Italy, Islam and the Islamic World

Representations and Reflections, from 9/11 to the Arab Uprisings

by Charles Burdett (Author)
©2016 Monographs X, 234 Pages
Series: Italian Modernities, Volume 24


The recent emergence and increasing visibility of Islam as Italy’s second religion is an issue of undeniable importance. It has generated an intense and often polarized debate that has involved all the cultural, political and religious institutions of the country and some of its most vocal and controversial cultural figures. This study examines some of the most significant voices that have made themselves heard in defining Italy’s relationship with Islam and with the Islamic world, in a period of remarkable geopolitical and cultural upheaval from 9/11 to the Arab Spring. It looks in detail at the nature of the arguments that writers, journalists and intellectuals have adduced regarding Islam and at the connections and disjunctions between opposing positions. It examines how events such as military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq or the protests in Tahrir Square have been represented within Italy and it analyses the rhetorical framework within which the issue of the emergence of Islam as an internal actor within Italian civil society has been articulated.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: 9/11: The Islamic World as Other in Oriana Fallaci’s ‘Trilogy’
  • Chapter 2: The War on Terror: Journeys of Writers and Journalists through Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Chapter 3: Representations of Islamic Communities in Italy
  • Chapter 4: Literary Representations of Islam and Italy
  • Chapter 5: Voices of Tahrir Square: Representations of Egypt and the Arab Uprisings
  • Afterword
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

← viii | ix →


In the writing of this book I have benefitted from the support of a large number of people and institutions. The Arts and Humanities Research Council provided a four-month period of research leave to write the early chapters of the work and subsequently they have funded a large grant on ‘Transnationalizing Modern Languages: Mobility, Identity and Translation in Modern Italian Cultures’ which has provided the structure in which to explore further the ideas that are at the basis of this study. The Council’s initiative ‘Translating Cultures’ has proved an important ground for the exchange of ideas and concepts on the question of inter-cultural exchange and I have benefitted from the advice of the Theme leader, Charles Forsdick. The funding of the AHRC has been accompanied by the support of the School of Modern Languages and the Faculty of Arts at the University of Bristol. I am grateful to all those at Bristol who support the pursuit of research through detailed and focussed advice as well as providing the funding that is necessary to attend seminars and conferences. I am particularly grateful to Susan Harrow for her extensive comments on the planning of my work and for her support in applying for funding.

I am indebted to the editors of the ‘Italian Modernities’ series at the University of Cambridge and to Alessandra Anzani at Peter Lang, all of whom have shown an interest and an involvement in the study from an early stage. I would also like to thank Kirsty Adegboro. I am grateful to Robert Gordon for his encouragement and for his detailed and astute comments on the development of the manuscript. I am also grateful for the comments of the anonymous referees who have either read samples of the work (I have published articles on aspects of the present study in Italian Studies and the Journal of Romance Studies) or who have considered the manuscript as a whole. I would like also to thank my colleagues in the Italian Department at Bristol for their involvement in my work and the wider community of ← ix | x → Italian studies – the opportunity to speak about aspects of my study on numerous occasions has always proved extremely useful.

My thanks are also due to the team with which I am working on ‘Transnationalizing Modern Languages’: speaking regularly with my colleagues about issues concerning migration, culture, and translation is of great value. I have gained many insights from my conversations with Barbara Spadaro who is based at the University of Bristol and I am indebted to Derek Duncan for his advice on the planning and on the overall conception of the study. I have also benefitted from the generosity of Stefano Allievi, who has over a lengthy period of time suggested different approaches and proved a very valuable reader of my work. I would also like to thank Schirin Amir-Moazami, Siobhan Shilton and Svenja Frank for the opportunity to discuss ideas and common interests. Arturo Marzano has shown great generosity in sharing his knowledge of the subject and in commenting with exemplary clarity on my work. I am also grateful to Tariq Modood and to Therese O’Toole in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at Bristol: attending the seminar series run by the Centre for Ethnicity and Citizenship has enabled me to think in ways beyond my own discipline and to open many areas of investigation.

