Muslims in the West and the rise of the new populists: The case of Italy

Muslims hold Friday prayers in front of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy October 21, 2016, to protest against the closure of unlicensed mosques.  REUTERS/Tony Gentile - D1BEUIGTQKAA
Editor's note:

This working paper is part of a multi-year Brookings project—”The One Percent Problem: Muslims in the West and the Rise of the New Populists.” Other papers in the series are available here.


  1. Contextualizing religion and immigration in Italy
  2. The League and Italian populism
  3. The Five Star Movement and Italian populism
  4. Conclusion

The February 2013 parliamentary elections represented a “shock” for Italian politics. Italian citizens punished the traditional mainstream political parties and elected the youngest parliament to date. The striking swing in the Italian voter party preferences is reflected in the highest rate of electoral volatility in the country’s history. This political earthquake brought about the success of a new populist party, the Five Star Movement (M5S) which obtained 25.6 percent of the vote. While populist parties have experienced important breakthroughs in other Western European countries, none matched the impressive performance of M5S. The 2018 elections confirmed this trend: M5S increased its vote share to 32 percent. Meanwhile, the right-wing populist party, the League (formerly as the Northern League, re-branded as the League in 2018), claimed an unprecedented 17 percent of the vote. After long negotiations, the two populist parties ultimately joined forces to implement a shared agenda of an “all-populist” government. This intensified a number of concerns about a Eurosceptic turn by the Eurozone’s third largest economy.

This paper aims to illustrate the characteristics and the evolution of right and left-wing populism through the prism of its relationship with Islam and Muslims in Italy. The Italian case offers unique insight into populism in Europe as it reveals how both right-wing and left-wing populism have become increasingly successful in recent years, even to the point of gaining national power. Explanations for this shift are many. According to some scholars, if support for populist parties has steadily increased since 1980 in all European countries, “the 2009-2012 double-dip recession and the ongoing refugee crisis have helped…populist parties gain momentum.” However, other scholars point to cultural factors. In this reading, the rise of populist parties is a “silent revolution” mobilized by a wide range of rapid cultural changes that have eroded the values and customs of Western societies. This report draws on a combination of primary and secondary data, including interviews with members and representatives of Italy’s populist parties, to investigate those and other explanations. It finds that public officials and supporters of the two populist parties currently governing Italy—the somewhat left-of-center M5S and the right-wing populist League—advance different diagnoses of the relationship between “native Italians” and Muslim minorities, with M5S’s being much more tolerant and less xenophobic and chauvinist than that of the League. Nevertheless, they share a kind of law-and-order mentality that—in effect if not in intent—makes their prognoses quite convergent.

In this report, I will first contextualize the Italian case and the nature of the country’s issues surrounding religion and immigration. Secondly, I will focus on how the Five Star Movement addresses questions around Islam and Muslims. In the third section, the League and Muslim-related issues will be addressed. In the conclusion, I will reflect on similarities and differences between the two parties. Researchers often disagree on how to define, categorize, and label populist parties, and the term is often misused and abused in public discourse. Moreover, European populists have become increasingly diversified, since both “left-wing” and “right-wing” organizations have gained visibility in the aftermath of the migration    crisis.

There are three sets of traditional explanations for the rise of populist parties: the crisis of representative democracy; socio-economic dislocation; and a “culture clash” resulting from globalization and migration. Immigration and religion are central to the latter, although the division between “natives” and “non-natives” is equally crucial to understanding the role of welfare chauvinism, where cultural and economic grievances interact and amplify each other. While classifying the League as a right-wing populist party is widely accepted, categorizing M5S on the left-right continuum is much more controversial. Broadly recognized as a populist party within a context of “mutating populism,” M5S has been characterized both as a left-wing and right-wing, sometimes hybrid, populist party.

Complicating any categorization is the fact that M5S adopts varying positions across policy issues which defy the traditional left-right axis. For instance, M5S generally advocates for greater state intervention in the economy and for the introduction of new welfare provisions to cope with long-term unemployment. The “flagship” proposal of M5S in both the 2013 and 2018 elections was the reddito di cittadinanza, a conditional cash-transfer to families living below the relative poverty line. M5S generally holds progressive positions on issues like LGTBQ’s rights and abortion, although they are not central to the party’s identity. At the same time, the party tends to support anti-union policies (unions are invariably viewed as “castes enjoying unjustified privileges”) while its positions on law and order tend to be more slippery. M5S’ “core values”— the struggle against corruption and respect for the law—are used to attack powerful economic actors are also sometimes deployed in more culturally reactionary ways.

With these complexities in mind, for the purpose of this report, I will consider M5S a left-wing party or an inclusive populist party—but with important qualifications. This paper explores Italian populism in greater detail and aims to unpack what populism means in Italy, and the degree to which religion and immigration have contributed to its remarkable growth. More specifically, it draws on various primary and secondary data—party manifestos, speeches, public statements, and interviews —to assess the extent to which concerns around Islam and Muslims are present in the parties’ past and present agendas and political discourse.

Contextualizing Religion and Immigration in Italy

As for any other political actor, the political behavior of right-wing and left-wing populist parties varies considerably depending on context. Therefore, it is worth considering briefly the idiosyncratic nature of the Italian context to better understand how M5S and the League approach religion and immigration. How salient are Islam, Muslims, and religion writ large, in the public and political debate in Italy? More specifically, to what extent have questions around Islam, Muslims, and the role of religion in public life grown into divisive electoral issues—and perhaps the most divisive electoral issue—in recent years as well as in the longer term?

When it comes to religious and cultural controversies, Italy represents a paradigmatic case for two reasons.

