The Muslim Politician Fighting for a New Italy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s more to modern Europe than Marine Le Pen.
Khalid Chaouki dreams of a nation of “New Italians” — immigrants’ children, born or raised in Italy, becoming doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, engineers, politicians and leaders. And he wants those New Italians on the fast track to citizenship.
Chaouki, 34, is a Moroccan-born member of Italy’s Lower House for the leading Democratic Party, and he’s preaching a gospel not commonly heard in Europe today. He’s pushing through Italy’s 945-person Parliament a bill that would grant citizenship to more than 1 million New Italians; today, there are some 5 million immigrants in the country. “These New Italians are the future of our country; they stand as an additional resource for the country and we should make them feel at home,” says Chaouki.
The bill, currently pending in the Senate after passing the Lower House, proposes to offer an Italian passport to those born on Italian soil to parents in the country on a permanent work visa, or who have attended primary school for five years in Italy. His bill would mark an overhaul in Italy’s current policy — the one he navigated when immigrating at age 8. Today, would-be Italians must wait a decade and prove they have worked at least three years in Italy to become citizens; their children must wait to turn 18 for that privilege. According to Alfonso Giordano, immigration professor at Rome-based LUISS University, “the bill would help boost ethnic integration in the country,” though it may not have a speedy implementation due to the sluggish approval procedures of the Italian Parliament.
A February study by the Pew Research Center found that almost half of Italians believe that “many” or “most” Muslims support ISIS.
Italy’s populist parties — including the Northern League and other anti-establishment parties, like the far-right Fratelli d’Italia and the Five Star Movement — vehemently oppose Chaouki. Those parties’ line on immigration has generally been to push back at sea refugees landing on Italian shores, and repatriate all of those who do make it to land. The Northern League even suggested shooting at migrant boats in the past. Massimiliano Fedriga of the Northern League cites Britain’s Islamic fundamentalism problem: “Take the U.K.’s model: Open doors to everyone, automatic citizenship to immigrants’ kids, yet how many of these ended up turning into terrorists, planning attacks in their own country of adoption?” (The London 2005 bombings were carried out by Muslim Brits who were born and raised in the U.K.; the same for many of the recent attacks in France.)
But in Italy, Fedriga’s view is common. A February study by the Pew Research Center found that almost half of Italians believe that “many” or “most” Muslims support ISIS — a greater percentage than those who believe that in the rest of Europe. And 69 percent of Italians told Pew they view Muslims unfavorably; only 28 percent of Brits said the same. Chaouki insists that citizenship is an antidote against hate crimes — integration would de-ghettoize Muslims, bringing them into society. “If Muslims and other ethnic minorities are kept at bay, that will only increase the risk of pushing them toward radicalism,” he says.
Into that landscape comes Chaouki, who’s requested a halal restaurant and an imam inside Italy’s Parliament. Yet he’s happy to shock both right-wingers and his fellow Muslims — the latter by recently voting in favor of civil unions between LGBT people. Mostly, though, he is known for being a moderate, active participant in Parliament. He’s listed as one of the most regular attendees in a government full of frequent hooky-players. Immigration dominates both his legislative agenda and his public profile: He’s a member of the Euro-Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly and regularly takes immigrant students to visit Parliament.
Democratic senator Doris Lo Moro refers to the identity limbo in which such migrants dwell: They feel Italian, speak Italian, but cannot be Italian by law. Today, one hears Chinese teenagers who don’t know a lick of their mother tongue speaking Italian with a Roman twang. Immigrants’ kids learn Neapolitan, Sicilian and Milanese dialect even before standard Italian. They attend local schools, have Italian buddies and cheer for Italian football squads; Chinese migrants staff the local textile industries in Prato, Tuscany, and small businesses in Milan.
Italian society has already absorbed foreigners, Chaouki argues. Making it easier for them to stay can help with the low birth rate among Italian families, the worst in Europe, and the brain drain of workers who often head to Northern Europe and the U.K. in the face of a stagnating economy. Chaouki also plugs New Italians as bridges to their origin countries, as ambassadors of cross-cultural dialogue. Some of Italy’s Democrats, who currently lead the government, couple a policy of welcoming borders with the suggestion that Italy must make strategic investments in migrants’ origin countries. “That’s the only way to prevent hundreds of thousands of desperate people from setting sail across the Mediterranean in search of a brighter future, often at the cost of their lives,” says Giordano.
Chaouki doesn’t come from such desperation, but rather aspirational immigrant stock. Born in Casablanca, Morocco, Chaouki migrated to Italy when he was 8 with his factory-worker father and Moroccan Arabic-language teacher mother. During the decade in which Chaouki was waiting on his citizenship, he amassed two university degrees — in political science and Oriental studies — and became a journalist at a leading Italian news agency, relying on his polyglot skills as a speaker of English, Italian, French and Moroccan Arabic.
And yet, while a teenager, “I found myself in an absurd situation,” he recalls. Though he was coming up the ladder at the news agency ANSA, he wasn’t allowed to take the state exam that certifies journalists because he lacked Italian citizenship. He finally did take the exam once he became an Italian citizen at 18. In his 20s, he fell into politics, lured by his dream of building an inclusive and multiethnic society. He ran for office in 2013, and his party won with wide margins.
Today, Chaouki is married to a second-generation Moroccan woman, but has enrolled his two daughters at a Catholic school. Integration, indeed.