View from Rome: The possibility of a “European” Islam

Italy's government has called for the “europeanisation” of intelligence, but is exploring more cultural answers to the terrorism problem

After the Brussels attacks, the domestic debate on terrorism in Italy ramped up, with a general call to strengthen the European response and beef up the sharing of data.

On the one hand, the government now sees that terrorist groups are more organised than before and able to hit anywhere, something that Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni has underlined in his public statements. On the other hand there is another discourse, one that has been heavily favoured by the media, that has tended to emphasise Belgian intelligence failures and in particularly their inability to find Salah Abdeslam, quietly “hidden” in his Molenbeek home.

Almost immediately after the tragic events in Brussels, Italian PM Matteo Renzi stressed the need for greater integration between the 28 European intelligence systems, focussing on the need for transnational responses to transnational issues. Interior minister Angelino Alfano followed a similar line by affirming the need to adopt as soon as possible, at a European level, the Passenger Name Record (PNR) directive. Some prominent Italians are putting greater emphasize on the need of creating a European intelligence system which should take inspiration from the American FBI. 

Italy is also starting a conversation on the importance of dialogue with that section of Islam which does not identify with Islamic terrorism. There is growing interest in how Europe could help in the process of establishing a “European” reformist Islam and this plays into earlier Renzi comments on how Europe and its member states need to invest in culture and in urban areas at risk as “the only way to save the next generation”.

The media reaction to the Brussels attacks has been noteworthy. Some Italian newspapers and key journalists have been promoting the idea of a failing Belgian state, sometimes even comparing it to Afghanistan and Syria. The press has also picked up on a changing perspective in the way ISIS perceives Italy. While earlier references to Rome seemed mainly symbolic – as the capital of Christianity – the threat now seems more real, as demonstrated by the presence of Renzi and Gentiloni in recent ISIS propaganda videos.

The political opposition seems to be more divided than few months ago. Matteo Salvini, MEP and Secretary General of Lega Nord, continues his anti-European fight. He advocates a more interventionist military strategy against ISIS and stresses the need to close borders to any kind of migrants, regardless of whether they are refugees and is using a recent trip to Israel – a state he proclaims the “safest in the world” – to back up this argument.

The Five Star Movement, however, seems to be slowly shifting towards a less populist position. According to the political rumour mill, there is a developing split between the movement’s two founders . While Gian Roberto Casaleggio continues with the hard line against migration, the more visible Beppe Grillo seems to be changing towards a softer policy on migrants and refugees. In fact, there even appears to be a shift in the approach to Europe. Alessandro Di Battista, another prominent representative of the movement has called for greater collaboration between European, Russian and NATO countries intelligence services. And likely prime ministerial candidate Luigi Di Maio met with ambassadors from all of the EU’s member states in a private exchange of views on Europe’s current challenges. 

Beyond these changing political positions, Italians have been profoundly shocked by the Brussels attacks. A recent survey showed that 75 percent of respondents feared that something similar to what happened in Brussels may happen also in Italy, while 70 percent believe that Islam is at war with Europe. When asked on how to avoid the danger of attacks in Italy, 57 percent believe it;s necessary to increase internal controls, yet only 18 percent think that borders should be closed and 14 percent see the integration work carried out in schools as a way to prevent radicalisation.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Rome Office

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