When it comes to religious and cultural controversies, Italy represents a paradigmatic case for two reasons. First, the crucial role the Vatican and an embedded cultural of Catholicism plays in national politics. Second, there are favorable and relatively new opportunities, for right-wing populist mobilization because Italy did not experience significant immigration until the 1990s, which meant that citizens and politicians alike found themselves “unprepared.” The country’s geographical position further fueled xenophobic rhetoric portraying the recent arrival of refugees on its coasts as an “out-of-control situation” or even an “invasion.” As noted above, public controversies regarding the secular-religious divide have long been embedded in Italian politics. These controversies include debates on end-of-life care, religious education in schools, mosque construction, and Muslim dress. For example, ten years prior to the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack, the original Mohammad cartoons published in JyllandsPosten were reprinted in several Italian newspapers, including La Padania, the official newspaper of the Northern League, as well as in mainstream outlets such as, La Stampa and La Repubblica.

Virtually no figure of any prominence explicitly supported or sympathized with the violence against either Charlie Hebdo or JyllandsPosten. Yet, the controversy ignited the emergence of two opposing camps: supporters claimed that the publication was a legitimate exercise of free speech, underlying the freedom of the press to question religious values and rules, whereas critics questioned the misuses of this freedom, describing the cartoons as Islamophobic, blasphemous, and offensive. The debate intensified when an Italian priest was murdered in Turkey, presumably in reaction to the publication of the cartoons. The crisis reached its peak in February 2006 when a mob attacked the Italian consulate in Benghazi in reaction to the reproduction of the cartoons on a t-shirt worn by the Northern Leagues’ Roberto Calderoli on national television. Therefore, when considering the intersection of populism and Islam in Italy, we are dealing with issues that are not only deeply embedded in recent Italian politics but that are also at the heart of Italian right-wing politics. However, they are no longer solely of or by the right wing.

Over the last 15 years, mainstream parties on both the left and right have become more aligned on immigration issues, converging toward a so called “securitization of immigration issues.” In this sense, on migration, nationalism, and religion, the radical right has increasingly shaped the agenda, with issues around identity and culture—framed, for example, in terms of the “Islamization of Europe”—migrating from the far-right to the center. According to a 2016 Eurostat survey, 45 percent of respondents in 28 countries including the UK, chose “immigration” as one of the two most important issues facing the EU, immediately followed by terrorism at 32 percent. In the same survey, 49 percent of the Italian respondents (more than the EU average and the other Mediterranean countries respectively) selected “immigration” as their number one priority, while “terrorism” ranked fourth after “unemployment” and “economic situation” (arguably due to the absence of terrorist attacks in Italy, as well as to a direr economic situation).

Italy has been a key point of access for immigrants, while countries like the Netherlands are among the favored countries for eventual destination. According to official Italian statistics, there are 1,400,000 Muslims in Italy (2.3 percent of the population), making up almost one-third of Italy’s foreign population (250,000 have acquired Italian citizenship). Immigration has become a central political issue, as reports of incoming boats of illegal immigrants (or clandestini) dominate news programs, especially in the summertime. Although illegal immigrants form a minority of Muslims in Italy, illegal immigrants do overwhelmingly come from Muslim countries, helping to propel Islam as “an issue” in contemporary Italy. This situation has been used by some political parties to fuel popular anger against immigration, and more specifically illegal immigration. Indeed, “perception matters.” In the particular context of Italy—after the refugee crisis in a country already shaken by challenging economic circumstances—negative perceptions and attitudes against immigrants increased significantly. Before 2008, less than 40 percent of the population considered immigrants a threat, compared to more than 70 percent in 2016. Conceptualizing the immigrant as enemy can pay off electorally.

The League and Italian Populism

Concerns around Islam and Muslims have figured ever prominently in the League’s agenda, but this hasn’t always been the case. Over time, there have been significant changes in how the League defines the “other.” The League which has long combined regionalism with radical right populism faced a major internal crisis in 2012 over the corruption scandals of its leader Umberto Bossi and his family. In 2013, Bossi lost the internal party elections against Matteo Salvini, who received 82 percent of the votes. Since then, the League has entered a new phase, and has rapidly moved closer to the populist party ideal, as even the change of the party’s name—from Northern League to League—makes evident. Once an ethno-regionalist and even secessionist party, the League is now a nationalist party appealing to the entire country. Salvini clearly and definitively identifies just the EU (and the euro in particular) and migrants as the enemy, while abandoning the anti-Southern Italy rhetoric. In October 2014, the League organized a high-profile march with “stop invasion” as its main slogan.

The interviews conducted for this paper reflect this change. To justify the party’s hard ideological turn, one supporter explained, “Veneto [a region in Northeastern Italy], if it were an independent state, could compete against the Ruhr. But now, when we have a situation where [European nation-states] are fighting each other through the mechanisms of the Eurozone, if Sicily dies then also Veneto will die because we are in that same black box called Italy.” The same interviewee argued, “Islamic penetration in Italy is financed, is planned from above…by the Gulf states, by rich Islamic countries. Otherwise, they would host the refugees, but they aim to change the demography of our societies.” Similarly, the leader of the League in Veneto argued, “the West is damaged by a silent invasion…Immigration is something planned to dilute our local identities. France is the example: a multi-ethnic, multicultural, and multi-problematic country.”

