Italy has a new plan to push back against Islamic radicalization of European youth. It wants to give them European culture. This month, Italy will begin offering all 18-year-olds a voucher worth approximately $500 to use on concerts, movies, and museum visits. The premise is that cultural exposure can counter Islamic terrorism. Although this is perhaps a well-intentioned effort to wage an ideological war against Islamism, Italy’s program is unlikely to work.
Italy is correct to want Muslim youths to embrace Western culture as an alternative to turning to radical Islam; however, it’s mistaken in thinking this cultural shift can be forced or that mere exposure to Western culture will have the desired effect.
Italy’s new program, which will run through the end of 2017, will cost the country approximately $300 million. It was first announced soon after the attacks last November on the Bataclan theatre in Paris, where Islamic terrorists killed 130 people. Although its fundamental purpose is to counter radicalization, the vouchers will be available to all 18-year-olds, regardless of religion or ethnicity.
Italy is not the first European country to engage in an ideological battle in an attempt to dissuade youth from radicalizing. Britain has a program called “Prevent” that targets “at-risk youth”—those from Muslim families—and offers them counseling. This program has been criticized for stigmatizing and ostracizing Muslims, and for being a pathway for police surveillance of the Muslim community in Britain.
Germany has a number of counter- and de-radicalization programs, based on similar programs from the 1980s and ‘90s for neo-Nazis. These have had dubious outcomes. Earlier this year, a 16-year-old student threw a bomb into a Sikh temple. These types of programs have also been considered with skepticism because, as one former Salafist notes, “You can’t get anyone out unless he wants it.” So how do you make them want it?
Western Culture Isn’t that Effective, Either
Although Italy is trying to think outside of the box with its hybrid financial-cultural incentive, its plan is destined for failure. To begin with, most 18-year-olds are far more likely to use such a voucher to head to a movie or concert rather than a museum. In that case, how do movies and concerts, essentially vacuous pop culture, help influence young Muslim men not to radicalize? What values do they hold that would persuade a young man looking for a sense of identity not to take refuge in an extreme religious sect?
Many of the terrorists who’ve targeted Western countries in the last year were much engaged in Western pop culture—going to clubs and concerts, drinking, dancing—often just days before launching an attack. Salah Abdeslam, one of the Bataclan attackers, was co-owner of a night club. (Even the 9/11 attackers reportedly visited strippers in Las Vegas and Daytona Beach.)
Furthermore, are movies and concerts really at the heart of the culture that Italy wants its people to engage in? What about encouraging support for and engagement of principles like freedom of expression and democracy? These are certainly more crucial for preserving European culture than going to see an action movie.
Even if Muslim youth did choose to use their vouchers for museums, it’s not clear this would produce any positive effects, either. In Paris, all students have free admission to public museums, but this has hardly slowed North African youth from turning to Islamism and launching terrorist attacks in France.
The fact is, exposure to Western culture—not insulation from it—has a history of inspiring some Muslims to turn to Islamic extremism and terrorism. Sayyid Qutb, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and ‘60s, spent time as an exchange student in the United States, and partly this experience helped push him toward radical Islam and indicting the West.
Try Cutting the Welfare State that Funds Your Enemies
What’s more, financial assistance in whatever form is just as likely to hurt as help. Europe’s welfare state has been proven to subsidize terrorism, not counter it. Several of the terrorists involved in the Brussels and Paris attacks had been receiving various kinds of stipends and financial aid from the Belgium government. This money helped sustain them while they were planning their attacks.
Financial subsidies help make it possible for Islamic extremists to engage in terrorist activities. In fact, in its 2015 guide titled “How to Survive in the West,” ISIS encouraged followers in Europe to take advantage of any financial aid they can to help fund their plots or trips to Iraq and Syria.
Regardless of the drawbacks of the specific plan, Italy has succeeded in identifying a key problem involved in combatting Islamic radicalization: the Muslim population in Europe is largely not embracing Western culture. Unless they do, there will continue to be a gap between Muslim and non-Muslim Europeans, and Islamic extremism will continue to take hold. This is the central problem facing Europe.
The government official in charge of the voucher program, Tommaso Nannicini, says its purpose is to send a message and a reminder of “how crucial culture is, both for personal enrichment and for strengthening the social fabric of the country.” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called it a “cultural battle” that must be won. They are both right.
Yet Italy has still failed to see that no country can force a people to embrace one culture and abandon another. Nor can they be bribed into it. France has learned this lesson with its burkini ban experiment. Cities like Nice tried to forbid Muslim women from wearing the full-body covering to beaches, insisting the clothing violates the republican principle of equality of the sexes. Nice police went so far as to order women who were violating the order to strip in front of other beach-goers. Government actions like these will not only fail in assimilating Muslims, but further alienate them. (Thankfully, the burkini ordinance was overturned last week.)
The ultimate goal of encouraging engagement with European culture is to protect and preserve that culture. But, as I’ve written previously, this is precisely what Europe has been reticent to do for a variety of reasons. How can European countries possibly ask their Muslim citizens to assimilate to a culture that the countries themselves are too ashamed to defend? Italy’s recognition of what Europe must do is a good sign, even if its voucher program is fraught with problems.
The idea of encouraging appreciation of European culture is apt to offend some who don’t like the idea of asking immigrants to adjust or change. These people think immigrants should be able, and even ought, to live in cultural enclaves while taking advantage of the economic benefits of their new home. Italy’s new program is, therefore, bound to find resistance and criticism, and is unlikely to be replicated in whatever form. This is an unfortunate reality of our politically correct age.
Italy’s cash-for-culture program is likely to produce little fruit. But the fact that they understand the importance of culture and its role in the battle against Islamic extremism is a positive sign in these dark days for Europe.