Lastly, I am deeply indebted to my wife, Claudia, for her support throughout the research and writing process, for her interest and engagement with the ideas on Italian society and culture with which the work is concerned, and for her readiness to discuss every chapter of the text.

← x | 1 →


‘Quale Islam hanno di fronte oggi gli italiani?’ E che immagine dell’Islam si è formata nel loro immaginario collettivo?


In an authoritative article, written in the early years of this century, the sociologist Stefano Allievi discusses the emergence of Islam in Italy.1 The essential point that he makes is that its appearance on the cultural and religious landscape of Italy is a relatively recent phenomenon and that it is one that is indissolubly related to the international migratory flows of the last twenty or thirty years. In contrast with the large and established Muslim communities of other major European nation states, Italy’s growing Muslim population originates from a much more differentiated range of countries and has little to do with Italy’s former colonies: the main countries of origin of Italy’s Muslim population are, in decreasing order, Morocco, Albania, Tunisia, Senegal, Egypt, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Algeria, Bosnia, Nigeria and Turkey.2 Allievi argues that, over a lengthy period of time, the development of a recognizable Islamic presence within Italy was not something that was clearly visible and therefore raised relatively little attention in the national media: indeed, it was something of which, for a long time, neither the migrant community nor the host society were fully conscious. In his words, Islam arrived ‘locked in immigrants’ suitcases’.3 Elsewhere in his writing, Allievi affirms that:

Si tratta tuttavia di un fattore in rapida evoluzione: l’islam non è più solo neo- arrivato; è ormai, co-inquilino. Comincia ad entrare in quella che possiamo considerare la ‘fase due’ della sua presenza in Italia: quella della sedentarizzazione, della stabilizzazione, in parte anche dell’istituzionalizzazione, per quanto ancora ad uno stadio relativamente embrionale.4 ← 1 | 2 →

[It is a question of an issue that is evolving rapidly: Islam is no longer only a newcomer, it is now a fellow tenant. It is entering what we might consider to be the ‘second phase’ of its presence in Italy: that of its establishment, its stabilization, in part also its institutionalization, though this is still at a relatively embryonic stage.]

Though the early stages of the rapid development of Islam as Italy’s second religion may not have excited a great deal of comment within the national media, the same cannot, of course, be said about more recent manifestations of the growing importance of Islam within the public space. Italy’s growing Muslim population, almost entirely Sunni, by most estimates, now numbers around 1.3 to 1.5 million and its presence has become ‘absolutely evident’.5 The figure constitutes about 2% of the Italian population and is about half of the average percentage in European countries. The various indicators by which one can measure an institutionalized Islamic presence – whether these are the building of mosques, the formation of cultural/political associations, or the production of books or articles – have attained, Allievi argues, a high level of visibility both at a national level and within more localized communities across the peninsula.

The increasing evidence of Islam as Italy’s second religion, as is probably only to be expected, has generated a polarized and often deeply acrimonious debate that, with varying degrees of intensity, has involved all the cultural, political and religious institutions of the country. On one side, the issue of the likely changes to basic assumptions about the nature of Italian cultural or religious identity has given rise to public manifestations of intransigence and the expression of views which, as the journalist Marco Politi points out, are not really preoccupied with Samuel Huntington’s thesis of the potential for inter-civilizational strife, but are more concerned with establishing models of inclusion and exclusion within Italy itself.6 Both Allievi and Guolo – also a sociologist – have explored the spectrum of reactions within Italian society to the fact that Islam has become a social actor within the country.7 Allievi points, above all, to the extremist rhetoric of the Northern League and the demonstrations of Islamophobia that have taken place in a series of small towns in the heartland of the party. Clearly, the events of 11 September 2001 gave a particular impetus to the current of anti-Islamic feeling; a current of feeling that has been expressed most prominently by ← 2 | 3 → the writings of Oriana Fallaci.8 But if the debate surrounding Italy’s changing demographic and cultural reality, and more generally the complexity of the country’s relation with the Islamic world, has been characterized on one side by the expression of extreme anti-Muslim sentiment, then on the other side one finds, needless to say, the articulation of more nuanced and informed views, as well as the publication of works that seek to explain Islamic belief and practice to an Italian public.9