National Identity and Nationhood

In the political discourse and policies of the League, an exclusive conception of ‘people’ figures prominently. The League uses an ethnonational definition to describe the in-group and the people that the party wants to defend and represent (the Italian people, the nation, the country) and those deemed to be enemies of the party and the state (all defined in terms of identity and culture as non-Italians, non-Europeans, non-Christians). This dichotomy is even stronger vis-a-vis Muslim immigrants, who are seen as endorsing a culture completely different from both Italy’s and Europe’s, going as far back as the League’s party manifestos for the 2004 and 2009 European elections. In addition to immigrants, Turkey is a recurring enemy in the League’s worldview.

For instance, one interviewee claimed, “[You just have to look at] public declarations by leaders like Erdogan…They want to do what they did in Kosovo. At the end of the nineteenth century, five percent of the population was Albanian. Both Albanians and Serbs are not peaceful peoples, I admit, but after a few decades the proportion was the opposite.” He also stated that “a Muslim cannot swear on our Constitution, because…he can lie, his religion allows him to lie if it is in the service of spreading Islam.” Another representative of the League argued that “the EU gave six billion euros to Erdogan to stop the migrants before they entered Germany, but the EU did not finance Italy.” Adding that “fifteen years ago we hosted a community of Argentine migrants, but they were like us, they are Catholic. Now the Muslims are coming. I have nothing against them, but they dress as they want, [I just pretend] they are adapting to our rules.”

Almost all interviewees agree on the incompatibility between Muslim and Italian identities. Apart from a single exception in which an interviewee said, “you can be both Islamic and Italian, but you cannot be both Italian and Islamist,” the statements are generally more straightforward in their focus on Islam, the religion. One representative of the League stated, “the first word that comes to my mind when I hear ‘Islam’ is ‘terror’” adding that “from a legal point of view, you can be both Islamic and Italian, but from an identitarian point of view, surely not,…Italy is not a fully secular country, Catholicism is the main faith of the country…you cannot be fully an Italian citizen if you have not been baptized.”

At the same time, nearly all interviewees report either being agnostic, atheist, or do not attend religious services. Neither do they share most of the public positions of the Catholic Church. The League’s electorate in fact shares the low regular religious service attendance rates of the general Italian population at 20 percent, compared to 63 percent among Muslims. “Belonging without believing” is one way of understanding their relationship with Catholicism. Muslims, meanwhile, are “people who are many centuries away from us.” Nevertheless, this does not imply that secularization is seen as an unqualified good, since “Catholicism has left some enduring lessons, which are now part of the common sense, of the good sense” (“Revolution of Good Sense” is one of Salvini’s electoral slogans). In short, Italy provides an example of cultural appropriation of “Catholic heritage,” without necessarily sincere belief and with strong positions against the Catholic Church, which is seen as a “hypocritical” institution “detached from the people,” particularly because of its more open positions on immigration.

Xenophobic attitudes had already been on the rise at the time the Northern League decided to become a national party, rather than a regional one, and shift its definition of the “other,” placing immigrants in opposition to the Italian people. In fact, Italy had already been exposed to large-scale migratory flows before 2015 (e.g. the end of the 1990s). This partly explains why the Northern League denounced a “boom” of arrivals to Italian shores in 2013 and framed immigration as an urgent national security issue. At first, the Northern League asserted the need for increased cooperation between European police forces and border patrol units, though independently from Brussels. Somewhat inconsistently, the Northern League later blamed the EU for being ineffective in managing non-EU immigration, proposing to counter illegal immigration “at the source,” claiming that the onus should rest on the EU. The party further demanded substantial revisions to the Dublin III Regulation, which maintains that asylum applications be processed in the EU country of entry.

The issue of immigration and security gained new impetus with the rise of the Islamic State and the Paris attacks of January 2015, in whose wake the Northern League’s populist Euroscepticism appeared both legitimate and prescient. The migrant crisis of 2015 served to bridge the issue of security—first crime, now terrorism—with immigration.


Exclusionary populist parties, such as the League, tend to launch platforms and initiatives emphasizing the necessity of “protecting,” above all, the natives to the detriment of universal welfare programs that also include immigrant residents who are not citizens. One such slogan is “prima gli italiani” (Italians must come first), echoing President Trump’s “America first.”

Several statements by party activists and members exemplify support for forms of welfare chauvinism. For instance, an interviewee from Tuscany argued, “living together peacefully among Italians and migrants would be good if we enjoyed the same rights and the same duties. Instead, foreigners enjoy [easier access] to public services, to housing, to services like daycare… I think that in Italy there are many forms of discrimination, but it is the Italians who are discriminated [against].” The League leader in Veneto is even more forthright arguing that “[under current conditions like high unemployment], there is not any scenario in which immigration is acceptable. Immigration deserves to be called “immigration” when social integration occurs, and social integration is based on the status of the worker.”

The Relationship Between the Majority and Minority

As a right-wing populist party, the League accuses Western governments of being excessively deferential to immigrant cultures, thus posing a threat to the Italian nation and its traditions. Some interviewees are particularly emphatic when arguing about how migrants, particularly Muslim migrants, should behave in their host country with one stating, “we have to behave like Christians. We have to respect them, but when you arrive in a country, you have to come to me hat in hand. Nevertheless, most League representatives and members interviewed have an “assimilationist” approach regarding immigrants in general and Muslims in particular. For example, the leader of the League in Veneto argued, “they have to understand that here we have certain rules, and that they have to obey such rules. You don’t like the nativity scene? I don’t care, it’s your problem. There is no possible integration for you. Integration is for Christians, not for Muslims.”

Future of EU Integration and Identity

In 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, the League endorsed the Hungarian government’s decision to close its borders and build a fence. This was congruent with the party’s aspiration to defend nation states against the diktats of EU bureaucrats and to prevent “the death of the European culture.” For example, a provincial party leader in Tuscany argued, “Europe should serve to help the nation states, but this is clearly not the case… The integration process started on the right note. It was a cultural union of different traditions respecting each other, of cooperation [but it evolved in the wrong way]. I don’t like homogeneity, I am for respecting local traditions.” Yet a League activist from Veneto, the Northern region where regional sentiments are particularly strong, expressed this desire for cultural pluralism differently, “I am for a Europe of the Peoples, not of the States… I don’t even like Italy because there is not any Italian ethnicity. We are different hearts in different territories.”

The Five Star Movement and Italian Populism

In our interviews, diversity of opinion within the Five Star Movement became evident. Further, at times, we noticed significant gaps between the party’s official position and the attitudes of interviewees on topics in question.

The Ethnic vs. Juridical Nation

The story of M5S tends to start with comedian and actor Beppe Grillo, who co-founded the party in 2009. Grillo has increasingly adopted nativist and exclusionary stances on immigration. These positions, articulated on his blog, liken, to a reasonable extent, M5S to the explicitly right-wing League. Grillo began addressing the “taboo” of immigration as early as 2006, denouncing the perils of importing migrant labor and the social disruption it brought. The following year, Grillo said, “A country cannot burden its citizens with the problems caused by tens of thousands of Roma that come to Italy from Romania…This is a volcano, a time bomb. It needs to be dismantled. A moratorium could have been adopted for Romania…What’s a government that does not guarantee security for its citizens? What does it control?…Once the borders of the Patria were sacred, politicians have desecrated them.”

In terms of national identity, most of the M5S members interviewed demonstrated a strong inclination towards nationalism, very often characterized in terms of culture. The statement “we are Italians” often arose during interviews, with one M5S Member of Parliament stating, “For me, the national identity is primarily a cultural one.” He also noted that “our national culture is influenced by our religious culture. This isn’t necessarily all positive, as our public institutions should be more secularized…at the same time, it is not necessarily a bad thing, as religion is a source of important values.” The question of “values” is a challenging one since culture, ethnicity, and nationality are intertwined in complex ways. One interviewee, for example, claimed that “being Italian means to be carriers of democratic values, first of all, and also carriers of culture, as we are the heirs of ancient cultures that deeply marked the broader Western culture.”

Furthermore, when asked if they identify primarily as European, Italian, or with their region, they primarily answer “Italian” or “regional,” and only secondarily as “European.” As one M5S put it, “I feel Venetian, first of all, then Italian, and then European.”

Unlike League supporters, immigration is not equated with terrorism or criminal activity according to most M5S activists interviewed. For example, one stated that, “I do not care about immigration because of its supposed link with terrorism. It is true that, if you do not control immigration, as has happened in parts of Belgium or France, you will have problems, like drug trafficking. However, the issue is much broader and more complex.” Importantly, the M5S interviewees emphasize that immigrants have “rights,” in stark contrast with interviewees from the League, who unanimously stressed that immigrants should have “duties, not rights.” As M5S activists and officials see it, the problem is not immigration per se, but rather that it is not well regulated by Italian law. For example, a M5S MP stresses that “we should understand we are facing a war between poor peoples…I think that the refugees should have the possibility of working.” In fact, on the topic of “immigration,” the gap between some of the members of the movement and the official position of the party is significant. As one M5S MP told me, “Here I am quite a critic of our own government. The topic is not that important, and…the topic should not be treated as if it was an emergency. Unfortunately, treating every phenomenon as an emergency is one of the worst Italian traits.”

However, the new leader of the M5S, Luigi Di Maio, particularly since joining the League in the “all-populist” government, has underlined his party’s strict position on immigration and citizenship. As he declared recently during an interview, “In Italy we risk providing immigrants with a ‘pull factor’ if we issue a new law on ‘citizenship’ which is too flexible.”


As in the case of the League, the question of illegal immigration in M5S rhetoric predates Europe’s refugee crisis, yet it became more central to the party’s positioning once the issue became a defining public concern. Beginning in 2015, M5S repeatedly referred to Italy as the “refugee camp of Europe.”

However, within the M5S, opinions differ over the rights immigrants should enjoy. According to some of interviewees, the “basic income guarantee” policy (reddito di cittadinanza) should exclude immigrants. For instance, as one representative said, “We should ensure that migrants do not come to Italy just to receive economic benefits like our reddito di cittadinanza. However, for most of the interviewees, the definition of citizenship is neither ethnic nor identitarian, but rather primarily civic and legal. For example, an M5S mayor reports that “I grant five, six new citizenships per month, and I like it very much. I am very proud of it.  All of them are nice people and often I personally know them, since this is a small town.” Similarly, another interviewee stressed that “[immigration is an acceptable phenomenon when we guarantee] some order and some rules in how its managed, instead of the current chaos.” In the same vein, regarding ius soli (right of the soil),  which has been highly debated recently in Italy and within the Italian parties, a M5S MP said that “this is a false dilemma. Children’s rights must be always, always guaranteed.”

As we saw, immigration and restrictive notions of citizenship increasingly entered M5S discourse starting in 2012. Beppe Grillo, for example, used the long-standing Italian debate over ius soli, framing it in terms of opposition to the “liberalization of births.” Others in M5S by contrast, are less restrictive on immigration than the the co-founders or current leader of the movement, and think that religion should not be linked with immigration. For example, a M5S activist explained, “in my opinion, it is not religion but the absence of rule-of-law that makes integration more difficult…A few effective rules would permit everyone to live together without major problems. The important thing is to follow common sense and to behave accordingly. What do you care about the God someone prays to in her room or in a place of worship?” In fact, when asked which rights migrants should enjoy, many M5S interviewees answered, “the same rights as us, with the respective duties;” all of them agree that the true integration of the children born in Italy from foreign parents can be achieved through public education and their own full inclusion in local communities.

