The Italian Obsession With Muslim Refugees - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Italian Obsession With Muslim Refugees

The Italian Obsession With Muslim Refugees

By Silvia Marchetti

During the early morning, refugees arrived at the port of Salerno, transported by the Norwegian naval vessel "Siem Pilot", about 600 refugees with about fifty children and many women on board. They come from several African states. After landing they will be sorted in various reception centers of the province.
SourceMichele Amoruso/Getty


Because fear distorts reality.

By Silvia Marchetti

Tragedies can really warp one’s sense of reality. Just ask Italians. 

The immigration wave that has rocked Italy, with nearly 200,000 refugee sea landings last year, has led some Italians to make a false equation: Migrants are all Muslim, and Muslims are all migrants, and they’re flooding the country on wobbly dinghies. According to the latest Perils of Perception survey, carried out by research company Ipsos Mori, Italians believe that Muslims account for 1 in every 5 inhabitants. 

 In fact, Muslims comprise just 1 out of 25 people living in Italy.

This distorted view of Italy’s current ethnic composition is the product of mounting fears around swelling immigration and concern that many illegal migrants could be ISIS terrorists, explains Alfonso Giordano, professor of economic and political geography at LUISS University in Rome. “Actually, the number of landings on Italian shores at the start of 2016 was significantly lower than the total landings that occurred in the same period in Greece,” he says.

Italians are near obsessed with the number of Muslims they believe are invading their shores. It’s like a return to the Middle Ages, when Saracen pirates sacked Italian villages, raping and kidnapping female villagers for their harems. As fleets of ships approached the coastline, the most terrifying yell sounding from the lookout towers was “Mamma, li turchi! Mamma, li turchi!” (“Mommy, here come the Turks!”) Seems not much has changed since then. Asked about the future, Italians project that by 2020, a third of Italy’s population will be Muslim, while demographic estimates suggest Muslims will represent 5 percent of the population at most.

Truth is, they have never lived in an open, multiethnic society, in contrast to the Brits and French.

Marco Trepalli, sociologist

The Ipsos Mori survey is conducted annually to measure the degree of misperception people have about a number of issues related to where they live and their everyday lives. Italians’ minds seem to be among the most clouded by false notions and data, thanks in part to the kind of “closed” society in which they live, says Turin-based sociologist Marco Trepalli. “One thing is an incoming migrant who flees from his country; another is a Muslim who is already living in Italy and well-integrated, perhaps even naturalized. But many Italians make no difference between the two,” he says. “Truth is, they have never lived in an open, multiethnic society, in contrast to the Brits and French.” 

And, says Giordano, populist leaders — such as Giorgia Meloni of Fratelli d’Italia group and Matteo Salvini of the Northern League party — contribute to the growing fear among citizens by portraying all incoming refugees as potential Muslim terrorists. “Populism talks to the darkest and most hidden fears of people, to their ‘stomach’ rather than reason, as we say in Italy, with obvious devastating effects,” he observes.

Xenophobic parties like the Northern League have revived the rallying cry “Mamma, li turchi!”

It’s not surprising, then, that xenophobic parties like the Northern League have revived the rallying cry “Mamma, li turchi!”, while suggesting Italians go so far as to stop — by force, if necessary — all migrant boats approaching the country’s southern shores and isles. There have been instances where illegal migrants in Italy have joined the ranks of Islamic extremists. The terrorist who attacked a Christmas market in Berlin in December — and was subsequently tracked down and killed in Milan — had traveled to Germany from Italy, where he served a prison sentence for burning down a migrant camp.

Assuming, however, that that was one of the isolated cases of Muslim refugees turning to extreme, violent ends, is it possible to correct Italians’ misreading of their country’s makeup? We have a proverb here: “Non fare di tutta un’erba un fascio,” which translates to “You can’t make everything one big bundle of grass.” In other words, don’t put everyone in the same basket. Easier said than done.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories