Meet the Italian Imam With a Plan to Defeat Anti-Semitism

May 14, 2015  

Among the hundreds of participants at the 5th Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Imam Yahya Pallavicini cut an unlikely figure.

A scholarly and softly-spoken individual, Pallavicini is an influential leader in the Italian Muslim community. Apart from heading the Al-Wahid Mosque in Milan, he is Vice President of the Islamic Religious Community of Italy (known by its Italian acronym, COREIS), and serves as an adviser on Islamic Affairs to the Italian interior ministry.

Pallavicini is also a longtime counter-extremism activist, who has been battling the rise of Islamism within his own and the wider European Muslim community for many years. Given the prime role played by Muslim extremism in the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, his participation in the Forum provided an important perspective on how moderate Muslim scholars can be mobilized to undercut the narrative of “political Islam” that is fueling the hate.

It is a mark of recognition of his work that Pallavicini was invited personally by the foreign ministry to take part in the biennial conference.

Speaking to Arutz Sheva, he explained how in his view the rise of Islamism is being aided by the “narrow-mindedness” of many western leaders, who have naively sought to empower “soft” Islamist groups – such as the Muslim Brotherhood – in an attempt to weaken the draw of jihadist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.

It’s an approach which has long been criticized by counter-extremist groups throughout the west, who challenge that since 9/11 western governments have actually strengthened the hold of extremists over Muslim communities by assuming that if it’s not Al Qaeda (or ISIS), it’s “moderate.” In fact, in doing so they have simply helped construct an efficient conveyor belt to terrorism, giving legitimacy and even funding to nonviolent extremist groups to brainwash a new generation of European Muslims, an increasing number of whom then move on to commit acts of terrorism and other forms of violence, including anti-Semitism.

That poses a threat not only to European Jews, but to European civilization as a whole, Pallavicini warned.

“The purpose of being here is to strengthen our cooperation, because we are both challenged by this threat,” he explained. “There is no excuse for any kind of narrative that is just an alibi for violent extremism.”

“If anti-Semitism increases this is something which threatens to destroy the basis of civilization and religion at every level.”

But his opposition to anti-Semitism also comes from a recognition and appreciation of the theological and historical contribution played by Jews to both Muslim and European thought and civilization.

“As a Muslim theologian I believe that Judaism and the history and theology and doctrine of the Jews is part of my roots, part of my European citizenship, is part of my spiritual beliefs,” he said.

Pallavicini called on European leaders to recognize the threat before it’s too late.

“Radical Islam – or political Islam – is increasing prejudice and discrimination against Jews. But there is also a narrow-minded misinterpretation of European politicians where, in order to face the threat of ISIS for example, they legitimate the discourse of other radical groups,” he said.

“They say: let’s give legitimacy to the Muslim Brotherhood, or other political Islamic ideologies – which is wrong.”

He urged politicians to “avoid any kind of apologism” towards Islamism in any form, insisting that emboldening such an aggressive and anti-western movement “goes against the basics of civilization and dialogue.”

But he also said moderate Muslims need to do more to make their voices heard.

“On the other side, moderate Islam has a problem – it is too ‘moderate’!” Pallavicini lamented. “They are not outspoken enough to defend against and prevent Islamism.”

One of the main reasons for this is not necessarily a lack of will (many more moderate Muslims equally fear and resent the dominance of extremists within their communities), but to a large degree stems from “a lack of skills” to effectively compete with the well-organized and well-funded Islamist movements. 

To combat that problem, Pallavicini says young, educated Muslim leaders must step up to the plate to challenge the often unqualified but persuasive Islamist ideologues.

“We need authentic Muslim leaders, who know the roots of their own doctrine but also know how to implement that doctrine. Theologians with practical skills to engage with Jews and Christians to create a counter-narrative,” he said.

It’s a quest which takes up much of his time in Italy, where in his role as imam of Al-Wahid Mosque he is involved in training new Italian clerics.

“We need to train a new generation of leaders, preachers, believers from Muslim backgrounds and try to develop a consciousness of, as well as the skills to implement, an effective counter-narrative,” he stated. 

Furthermore, he said a “network” of moderate Muslims was required to challenge the vast network of Islamist groups which currently exist throughout Europe.

He also called on Jews and Christians, as well as Muslims, to move away from purely abstract “interfaith dialogue,” and focus as much or more so on practical strategies to combat extremism, including “creative programs which help prevent students being brainwashed by ideological extremism.”

Interfaith activities are often utilized by Islamist groups to get the best of both worlds: engaging in benign, meaningless talks with other faith groups in exchange for government funds and legitimacy in the name of “interfaith activities,” while simultaneously continuing to peddle their messages of hate within their own communities.

In that regard, non-Muslim community leaders have a responsibility as well to insist on only sharing platforms with true moderates, he cautioned.

“The only way to engage in positive and wise policies is to give and share platforms with authentic religious leaders, and not those who are using religion for their own personal or political legitimacy.”

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