Even if citizenship is still something to be “achieved”—as opposed to a birthright— there is no reference to any self-evident cultural or ethnic requirement. Most interviewees refer to United Nations declarations, including the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to make a universalist argument for their claims. However, when asked about the Western influence over these norms, they either acknowledge some “Eurocentrism” or more often, interviewees argue that “we are talking about common sense.” But where does this common sense come from, and what makes it common? A mixture of naivete and paternalism comes out in their arguments that “We always have to protect children’ rights,” even if current Italian law makes it difficult for minors born in Italy to foreign citizens to acquire Italian citizenship.

M5S activists also emphasize “respect of the law,” which has the effect of making their concrete policy proposals more in line with League’s exclusionary posture, even if M5S members neither share, nor express, the same explicitly nativist attitudes of their League government coalition partners. It seems then that, despite their brand of “naïf universalism” quite at odds with founder Grillo’s own declarations, there is more overlap between the two parties than it may initially appear on migration issues. In a peculiar “movement party” such as the M5S, where some autonomy at the local level coincides with strong party discipline enforced by a small elite close to the party’s founder, this creates an internal tension as well as a degree of strategic incoherence.

The Relationship Between Majority and Minority Populations in a Democracy

The growing centrality of immigration in Italian politics was further exacerbated by the 2015 refugee crisis and the threat of the Islamic State. As aforementioned, according to Grillo, Italy has turned into “the waiting room of the miserable” and an “immense refugee camp.” Therefore, all illegal immigrants should be repatriated. In August 2015, Grillo posted a four-point policy proposal on his blog, arguing for cutting down residence permits for humanitarian reasons; establishing an efficient system for forced repatriation when asylum applications are rejected; establishing a specific procedure for the resolution of appeals to the rejection of these applications; and closer surveillance of refugees. The substantive content of Grillo’s proposal would normally fit within the “law and order” and nativist framing of exclusionary populist parties across Europe.

However, when speaking with representatives and members of the party, a picture quite different from the official one emerges, where, in daily life, pluralism becomes both possible and desirable on the local level. For example, an M5S mayor who I asked about the differences between Western and Islamic values stressed that in his city, “I know several Muslim families. I got along with them, and I still get along with them, men, women…[Muslim] women are valorized here, they are not relegated into some dark room…Our municipality organizes Italian language courses, many people participate, and we encourage them to actively participate in the life of the community.” Similarly, another interviewee said, “I personally know people from different Arab countries that are surely not [extremist]…It is the individual that matters. If they follow common sense and show respect, things work well whatever the specific faith.”

This, however, does not necessarily imply “cultural assimilation.” “Here, it is a matter of a civic, pluralistic living together and of respect for the rules of the country you live in.” What this means in concrete policy terms is less clear, and this is where there remains a significant gap in the M5S approach, and a broad misrecognition of the structural and cultural complexities of integration. As already stressed above, “it is the specific person that matters.” A good summary of M5S’ “post-ideology” is how the emphasis on empowering citizens is always accompanied by calls for their (individual) assumption of responsibilities and for respecting the law whatever one’s own cultural origins.

Future of EU Integration and Identity

The core of M5S criticism on immigration revolves around the Dublin Regulation signed by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the League in 2013—a leitmotiv of the migrant crisis.

M5S has repeatedly proposed to redirect humanitarian aid toward the countries of departure to lift the burden imposed on countries of first arrival. The party further criticizes EU institutions for their stalemate over decision making as well as  the selfishness of member states who arbitrarily decided to suspend the Schengen Agreement (the 1985 treaty which led to the creation of Europe’s Schengen Area, in which internal border checks have largely been abolished). According to Di Maio, Grillo’s successor as the M5S leader, “If today in Italy the immigration issue is a hot topic, it is because of the 80 percent of immigrants who pass though Italy but then cannot not go in Europe, because of the Dublin agreement, which imposes that they stop in the country of first arrival, signed by the Northern League and the Democratic party[otherwise known as Partito Democratico, the social-democrats].” Along similar lines, one interviewee stated that “the current EU policy is widely lacking, and this is one main reason for the negative popular perceptions toward migration. If we desire and think about a European community where the people, through nation-state institutions but also through direct elections, find some agreements and a way to promote their interests—if we want this, I have to admit that we are experiencing huge failures, particularly and sadly on social issues. We have been able to build a strong control over banking system stability, but from a social point of view, we completely lack solidarity. Labor rights, taxation, and fiscal policies are not unified, and on migration issues…well, we witnessed some embarrassing examples. The European countries, with few exceptions, simply refuse to host even a minimum percentage of refugees.” Similarly, as a national representative of the M5S expressed, “The [European] political class promises a lot of things, but it did not do anything concrete…Italy has been left alone.”

In reaction to the EU’s stalemate and lack of a unified position, the M5S, as we saw earlier, proposed to restrict the issuance of residence permits on humanitarian grounds, introducing a system of forced repatriation and increasing the surveillance of asylum seekers. More recently, the M5S has also criticized the EU for the migrant agreement sealed with the Turkish government. However, from the interviews with M5S local representatives and activists, a slightly different picture emerges on the possibility of integrating different cultures in Europe. For example, to the question “could Europe still be called ‘Europe’ if it were not mostly white and Christian anymore,” a local party politician answered that this would be possible, “I think yes, since Europe has a history spanning millennia. I think it is impossible that the European culture will be destroyed, as it is able to absorb different cultures. Yes, we should be careful with the migration fluxes. At the same time, I notice that, in my town, people from Islamic, Asian, and African countries have been able to integrate, to embrace the local culture. This is an example that should be followed everywhere in Europe…Immigration in Europe brings a cultural enrichment…Our culture is not necessarily either superior or perfect…We should take into consideration each person, individually, not ‘peoples.’”

