earn money with the Olympics and nothing will really be left for the city.”

Italian law enforcement, gearing up for the Games, spent many months focused on the possibility of terrorist attacks by Islamic radicals. Northern Italy has a large Muslim population, and a small number have been linked to international terrorist groups. Italian authorities say they have hundreds of potential troublemakers under surveillance. About 200 people suspected of belonging to terrorist cells have been deported in the last two years, officials say.

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But more recently, the authorities have focused more closely on leftist groups and anti-globalization activists who seemed more determined to disrupt the Olympics.

On Friday, Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu again said the recent violence in the Middle East and South Asia over the cartoons could trigger an improvised attack by an individual. But, he said, neither Italy nor the foreign agencies assisting it had received indications of a planned action by terrorist groups.

The domestic “anarchists,” as the government calls them, are a different matter, Pisanu told reporters in Rome. They seek “to take advantage, with spectacular acts, of the Olympics’ world stage,” he said. “We must take into account a general climate that is rather tense.”

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a right-wing politician running for reelection, said the anti-globalization demonstrators were “subversives” who should be stopped.

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“The government could strike in a decisive way anyone who carries out subversive actions at the Olympics in Turin,” he was quoted as telling a television talk show Thursday night.

More than 15,000 police officers and army troops, backed by NATO surveillance aircraft and an undisclosed number of Italian and foreign undercover agents, are patrolling Turin and the surrounding Alpine hills and valleys where the Olympics will unfold over the next two weeks.


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