The nature of the debate that surrounds the issue of the growing importance of Islam within Italian society – a debate that Marco Politi has described as at times becoming ‘incandescent’ – demonstrates, in the view of some influential commentators, that much work needs to be done to encourage greater awareness of the dynamics of successful inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue.10 Others have argued that a pervasive sense of crisis, or even of conflict, does at least serve the function of bringing matters of considerable moment into public consciousness.11 If, owing to the forces of globalization, Italy is changing rapidly, then it is perhaps inevitable that the effects of this process are registered at every level of society. What is certain is that Islam, as Guolo has written, asks searching questions of Italian society, of its identity, of its internal coherence and of its likely future development.12 One might add that any change to the sense of what constitutes the reality of the present brings with it a corresponding, but not necessarily obvious, alteration to the way in which the past of the country is considered.

The debate surrounding Italy’s relationship with Islam and with the Islamic world is clearly a fitting object of academic research and it is one that, within cultural and literary studies as distinct from sociology or political science, can be approached from a variety of angles. One can, for example, look in detail at the ways in which the media has confronted the issue; how, in other words, reporting and comment in Italy’s leading newspapers La Repubblica and the Corriere della Sera (or indeed within more politically partial publications such as Libero and Il Giornale on one end of the spectrum and Il Manifesto on the other) have attempted to shape public opinion. A good example of this kind of work is Marco Bruno’s work L’islam immaginato [Imagined Islam] (2008).13 This kind of analysis reveals the deepest levels at which discourse functions and it ← 3 | 4 → can be placed in comparative perspective by looking at the corresponding themes that have recurred both in the print journalism and audio-visual media of other European countries. Such a method of proceeding would, following the injunction that Edward Said makes in his celebrated work of the legacy of imperialism,14 enable one to study the development of culture in counterpoint.

Another approach – the one that is pursued in this study – is to examine the writings of some of the most prominent protagonists in this debate. A fair amount of work has been done on Oriana Fallaci’s ‘trilogy’ and it has served to shed light on the rhetorical means – the reliance on apostrophe, the coincidence between autobiography and invective – that her works use in order to set up a contrast between her presence within the texts and a stereotyped notion of Islam.15 But her voice, though it has no doubt been highly influential, is only one of many: there are a myriad of other figures who, though they may not have attained the same kind of attention, have made important contributions to the debate on Italy’s relation with Islam and the Islamic world. Every participant in this debate communicates their own understanding of the nature of the relationship between religion and culture, and of the merits, or otherwise, of a multicultural society; they each situate themselves, with varying degrees of explicitness, within the political spectrum; and, in the rhetorical strategies that they deploy and in the series of examples that they draw, they each exploit and/or demonstrate the workings of a range of discourses that run through the whole of Italian society.

The purpose of this study is, through the examination of a range of events and issues, to present some of the most significant voices that have made themselves heard in defining Italy’s relationship with Islam and with parts of the Islamic world. It is to look in detail at the nature of the arguments that they adduce, at the connections between different positions and at the depth of the fault lines between opposing perceptions. Though the study draws on a lively field of recent cultural studies work on multiculturalism and migration, it is not set up as a survey of a societal phenomenon but rather as a probing of the rhetorical framework and shape of discourse within which the issue of the emergence of Islam as an internal actor within Italian civil society has been articulated. ← 4 | 5 →


X, 234
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
Islamic world representation and identity intercultural contact Islamophobia Italian culture concepts of otherness translating cultures
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. X, 234 pp.

Biographical notes

Charles Burdett (Author)

Charles Burdett is Professor of Italian at the University of Bristol. The principal area of his research is the representation of intercultural contact in modern Italian literature and culture. He has written on literary culture in the 1920s and 1930s, travel and travel writing in Italy under Fascism, the history of Italian expansionism and the memory of colonialism. He is currently working on the AHRC-funded project «Transnationalizing Modern Languages: Mobility, Identity and Translation in Modern Italian Cultures».


Title: Italy, Islam and the Islamic World
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