In sum, concerns about Muslims are either not strongly present, or they figure mainly “covertly” among M5S political representatives and activists, through references to culture, demographics, immigration, and particularly, the role of the EU as an enabler of immigration.

On the one hand, when asked about Islam and Muslim immigrants, most M5S interviewees tend to express a universalist vision, which views Islam as potentially compatible with other religions, and do not see any inherent contradiction between Islam and Western values. For example, one M5S representative said “it is possible to be at the same time Italian and Muslim … If you respect both the rights and the duties of the citizens, being Christian, Buddhist, or Confucian makes no difference.” A M5S activist even declared that “I am quite sympathetic with Muslim peoples, they have a stronger religiosity than us, something that I personally feel even if I am not Catholic at all.”

On the other hand, when discussing other issues, such as gender, interviewees tend to express that some contradictions between Islam and Western values actually do exist and express caution regarding the political involvement of Muslims. For example, when asked if Muslim representatives should have the right to take part in local public institutions, an interviewee replied “yes, if we are talking about Muslim citizens forming part of political parties to be elected into public institutions.” When asked about his opinion regarding Muslim minorities in Europe, a M5S member replied, “I do not know any Muslim community from within, I merely know individual Muslim citizens… I do not think they are dangerous. Nevertheless, I do not think that they are particularly open towards their host country.” Another interviewee stressed, “yes, we are different obviously. We cannot avoid noticing it … for example, over gender issues. This is one of the problems we have to deal with.” Most of the interviewees insisted on the need for law (and partly order) and clear immigration regulations that would avoid the dangers relating to immigration (like crime) or radicalization (in the case of Muslims). Regarding Muslim minorities in Italy, one M5S interviewee said, “Any kind of immigration brings some risks, terrorism is not the main danger…However, it is important to ensure that the official religious ceremonies are held in Italian in order to better control them.”


What follows is a brief comparison of the two populist parties on key dimensions relating to immigration and Muslim and Islam in Italy.

When reflecting on the public statements, party manifestos, and interviews with members and officials, we also need to consider the impact that the growing prominence—and political power—of right-wing and ambiguously left-wing populist parties will have on Muslim integration in Italy. For the first time, Italy has an “all populist government,” which means that immigration policies and related issues like welfare and citizenship, will be increasingly shaped and determined by populist parties with the views discussed in this paper. For example, on the hotly debated issue of the basic income guarantee (reddito di cittadinanza), who exactly can and should benefit from the policy is still contested, particularly within M5S. More generally, the unprecedented development of the election of populists to power prompts the following questions: what does the presence of these parties and their effect on rhetoric and policy in public debate mean for the relationship between liberalism and democracy? To what extent can largely liberal democracies accommodate increasing levels of actual (and potential) illiberalism emanating from democratically-elected populist parties?

The European antifascist tradition of pluralism and minority protections (and a strong state role in guaranteeing these protections) and the American tradition of civil liberties and individual rights, such as freedom of speech—including the freedom of hateful speech—are both at stake. In this respect, it is worth noting that populism can benefit from a self-conceived crisis like Islam’s “invasion” of Europe. Moreover, it can be understood as “a performer of the crisis.” Put differently, rather than being a reaction to a pre-existing crisis, populist actors construct specific failures that resonate with the popular experience and transform them into perceived crises. What the electoral success and government participation of such populist parties will mean for the health of democracy, and the place of Muslim minorities, will depend on their definition of the “people” and the “other.”

Table 1. Summary of Islam/Muslims and Populism in Italy

Concerns around Islam/Muslims explicit in the party agenda Concerns around Islam/Muslim “covert” 

Favorable/Open “discursive opportunities” (i.e., on Islam, Muslims, role of religion divisive in public life and electoral arena)


Institutional design influential on populist parties and Islam/Muslims


National identity /nationhood (ethnic vs. juridical) 


Citizenship (identitarian/cultural vs. civic)


Relationship between majority and minority populations 



x x Ethnic



Disregarding minority rights
5SM x x





s ethnic)

Mainly civic (but sometimes cultural) Mainly pluralism



  • Footnotes
    1. Gianfranco Pasquino, “Italy: The Triumph of Personalist Parties,”Politics and Policy 42, no.4 (August 2014): 548-566,
    2.  Filippo Tronconi, “Introduction,” in Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. Organisation, Communication and Ideology, (Farnham, UK: Ashagate, 2015), 1-7. 
    3.  Andrea Pirro, “The polyvalent populism of the 5 Star Movement,” Journal of Contemporary European Studies 26, no.4 (2018): 443-458,
    4. Ibid.
    5.  Giovanni Caccavello and Cecilia Sandell, “Timbro Authoritarian Populism Index 2017: A Summary,” (Brussels: European Policy Information Center), , 1.
    6.  Piero Ignazi, “The Silent Counter-Revolution,” European Journal of Political Research 22, no.1 (July 1992):3-34.
    7.  Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, “Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash,” Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP16-026 (August 2016): 30.
    8. Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist,” Government and Opposition 39, no. 4 (2004): 541–63, doi:10.1111/j.1477-7053.2004.00135.x.
    9.  Manuela M. Caiani, “Populism/populist movements,” in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements, eds. David A Snow, Donatella Della Porta, Bert Klandermans, and Doug McAdam (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 990-4.
    10. Sonia Alonso and Cristóbal Rovita Kaltwasser, “Spain: No Country for the Populist Radical Right?”  South European Politics & Society 20, no.1 (2015): 21-45.
    11.  E.g., Paul Taggart, Populism (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2000).
    12. European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession, eds. Hanspeter Kriesi and Takis S. Pappas, (Colchester: ECPR Press, 2015).
    13. Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, “Trump, Brexit, and the rise of Populism,” Paper presented at 2016 meeting of the American Political Science Association.
    14. E.g., Manuela Caiani and Nicolò Conti, “In the Name of the People: The Euroscepticism of the Italian Radical Right,” Perspectives on European Politics and Society 15 no. 2 (2014) 183-197,
    15.  Andrea Pirro, “The polyvalent populism of the 5 Star Movement.”
    16.  Davide Vittori, D, “Podemos and the Five-star Movement: populist, nationalist or what?” Contemporary Italian Politics 9 no.2 (2017): 142-161
    17. Enrico Padoan, “A LatinAmericanization of Southern Europe? Anti-Neoliberal Populisms in Comparative Perspective,” PhD diss., Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile, 2018.
    18.  See, Mosca and Tronconi, forthcoming, 2019.
    19.  Gattinara Castelli, “Framing Exclusion in the Public Sphere: Far-Right Mobilisation and the Debate on Charlie Hebdo in Italy,” South European Society and Politics 22, no.3 (2017). 
    20. Ibid.
    21.  Ibid.
    22. Lasse Lindekilde, “In the Name of the Prophet? Danish Muslim Mobilization During the Muhammad Caricatures Controversy,” Mobilization: An International Quarterly 13, no. 2 (June 2008): 219-238.
    23.  Gattinara P. Castelli, “Framing Exclusion in the Public Sphere: Far-Right Mobilisation and the Debate on Charlie Hebdo in Italy.”
    24.  Ibid.
    25. Tiziana Caponio, Città italiane e immigrazione. Discorso pubblico e politiche a Milano, Bologna e Napoli, (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2006).
    26. Manuela Caiani and Donatella della Porta, “The Elitist Populism of the Extreme Right: A Frame Analysis of Extreme Right-Wing Discourses in Italy and Germany,” Acta Politica 46, no.2 (April 2011):180-202, 10.1057/ap.2010.28.
    27. European Commission, “Standard Eurobarometer 86” (Autumn 2016),
    28.  Andrea Pirro and Stijn van Kessel, “Populist Eurosceptic trajectories in Italy and the Netherlands during the European crises,” Politics 38, no.3, (2018): 327–343,
    29. Fondazione Ismu – Iniziative e Studi sulla Multietnicità, “Immigrazione in Italia 2016: i numeri dell’appartenenza religiosa,”, July 18, 2016.,ondazione ISMU,   s., (ECPR Press, Colchester, 2015). 201
    30. Paolo Graziano, Neopopulismi, (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2018).
    31. European Commission, “Standard Eurobarometer 86.” 
    32. Manuela Caiani and Paolo Graziano, “Understanding varieties of populism in times of crises,” West European Politics 42 no. 6 (2019): 1141-1158, 
    33. E.g., Andrej Zaslove,The Re-invention of the European Radical Right: Populism, Regionalism, and the Italian Lega Nord (Montreal; Kingston; London; Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011). 
    34. Manuela Caiani and Paolo Graziano, “Understanding varieties of populism in times of crises.”
    35.  Author’s interview with League activist and former local executive, Vittorio Veneto, Treviso, October 9, 2018. 
    36.  E.g., Manuela Caiani and Donatella della Porta, “The Elitist Populism of the Extreme Right: A Frame Analysis of Extreme Right-Wing Discourses in Italy and Germany;” Cas Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). 
    37. Manuela Caiani and Paolo Graziano, “Varieties of Populism: Insights from the Italian Case,” Italian Political Science Review 46, no. 2 (2016): 243-267.
    38.  Author’s interview with League activist and former local executive, Miatto Toni.
    39. Author’s interview with League political representative, September 21, 2018.
    40. Author’s interview with provincial political League representative, Segretario Massa Carrara Andrea Cella, Skype, November 16, 2018.
    41. Author’s interview with League representative of Assessore del comune di Cascina, Elena Meini, Skype, November 22, 2018.  
    42.  See, Gianluca Passarelli and Dario Tuorto, “The meanings of party membership. A comparison of three parties,” Contemporary Italian Politics 10, no.2 (2018):170-192,
    43. Author’s interview with League activist and former local executive, Miatto Toni.
    44.  Author’s interview with provincial political League representative, Segretario Massa Carrara Andrea Cella.
    45.  E.g., Author’s interview with League political representative, September 21, 2018.
    46.  Paolo Graziano, Neopopulismi.
    47. Northern League, “EU electoral manifesto,” 2014a: 29.
    48. Northern League, “EU electoral manifesto,” 2014a:11.
    49.  Northern League, internal document, 2015a: 14.
    50. Andrea Pirro and Stijn van Kessel, “Populist Eurosceptic trajectories in Italy and the Netherlands during the European crises,” Politics 38 no.3 (2018): 327–343: 335,
    51.  Ibid.
    52. Paolo Graziano, Neopopulismi.
    53.  Author’s interview with League representative and Councilor of the municipality of Cascina, Elena Meini.
    54. Author’s interview with League political representative, September 21, 2018.
    55. Author’s interview with League national political representative, Segretario nazionale per il Veneto Da Re Toni, Rome, September 19, 2018.
    56.  Andrea Pirro and Stijn van Kessel, “Populist Eurosceptic trajectories in Italy and the Netherlands during the European crises.”
    57.  Author’s interview with provincial political League representative, Segretario Massa Carrara Andrea Cella .
    58.  Author’s interview with League activist and former local executive Miatto Toni.
    59.  Andrea Pirro and Stijn van Kessel, “Populist Eurosceptic trajectories in Italy and the Netherlands during the European crises.”
    60.  Ibid.
    61. Author’s interview with Five Star national political representative, former local Veneto politician, Skype, September 26, 2018.
    62. Author’s interview with Five Star national political representative Vanin Orietta, Skype, September 27, 2018.
    63. Author’s interview with Five Star local political representative, Mayor of Vigonovo Venezia Danieletto Alberto, Vigonovo, Venezia, October 19, 2018.
    64.  Author’s interview with Five Star national political representative, former local Veneto politician.
    65.  Author’s interview with Five Star national political representative Vanin Orietta.
    66.  Author’s interview with Five Star activist, Skype, September 28, 2019.
    67. La Repubblica, “Ius soli, Di Maio: ‘Strumento di propaganda’. Grillo: ‘Pastrocchio invotabile,’” June 17, 2017,
    68.  E.g., Beppe Grillo,“ Kabobo d’Italia,” Il Blog Di Beppe Grillo, Maggio 16, 2013,
    69.  Andrea Pirro, “The polyvalent populism of the 5 Star Movement.”
    70. Author’s interview with Five Star activist, Five Star Turin Meetup, Torino, October 26, 2018. See also: Author’s interview with Five Star local political representative, Consigliere comunale Scandicci Valerio Bencini, Firenze,  September 26, 2018; Author’s interview with Five Star activist Zelati Nicola, Scandicci Meetup, Firenze, September 26, 2018.
    71. Author’s interview with Five Star local political representative,  Mayor of Vigonovo, Venezia Danieletto Alberto.
    72. Author’s interview with Five Star activist, organizer of Vittorio Veneto Meetup, September 25, 2018, Treviso. 
    73. Author’s interview with Five Star national political representative Vanin Orietta.
    74.  The “Ius soli bill” aimed to grant Italian citizenship to all born on Italian soil, thus derogating the existing principle which gives citizenship only to those with Italian origins. The bill was actively backed by the center-left, overtly opposed by right-of-center parties, and initially supported—and then opposed, arguably in view of the 2018 general elections—by the M5S.
    75.  Andrea Pirro, “The polyvalent populism of the 5 Star Movement.”
    76.  Ibid.
    77.  E.g., Author’s interview with Five Star activist, organizer of Vittorio Veneto Meetup.
    78.  Author’s interview with Five Star activist, Skype, September 28, 2019.
    79.  Author’s interview with Five Star national political representative Vanin Orietta,
    80. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Italy, “Citizenship,”
    81.  Beppe Grillo, “Qualcosa è cambiato,” Il Blog Di Beppe Grillo, Ottobre 20, 2014,
    82.  Beppe Grillo, “Immigrati, Italia? No grazie,” Il Blog Di Beppe Grillo, Giugno 10, 2015,
    83.  Beppe Grillo, M5S electoral program, 2014.
    84. See, Andrea Pirro, “The polyvalent populism of the 5 Star Movement.”
    85.  Beppe Grillo, “Quattro proposte sull’immigrazione, di Vittorio Bertola,” Il Blog Di Beppe Grillo,2015,
    86.  Andrea Pirro, “The polyvalent populism of the 5 Star Movement.”
    87.  Author’s interview with Five Star local political representative, Mayor of Vigonovo, Venezia Danieletto Alberto .
    88.  Author’s interview with Five Star national political representative, Maniero Alvise, Skype, September 26, 2018.
    89.  Author’s interview with Five Star national political representative Vanin Orietta.
    90. We found “anti-Italian prejudices” in some interviews. For example, Vanin Orietta expressed that “I am Italian, for better or for worse…lack of secularization, lack of civic sense, lack of honesty are Italian common traits.”
    91.  Andrea Pirro, “The polyvalent populism of the 5 Star Movement.”
    92. Beppe Grillo, M5S electoral program, 2014.
    93. Beppe Grillo, “Quattro proposte sull’immigrazione, di Vittorio Bertola.”
    94. Repubblica, “Ius soli, Di Maio: ‘Strumento di propaganda’. Grillo: ‘Pastrocchio invotabile,’” June the 17 2017,
    95. Author’s interview with Five Star national political representative Maniero Alvise.
    96. Beppe Grillo, “Referendum sull’euro: consegna delle firme in Senato,” Il Blog Di Beppe Grillo, June 8, 2015,
    97. Andrea Pirro and Stijn van Kessel, “Populist Eurosceptic trajectories in Italy and the Netherlands during the European crises,” 336.
    98.  Author’s interview with Five Star local political representative Danieletto Alberto.
    99.  Ibid.
    100.  Author’s interview with Five Star activist, Five Star Turin Meetup.
    101.  Author’s interview with Five Star activist, organizer of Vittorio Veneto Meetup.
    102. Author’s interview with Five Star national political representative Vanin Orietta.
    103. Author’s interview with Five Star activist, Five Star Turin Meetup.
    104. Benjamin Moffitt, “How to Perform Crisis: A Model for Understanding the Key Role of Crisis in Contemporary Populism,” Government and Opposition 50, no.2 (2015): 189–217.